“Humans are the only species that need to be taught how to eat.”
I frequently run into the same misinformation regarding nutrition over and over, and it never ceases to upset me how people are tricked into believing complete nonsense. There’s a number of interesting psychological reasons why smart people believe blatant rubbish, but let’s just dig into the myths themselves:
Myth 1: Superfoods Exist
Repeat after me. There is no such thing as a superfood. In nutrition, there are a number of terms that are regulated, meaning foods have to meet certain criteria in order to have those terms on their labels. The FDA and their international equivalents have defined certain food packaging terms, such as “low,” “reduced,” “high,” “free,” “lean,” “good source of,” “light,” and so on. The term “Superfood” has no regulation or definition. It means nothing. You can print the word “Superfood” on a packet of jelly beans without legal recourse.
Colloquially, “Superfood” is used to describe foods that are really good for you for some perceived reason. In the best cases, these are foods that have a large amount or large variety of vitamins and minerals (what the FDA would define as being a “good source of..”). In the more misleading cases, the term is applied to foods with purported-but completed unsubstantiated-health benefits. A good example of the latter is coconut oil. Coconut oil is said to cure almost every health problem you can think of, fix your split ends, moisturize your skin, and housebreak your cat to boot. Okay, I made that last one up, but a lot of ridiculous claims are made about it. In reality, coconut oil is a high calorie, nutritionally inferior source of saturated fat with no magical powers (other than than an impressive ability to clog your arteries when consumed in large quantities).
In moderation coconut oil, along with all the other so-called superfoods, are fine. Some are even healthy as part of a balanced and varied diet. The problem I have with the term Superfood is that it implies a shortcut to complete nutrition where one doesn’t exist, and it offers a license to over-consume. Why eat numerous different boring vegetables when chia seeds will solve all your nutritional needs?
The only positive thing to be said for “Superfood” is that you can quickly identify if someone has a clue what they are talking about based on whether they use this term when seriously discussing nutrition!
Myth 2. Chocolate Doesn’t Give You Pimples
First we were told chocolate gives you acne. Then we were told it didn’t. Both statements are simultaneously correct and incorrect, using a Schrödinger’s Nutrition sort of logic. Chocolate does cause acne. But it doesn’t cause acne because it’s chocolate; it causes acne because it’s full of sugar.
Acne is uniquely endemic to the Western world, and recent studies have indicated that acne during the teen years is a signal of larger health issues in later life. The reason is that that both acne, and the most common causes of death and disability in the Western world are all symptoms of prolonged inflammation. The are many causes of inflammation in the Standard American Diet, namely sugar, processed and refined foods, dairy, excess protein and animal products, and all the numerous weird and wonderful chemicals that wind up in our food supply.
If you want to cut down on acne, and major health issues, limit or eradicate all inflammatory foods from your diet… including chocolate. Sorry. It gets worse. Not only will you be in chocolate withdrawal, but all your immediate family members will begin to accuse you of being orthorexic….
Myth 3. Orthorexia is a Real Disorder
This armchair diagnosis popped up over the last few years as an apparent reaction to the waves of people who are jumping on the clean-eating wagon. In a nutshell, orthorexia is being so obsessed with eating clean that it becomes a psychological compulsion.
The problem with this condition is that it doesn’t exist. Anorexia and bulimia are in the DSM5. Orthorexia is not. There certainly are people who have a clinically relevant disorder that manifests as an obsession with an unobtainable standard of nutritional purity. There are also people that have a clinically relevant disorders that manifest as compulsive couch stuffing eating, paint drinking, car consummating, or baby-powder snorting.* The DSM5 doesn’t have separate categories for people who compulsively eat cigarette ash or cat hair. They, like “orthorexia” are all manifestations of a broader underlying disorder; they are not distinct disorders in and of themselves. And before you use the tired, “Well, the DSM5 reported homosexuality as a mental disorder until recently,” argument, be warned, I will come to your house and bonk you on the head with a copy of the DSM5 if you do.
The number of people with an actual disorder likely represents less than 1% of all the people who have been accused of being orthorexic. The remainder of the accusations are levied against people out of resentment; on an individual level by the less healthy who perceive healthy living as an affront to their own lifestyles, or on an larger level by business interests that have a vested interest in preventing people from pursuing healthier lifestyles (fast food restaurants, pesticide manufacturers, etc.).
