by Michael Lohre, MS
Contrasting advice on what constitutes healthy eating
It is my perspective that an aura of confusion exists amongst dieters, the media, and even health care professionals as to what constitutes a healthy diet. It seems a daily occurrence that I run across information touting the health benefits of a certain food only to turn around and see another source warning of its toxicity. A contemporary example of this is whole grains. The US government issued food pyramid advises whole grains as the foundation of a healthy diet and suggests 11 servings a day. (1) (2) Integral to most whole grains, including wheat, barley and rye, is the protein gluten. (3) Recently, a gluten-free movement, exemplified by the Paleolithic diet, is quickly gaining popularity. Many advocates of this gluten-free movement suggest ubiquitous wheat consumption is extremely unhealthy and is at least partly responsible for many of the health concerns that currently plague our nation. (4)
How does one explain contracting viewpoints when both positions are presented logically and provide supporting research?
My goal for this post is to generate thoughts and discussion on healthy eating. I present several observations regarding inconsistencies in recommendations for healthy eating and questions I have formulated to explore the reasons for these inconsistencies. With these questions I encourage the reader to consider the current healthy eating paradigm in a philosophical context. It is my hope to explore answers to these questions with future posts and am relying on your thoughts and feedback to set a framework for these discussions.
Shifts in national dietary patterns and the super food villain
I’m old enough now to remember countless shifts on public opinion on a great array of topics. From cigarettes (there was a smoking lounge at my high school for students) to gay and race issues to humor (watch any number of early eighties sitcoms and you soon realize that sexual harassment used to be funny) to what constitutes healthy eating, “healthy” is in constant flux. A classic example of this shift in opinion is with sugar. About 20 years ago there was a great movement against sugar, specifically sucrose (table sugar). At this time, fructose sweeteners were being touted as a healthier alternative to sucrose due to their lower glycemic indexes. As a result, manufacturers quickly ditched the sucrose and started using the “healthier” high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Public sentiment has changed, again, and we are now more comfortable with evaporated cane juice (sucrose or sugar) than HFCS. Does anyone remember the push for artificial sweeteners?
Another example of a shift: For an entire decade, we were constantly reminded to avoid fat like the plague. The following decade, the war on fat ended only to be replaced by the war on carbohydrates. My prediction? The next food war will be against protein.
How do you explain these massive shifts in public sentiment? Furthermore, does the labeling of foods as either healthy super foods or villains/junk food, create confusion by turning dietary choices into a black and white decision?
On occasion when I read an article or listen to someone advocating a particular dietary practice, I feel as if I am listening to a sermon. With religious fervor, I am preached at about the qualities of certain foods while emphatically educated about the dangers of others. It seems unavoidable that to eat anything at all we must choose to accept some information while rejecting others. It is in this pattern that many decide what constitutes a healthy diet and are forced to choose a diet based on “faith”. As a result, we put our trust in a particular organization, such as the government and the food pyramid, or a diet strategy such as Paleolithic, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, etc and accept their philosophy and recommendations while ignoring contradicting viewpoints.
Could this faith-based acceptance of healthy eating be detrimental to our understanding of nutrition?
The Search for the Unequivocal Health Food
Below is a small list of foods that I would personally consider “healthy”. As an experiment, I did a quick internet search for a coherent argument against consuming these foods. I quickly found information that warned against the eating, or over eating, of all my food items.
Spinach: A frequent source of microbial contamination spinach is often the culprit of E. coli outbreaks. Furthermore, spinach contains Oxalic Acid, a toxic substance, which is the major component of kidney stones and interferes with the absorption of calcium and other minerals. (5)
Fruits: Full of sugar (fructose), some claim fruit consumption causes premature aging, low energy, tooth decay, type 2 diabetes and even cancer. (6)
Bison: Independent of fat content or cholesterol, all red meat contains L-carnitine, an amino acid that increases cardiovascular risk and promotes atherosclerosis.
Salmon: Contains chemical contaminants that are known to cause cancer, memory impairment and neurobehavioral changes in children (higher levels are present in farm raised compared to wild salmon). (7)
Almonds: High in fat calories and contain anti-nutrients and lectins. (8)
Avocado: Loaded with calories and fat (9) which, if overeaten may make you fat.
