By Dr. Stephanie Seneff
Just about everyone in America is convinced of two well-established tenets for how to live a long and healthy life:
- Eat a low-fat diet
- Avoid the damaging rays of the sun
These two tenets, taken together, are extremely bad medical advice, and that the consequences of our government's success in selling this well-intended but misguided recommendation to the American public are devastating and long-lasting, particularly to our nation's children.
In part one, I discussed the vital importance of healthful fats, cholesterol, vitamin D and calcium during pregnancy.
I am now going to discuss more generally the topic of nutrition and food science, and why the two conventional recommendations listed above simply do not work.
Once I have laid down the groundwork for basic nutrition, I will return to the subject of the pregnant mother, jeopardized by her inadequate diet and lack of sun exposure, whose body, when faced with nearly insurmountable obstacles, desperately attempts to maintain a steady supply of fat to the developing fetus' brain.
I will try to make the arguments as simple as possible, although the biological mechanisms at play are not simple.
First, I would like to recommend a great book, Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes , for those who want to seriously examine the issues of diet and health. Most of what is written in this section was gleaned from reading that book, although I have added a few embellishments, based on my own reasoning.
The main message of the book is that our country has been grossly misled into believing that a low fat diet is a healthy diet. This message is now so thoroughly entrenched that it is nearly impossible to overturn. While his main focus was on diets that would be effective for weight loss, he also argued persuasively that a high fat diet (or at least a low-carb, high-quality fat diet) is a healthy sustainable nutritional practice even when you're not trying to lose weight. He advocates a diet that eliminates as much as possible refined sugars (white sugar) and refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, and pasta.
The Problem with Refined Carbs
The biggest problem with these foods is that they are digested too easily. This causes a spike in the blood sugar level which in turn causes the pancreas to get into high gear, overproducing more than enough insulin to break down these sugars, so that they can be stored by the liver as glycogen for future energy needs.
One consequence is that the insulin receptors become increasingly less responsive to insulin, leading over time to type II diabetes: an inability to efficiently utilize insulin. Diabetes is easily diagnosed by measuring the levels of sugar in the urine, because the excess sugar that was not broken down due to insufficient insulin eventually is excreted by the kidneys as waste material.
Insulin plays a critical role not just in the processing of carbohydrates, but also in the processing of fats. Interestingly, high levels of insulin in the blood promote the storage of fat in fat cells. Conversely, low levels promote the release of fat from fat cells into the blood stream.
This makes good sense, because, when there is plenty of sugar in the blood, the cells can use that sugar for their energy needs, or it can be converted to fat and stored in the fat cells for later use. During fasting conditions, insulin levels drop, and the fat cells are encouraged to release their fat stores to supply the energy needs of the muscles and brain [1, p. 432].
A typical person goes through a wake/sleep cycle every day.
Insulin levels fluctuate throughout the day depending on the times and contents of the meals. However, at night, while a person sleeps, the insulin level drops, and low insulin acts as a catalyst to allow the stored fats to take their turn in supplying the body's nutritional needs during the long fast.
Calcium plays an important role in fat metabolism, and vitamin D therefore plays an indirect role by promoting the absorption of calcium into the blood stream from the digestive system. A person with inadequate vitamin D (or with inadequate calcium in their diet) would need to carry a larger reserve of body fat to maintain an equivalent rate of fat delivery during fasting  .
How Your Diet Influences Onset of Gestational Diabetes
These nutritional regulatory mechanisms can be used to explain a well-known phenomenon called gestational diabetes, while at the same time lending support to the idea that the pregnant mother's body may become preoccupied with supplying adequate fat to the growing fetus.
Gestational diabetes is a poorly understood phenomenon where a woman who had shown no signs of diabetes in the past suddenly starts passing sugar in the urine while she is pregnant.
It seems to me that a possible explanation can be found if we make the simple assumption that the mother's body is trying desperately to maintain an adequate supply of fat for the embryo.
If she is practicing a low-fat diet regimen, then it will be imperative to extract fat from the fat cells in her body and release it into her blood stream, whence it will eventually reach the placenta and make its way into the baby's blood stream, and, ultimately, delivery to the baby's developing nervous system. However, as we've just seen, in order to get the fat cells to release their fat, the insulin levels will need to be low. A vitamin D deficiency will compound the problem: with inhibition of calcium uptake, even lower insulin levels will be needed to achieve a comparable effect.
Because of inadequate insulin in the blood, sugars entering the blood stream from the digestive system cannot be fully broken down. The consequence would be waste sugar showing up in the urine, manifesting itself as gesticular diabetes. However, not all of the excess sugar would be wasted: some of it would make its way into the fetus's blood supply, which would then trigger its fledgling novice pancreas to produce its own private supply of insulin.