The simple fact is that we as a society have been eating garbage for so long that it has now become the norm. It now seems crazy to question whether the standard diet is healthy, whether our food companies or government bodies have our health as their number one priority, or to take the enormous amount of effort that is now required to eat and live healthfully. There’s no good solution here. Just keep your cool, give anyone who shows a genuine interest any information they need, and keep pursuing your own good health.
Myth 4. Do What Healthy People Do
We love shortcuts and quick fixes. From all the research into why certain populations have longer life expectancies, instead of looking at the whole body of results, we want a single line item explaining what we can shove into our daily routine to increase our longevity. But it’s not that simple. Adding the daily recommended intake of fruit or the extract of green tea in capsule form to your otherwise disastrous daily routine of getting all your food handed to you through your car window, and being sedentary for most of your waking hours won’t make you outlive a Blue Zone population. You need to look at every difference between their lifestyle and yours. And the most important things usually aren’t what they do; they’re what they don’t do. They don’t eat processed foods. They aren’t sedentary. They don’t eat whopping amounts of protein or animal products. Certainly, the intake of fruit, green tea or other miracle superfoods will afford these populations a small amount protection against cancer or heart disease, but the largest impact on longevity comes from the fact that they don’t do things that increase their risk of debilitating disease in the first place.
Myth 5. Do What Cavemen Do
The most amusing fad diet of recent years is the Paleo diet. Emulate the diet of humans from an era when life expectancy was 35.4 years? Awesome plan. No real idea what proportion of their diet was animal products? Just guesstimate (and by all means round up). I get dragged into a lot of inane “What we’re meant to be eating” arguments, where I am expected to argue on behalf of veganism from an evolutionary standpoint. There certainly are a lot of sound arguments to be made for veganism, but it’s still the wrong question to be asking in the first place.
A friend of mine argued that we are clearly meant to eat meat because humans can utilize creatine from animal sources, whereas our closest great ape relatives cannot. It stands to reason that humans, particularly those in Northern climates, would adapt to consume animal products. But that doesn’t mean we’re meant to do so, or that any adaptation to those food sources has rendered them healthy for us.
First, we need to think about what Evolution is actually a measure of. Health or longevity? Nope. Evolution is a measure of your ability to produced more viable offspring than other species or communities around you. It does not measure if you managed to live long enough to see your great-grandchildren. Evolution needs you to stay alive long enough to breed a few times, and maybe even get your offspring into adulthood. But that’s it. Like elderly lions, once your children are old enough to fend for themselves (in cavemen times, that would have been somewhere in their mid-teens), you can wander and die as far as evolution is concerned.
This is the subtle yet important difference between performance and health. Performance is the ability to be stronger and outperform others in a certain task for a finite period, even if that performance is to the detriment of your future health. Health is a measure of how long you are likely to live, and what that quality of life will be. Think of it this way, anabolic steroids are classified as a performance enhancing drugs; I doubt anyone has ever called them a health enhancing drugs.
The correct question to be asking is what diet and lifestyle choices are associated with the best health and longevity outcomes. The vegan diet is the only one that has shown improved health outcomes in large-scale, long term studies. Aside from the obvious China Study which is largely correlative, mechanistic studies also bear out this conclusion. A great resource is the annual presentations of the year’s scientific studies that Dr. Greger puts out in nutritionfacts.org every year (see below for resources).
That being said, the healthiest diet for you is the one you are going to follow. If veganism won’t work for you, and there are a multitude of reasons people can’t go vegan, the paleo diet, which focuses on organic, whole foods, and a reduction or elimination of refined and processed sugars, is probably the second best option. Just don’t try to sell me on making a caveman my diet guru!
Myth 5. Go Low Carb/Vegan/Gluten-Free/Dairy-Free to Lose Weight
There are numerous diets in existence that promise dramatic weight loss if you just cut some category of food from your diet. The more recent examples are gluten or carbs. These diet plans are usually accompanied by some sort of pseudoscience to explain why cutting this one food type from your diet will cause you to lose weight, but in all cases, the weight loss comes from a temporary restriction of calories. Sadly, the weight-loss itself is accordingly temporary.