Do any foods remain that everyone can agree on as being healthy? If so, is an unequivocally healthy diet reduced to eating only a handful of low-calorie food items?
If you read this and it got you thinking, please leave a comment. Here are a couple of extra questions to get a discussion brewing:
- Have you noticed any trends in diet that have shifted with new “knowledge” and public opinion?
- Have you noticed the religious nature of diet movements and if so, why does this occur?
- Are you a devoted follower of a specific diet movement that you feel passionate about and if so, why?
- What do you think about super foods or super villain foods? Do they exist?
- How do you justify eating certain foods that you have been warned against eating due to health risks? Examples of such foods: meat, wheat, dairy, sugars, alcohol, etc.
Hey Mike, first I would like to thank you for making such a wonderful product! I have been using Mike’s Mix for a few months now and I love the results. I can keep up with my training program, get out on my bike more, and not wake up as sore the next morning. Perfect!
Anyway, I had a couple thoughts to add to the discussion. I can remember in the 80’s when the Reagan administration tried to pass off ketchup as a vegetable in public schools! Thank heavans that didn’t go through. But it makes me think about out present times, and what people percieve as a whole food, and how far we have come to understanding what is good and bad for us? Does stuff like condiments actually give you any nutritional value other than adding flavor to food? And if all the preservatives, and filler as I like to call it, in processed foods are helping or hurting? My thought is that there is always some big money behind the research and ideas that come out about food. Is it all about $$$, or is it really about health? I’m rambling on, but these are some things that I hope others are thinking about too.
I also wanted to ask your opinion on the locavore movement. To me this seems to be the most sustainable ways to live and eat food. Of coarse not everyone lives in a region that can produce enough food to live on. Inuits in the Arctic can’t grow oranges, but they can harvest whale and seal meat. Has society shifted so much that we depend on others to decide what’s good for us? I don’t know. But I do know that living a active lifestyle and attempting to eat right can change your life drastically! I can’t remember the last time I caught a cold.:)
Thanks again Mike, and lets keep this discussion going!
Hey Bob, ketchup as a health food, that’s great. I’m familiar with the locavore movement as it is growing support in my home community (Madison) and a number of my friends are part of community supported agriculture coops where they receive a box of locally grown vegetables every month. I think these coops are great because they introduce people to lesser known plants like kohlrabi, kale, rutabaga, leeks, and unusual varieties of more common vegetables. Furthermore, plants quickly lose nutrients after harvesting, therefore local growers are an efficient way to reduce this time lapse between harvest and consumption.
I would have to state that I’ve gotten into some pretty heated arguments with people regarding the “healthy” way to eat. Yes, some people carry a religious devotion to their way of eating and that their way is the best and only way to maintain health.
Thanks for a great article Mike.
Certainly scientific and public opinion changes. But just because people on the internet can find reasons to condemn salmon, bison, almonds, fruit, and spinach doesn’t mean they are drawing on reliable evidence or coming to sound conclusions. (The Cream Diet being a case in point for precarious reasoning….) So the question then becomes, what is the most reasonable and rigorous way to evaluate the current findings to educe the most reasonable conclusions, given what we know (and not what people tout on the net)? Even these most reasonable conclusions may change with the introduction of new evidence, but there are certainly unfounded and poorly-reasoned ideas that can be subtracted from the equation, and some answers that are more logical / well-supported than others….
When faced with contradiction and surfeit of opinions, some people give up. They conclude that it’s all up for grabs, or that it’s futile to try and figure it all out. Some assume that contradiction means that all perspectives are equally arbitrary, supported, or valid. That in itself is an invalid argument (in the strict logical sense). This impasse isn’t the end of the discussion, it’s the beginning. It doesn’t mean we can’t determine which findings are more rigorously supported, though of course we may also find cases where the answers are ambiguous and indeterminate….
One could hypothetically say, for instance, that given the most reliable scientific findings, that avocados contain a plethora of nutrients, though as with anything, one has to consider the portion.
I might have mentioned that the ancient Greek word for “poison” is also the word for “cure.” The words “pharmakos” or “pharmakeia” (pertaining here to pharmaceuticals in ancient Greece, not the sacrificial ritual) are bivalent because all sorts of substances can be healthy in certain quantities and toxic in others…. (Of course some substances are toxic in virtually any quantity, such as gasoline and Kenny G….)