The baby would then be able to convert the excess sugar into its own personal supply of body fat, which will turn out to be extremely useful to it once born.
Any baby who is unusually large at birth is often a sure sign of gestational diabetes. But also, in my view, this excess fat at birth is a clear clue as to why gestational diabetes is useful to the fetus: gestational diabetes is invoked as a mechanism to help the fetus survive in the face of a severe shortage of fat supply from the mother. The child is likely to face a continued shortage of fat supply from the mother's milk once born. The same mother who had an insufficient amount of fat in her diet during pregnancy will likely continue to do so after the birth.
In summary, it seems to me that the reason that gestational diabetes occurs is that the mother's body is willing to waste some of the sugar that's ingested during pregnancy so that the mother's fat cells can release their stores of fats into the blood stream to supply the baby's immediate needs of fats for its developing brain. At the same time, the fetus can utilize the excess sugar to protect itself from future fat deprivation. If the mother, in addition to eating inadequate fats, is also deficient in vitamin D, it will be that much harder to get at the nutritional lodes of the fat cells, leaving her child in grave jeopardy. If, finally she has very few fat cells to begin with, then there just may not be another alternative besides severely compromising the child's developing nervous system.
Autism and Infertility
As of 2001, one percent of the children born in the U.S. were conceived through IVF. This population group forms an interesting set to study, because, logically, if infertility is a common consequence of excessive diligence in maintaining a thin, muscular body and a low-fat diet, then we would expect the infertile population to include a significantly larger percentage of such mothers than the fertile population.
Furthermore, if these practices lead to an increase in autism, then there should be a larger than normal number of autistic children among the offspring of IVF pregnancies.
There have not been sufficient research funds devoted to the question of studying the health of children born from IVF. Nonetheless, one compelling study was recently conducted by Mary Croughan of the University of California, San Diego, funded by the federal government . In this study, which was presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) conference, she compared children resulting from IVF with children conceived naturally.
She examined more than 19,000 medical records, and the only cases of autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder showed up in the IVF children. She also found an increased risk of certain birth defects, cognitive delays, and behavioral problems among the IVF children. These results could be due to some damaging aspect of the IVF process itself, but it's also plausible that the source of the infertility and the source of the autism are the same thing: inadequate fats and vitamin D.
Autism and Twins
One excellent way to tease apart the nature versus nurture debate on any syndrome is to study twins. Several studies have been conducted on autism demographics, and these have uncovered some intriguing statistics concerning twins. One very informative study investigated families where exactly two of the children had autism .
The investigators determined, as might be expected, that the identical twin of an autistic person was twelve times as likely to have autism as a mere sibling of an autistic person. However, if autism were solely due to genetics, then the concordance for identical twins should be 100 percent. Instead, one third of children whose identical twin has autism do not. More intriguing however is the result they obtained for fraternal twins. If your fraternal twin has autism, you have four times the chance of also having it, compared to someone whose sibling, born at a different time, has it.
Since fraternal twins are no more closely related genetically than siblings, this has to be interpreted to mean that being a twin is a risk factor for autism.
This statistic narrows down the possibilities enormously, and strongly suggests a role for the shared environment of the twins. Two things immediately come to mind: (1) they share the mother's womb during the fetal stage, and (2) they compete for the mother's milk in infancy. A mother who is deficient in fat, vitamin D, and calcium will face an even more insurmountable problem when tasked with carrying to term and then nursing two infants than would be the case for a singleton birth. A scarce resource is made twice as scarce by the simple fact that there is now double the demand. And thus twins would easily be expected to be more susceptible to autism than singletons.
Sunscreen Isn't Working
Since the 1970's, our country has witnessed a 30-fold increase in the sales of sunscreen products, alongside a 30 percent increase in deaths from melanoma . You might think that this is just due to cases in the elderly that were caused by bad practices many years ago. However, the incidence of melanoma has been consistently rising in children by about 3 percent per year since the 1970's . Isn't it time to admit that sunscreen is not useful? Even the sunscreen executives will admit that they have never been able to find evidence that sunscreen prevents melanoma.
However, it's unfortunately easy to sell the simplistic idea that, because the sun's UV rays can cause cancer, and because sunscreen blocks these rays, then sunscreen must, quite logically, prevent cancer.
The reason this formula is incorrect is very simple: sunscreen also blocks a mechanism that biology put in place many millions of years ago, also for the purpose of protecting us from the sun's rays. Biology's own mechanism, however, is far more effective than sunscreen, because it produces products that linger on our skin (melanin) and in our blood stream (vitamin D) long after the particular outing to the beach has passed.
In the spring, if we go outside without sunscreen, we will slowly pick up a protective tan, while also generating a good supply of vitamin D. By the time the summer comes around, the tan affords protection from the sun's harsher rays, and we continue to accumulate vitamin D, which will be able to carry us through the lean winter months, when sunlight is in short supply.