The reason these diets result in temporary weight loss is that when you suddenly stop eating a type of food that accounted for a reasonably substantial percent of your daily calories; you generally don’t replace it with an equally caloric alternative at first. But over time, you will find the gluten-free cookies at your local grocery store, or the vegan restaurant that serves a delicious soy milkshake, and before you know it, you have regained whatever weight you lost, and maybe more. This effect is amplified by the increased availability of “gluten-free” or “low carb” products as the diets increased in popularity. Once upon a time, going gluten-free probably did equate to good health and weight loss, as you were effectively forced to eat whole foods. However, over time the food companies saw the demand for gluten-free foods, and responded with a king’s bounty of sugary, gluten-free treats. Nowadays, you can go gluten-free and actually eat an increased amount of refined carbs and sugars!
That’s not to say that there aren’t great health reasons to cut gluten, dairy or other unhealthy types of food from your diet, but you can’t expect them to be long-term, weight-loss strategies on their own. Ultimately, all weight loss boils down to thermodynamics, i.e. calories in versus calories out.
Myth 6. Just Cut Calories to Lose Weight
So I should just track calories, but otherwise go nuts right? Not so fast. While all weight loss boils down to thermodynamics, sustainable and healthy weight loss is a combination of calorie control and the quality of food consumed.
Recently, there was a news story about a teacher who lost 40 lbs eating nothing but McDonald’s to prove a point to his students. I have no idea what horrific point he was making, but there’s a lot more to health and weight loss than the number on the scale. For starters, I am sure his blood work would paint the picture of someone in terrible health if he had maintained that diet. He might meet the definition of “TOFI” (thin outside, fat inside), in which the amount of hormone-producing fat with in the abdomen is equivalent to that of an obese person, without the actual obesity. In a nutshell, thin does not mean healthy!
Another issue with this McDiet (or any other calorie-cutting only diet), is that over time, people eating restricted amounts of unhealthy foods will bit-by-bit fall back into eating excessive amounts of food. High fat/sugar/sodium foods are nutrient poor and calorie dense. The result is that they leave you feeling hungry sooner. Unless you are incredibly disciplined, you will inevitably end up eating more and more over time. These foods are also addictive, so when you crave more food, instead of desiring nutrient dense food, you crave more of the same junk food.
Yet another concern about relying on calorie cutting is the impact on the midsection. If you’re looking for a ripped six-pack, you’re not going to get there without clean eating. Even if you stick to 1,200 or 1,400 calories, you’re going to find getting defined abs tricky if those 1,400 calories are all coming from Snickers bars. Sugar and refined carbs hit the blood rapidly, and cause a massive dump of insulin, which in turn sends all the sugar to be converted to midsection fat. A great example of this is the toddler. They typically don’t eat a lot, but they are little sugar junkies. The end result is skinny little limbs and a pot-belly. Cute on toddlers, not so much on adults.
The answer is to be cognizant of your overall calorie intake, but more focused on the quality of food you are eating. High fibre, high nutrient, low calorie foods are going to keep you fuller longer, give you a healthy body, and help you maintain a healthy weight.
Myth 7. You Can Take Shortcuts
There are no shortcuts in nature. Show me a shortcut, and I will show you a negative consequence. Anabolic steroids will get you “swole”, but they leave you with the testosterone of a prepubescent girl and the vasculature of a 90-year-old smoker. Low carb or high fats will help you drop weight fast, but the results with be short-lived and your triglycerides will end up through the roof as a result. Cleanses and juice fasts will help you lose pounds in a matter of days, but your weight loss will include losing muscle mass, and the pounds will come back as soon as you return to your normal diet. Capsulated fruit and vegetables will give you (limited) nutrients, but rob you of all the stomach-filling fibre and water than whole fruit offers. Diet pills might help you lose weight, but if they act by a mechanism other than a placebo effect, they do so by stimulating you so much that you can kiss goodbye to sleeping or not feeling shaky ever again.
For long-lasting, healthy weight loss and bodybuilding, there are no shortcuts. Get rid of the idea of “going on a diet” or “doing an intensive 6-week exercise plan.” Eat whole, plant-based foods in sensible amounts, exercise regularly, and lose weight on the same exercise and nutrition regimen that you plan to follow for the rest of your life.
Video resources from Nutrition Facts (Dr. Greger):
1. From Table to Able:
2. More Than an Apple a Day:
3. Food as Medicine:
4. Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death: