One of the only real memories I have of my granddad is sitting on his knee watching boxing on tv. This was in the days when you could watch a match on Saturday afternoon, and I’d sit there practising punching wondering what a real fight was like. I get boxing. Whilst it is still bloody and dangerous, I was always struck by the old fashioned notion of it being a gentleman’s sport. I have less knowledge about MMA, which seems to me like a reasonably controlled brawl; ruthless, violent, punishing, and big business. While MMA involves two people beating the crap out of each other any way they can, there’s another, equally popular, no-holds-barred fight raging in a quiet corner of the internet. These, kill or be killed, deathmatches, are the diet wars.
When I got into nutrition, I didn’t understand how seriously people took it; after all, it’s only food; right? Wrong. Ketogenic warriors, Paleo enthusiasts, gluten fearing clean eaters, and vegetable eschewing carnivore dieters make religious fundamentalists look like Richard Dawkins. The battle rages daily over what is the best way to cure the obesity epidemic, how to live the longest, and how to be the most physically fit. Are the diet crusaders on to something, or is it just another example of a money-making brawl? Here’s why there’s no such thing as the best diet for optimal health.
Before we get started, we have to take a second to think about what optimal health is. It’s not just as simple of whether you are sick or not. Absence of disease doesn’t necessarily mean you’re 100% healthy, and I think we all now know that the old “my Gran smoked 60 a day and lived until she was 90” argument is missing something.
What we do know is that a diet devoid of nutrients can lead to problems, and we also know that being overweight is associated with a whole load of health risks. It’s between these two points that the diet wars rage. Where some people suggest eating a high fibre diet for gut health, others say the human intestine can manage without fibre just fine. Where one camp says it’s saturated fat that leads to overweight and cardiovascular disease, another camp says that it’s carbs that are to blame. On and on it goes. Let’s take a quick look and see why they’re all wrong.
I’ve bashed ketogenic diets often in this blog and on various places on social media, largely because I think they’re unnecessary and overly restrictive. However, I’m not saying they’re unhealthy. Our knowledge about high saturated fat intakes have shifted in recent years, and we now know that the threat of heart disease is more to do with how overweight you are rather than how much butter you eat.
While there’s no good reason to eat a low or no-carb diet in the western world, in some far-flung corners of the globe, it does happen out of necessity.
- The Massai tribe’s entire diet is made up of milk, meat, and blood.
- They aren’t necking down green top either and that consume something in the region of 600 to 2000mg of cholesterol a day.
- They rarely, if ever eat vegetables.
- Despite this, their heart health is top-notch.
On the flip side of the low-carb coin, there are populations out there existing perfectly nicely on a ridiculously sugar-laden diet.
- People from the Melanesian island of Kitava eat a diet made up mostly of sweet potato and other starchy tubers, fruit, and vegetables.
- Despite eating enough carbs to a sink a battleship, they have extremely low rates of diabetes, heart disease, or stoke.
- The same low rates of diabetes are seen in the Chilean Aymara people, despite them getting, a whopping, 80% of their entire calorie intake from potatoes.
To throw a quick wrinkle into the vegan claim that meat and dairy are a sure-fire way to end up in an early grave, it’s worth pointing out that the area containing the oldest population in Europe regularly eat both, as does the area containing the highest population of centenarians in the world. Left to their own devices, cultures maintaining their traditional diets seem to be perfectly healthy. It’s only when they change to something more modern that things can go wrong.
- Inuits, who once ate a diet with virtually zero plant food and as much as 75% of their total calories coming from fat, lived without any health problems. It’s only as they have added more, modern, high sugar, foods to their diet that they’ve seen a rise in heart disease.
- The Arizionan, Pima Indians were once healthy living off traditional diets but became dependent on government food programs providing refined carbohydrates and hydrogenated fats. They now show the highest rates of obesity and diabetes anywhere in the world.
This is where someone’s argument for one type of diet or another can seem convincing. If people added saturated fat to their diet and became obese, then it’s the fat that is said to have caused all the problems. If they added refined sugar to their diets and ended up with diabetes, then it’s the carbs that are to blame. I don’t think that’s what’s happening. Instead of what someone is eating as being the root of all of their problems, I think it’s more likely to be how much. Recently, a study by Hall illustrated what I think is the problem nicely.
20 people were given either unprocessed or ultra-processed diets that were matched for energy, and protein carbs and fat. During each diet, they were told they could eat as much as they want. When people ate the unprocessed diet, they naturally consumed fewer calories than they burned and lost fat.
- During the ultra-processed diet, people ate more than 500 calories more.
- They gained fat and total body mass.
- They consumed more carbohydrate and fat.
- They ate food faster than the unprocessed diet.
- Hormones that regulate how much we eat reduced during the study.
Eating more than we need causes weight gain, which causes most of our problems.
As we have seen, you can eat high-carbs and be healthy. You can eat a diet made up mostly of fat and meat and still live a long life. The diet zealots insistence on blaming one specific macronutrient on poor health is missing the wood for the trees. If you want to be as healthy as possible, it makes sense to eat a diet that provides you with plenty of vitamins and minerals, but if you were to put your focus in just one place, I’d concentrate on how many calories you’re consuming in general, rather than where those calories come from.
The internet flame wars over what is the most optimal way of eating are missing the point. It’s possible to be super healthy eating all kinds of different food. Make sure you follow some basic rules; eat some plants, and keep a keen eye on your waistline, and you’ll be fine. There is no such thing as the best diet for health.
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