This weekend I had a terrific opportunity. Nathan Rosenberg is an exceptional fellow who is co-president of the Harvard Food Law Society and a key organizer of next year's Ancestral Health Symposium. He found me at AHS11 and asked me if I might be interested in speaking at Harvard Law School - I said sure, though I wondered what I would say, seeing as how doctors and lawyers are natural enemies. (Kidding. Sort of. Actually I have a GREAT lawyer. He probably sleeps better not knowing about this blog.)
My talk is next week, on Halloween - the link is here. I'm really looking forward to it. My focus will be on how diet is likely a large actionable component of our mental health problems, and how mental health is both expensive and disabling.
However, on October 21st, the Harvard Food Law Society sponsored a great event - TEDx talks on obesity, with some of the foremost obesity researchers in the country (including Willet, Ludwig, Lustig, and Guyenet) along with many lawyers and policy makers talking about their efforts to encourage local agriculture and vegetable consumption over promotion of the commodities crops and CAFO operations.
The talks will be freely available some time - maybe follow the TEDx website? They were fascinating - I was, frankly, shocked by Willet's dietary prescription based, for the most part, on epidemiologic evidence. He advocates cereal fiber and polyunsaturated fats as a major portion of a "prudent" diet. He was very pro-Mediterranean diet and whole foods, but was quick to say "it's all digested to the components" - so does he think a whole grain cracker fried in seed oil and sprayed with some vitamins is equivalent to nuts and legumes? He was anti-saturated fat and red meat, but pro-poultry and fish. He mostly stuck to obesity and heart disease, but used epidemiology and small, short randomized controlled trials as evidence. Willet is, apparently, the 2nd (or 6th? I forget) most cited person in the scientific literature. He is HUGE. He is conventional wisdom, in a nutshell, though Stephan Guyenet told me Willet is pro-egg, and Willet himself says that the food pyramid, demonizing fats and, in effect, promoting low-fat processed carbohydrates in favor of whole foods, was a public health disaster.
If we rely on epidemiology alone we would still have 90 y/o women taking hormone replacement therapy. But Willet seemed convinced that confounders are easy to account for. His confidence was… breathtaking. Willet also dismissed anecdotes of traditional diets as the weakest form of evidence (which isn't entirely wrong, but ignores the compelling congruence of these healthy human diets across many cultures). Willet also said that ancestral diets are not useful because "those people only lived to 50-55 and we don't want that." Sigh. Willet eats kashi grains for breakfast, apparently.
Ludwig's talk began, very promisingly, with an evolutionary history, but ended with the basic Harvard School of Public Health prescription for a healthy diet. (Ludwig got a lot of media flack recently for suggesting that obese kids should be taken from their parents - the actual editorial he wrote suggests that foster care could be an option in intractable cases and I feel was taken out of context). I was puzzled how we got to cereal fiber (how do we have cereal fiber, on a viable level, without processed foods?) and seed oils, but that's epidemiology for you. He was quick to point out that if we substitute nuts and legumes for a big mac, once a week, we would have a measurable difference in obesity over time. Okay - Stephan Guyenet was quick to point out the sleight of hand. The substitution does not mean that red meat is bad for you. Well - Ludwig looked great (very slender, not-inflamed looking at all) and apparently might be interested in speaking at AHS12. It seems he is thinking in evolutionary health ways, but has not strayed from the conventional wisdom fold as of yet. Very interesting.
Stephan's talk was excellent; it was mostly a historical review of the changes in the American diet over the past 150 years. He pointedly showed the increases in fat (primarily polyunsaturated), poultry consumption, and linoleic acid over the last 50 years, coinciding with the obesity and diabetes epidemics. His major point was that we have gone from all home-cooked foods to a high level of fast food, restaurant food, and pre-prepared convenience foods at home. Does convenience kill? Most likely...
(An important note - heart disease has been in decline for the past 30-40 years, though it might be leveling off now. It is unclear if that is due to aggressive control of high blood pressure, dietary changes, or even statins. But don't make the false proclamation that heart disease is increasing lately, because it is not).
