Sunday, April 12, 2015

Saladosity, Part 2: The Nutritional Tribes

[This is the second post in a long series.  You may wish to start at the beginning.  Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

First of all, let me say that I don’t particularly subsribe to any one nutritional philosophy.  Much like religion.  Gandhi once said:

I came to the conclusion long ago ... that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, ...

The same is true of the various camps on nutrition, as far as I’m concerned.  In fact, people treat nutritional philosophy a lot like religion: if you’ve ever had a friend go all Atkins on you, you know very well that’s it’s hard to distinguish that from their having joined a cult.  But, I’m not going to get anywhere trying to convince you that your favorite nutritional evangelist is really a televangelist.  So let’s not call them “cults” ... let’s call them “tribes.”

So I believe the various tribes are all right, a bit, and all wrong, a bit.  The truth of the matter is that the complexities of the way nutrition is absorbed by the human body are so intricate, and they vary so widely across individuals, that even as much as we know about biology and science, we still don’t know exactly what’s good for us to eat and what’s bad.  We have ideas, true, but unfortunately many of the ideas are contradictory.  Also, many of them are most probably wrong.  Too bad we don’t know which ones.

And so we’re presented with a bewildering barrage of information with no clear way to choose which bits to rely on, and it constantly changes.  Remember when cholesterol was bad for you?  Well, now only some of it is bad for you.  Remember when milk was the most awesome thing you could drink?  Now it’s full of fat and complicated by lactose intolerance.  Remember how butter was terrible for you and margarine was the savior?  Now margarine is Satan because it contains trans fat and butter looks pretty healthy in comparison.  Whenever anyone tells you that this or that food is “bad” for you, you can almost bank on the fact that, if you wait five or ten years, it’ll be good for you again.

Amidst all this data flying at you, groups will agglomerate certain facts, conveniently ignore others, and announce that they now hold all the secrets.  The majority of these have a rationale that sounds perfectly sensible, so it’s easy to fall under their sway.  The trick is to remember that nutrition is often counter-intuitive, and to question everything.  I’m going to briefly cover what I consider to be the most important of the nutritional tribes (in no particular order), and I’m gong to tell you what I buy and what I question.  These are only my opinions.  I might throw in a few links here and there, but I’m not trying to convince you to believe what I believe, especially since what I believe changes fairly regularly.  I just want to you hear my reasoning, and hopefully convince you to question things for yourself.

The Low-Fat Tribe

I sometimes call this the Weight Watchers tribe,1 but that’s an oversimplification.  Lots more folks than just Weight Watchers believe in the siren call of low-fat.  The rational here is pretty simple: if you don’t want to be fat, stop eating food that contain fat.  An offshoot of this tribe is the low-calorie tribe, which is so similar I just lump them both together.  The low-calorie rationale is only slightly more complex: you consume X calories, and you burn off Y calories.  If X is bigger than Y, those extra calories turn into fat.  If Y is bigger, you lose weight.

Where I think these guys get it right is in their emphasis on exercise.  You really do need to burn some calories or you’re not going to get very far.  Besides, exercise is not only important for losing weight: there are plenty of other health benefits to be gained from reducing your sedentary time.

But the questionable bits here are pretty questionable.  Recently a lot of nutritional folks are saying that not all calories are created equal, and that fat doesn’t actually make you fat.2  Rather, it’s sugar and carbs that make you fat.  Some folks will even go so far as to say that reducing fat intake can be less healthy for you, if you’re reducing certain types of fat.  (But of course no one will agree on which fats are which.  Except everyone agrees that trans fat is evil.)

The Atkins Tribe

The natural reaction to information that fat isn’t bad for you but carbs are is to create a new tribe.  The Atkins folks have the most complicated rationale of any of the tribes (which is why it sounds the most cult-like).  There’s a lot of stuff about glucose and ketosis and it sounds all science-y and cool.  And it absolutely is based on actual science.

The good parts of Atkins are that carbs really are evil ... or at least mostly evil.  Lots of folks, even outside the Atkins tribe, are now agreeing on this, particularly as regards refined sugars and refined flours.  Reducing carbs also seems to help with diabetes, which is one of the major health issues with being fat.

On the other hand, cutting out all carbs is not sensible, and some folks have claimed it isn’t healthy either.  Looking at it from the opposite angle, I agree that fat can be good for you, but that doesn’t mean I agree that consuming all the fat you can stomach is good for you.  And all that meat ... too much meat makes me feel vaguely ill, and if that’s not a danger sign, I don’t know what is.

The Paleo Tribe

The paleo folks have taken a riff on the Atkins philosophy and then doubled down on it: it’s not the carbs that are bad, per se, it’s the grains.  Also the starchy vegetables, and the diary ... basically, if cavemen didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either.  The rationale here, as usual, sounds pretty believable: the diet of our primitive ancestors was, by definition, the most natural diet we’ve ever had.  Every technological advance took us farther and farther away from that ideal.

