A diet is a system of starving yourself to death so you can live a little longer.
— Totie Fields.
My first diet was the Protestant Guilt Diet. You’re probably familiar with its prime injunction: “Eat everything on your plate! In India, children are starving!” What it lacked in logic, it more than made up for with condescension. How exactly was cleaning my plate going to help a single poor Indian child? Was the thought of some far-away American leaving food on his plate just too much for an emaciated waif to endure? Was I expected to Fed-Ex them my leftovers? For whatever reason, back then the idea being promoted in a lot of middle-class American households was that you shouldn’t quit when you are full, but when your plate was spanking clean. And, as a direct result, no one is starving in India anymore. Mission accomplished!
Not just Protestants are fat
I’m sure there are plenty of homes where the “starving children” harangue still rings out, in Catholic, Moslem and Jewish forms as well, and more power to them. They bring a smile to food producers and plus-sized clothiers everywhere.
My own recollection of the Guilt Diet is from a long time ago in the mists of the last century, when I had more hair and we had a higher regard for doctors. And when the folks with stethoscopes told us to eat low-fat diets with plenty of carbs, we listened. Now, partly as a result, you can’t find anyone who believes in doctors anymore (which is probably an overreaction; when your bone is sticking out, it’s hard to beat a doctor — and really, get your kids vaccinated).
Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, the low-fat diet. That’s bound to get rid of fat, right? Duh! Fat in, fat on. You are what you eat.
Actually, this totally plausible idea gained a lot of credibility from a study conducted in the 1950’s by a fellow named Ancel Keys. He looked at the fat consumption and heart attack rates in 22 countries, and he found a depressingly low correlation. However, when he eliminated the 15 countries that were problematic for his hypothesis, the remaining 7 fell on a nice, smooth curve: high fat consumption and heart disease tracked each other quite well.
Throwing out data is a clever experimental technique, and a favorite of many of my ex-bosses. Dr. Keys may have had good reasons to exclude some countries, but usually tossing data is not considered scientifically kosher. On the other hand, it’s great if you can get away with it. If I could wish away two-thirds of my stock picks, I might almost break even.
The actual, unexpurgated data from that study is pretty variable, and some scientists have even said the study shows fat consumption is good for overall health, if not for heart health specifically. Ultimately, however, the data is just not that reliable, since many of the countries studied had a somewhat cavalier attitude toward reporting the cause of death.
Science is always trying to clean up its act, and today this study is the subject of derision among most researchers. But at the time it was the only study they had, so – right or wrong – the experts latched on to it. In retrospect, now that our heads have cleared (and our bodies have thickened), it seems a trifle rash to have based an entire national agenda on such a shaky study. But that’s what we did.
If you’re going to blow it, blow it big
Based largely on Key’s work, the American Heart Association announced that we should stop eating fat and start eating carbs. In 1977, the government issued the McGovern Report, declaring that we should eat less meat and more carbs. Of course, that made ranchers squeal, so the part about less meat was changed to less saturated fat, which was sufficiently vague.
Oddly enough, considering America’s reputation as a bunch of hot-blooded red-meat-eating rebels, we fell right in line. We wanted to be healthy, and here was an impressive roster of authorities telling us how to do it. It would be tough, but if we had to go low-fat, we would just have to suck it up. So we did. Food manufacturers gave us what we wanted, and if they had to add some sugar to offset the lost flavor of fat, no problem. We lapped it up. And it was tasty, too, in a kind of gross way. Ah, fat-free Twinkies, you will be missed.
We eagerly followed the food pyramid published by the USDA in the 1990’s, and dove right into the bread, rice and pasta. They were at the base of the colorful pyramid, in a position of sublime primacy. The pictures of bread were mouth-watering. The pasta was steaming! What a wonderful diagram. No one seemed concerned that the USDA is a government agency overlooking agriculture. We are not its natural constituency. ConAgra is. Those were the days when we believed in politicians, too. Well, sort of. I’m not that old.