Like the others said previously, I’d like to first off thank you for creating a delicious suite of supplements that I’ve come to swear by for all my training and fitness needs. I appreciate this recent post as I too am tired of the “what food is healthy” roller coaster. I, myself, follow a more flexitaruan type of diet – I try to have my diet primarily consist of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
Additionally, I believe people should try to eat/cook a variety of different foods as well as purchase foods with a list of ingredients you can actually pronounce!
I think so many people get too caught up in latest fads and forget about the fundamentals of keeping meals simple, colorful, and nutrient dense. Thoughts?
Hey Brian, I personally think you are right on track for truly eating a healthy diet. You mention both flexibility and variety as concepts of healthy eating that I would like to expand on for a follow up post.
Hello Mike, I want to thank you for making a great product but also for your passion for continually improving your knowledge and your customers knowledge of nutrition. I used your product to train for the Ironman; if it weren’t for Mike’s Mix I don’t know if I would of finished. Your Mix helped me recover efficiently and preserved muscle mass……Awesome Product. I feel like the more you research on the topic, the more you can second guess and lose site of what is healthy. So, as far as “healthy eating” I try to stick to two golden rules: 1) If my ancestors didn’t eat it…I try not to eat it either and 2) I try to stick to one ingredient foods i.e. apple, spinach, potato, cucumber, etc.
Just as a matter of interest: When I was Director of Marketing for a large Dairy Co-op, I received a copy of a University Study on the “health benefits” of drinking milk,” sponsored and paid for, by a national consortium of Dairy Cooperatives. The unwelcome and startling conclusion of the study was that, for humans, drinking cows milk was unhealthy, at any age , and could have serious harmful effects. The Study received a little press and then it was suppressed. It was not a good idea to even talk about it unless you were suicidal. This was followed shortly by the ad campaign; ” Milk! It Does a Body Good!.” Indigenous Peoples, who have not been exposed to cows milk are all lactose intolerant and, drinking milk, for them, can be a life threatening
There is not a consumable on the planet that is not symbiotically joined with powerful commercial interests. As long as the products are purchased, or
procured, in a competitive marketplace, there will be conflicting information backed by contradictory data. Exercises and discussions like the one you
have started here can provide a valuable element of clarification for sincere people. That said, I just can’t give up Sassy Cow Ice Cream.
Excellent topic and conversation points! Mike, I know you would agree that the start need to be a healthy lifestyle as a whole and that your diet is one part of that whole. This is a point that can never be reiterated enough! I was brought up with the understanding that a balanced diet is what was healthiest and I’ve come to understand that means something different for everyone. Your first point illustrates this perfectly in that each pyramid is balanced in it’s own way and Jerry noted in a comment the history of the Greek word for poison and cure. My grandpa always said a little bit of everything is good for, he’s 93 and still kicking and my grandma was 92 when she died so I’d think there is some validity to that.
What makes it hard to find the right balance for each person draws on the references to eating what our ancestors ate, eating what is in our “foodshed” or local eating range, food intolerances, and personal morals.
In regards to “what our ancestors ate” the human race as a whole has evolved to eat, or not eat, certain foods and in the times that races were indigenous to a specific region we evolved more specific tolerances as to what we could, and could not eat. A common example being diary in Asian countries. The regions that were fertile or close to the sea had no need or ability to herd dairy producing animals, thus they ceased to produce the enzymes needed to digest dairy after infancy. In the mountainous regions of Asia however relied (and still do) on dairy producing herd animals for a large part of their diet. As our planet has diversified, people have moved, and cultures have spread, we all want to be able to eat everything. This doesn’t mean however that our bodies and digestive systems have kept up with the fast pace of availability. This is why foods like diary, grains, meat, and certain vegetables (we all know that friend you can’t let eat cabbage…) are considered health foods by some and bad foods by others. A few decades of research cannot compete with centuries of human evolution.