Rejection of preservatives and sweeteners and suchlike is the best advice from the paleo tribe, in my opinion.  Folks can say all they want that there are no studies proving that all our modern food additives are to blame for all our modern health issues, but the fact that we didn’t have the health problems when we didn’t have the additives is pretty hard to argue with.  The way I see it, it’s entirely possible that sodium benzoate is perfectly safe.  But it’s also entirely possible that it ain’t.  Do I really need it that bad?3

The problems with the paleo tribe is, again, going too far.  No dairy?  Really?  Yogurt and cheese might well be the most healthy things I ever ate, before I got onto my salad kick.  Do I really want to eliminate all dairy just because cavemen hadn’t manage to domesticate cows yet?  Also, there’s sort of a giant flaw in all this: who wants to have the life expectancy of a caveman?

The Vegan Tribe

The vegetarians and vegans are possibly the most interesting group of all.  Lately they’ve almost entirely given up on trying to convince us that cutting out meat is more healthy, and concentrated instead on pointing out that it’s a hell of a lot cheaper, uses less water and energy, and produces a hell of a lot fewer greenhouse gases, if we put our time and energy into growing crops to eat instead of growing them to feed herbivores so we can eat them instead.  All of which is hard to argue with.  Also, cows, and pigs, and chickens are cute, and we should probably stop torturing them.

There are lots of studies that suggest that reducing meat in our diet can be healthy.  Unfortunately, nearly all those studies are contested on some grounds or other.  For instance, if a study suggests that people who eat more meat are more likely to get cancer, someone is bound to come along and point out that the most likely reason for that is that meat tends to get overcooked more, and we already know that burned stuff is carcinogenic.  And, honestly, that sounds pretty logical.  Still, I can’t deny that I don’t feel good when I eat too much meat, or eat it too often, and I know for a fact that cutting back my meat intake is the surest way to guarantee that I lose weight.

Again, though, elimination of all meat just feels like going too far to me.  I love animals, and I really don’t want to see any of them mistreated.  But I also know that a carnivore is a carnivore, and animals eating each other is a perfectly natural part of life.  And we are animals, and we most definitely are carnivores.  Watch a documentary on chimpanzees sometime.  They don’t eat meat all that often, but, when they get a hankering for it, the results are ... bloody.  There are also plenty of studies that show that the protein from meat is crucial to our diet (those are also always contested, of course).

The Other Tribes

This list isn’t exhaustive, of course.  It isn’t meant to be.  It’s just designed to cover what I feel are the most convincing viewpoints out there, and why I think they’ve all got something going for them ... and yet I’m not completely sold on any of them.  But there are plenty more folks out there who claim to have The Way and The Light when it comes to knowing what you should eat.  There’s the juicing tribe, and the fasting tribe, and the raw tribe, and the Weston A. Price tribe, and oh-so-many-more.  All of them sound very convincing—at the very least in that late-night-infomercial way that sounds good at first, but can break down after you examine it later a bit more critically.  Many of them even hold up after careful scrutiny, just to disappoint you with mediocre results when you try them out personally.  There’s a lot of reasons for this, many of which I mentioned above.  But the biggest one is this:

People are all different.

Oh, we’re all the same, too,4 but we’re certainly all different, often in very fundamental ways.  And I’m not just talking personalities here.  We’re biologically—genetically—different.  And we start out different and get differenter as we go along—as some of us get diseases others don’t, some are subjected to stresses which subtly alter our internal processes and some aren’t, some of suffer injuries that change our bodies in fundamental ways while others never even suffer a scratch—until it’s frankly amazing that doctors can treat people at all, that biology doesn’t just throw up its hands and go “the answer to everything is: it depends!”  It’s one of those cool things that makes us stand out as individuals—even identical twins can be distinguished by people who know them well.  But every upside has its downside, and the downside of this one is that you’re always going to run into advice of a medical or biological or anatomical—or nutritional—nature that simply won’t work for you.  That doesn’t make it bad advice, necessarily (though certainly a lot of it is just that), it just means it doesn’t work for you.

And absolutely that applies to my advice as well.  Take it all with many many grains of salt, modify it to suit yourself, question it and test it and disparage it as you will.  But I think there’s some value in some of it, sometimes, for some people, so I’m going to keep on prattling on about it.

Next time I tell you what my personal goals are in designing my salads (and some of my oher meals too), so you can better know which of my advice to take to heart and which to throw out on the grounds that I’m insane.

1 I did so in our last installment, even.

2 I could link you to several articles, but, again: question everything.

3 Let me stress that I’m perfectly willing to risk purely hypothetical dangers if there’s some benefit from it.  I’m just not seeing the benefits here.

4 As I explained both in my views on balance and paradox and individuality.

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