Melanin in the tanned skin prevents the sunburn in the summer. Vitamin D in the blood stream protects us not just from skin cancer, but from just about any cancer you can name.
If you type "vitamin D" into a search engine along with "prostate cancer," "breast cancer," "ovarian cancer," "pancreatic cancer," etc., you will find that the entire first page of the result is filled with pointers to studies that show vitamin D affords significant protection from that cancer. For instance, a controlled study conducted at the Creighton University in Nebraska showed that people who were given supplements of vitamin D and calcium experienced a 77 percent reduction in cancer incidence over those given a placebo .
You might think that you could get the best of both worlds by liberally applying sunscreen and taking lots of vitamin D orally. But this is a tricky game to play. Sunscreen may give you false security by preventing the sunburn that provides a warning signal to get out of the sun .
And oral vitamin D may not be properly absorbed if it's not accompanied by ingested fats to dissolve the vitamin D. If you just take excessive amounts to compensate for this problem, you can run into toxic reactions and a suppression of the immune system, the opposite of the effect of sunlight . Better to trust biological mechanisms which have had millions of years to perfect the natural process that exploits the sun's rays to beneficial effect. In my view, a large part of the reason that we are losing the war against cancer is that we are increasing the base rate significantly through the excessive use of sunscreen products.
Low Fat Diet Isn't Working
The American Medical Association started aggressively campaigning in the 1970's that a healthy diet is one that is consistently low in fats, and they have maintained that message as the "party line" ever since. Today, you can't go to the grocery store without seeing row upon row of foods advertising themselves to be "low fat", "nonfat" or "fat free," constantly bombarding you with the subliminal message that fats are bad for you.
Meanwhile, 40 years later, America is facing an epidemic of obesity that is contributing to a host of health problems, not only for aging adults but also for young children.
Is there, then, a relationship between low-fat diet and obesity?
Gary Taubes, for one, thinks so.
In his book, Good Calories Bad Calories, he presented an overwhelming amount of evidence to show that the easiest and most effective way to lose weight is to adopt a high-fat, low-carb diet. A high-protein diet cannot be sustained, because after a while the dieter just can't face another lean pork chop. With a high-carb diet, the dieter is constantly suffering from hunger pangs, while losing little if any weight.
But a high-fat diet, such as the Atkins diet, works relatively painlessly, in part because fats take longer to digest, and leave you feeling more satiated.
It might seem logical, since fatty tissue is made of fat, that a low-fat diet might help prevent you from becoming fat. Ironically, exactly the opposite is true. Humans are fully capable of manufacturing fats from carbs -- a process that takes place in the liver with the help of insulin. These manufactured fats are then dispatched to distributed locations throughout the body, where they can be stored away in fat cells for later use.
My belief is that, once biological monitoring mechanisms recognize that there is a distinct shortage of fats in the diet, the appetite is automatically adjusted upwards, to compel the person to consume more calories in a given day than they can burn off.
This has the intentional effect of accumulating a store of reserve fats on the body, a metaphorical silo, which can then provide a steady stream of fat nutrients to the muscles and brain to overcome the glaring deficiency in the diet.
If, in addition to consuming a low fat diet, the person also aggressively avoids the sun, then the problem will be compounded, and they will likely gain even more weight. This is because of the role calcium plays in the efficiency of fat metabolism, and the role vitamin D plays in the absorption of calcium.
It has now become evident that not all fats are created equal. The culprit that's responsible for the "fats are bad" message is partially hydrogenated oil, or "trans fats." These synthetic fats are created by loading up liquid vegetable oil with hydrogen and then heating it, along with a metal catalyst, to a high temperature. The result is a fat that stays solid at room temperature and survives a long time on the shelf. Once companies figured out how to do this well, all kinds of processed foods, most notably margarine, but also crackers and cookies, started appearing on the grocery shelves.
These products don't get rancid at room temperature because even the microorganisms that would spoil them are smart enough not to consume them. If you consume them in large quantities, your "LDL" (bad) cholesterol levels will go up, and your "HDL" (good) cholesterol levels will go down . A survey issued by the Food and Drug Administration in 1999  determined that these fats constituted 95 percent of the cookies, and 100 percent of the crackers found on supermarket shelves.
Companies are now scrambling to find ways to replace the trans fats in all their products.
The media recently has begun to sing the praises of "Omega 3" fats, found in large amounts in fatty fish such as sardines and salmon. Researchers have discovered that eskimos, whose diet is extraordinarily high in fat, have excellent health with respect to heart disease prognosis. A recent study by Fombonne et al. found that the Inuit of northern Quebec appear to be completely free of autism . Not a single case was found among their children.
