The skeptical cardiologist has been searching for some time for a book on diet that he can recommend to his patients. While I can find books which have a lot of useful content, usually the books mix in some totally unsubstantiated advice with which I disagree.
I recently discovered a food/diet/nutrition book which with I almost completely agree. The author is Aaron Carroll, a pediatrician, blogger on health care research (The incidental Economist) and a Professor of Pediatrics and Associate Dean for Research Mentoring at Indiana University School of Medicine.
He writes a regular column for the New York Times and covers various topics in health care. His articles are interesting, very well written and researched and he often challenges accepted dogma.
Like the skeptical cardiologist, he approaches his topics from an unbiased perspective and utilizes a good understanding of the scientific technique along with a research background to bring fresh perspective to health-related topics.
Last last year he wrote a column, within which I found the following:
Studies of diets show that many of them succeed at first. But results slow, and often reverse over time. No one diet substantially outperforms another. The evidence does not favor any one greatly over any other.
That has not slowed experts from declaring otherwise. Doctors, weight-loss gurus, personal trainers and bloggers all push radically different opinions about what we should be eating, and why. We should eat the way cave men did. We should avoid gluten completely. We should eat only organic. No dairy. No fats. No meat. These different waves of advice push us in one direction, then another. More often than not, we end up right where we started, but with thinner wallets and thicker waistlines.
I couldn’t agree more with this assessment and as I surveyed the top diet books on Amazon recently, I saw one gimmicky, pseudoscientific diet after another. From the Whole30 approach (which illogically completely eliminates any beans and legumes, dairy products, alcohol, all grains, and starchy vegetables like potatoes (see how absurd this diet is here)) to Dr. Gundry’s Plant Paradox (aka lectin is the new gluten (see here for James Hambling’s wonderful Atlantic article on the huckster’s latest attempt to scare you into buying his useless supplements).
It turns out Carroll published a useful book recently, The Bad Food Bible which critically examines diet and I agree with the vast majority of what is in it.
The first three chapters are on butter, meat, eggs and salt. His conclusions on how we should approach these 4 are similar to ones I have reached and written about on this site (see here for dairy, here for meat, here for eggs and here for salt). Essentially, the message is that the dangers of these four foods have been exaggerated or nonexistent, and that consuming them in moderation is fine.
The remaining chapters cover topics I have pondered extensively, but have not written about: including gluten, GMOs, alcohol, coffee, diet-soda and non-organic foods.
I agree with his assessments on these topics. Below, I’ll present his viewpoint along with some of my own thoughts in these areas.
Carroll does a good job of providing a scientific, but lay-person friendly background to understanding the infrequent (1 of 141 Americans), but quite serious gluten-related disorder, celiac disease.
However, surveys show that up to one-third of Americans, the vast majority of whom don’t have celiac disease, are seeking “gluten-free” foods, convinced that this is a healthier way of eating. Carroll points out that there is little scientific support for this; there are some individuals who are sensitive to wheat/gluten, but these are rare.
“If you have celiac disease, you need to be on a gluten-free diet. If you have a proven wheat allergy, you need to avoid wheat. But if you think you have gluten sensitivity? You’d probably be better off putting your energy and your dollars toward a different diet. Simply put, most people who think they have gluten sensitivity just don’t.
I do agree with him that the “gluten-free” explosion of foods (gluten-free sales have doubled from 2010 to 2014) is not justified.
However, I must point out that my 92 year old father has recently discovered that he has something that resembles gluten sensitivity. About a year ago, he noted that about one hour after eating a sandwich he would feel very weak and develop abdominal discomfort/bloating. He began suspecting these symptoms were due to the bread and experimented with different bread types without any symptom relief.
Finally, he tried gluten-free bread and the symptoms resolved.
If you have engaged in this type of observation and experimentation on your self, and noted improved symptoms when not consuming gluten, then I think you’re justified in diagnosing gluten sensitivity, and by all means consider minimizing/avoiding wheat.
Carroll begins his chapter on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with a description of the droughts that plagued India in the 1960s and the efforts of Norman Borlaug to breed strains of wheat that were resistant to fungus and yielded more grain. By crossbreeding various strains of wheat he was able to develop a “semi-dwarf” strain that increased what was produced in Mexico by six-fold.
Despite the fact that numerous scientific and health organizations around the world have examined the evidence regarding the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and found them to be completely safe, there remains a public controversy on this topic. In fact a Pew Poll found that while 88% of AAAS scientists believe that GMOs are safe for human consumption, only 37% of the public do – a 51% gap, the largest in the survey.
This gap is largely due to an aggressive anti-GMO propaganda campaign by certain environmental groups and the organic food industry, a competitor which stands to profit from anti-GMO sentiments. There is also a certain amount of generic discomfort with a new and complex technology involving our food.