To eat a healthy diet in this case means to be aware of what your body is capable of digesting at an efficient level and what it is not. This can be accomplished in a structured setting by talking with your health care professional of choice (conventional or holistic) or by simple observation of how you react to foods with a food journal. Do you see trends in what your body responds to? For anyone who keeps a training log it’s very easy to add this element in if you don’t have it already. You’re also relating your diet back to your healthy lifestyle as a whole, hint hint.
Relating that to “health foods” vs “junk foods” a health food would be something that your body easily digests, is nutrient dense, and provides a needed part of your diet. I think many of the food craze diets may be fine for some people but should not be followed blindly and none are the cure all for every ones healthy diet.
You’re definitely right when you say, “the next food war will be against protein.” I can’t agree more. Which may be a good thing, I’m just commenting here as proof that I saw it coming too.
How much of this discussion is because we don’t have a clear definition that is used for “health food”? Is a health food nutritious? Low-calorie? Low-fat? Organic? I know many people that overeat organic food because there is the belief that organic is healthy and therefore can be eaten in mass quantities.
I believe that we must be responsible for our own health in this day and age. Trust of government sources, or even private sources are suspect because of agendas that do not include the well being of the general population. I do believe the dollar signs are the motivation in many cases. There is a wealth of information on the web but it must be sorted out similar to any information on the web. In my own quest for health, my food strategies have evolved (if you will indulge the term) over the past 30 years and have served me well. That which promotes my day to day health as well as long term health is what I strive for. Stay away from pyramids!!!!!
I tend to agree with and go by “everything* in moderation,” the asterisk denoting the limitation primarily in consuming processed grains. I have never looked at any pyramids, diets or fad diets, and “miracle supplements.” I eat what makes sense and what agrees with my stomach, although with two very young kids, my food pantry includes items that they only would consume. So, I stick to eggs, try to get farm raised meats (easy on red meat though), cruciferous vegetables and some greens mixed in (depends how they’re grown). Also, seeds and certain nuts and of course, fish, olives, un-cooked olive oil drizzled on salads (yes, I’m Greek — now naturalized) : ). By the way, in modern Greek we use “dēlētērio” (deleterious) for poison, and in some instances use “pharmaki” to describe something bitter or harsh tasting both literally and figuratively. Pharmako is exclusively “drug” or “medicine” these days…
Anyway, I just eat what feels right and what seems to have worked in the past, based on what we know humans eat from the dawn of time. Anything mass-processed and cheap at the supermarket is probably not the most nutritious thing we can have. So, common sense and eating to live, not living to eat.
Great idea Mike (hard to use your real name, but I’m trying to be an adult)
It would be easy to write a post a mile long on this…
I believe one major reason for all the contrasting information on food simply comes down to money. Who paid for the study and who will benefit (make money) from this new “break through” study. Since memories are short a new study contradicting another can be released (almost weekly it seems) and, boom, money for somebody. Also, some studies or articles are just misleading. A good example would be spinach as listed above. Its not spinach that’s the culprit, it’s the industrialization of the food industry, and lax food safety standards that come with it, that caused the e. coli. The up side of this is that it brings attention to the subject on a larger scale and encourages the public to learn about what they are eating. (and caused the making of numerous food documentaries) The new war on protein that’s brewing I feel will in large part be because of this newer food system as well. More and more studies (not paid for by the beef council) show the negative effects of eating corn fed, concentrated feed lot type proteins…Which is also why the locavore movement is blowing up. Now I feel like I’ve started to step up on my soapbox…so that leads to the next question that stuck out to me
One reason for the religious nature of food movements is because food is such a huge part of every ones lives. (and makes a growing number of us huge) Its difficult to not be passionate about food, and every one should be. You really are what you eat. Personally, it drives me to learn about what I put in my body. From how it’s produced, where it comes from, environmental impacts, and short/long term effects it will have on me. Obviously there are a lot of people out there that feel the same, and very strongly. Hence the religious type preaching that comes from some folks.
We eat a plant based whole foods diet. (based on the forks over knives diet) Everything in moderation though, as a few people have stated above…. we also eat some meat, but try to be picky about what we eat. We have been eating this way for about 6 months and have never felt better. I cant say I’m entirely convinced it’s because we eat a plant based diet so much as a wholefoods diet. I think not eating processed foods probably has a lot to do with it.
