Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

In Defense of Food book discussion (Part II)

In Defense of FoodThis week's book club post is the third installment of the In Defense of Food discussion posts.

Part II
Chapter 1. The Aborigine in All of Us - In 1982, Kerin O'Dea ran an experiment on ten Aborigine volunteers in Western Australia. She wanted to see if temporarily returning these individuals to their traditional lifestyles would reverse the health problems they had incurred since they moved out of the bush and started partaking in a more Western lifestyle.

Since leaving the bush, all ten members of the cohort had developed type 2 diabetes and elevated levels of triglycerides in their blood (a risk factor for heart disease). The Aborigines returned to their homeland and went back to their increased activity levels and traditional foods acquired via hunting and gathering. These methods resulted in a very large variety of foods consisting of foodstuffs such as fish, shellfish, birds, turtles, crocodile, yams, figs and honey among other things. These individuals had gone from a Western diet consisting of flour, sugar, rice, carbonated drinks, alcohol, powdered milk, cheap fatty meats, potatoes, onions and other fruits and vegetables.

The end result was that, after seven weeks, all had lost weight (an average of 18 pounds), lowered their blood pressure and their triglyceride levels had returned to normal. Additionally, all the metabolic abnormalities of type II diabetes were either greatly improved or completely normalized.

The thing that is amazing is that it only took seven weeks to reverse the damage done. What does this mean for the rest of us? Can you extrapolate the results of individuals adapted to a specific environment and dietary habits and apply it to Westerners? Did reading this chapter give you a sense of hope that the issues with the Western diet can be reversed if we adhere to a diet consisting of non-processed whole foods?

Chapter 2. The Elephant in the Room - In this chapter, Pollan is referring to the pattern of eating what we call the Western diet as the elephant in the room. The effect of this diet is that people suffer substantially higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. So, when individuals adopt the Western diet, these problems creep up all too quickly. In other words, immigrants from nations with low rates of chronic disease acquire these health issues quickly.

In 1939, Weston Price published the results of his research in working with isolated populations. As a dentist, he noted that people who ate a traditional diet needed no dentists whatsoever. He found little or no evidence of chronic disease, tooth decay or malformed dental arches. One thing that he found was that these groups were eating substantially more amounts of vitamins A and D.

Price's conclusion after years of research was that modern civilization had sacrificed much of the quality of food in the interest of quantity and shelf life. Interestingly, he found that groups that ate diets of wild animal flesh (or milk, meat and blood of pastured cattle) were generally healthier than agriculturalists who relied on cereals and other plant foods.

In general, it would appear that humans can thrive on a variety of different diets, but the Western diet isn't one of them. What does this mean for you? Are you willing to stay on the standard Western diet and continue risking heart disease, diabetes, cancer and who knows what else? Has reading this made you decide to eat better or confirmed your actions if you already are eating a healthy diet? If you want to get off the Western diet bandwagon, do you know where to start?


DC said...

I like Michael Pollan, and I agree with much of what he writes, but I don't blindly accept all of his conclusions. The human body is an extremely complex organism, and I don't buy unqualified assertions by anyone that one diet is absolutely the "healthiest" for all people. Some vegans and vegetarians live to be very old and have few health problems. Others are sick all the time and die young. The same goes for omnivores. There are studies that conclude that vegetarians live longer. There are studies that conclude that people who consume a small amount of meat live longer.

My beef with Pollan (bad pun intended) is that he uses antecdotal stories, isolated pieces of data that support his theory and flowery prose to advocate his position rather than taking an objective, scientific approach. There's an old saying that there are "lies, damn lies and statistics." You can find numbers and stories to support just about any position you want to on diet.

Let's look at his example of the Aborigines who returned to their homeland and recovered their health after switching to a native diet. Yes, switching to a traditional diet probably played a role in regaining health -- but so could have other factors. In addition to their increased activity level, the people may have been further from polluted water and air, living less stressful lives, getting more sleep at night and been in a generally more supportive and wholesome environment. We can't know the extent to which each of these factors contributed to their good health.

There are other examples of and statistics on indigenous peoples that support the conclusion that those who live in traditional ways do lot always live longer, healthier lives. The Inuit Greenlanders have the worst longevity statistics in North America. There are multiple studies documenting an earlier death in these people as a result of their diet. They die on the average about 10 years younger and have a higher rate of cancer than the general population of Canada.

Likewise, the Maasai tribe in Kenya eat a diet rich in wild hunted meats and have the worst life expectancy in the modern world today. African researchers (not Weston Price, who only briefly visited them) have documented that even in the past, before the modern world had changed the culture, a Maasai rarely lived past the age of 60.