The National Academy of Sciences analyzed in detail the health effects of GMOs in 2016. Their report concludes:
While recognizing the inherent difﬁculty of detecting subtle or long-term effects in health or the environment, the study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between currently commercialized genetically engi-neered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it ﬁnd conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. GE crops have generally had favorable economic outcomes for producers in early years of adoption, but enduring and widespread gains will depend on institutional support and access to proﬁtable local and global markets, especially for resource-poor farmers
Carroll does a good job of looking at the GMO issue from all sides. He touches on environmental downsides related to herbicide-resistant GMO crops and the problems created by patenting GMO seeds, but asserts that “these are the result of imperfect farming and the laws that regular agribusiness, not of GMOS themselves.”
Ultimately, despite these concerns, I agree with Carroll’s conclusion that:
“Foods that contain GMOs aren’t inherently unhealthy, any more are than foods that don’t contain them. The companies that are trying to see you foods by declaring them ‘GMO-free” are using the absence of GMOs to their advantage–not yours.”
Alcohol, Coffee, and Diet-Soda
Carroll does a good job of summarizing and analyzing the research for these three topics and reaches the same conclusions I have reached in regard to coffee, alcohol and diet-soda:
-alcohol in moderation lowers your risk of dying, primarily by reducing cardiovascular death
-coffee, although widely perceived as unhealthy, is actually good for the vast majority of people
For those seeking more details a few quotes
“Taken together, all of this evidence points to a few conclusions. First, the majority of the research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with decreased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and death. Second, it also seems to be associated with increased rates of some cancers (especially breast cancer), cirrhosis, chronic pancreatitis, and accidents, although this negative impact from alcohol seems to be smaller than its positive impact on cardiovascular health. Indeed, the gains in cardiovascular disease seem to outweigh the losses in all the other diseases combined. The most recent report of the USDA Scientific Advisory Panel agrees that “moderate alcohol consumption can be incorporated into the calorie limits of most healthy eating patterns.”
Keep in mind that moderate consumption is up to one drink per day for women, and two drinks for men (my apologies to women in general and the Eternal Fiancee’ of the Skeptical Cardiologist in particular) and be aware of what constitutes “one drink.”
Also keep in mind that any alcohol consumption raises the risk of atrial fibrillation (see here) and that if you have a cardiomyopathy caused by alcohol you should avoid it altogether.
“It’s time people stopped viewing coffee as something to be limited or avoided. It’s a completely reasonable part of a healthy diet, and it appears to have more potential benefits than almost any other beverage we consume.
Coffee is more than my favorite breakfast drink; it’s usually my breakfast, period. And I feel better about that now than ever before. It’s time we started treating coffee as the wonderful elixir it is, not the witch’s brew that C. W. Post made it out to be.”
Strangely enough, coffee is usually my breakfast as well (although I recommend against adding titanium oxide to your morning java). Why am I not compelled to consume food in the morning? Because breakfast is not the most important meal of the day and I don’t eat until I’m hungry.
Carroll notes that many Americans are convinced that artificial sweeteners are highly toxic:
“no article I’ve written has been met with as much anger and vitriol as the first piece I wrote on this subject for the New York Times, in July 2015, in which I admitted, “My wife and I limit our children’s consumption of soda to around four to five times a week. When we let them have soda, it’s . . . almost always sugar-free.”
He notes, as I have done, that added sugar is the real public enemy number one in our diets. He reviews the scientific studies that look at toxicity of the various artificial sweeteners and finds that they don’t convincingly prove any significant health effects in humans.
Some believe that artificial sweeteners contribute to obesity, but the only evidence supporting this idea comes from observational studies. For many reasons, we should not highly value observational studies but one factor, “reverse causation,” is highly likely to be present in studies of diet sodas. If diet soda consumption is associated with obesity, is it the cause, or do those who are obese tend to drink diet soda. Observational studies cannot answer this question but randomized studies can.
Carroll points out that:
the randomized controlled trials (which are almost always better and can show causality) showed that diet drinks significantly reduced weight, BMI, fat, and waist circumference.”
Simple Rules For Healthy Eating
Carroll concludes with some overall advice for healthy eating:
-Get as much of your nutrition as possible from a variety of completely unprocessed foods
-Eat lightly processed foods less often
-Eat heavily processed foods even less often
-Eat as much home-cooked food as possible, preparing it according to rules 1, 2, and 3
-Use salt and fats, including butter and oil, as needed in food preparation
-When you do eat out, try to eat at restaurants that follow the same rules
-Drink mostly water, but some alcohol, coffee, and other beverages are fine
-Treat all calorie-containing beverages as you would alcohol
-Eat with other people, especially people you care about, as often as possible
These are solid, albeit not shocking or book-selling, rules that correspond closely to what I have adopted in my own diet.
In comparison to the bizarre advice from nutrition books which dominate the best-selling diet books, I found The Bad Food Bible to be a consistent, well-written, extensively researched, scientifically-based, unbiased guide to diet and can highly recommend it to my readers and patients.