One other reason for conflicting information, what was the intention of the study. Weight loss, anti-aging, cancer prevention, prevention of heart disease, prostate health, digestive health, joint health, brain function, energy, arthritis relief,…… the list goes on and on. One quick example. Tomatoes are great for prostate health because of the high lycopene levels that they contain. However, another study suggests avoiding tomatoes because they can cause inflammation and should be avoided if you have arthritis or joint pain. Pick your poison, or super food….preferably out of your garden or at the farmers market.
Good article…so many points to consider.
Most of my dietary reading/research over the years has sought how to increase my athletic performance, namely, muscle mass increase. In recent years, much of my dietary reading/research and supplement protocol, has expanded to include supplements for increased memory capacity, memory preservation, heavy metal detoxification, and more. Almost life-extensionist in nature.
My recent dietary research has quickly shifted gears in the last few weeks since a loved one has been diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer, duodenal cancer actually, which is quite rare. After removal of the fist-sized tumor, it has quickly (within weeks) metastasized and is wreaking havoc. My previous reading/research has helped me immensely in this effort and have also cause me to re-examine some of what I have always called “healthy eating”, and how I might shift my “healthy eating tactics later, if I were ever diagnosed with cancer. Mike, our chat about the China Study for one (also research “debunking the China Study”) really got me thinking. I am also reading the Gersen Therapy book right now. I certainly don’t subscribe to either of these approaches in their entirety for sure, but they have some good principles in their overall approaches. I “borrow” good ideas from everywhere and forge these into my own way ahead. I have no original good ideas; I am an idea thief for the most part.
I think the healthy eating really depends on BOTH your existing condition AND your goals. These are often correlated, such as in eating always for health but with sometimes competing sub-objectives. For instance, one might have to consider food volume/intake tradespace between eating for lean body mass gain or to fight cancer if one has it. A person with compromised kidneys probably wouldn’t eat as much protein as I, even if they wanted to gain muscle mass. An endurance athlete would eat a different macro ratio than me for sure. Someone diagnosed with cancer might significantly alter their macro ratios, depending on the type and stage of cancer, to operate under specific effects-based theories.
I think any of the organized approaches that are Paleo-like are FAR better than even the 95th percentile of a typical American’s diet.
I have read about high protein and high acidity in the body causing cancer. I have also read about low protein causing low immunity and many other issues and how only animal proteins carry the amino profiles in their entirety, that humans need. It would become dissertation work for me to mix and match specific quantities of plant protein sources to achieve animal-like protein profiles…and I would still need to supplement. I am looking into ways to shift toward alkalinity in the body, since I feel there is some compelling evidence for this. But I look at vegans and vegetarians and I have not seen one I would like to look like. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way; I just subscribe to goal-oriented behavior. My blood work is done routinely and it is impeccable. Again, competing sub-objectives!
At the same time, while I try to rely on what I find in certain medical study executive summaries and conclusions, I am at the same time very skeptical of the American medical community that has more or less corrupted the world medical community, just as we have corrupted the food supply of other nations with our cheap foods that are poisons in most instances. Except for emergency/trauma medicine, I deeply question the medical profession in general, largely because while they pledge to “do no harm”, they often do nothing for dietary intervention and are often very resistant to addressing anything outside what they have been taught. I do not believe “healthy eating” is backed by our medical community. Food is the real medicine, I believe.
While I am sure they add no value or goodness, I have not yet uncovered a lot of evidence for why hormone-fed animals are that bad for us. I know that the hormones are often injected. I know that the hormones, once in the animal, will go to receptors, cause growth and myriad of other processes, and that many of the hormones get broken down, aromatized, etc into different chemicals, which I would presume are carbon chains of various lengths/structures. I also SPECULATE that many of these structures do not make it through our digestive systems. While I will admit that hormone-fed animals WON’T offer safety OR omega-3 content above or beyond that of range-fed animals, I will offer that I get my omega-3s from lots of fish and fish oil and that I personally need to see more evidence-based facts about WHAT the residual hormones are doing AND the mechanism by which they exhibit detrimental effects on me. I am not saying they don’t, I am just saying I have not felt or seen evidence of it YET. But I am open-minded to learn more about this and see if the three-fold increase in food expense is worth it for me to purchase range fed. For right now, I will allocate that part of my budget toward anti-cancer, and other health-related supplements, as I feel there is better return on investment. The antibiotic part of raising farm animals I am convinced has certainly been bad for the environment and it seems quite sure that agro use of them has assisted the development of superbacteria, amongst other problems.