This fits well with the theory presented here, since they eat an extremely high fat diet, consisting of large amounts of seal blubber and fatty fish like salmon. These are both excellent sources of both fats and vitamin D.
Unfortunately, pregnant women have in recent years been discouraged from eating fish, due to the high contamination with mercury, which is believed to cause damage to the developing fetus. It is frustrating that mercury contamination (a valid concern) stands in the way of getting adequate omega 3 fats for the baby. However, recent studies have pretty much dispelled the theory that mercury might cause autism. Several studies have now confirmed no link between mercury and autism. In fact, in California, after mercury was eliminated from the vaccines, the incidence of autism continued to rise .
Although fish is the best source, a surprising number of pallatable foods also contain Omega 3 fats, including walnuts, strawberries, tofu, cauliflower, spinach, and scallops .
As has been convincingly shown by the Nurses' Study, if you want to become pregnant, you will significantly improve your chances by enjoying plenty of whole milk, butter, and ice cream. You will also, in my view, significantly improve the chances of producing a healthy child by continuing to maintain a high fat diet throughout the pregnancy, and while you are nursing the baby. It is important, however, to choose foods carefully so as to assure a good steady supply of omega 3 fats, and to religiously avoid consuming trans fats. There is no place for a low fat diet during pregnancy and lactation.
What Can be Done To Fix the Problem?
If you have read this far, I hope you are convinced that there may be validity to the main thesis of this essay: that low-fat diet, combined with inadequate vitamin D, both in the mother and the child, are major contributors to the autism epidemic in America. I have been researching this topic off and on over the last 20 years, exploring plausible explanations for the alarming rise in the incidence of autism in America.
To me the evidence I've found is pretty compelling, and I felt it would be unethical to stand by and watch more and more cases of autism appear without at least attempting to articulate this theory to the best of my ability, to put it "out there," with the hope that others may also be persuaded and spread the word.
However, I will concede that thus far there is no definitive study that would leave no doubt that this hypothesis is correct.
This, more than anything else, is what's needed to really convince people to dramatically change their practices, to unlearn all the misguided advice they've been given previously about the benefits of sunscreen and low fat diet.
This country is capable of responding quickly once a convincing study dramatically changes expert opinion. Witness the case of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), widely recommended to menopausal women to help them cope with hot flashes and, it was claimed, to improve their odds against cancer. A large randomized clinical trial of estrogen and progestin, based on the Women's Health Initiative, was aborted prematurely because the results so clearly favored the women who did not take the drugs.
The study showed clear evidence that the drug contributed to increased risk of developing both breast cancer and heart disease . The response was immediate and dramatic: prescriptions were left unfilled, the stocks of drug companies plummeted, and within a short time survival rates for breast cancer started improving.
I'm confident that a similar study could be done on autism and its link to vitamin D deficiency and low-fat diet. It could be that a meta analysis of the Nurses' Health Study is all that would be needed.
It might require further interviews to determine whether the mothers of autistic children tend to practice low-fat diet and over-zealous sun protection. Blood tests could be performed to measure the levels of vitamin D among autistic children and their mothers. Individual children could be put on a program to make sure they get enough vitamin D and fat (especially omega 3 fats) in their diets. These children could be subsequently monitored to see if their autistic symptoms show any improvements -- although it might be too late to correct the damage already done to their brains.
If such studies were to obtain convincing results, the American people would respond quickly and effectively, as they have before in the case of hormone replacement therapy.
Lately, and with increasing frequency, the media have been drawing our attention to the alarming discovery of an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency among our nation's children . My belief is that this is directly attributable to the well-intentioned but over-aggressive application of sunscreen. At the same time, experts are beginning to sort out the complex situation with the many kinds of good fats and bad fats that exist naturally and through artificial chemical manipulations -- they have come to appreciate that the issue is not so much low fat but high quality fat in the diet. The public is slowly becoming educated about these new revelations, and, hopefully, major lifestyle modifications will soon ensue, with positive outcomes.
A Note from the Author:
I have been intrigued by autism for at least two decades. I have watched as theories for causes of autism come and go -- like the Pertussin in the DPT shot and mercury in fish and infant shots. In parallel, I have been dismayed by the degree to which the American public has bought into the now widespread practices of over-aggressive protection from the sun and over-diligence in avoiding fats in the diet.
I have long believed that these misguided practices are the direct cause of a host of health issues now facing America's children, including childhood obesity, ADHD, multiple allergic reactions, and teenage adult-onset diabetes. It was only recently that I began to assemble enough facts about autism to begin to believe that I had a compelling story to tell. This essay is my attempt to put that story out on the Web, in the hopes that experts and statisticians will take action to prove or disprove this theory.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert on this topic, and my research at MIT is completely unrelated.