Now, are there factors other than diet that could account for the low longevity of Inuit Greenlanders and Maasai? I'm sure there are. That's exactly my point. It doesn't make sense to just look at the food a society eats and conclude that it is the sole or even primary factor responsible for its longevity.

It also doesn't make sense to look at limited data and make sweeping generalizations that you apply to everyone. Each person is a unique individual and has her/his own body chemistry. Some people respond to medicines differently than others -- that's why there are so many different possible side effects from taking the same pills. Some people also probably need more of particular nutrients than others. Some people may thrive on vegetarian diets. Others may need some meat. I know one woman who started to have neurological problems when she became vegan and another who had serious health problems disappear when she became vegan. It's complicated.

I do agree with Pollan that it makes sense to eat a varied, balanced diet centered around whole foods. There is ample evidence that nutrition is lost when food is processed and adulterated. It makes sense to me that we shouldn't spray poison on our food, make new products from it using its component parts and let is sit on a shelf for a year before we eat it. Local, organic, minimally processed food is my idea of a good thing. If you are following these principles, I think you're going to be okay (or not) regardless of exactly how much grain you consume, or whether you do or don't eat meat, or whatever else.

Theresa said...

I haven't read this book, but coincidentally the CBC here in Canada reported on the news yesterday a study of Canadian native peoples who lost weight and didn't need diabetic medication anymore after returning to their traditional diet. The sample size was fairly small (100 or so) but they are continuing and expanding the study because the initial results were so promising. The news report didn't give any more details than that. That being said DC makes some good points.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this book either, so I apologize if the author (or another commenter here) has made the point I"m about to make. Brace yourself, I’m about to get nerdy!

These information Pollan presents to prove his point definitely seem to suggest a causal relationship between "native diets" and healthiness, which may or may not exist, based on cases of indigenous peoples who were healthier on their traditional cultural diet than on the Western diet. While this is well and good, it grossly ignores the effect of genetics on diet, and vice versa. Before modern time, it was evolutionarily advantageous to survive and thrive on whatever diet was available, and for most indigenous peoples around the world, this means foods we think of as whole: lots of whole grains, a variety of leaner meats, vegetables, and little to no dairy. Case in point- the majority of people around the world are lactose intolerant as adults. The gene that produces the enzyme lactase to break down milk sugars is functional in childhood, but stops working in adulthood for most of the global population. To legitimize my argument, here is an excerpt from a commentary in the European Journal of Human Genetics by Edward Hollox (the link wouldn't work):

"Lactase nonpersistence is the ancestral state, and lactase persistence only became advantageous after the invention of agriculture, when milk from domesticated animals became available for adults to drink. As expected, lactase persistence is strongly correlated with the dairying history of the population. This genetic ability to digest milk has been regarded as a classic example of gene-culture co-evolution, where the culture of dairying creates a strong selective advantage to those who can drink milk as adults, for only they can nutritionally benefit from the milk."

Basically, at some point in Northern Europe with the domestication of cattle, it became advantageous to be able to digest milk as an adult, and mutations in the lactase gene that allowed for adult digestion of milk became favorable until they were widespread in people of European decent. Hollox goes on later to point out that a dairy cattle-raising tribe in Africa is also believed to carry mutations in this gene.

In America, as most of us are full of WASP-y European genes, we’ve been eating dairy for so long that cow's milk, yogurt, and cheese seem wholesome and nutritious in our culture. We have culturally strayed away from diets lacking dairy (and by extension, meat and eggs) because at one point it was advantageous for our diets to include these things. In the modern day, however, these fat and calorie-dense foods are no longer advantageous for westerners (no selective pressures, less physical activity, etc.) and effect make people of ANY genetic background negatively.

Now I can’t genetically explain the over-refinement of our foods (  ), but my point is that genetic backgrounds differ around the globe, especially when comparing indigenous cultures to immigrant European/American ones, because of the different selective pressures in geographical areas. Pollan grossly ignores this, which is point DC makes and I agree with; what’s good for some may be worse for others, and vice versa. And of course genetics is but one player; it doesn’t define a population’s metabolic fitness anymore than their diet does. Also important are cultural attitudes about eating, what types of foods can be grown/raised/purchased, activity levels, portion size, etc. But the correlation of diet to fitness in isolated cultural groups does not mean diet CAUSES fitness. It just means they’re related.

But on the other hand…I do agree with his meaning: the move away from highly-processed to whole foods in general is probably one that is good for all. I’m just a scientist who detests correlations!