I certainly concur that eating healthy involves staying away from pesticide-laden fruits and veggies and that staying away from ALL GMO is a very good idea, although I am still trying to peel back the layers on what the intake rates/amounts were for animals in GMO studies. I believe we should be eating unprocessed vegetables, meats/eggs, and small amounts of fruits and nuts. The typical American attitude of “almonds or fill-in-the-blank is healthy, so I will eat a whole bag of fill-in-the-blank”, is buffoonery. There needs to be macro control or at least macro awareness, even if it varies somewhat meal to meal or day to day. And for some people, depending on their activities, it SHOULD vary in meals or maybe even day to day. I use a meal plan, and it varies on training days versus non-training days. If you have a plan, you will be well-fed, and have measurable inputs that you can causally connect with your results. It’s easy to do. Many make it sound difficult or impossible, stating they are too busy, etc. The truth is that developing a meal plan and cooking to it is MUCH more time efficient and cost-saving than not doing so. I can prepare 210 meals in under 4.5 hrs (mostly protein sources). I freeze most of it and I cook once every 3 weeks except for my egg whites. If you are busy, growing a plan like this is just the program for you, but only if you are committed.
I never cheat to eat crap; it’s not an option. I just eat more of what I like. I will make homemade sushi rolls w/brown rice and extra avocado, with tons of fresh fish for example. Or eat a 3-lb grilled steak with grilled red and yellow peppers and a bunch of walnuts. More of what I am supposed to have is a cheat meal for me. I still have a lot of fun with what I eat. People sometimes ask me “Don’t you get sick of eating the same stuff every day?”. I eat chicken, steak, fish, veggies, eggs, nuts, and small amounts of fruit all day…so my reply is “Whatever do you mean? I eat everything ALL DAY MAN!”
Many people are in this constant tug-of-war with eating “healthy” and confusing it for crash dieting, and momentary compliance. They try to sample and dabble in crap they should never have in the first place, like Fritos and candy and processed grains, high-fructose corn syrup, telling themselves “they deserve it”. I agree, they deserve whatever they want, but then they also deserve the results…or lack thereof. Eating the items above and other similar items totally changes your sense of taste and makes eating healthy difficult, a chore, and I feel, almost impossible for most people. The stuff is largely addictive and it’s fact; one just needs to figure out which program they subscribe to, and then be accountable for results/consequences or lack thereof. I’ll embellish to make a point, but I mean really, do you think there are crack addicts that mange their use and say “I’ll smoke one per week”? I doubt it. While the use of illicit drugs is of course illegal, and of course offers no nutrition, note also the intensity with which many commit to make “healthy eating” improvements (not changes like “change we can believe in”), yet they fail to do so and they fail so quickly and repetitiously? There are MANY variables at play here, and I am not trying to simplify, but understand that these foods we are NOT supposed to have are highly addictive. The “interested” reader might watch/read about Dr. Lustig’s “Bitter Truth” on youtube and the “committed” person will seek other related literature.
Unfortunately, many people that oscillate in and out of a semi-fit or semi-healthy state (depending on their goals and conditions), and they often question the effectiveness of executing a committed plan, all the while they are not realizing, or simply ignoring, that they have NEVER executed a plan in a committed fashion. They’ve never evaluated a valid approach! These same people are often the ones who will tell others “they are lucky they are so lean”, etc, when in reality, there really is no luck involved. Unless you are a hypothyroid paraplegic or torso, your condition in health and fitness is 100% your choice; not happenstance. There is a difference between “eating healthy things” and “eating healthy”. You are either committed or interested (or neither). If you are committed, you will seek out knowledge and implement a controlled approach; not just latch on to the next line and sinker of crap in an article that you read. You will find mentors and follow the paths of success, “stealing” good ideas from successful people. If you have not already though your work, education, and life experiences hones a strong sense of critical thinking, you will develop critical thinking skills and “trust but verify”. You must identify your goals and be committed to goal-oriented behaviors.