Lustig did his anti-sugar talk (which also pointed out the problems with epidemiology as a prescription, I am told) on Thursday night, when I could not attend. He did attend the panel discussion, when he came out as neutral on sat fats, pro-omega3, anti-omega6, anti branched chain amino acids, and anti MCTs. And, of course, anti frucrose, and while he would not come out against whole fruit whole hog, he did discuss the anecdote of the "fruit orgy" of orangoutangs where they seasonally develop insulin resistance and put on fat. Lustig seems to feel that fructose, MCTs, and BCAAs are damaging to the mitochondria and lead to insulin resistance (thus he is anti-corn fed beef, as corn-fed beef is higher in BCAAs than grassfed, apparently. I don't know enough to say whether that is wacky or not.) Ludwig was quick to point out that there is no evidence linking fruit consumption to any chronic illness. I'm quick to point out that I eat 1-2 bananas a day, and I rely on 1/2 banana before and after crossfit for happy lifting.
What we can all agree on - eat "real" food, and from a policy and preventative perspective, perhaps the most important, simple message is to eliminate sugar-sweetened drinks in the diet. I think everyone would pretty much agree on that one too.
The policy/lawyer talks were terrific -- they were very interesting, and exciting, as these lawyers and seasoned politicians are going forth to help farmer's markets and soil preservation, water preservation, sustainable agriculture and align government policy incentives with the supply and availability of local, real foods. Some of the real initiatives include penning legislation to abolish state sales tax at local farmer's markets (just as most states do not charge sales tax for staple food items at the grocery store), and streamlining state and local regulations to allow for farmer's market and production and sale of homemade low-risk specialty items (such as jams or apple pies). As the current farm bill heavily supports the commodity crops (corn, wheat, soybeans, etc.) and downgrades vegetables to "specialty crops," some changes would be nice!
I left the talks a little shaken. I felt (as always) the standard anti-obesity message is not practical for a non-Mediterranean culture and likely to be a terrible failure here in the U.S., land of the processed health food, and the pro-egg, fat-is-okay (albeit *cough* polyunsaturated) message has certainly not been carried to clinicians, nutritionists, and doctors in the field. That Willet and Ludwig were not willing to support whole dairy or red meat/pigs was unfortunate. The "whole foods" message gets really lost when we are parsing out red meat and even dairy. Forget the "nuts and legumes" (seriously, legumes? The only beans worth eating are refried in lard, amirite? - to clarify, this is my little joke, as beans upset my tummy) - how to we kick red meat and dairy to the curb without eating a crapload of disgusting kashi? I can't fathom it - Stephan I think would advise in consideration of sustainability and a large scale policy level for us to add potatoes (not fried, but whole, baked or boiled potatoes) and use traditional methods to prepare grains.
However, today I was fortunate enough to be invited to a lunch with Stephan Guyenet, Mat Lalonde, and friends and significant others. It was very refreshing to be with Mat and Stephan, who seem to be aligned with me about not supporting the some paleo fringe extremes (meaning acceptable carb levels vary, gluten and dairy levels vary in tolerance on an individual basis, etc.). We were also concerned about ideologues who seem to support one aspect of a diet as the end all, be all to ill health (fructose, or wheat, or carbohydrate), when the scientific truth is far more complex.
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was reflection upon genetic adaptations to agriculture - hemochromatosis (a disorder where humans can't properly get rid of iron, which was likely protective in grain-eating, low iron situations but which would make a classic low-carb, ruminant heavy, offal heavy diet dangerous), lactose tolerance in adulthood, and variations in folate metabolism. Evolution did not end with the paleolithic, of course, and while the generalities of "eat real food" are true for everyone, the specifics can vary a great deal depending on context - insulin resistance, obesity, large exercise volume, etc.
I don't have a specific prescription on this blog for a very important reason, but let me be explicit - for the most part, go archevore, exercise, tighten up the sleep, learn stress reduction, and that will help a great deal, and if all those things aren't in order, meds and strict ketogenic diets and supplements may well be shoveling sand against the tide. This all doesn't mean I'm entirely anti-meds or anti-ketogenic diets - indeed, if the issues are substantial and significantly impair functioning, I want to help in whatever rational and evidenced-based way possible… but don't look for magic. For the most part, it fails us.
How You Like Me Now? The Heavy