A well-executed plan with a massive payoff
The last 40 years have shown the high-carb theory to be wrong in a big way. America has always been great, but now we are far greater, especially measured by belt size. Close to two-thirds of us are overweight. With so many unwanted pounds it’s hard to believe we still promote contests designed to showcase our gluttony. You can say that’s just more proof of American exceptionalism (the only country to give awards to the biggest gluttons and the biggest losers!). However, if there’s anything that must distress the Indians, it has to be the sight of a hot-dog eating contest. Over 60 hot dogs can be crammed down the gullets of highly trained gastrointestinal athletes in about ten minutes.
That takes the command to clean your plate into a whole new realm. Is it churlish of me to point out that this ten-minute gorge could feed the average famished Indian for a couple of months (if they could be convinced to actually eat hot dogs)?
So, given our long national experiment with eating every last crumb (no carb left behind), perhaps it’s time to ditch the Guilt Diet, no matter what the religious affiliation. Clearly, the dietary deities have abandoned us, with the exception of Bacchus. We’re in new territory here, and although science will have to guide us, we need to maintain our critical faculties. We’ve seen that the science can sometimes be wobbly, if not downright jiggly.
Fortunately, a medical consensus has been building around a new idea, better supported by more reliable data. Part of the breakthrough involves looking at pre-industrialized cultures.
Getting schooled by ancient cultures
For setting a normal human baseline, researchers looked to modern hunter-gatherers in Africa, such as the !Kung (the exclamation point is pronounced with a tongue-click; their language is very lively, as are they). These people do not have a weight problem. They are trim for life, weighing the same at 50 as they did at 20. Of course, they spend a lot of their time running. To the !Kung, fast food is a gazelle. They have been living this way for some 30,000 years, so they represent a snapshot of ancient human purity, unpolluted by modern diets and lifestyles. The calories they consume are perfectly balanced with the calories they burn. They are magnificent exemplars of homeostasis.
Then there is us. It turns out that excess sugar and processed carbs are not good for us. What a shocker! They cause our insulin system to go haywire, affecting our homeostasis, just slightly. Like eating an extra cookie each week, it creeps up slowly, a measly pound a year. But unlike the !Kung, by the time we’re 50, we’ve gained 30 pounds! While they’re hunting game, we’re hunting grocery bargains at Amazon.com. That’s what you call progress!
But it may be killing us. Worse yet, like the Borg, we will soon assimilate the poor !Kung, and they will plump up just like us and get all our fat-related maladies, like diabetes and heart disease. That’s how we civilize people. You’re welcome.
Does this mean we should be more like the !Kung? Almost certainly. We should get more exercise and eat better, yada, yada. But in particular, research says we should avoid modern processed carbs that cause massive insulin spikes. One secret of the !Kung is that they don’t eat angel-food cake or wonderbread. As to the rest of it, well the jury is still out on the so-called Paleo diet. But if the !Kung are any guide, you should eat a little bit of game and a lot of vegetables, especially mongongo nuts, which constitute fully half of their diet.
In other words, people can get used to anything, but that doesn’t make their diet ideal. For instance, the Inuit of Alaska, another group of native people with a long stable history, have diets that are almost entirely composed of meat and fat. Again, proof of human adaptability, not necessarily a recommendation to eat blubber every day.
A little take-away
So, while we still don’t know what makes the perfect diet, we at least know what is bad: the carbs at the big base of the food pyramid and much of what the experts have recommended for years. Refined carbs are simply overloaded with easily available calories. Way too available. Like burning jet fuel in a coal stove, it’s ridiculously dangerous and totally avoidable. Processed carbs wreak havoc with the pancreas, which starts a whole cascade of miseries that ultimately leads to obesity and early death.
So the bottom line for overweight Americans? Avoid processed carbs and hop off the Guilt Diet. Cleaning your plate (and sopping up the juices with delicious white bread), will not help a single Indian. Most of them are healthier than we are anyway: they are largely vegetarian and they eat spicy food, which fills you up faster. In India, they tell their kids to eat their curry, because in America there are children who are starving for flavor.
Time for us to shape up!
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