Anonymous said...

I'm such a spaz! You asked: "Can you extrapolate the results of individuals adapted to a specific environment and dietary habits and apply it to Westerners?"
Basically my entire long-winded post can be summed up in a one-word answer to that question: No.

Good questions, Crunchy!

Kathy said...

I thought he was saying that people can live well on a great variety of diets, dairy or no dairy, meat or no meat, etc. The important factor was that they eat whole foods that haven't been processed to death like most of our foods. The way I extrapolate for myself is not to try to copy some aboriginal diet or anything, but just to try and choose as many foods as possible that are local and organic, to think more about where the food is coming from, and to avoid overly processed foods with lots of scientific ingredients.

DC said...

I agree with you, Heather -- not the part about you being a spaz, but the other stuff. Pollan makes unwarranted causal leaps and vastly oversimplifies highly complex relationships for which no data even exists. In order to study the effect of a certain diet on health, it's necessary to set up a tight research model with experimental and control groups. Variables other than diet that may affect health need to be identified and factored into the research. Even if this is done and one dietary group ends up healthier than the other, that doesn't mean that this diet is optimal under all circumstances, or that another variation in diet wouldn't have brought about similar benefits.

No, I don't see Pollan as advocating Aboriginal diets -- his emphasis is on whole foods generally, and he is not so rigid as to recommend such a restrictive way of eating. I do, however, believe he thinks that a diet including meat is superior. He has written that he "pities" vegetarians. He also has romanticized animal slaughter and likened the consumption of animals' bodies to some sort of spiritual transcendence that "transforms the body of the world into our bodies and minds." He has written that animals have entered into a kind of "bargain" with us where we feed them, shelter them, and protect them from predators in exchange for them giving us eggs, milk, and meat. "From the animals' point of view the bargain with humanity turned out to be a tremendous success, at least until our own time," he states.

Yeah, whatever, dude. If you believe killing animals is morally justified, fine. But please, let's skip the attempts to promote eating meat using poetry, isolated cultural examples, twisted syllogisms and implied contracts with pigs, chickens and cows. If people want to eat meat, I have no problem with that -- just let's not think that driving out to Big Sur in our big SUVs and shooting wild boars with high powered rifles makes us healthier and more spiritual than other people. Hundreds of millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and others have successfully practiced vegetarianism over the course of thousands of years. There are many ways to live and be healthy.

In conclusion (again), I buy the whole, unprocessed foods concept. However, I think that while Pollan has some very important ideas to share, his writing is sometimes extremely preachy and one-sided . . . kind of like my own.

Anonymous said...

Kathy- I may be reading the synopsis wrong, but it seems like Pollan is saying that all diets are NOT equal, because he’s singled out the Western diet as being bad for us (and the fact that no one will acknowledge this makes it “the elephant in the room”). One piece of data he’s using to make his point is that a group of aborigines raised on a Western diet (which was making them unhealthy) became healthier when they switched to their native diet.

I don’t know if he means we should all revert to our culturally native diets, although that’s a very interesting idea. (Maybe he makes that point in the book; I’m on the list at my local library to get it!) My guess is he’s trying to show that the Western diet is evil and perhaps even unnatural due to the highly-processed nature of the foods. I actually agree with him on both of these things. My point (which seems tangential now) was that since people are genetically different around the globe, that the aborigine findings don't mean much out of the context of aboriginal dietary fitness. I mentioned the dairy stuff as an example of something that Westerners eat that other peoples can't even digest comfortably, as a way of showing the influence of genetics in the diet of a population (and vice-versa!), which would further cloud the interpretation of any study based in one specific population.

So Pollan is over-interpreting the aboriginal study by assuming 1), that the change in diet CAUSED the change in health (which DC refutes beautifully), and 2), that the results of one study in an indigenous population adapted to a particular diet (genetically, culturally, etc.) can be applied to everyone else in the world, specifically Westerners reading this book. (This was what Crunchy was addressing so well in her first set questions.)

I completely agree with you that less processed food (and DEFINITELY organic and locally-grown food) is pretty much better for everyone than processed foods, even if specific dietary differences exist due to population differences. I’m just saying the aboriginal data Pollan cites doesn’t prove that at all.

DC- bravo! I think the argument for/against eating meat is usually insulting to the opposite side, but even to me, a meat-eater, that “bargaining” story seems pretty fanciful. Do you know if there is a rationalization for why fish bite worm-covered fishing hooks?

Kathy said...

Heather--True, he does single out the Western diet as bad because of how industrialized food has become and how far so many things we eat have come from their natural state. I understand your point about taking the one study with aborigines and making a whole lot of assumptions based on just that. He does, as I recall, give a lot of examples though of people from many cultures that start to develop diseases like diabetes and heart disease after adopting the Western diet.

I think rather than suggesting we go back to our culturally native diets (which may be hard to figure out which one to choose if we have a diverse heritage!) that we should try to base our diets as much as possible on what we have available where we live and keep it as varied as possible, with the emphasis on plant food. It is interesting that we are genetically disposed to be able to handle (or not handle) certain things differently. I think he made the point several times that there is a great variety of diets (not including Western) that can promote health and well-being. I don't remember, though, if he referenced the genetic differences. It makes sense to me that as we figure out things individually, like not being able to tolerate milk or meat, or needing meat to function well, or whatever it is, that we can apply those to our individual diets. One of the main take-away messages for me was that there is a huge variety of food and ways of preparing it in the world and we can do what works best for us and be much healthier as long as we're focusing on quality foods with the emphasis on plants.

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of thoughts to add on this interesting topic: I'm disappointed to hear that Pollan is using Weston Price's research. Price was, as you recapped, a dentist, and there were great flaws in his assumptions about the connection between good teeth and overall health. The China Study (highly recommended) doctors take up some of those issues.

And just to reiterate that ancestral diets seem to be great if you have a reasonably pure ancestry. Unfortunately, for those northern-European mish mashes like me, trying to come up with a balanced ancestral diet would be pretty difficult. As long-term health studies have shown pretty conclusively, although there may be a French paradox, most north and eastern European meat, potato, and 1 veg (often lots of alcohol and smoking too) diets have led to some of the worst health and life expectancy outcomes in the world. Were I to follow my ancestral Scottish diet, I'd be eating oats, barley, and the blood, milk, and eventually the flesh of the few very hardy cattle that made it through the winter. Add a little seafood and kelp, and yep, you've got the diet of a barely surviving people!

Yay for whole foods, but lets not dismiss all the science under the "nutritionism" banner...

Anonymous said...

Wow, I am simply unable to stop myself from commenting!

Kathy- I really like the way you said that. Applying common sense instead of the scientific method, it is easier for me to follow Pollan's thinking. That way, instead of there being specific foods that are universally good or bad (which seems like a doomed idea based on the variety of humans that exist), everyone should pick and choose what works for them, but at the same time, keeping the general local/organic/whole foods mindset to help us make better choices. That probably took me a lot longer to get than people that read the book, but oh well!
I just wish he wouldn't seemingly misuse science to make his points.

Rosie- hehe, that Scottish diet sounds pretty bleak. Kelp!! But of course you are right in that most of us Americans are a mish-mash of backrgrounds, so who knows what food is best? That is where we become our own scientists and see what works for us as individuals, like Kathy suggested. As for the French, they defy all explanation. Who can eat bread, cheese and wine and stay thin? :)

I personally am pretty much all German/Irish/English, but am 1/16 Cherokee, so I guess I'd have to divide my diet into percentages based on that. It works out to be over 90% beer, sausage and potatoes, with a little corn and venison thrown in! And, no dairy for me, as that Cherokee blood is probably why I'm lactose-intolerant. :)

Rose said...

This should probably go under a "no waste" post... anyway, I thought you and your readers might be interested in a series happening on CBC radio in Canada: "diet for a hungry planet" and, in particular, yesterday's segment on food waste.

From the intro: "According to a report from the University of Arizona, nearly half of all the food ready to harvest in the United States never gets eaten. It's either plowed under in the fields or tossed into the garbage by stores or consumers along the way."

The segment can be listened to here: (scroll down to Part 3).

Enjoy Canadian radio!

And thanks for making the "no waste" discussion a part of your blog.

Rose said...

Oops! That link didn't work.

Try this: [www_cbc_ca]
(copy and paste the whole thing)

Or just google: "cbc the current" and go to the March 11 show in "past shows"

Sorry I can't figure out how to make a proper link here...

Laura said...

I think science and research has a role to play in helping us decide what to eat. I am guessing that I view that role as much much much smaller than a lot of people.
We do not need a data, statistics, research, studies or reports to tell us what to eat.
We do need culture, nature, common sense, social interaction, enjoyment and taste to guide us in what we eat.
I agree with kathy that we should try "to think more about where the food is coming from, and to avoid overly processed foods with lots of scientific ingredients".
I liked Pollan's book because his suggestions were general enough to make sense but they were deep enough to really have an impact on what we eat and also how and with whom we eat our meals.