By Dr. Mercola
Michael Pollan's PBS documentary "In Defense of Food" is based on Pollan's book by the same name. The title may seem odd at first. What kind of defense might food be in need of?
According to Pollan, food must be defended for the simple reason that the majority of what people eat today is not actually real food: it’s "edible food-like substances" that have no counterpart in nature.
You don't have to go very far back in history to get to a point where "what should I eat?" was a nonexistent question. Everyone knew what "food" was. They harvested food off trees, bushes and out of the ground, and they ate it, either raw or cooked in some fashion.
Our current confusion about what to eat is basically the result of forgetfulness. The food industry and nutritional science both stand to gain from this kind of confusion.
They keep trying to "help" you, yet for all their expert help, people have only gotten sicker. Neither of these industries has outsmarted or outperformed nature as of yet.
Pollan also argues that you cannot divorce yourself from the health of the food chain of which you are a part. Soil health, for example, is a crucial component as it affects the health of the food grown in it, so how and where food is grown is a factor to be taken into consideration.
A Healthy Diet Cannot Be Reduced to Individual Nutrients
The food industry has radically altered — or as Pollan says, destroyed — our diet; reducing "food" to a list of individual nutrients listed on a box. Some of these nutrients are said to be "good," whereas others are said to be "bad." And, which is which changes at regular intervals.
Advertising also plays a role, with all manner of junk food being presented as having some sort of benefit. The tendency to think about food in terms of nutrients is also fueled by the food industry's practice of making health claims for specific nutrients added to or removed from their products.
As a result, confusion reigns when it comes to what foods should be on the plate. Pollan refers to this as "The American Paradox: The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become."
The Key to Healthy Eating — Eat REAL Food
The success of the processed food industry has come at a tremendous price. As noted in the film, diet-related disease is at an all-time high, and people's lives are at stake. But while many realize that their health problems are in fact related to their diet, they're at a loss as to the changes that need to be made.
"We're looking for dietary salvation," Pollan says.
What is the answer to our problems? Many are convinced that eating healthy is a complicated equation requiring loads of nutritional data. But they're wrong. As noted in the film, "You don't have to be a scientist to know how to eat."
It's actually much simpler than you might think. Pollan offers the following seven-word guide to healthier eating: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I would specify that further by pointing out that what he's talking about is REAL food, i.e. food as close to its natural state as possible.
Other practical advice offered throughout this program includes the following:
- Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
- Eat only foods that will eventually spoil or rot.
- Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food.
While Pollan focuses on the links between red meat and cardiovascular disease, I believe the most important points to remember when it comes to meat are:
- Eat only organic grass-fed and grass-finished meats, as conventional meats are qualitatively inferior.
- Limit your intake to around one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. While you need protein, most Americans are simply eating too much, and of a low quality.
Real Food Diets May Differ, but Most Are Healthy
Science actually confirms that a wide variety of diets can be healthy — provided they're based on real food, as unadulterated foods contain all the nutrients your body needs, and in far more ideal ratios than nutritional scientists can guesstimate.
In the film, Pollan journeys across the world, looking at people's diets and the results thereof. Repeatedly, he confirms this truth: Those who eat historically traditional diets are healthier and live longer.
This holds true for hunter-gatherers on the plains of Tanzania, Seventh Day Adventists in California who are primarily vegetarians, and the French, whose diet is still steeped in culture and tradition. The specific foods and ratios thereof may differ, yet they all reap the benefits of good health.
Another example is the Mediterranean diet, of which there are many variations. But the primary hallmark of all of them is again fresh, whole, minimally processed foods.
Vitamins and Other Nutrients Are Best Obtained From Real Food
Pollan also explores the trends of vitamin supplementation, showing that while vitamins are indeed good for you, the best way to obtain them is from real food. One of the primary reasons we have to supplement with vitamins in the first place is because they've been removed or destroyed during processing.
The other challenge is that industrial farming practices have radically diminished the minerals in most soils, which secondarily depletes the nutrient density of many foods. Take beef for example.
Beef raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) doesn't have the omega-3 and CLA content of organically raised, grass-fed beef, because the animals are fed an unnatural diet of grains and other additives, including sugar (molasses) and artificial sweeteners.
Hence, many processed foods make bold health claims based on the vitamins added back in; some of which are more nonsensical than others. For example, Schlitz once advertised Vitamin D beer! Other examples include breakfast cereals boasting heart-healthy fiber and vitamins, despite the primary ingredient being sugar — one of the most health-harming substances on the planet.
Ditto for yogurt. While most commercial yogurts contain beneficial bacteria, they can also contain as much sugar as a can of soda, which effectively counteracts any good those microbes might do.
Moreover, commercial yogurts are almost always pasteurized, which kills off any and all bacteria. Select groups of bacteria are then added back in, but the end result is a far cry from traditionally cultured yogurt made from unpasteurized (raw) milk, in which the bacteria are allowed to multiply and thrive normally.
The Cornucopia Institute has evaluated 130 different commercial yogurt brands, scoring them based on information from ingredient labels, independent testing and, in the case of organic brands, the score brands achieved on Cornucopia's organic dairy scorecard.
So before you buy another commercial yogurt, take a look at their Yogurt Buyers Guide, and remember, your healthiest option is to buy yogurt made from raw milk from your local farmer or farmer's market.
How Nutritional Guidelines Have Decimated Public Health
While nutritional guidelines have often been less than ideal, influenced as they are by various industries (such as the sugar and beef industry), perhaps one of the most serious flaws has been the recommendation to avoid dietary fats. It's difficult to estimate just how many premature deaths have resulted from the low-fat diet recommendation, but my guess is that this is easily into the hundreds of millions.
Many studies have confirmed the disadvantage of low-fat diets. As just one example, a 2013 Spanish trial,1,2 which included nearly 7,450 volunteers between the ages of 55 and 80, was halted for ethical reasons after eight years, as the control group was deemed to be at a dangerous disadvantage.
The two intervention groups ate a Mediterranean-style diet — low in red meat, sugar, processed carbs, and junk food; and high in most everything else, including healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and seafood, supplemented with either 30 grams of nuts per day (15 grams walnuts, 7.5 grams almonds, and 7.5 grams hazelnuts), or 50 ml of virgin olive oil per day instead of nuts. The control group ate a low-fat diet.
There were no calorie restrictions for any of the groups, nor was physical activity promoted or required. Compliance with olive oil and nut consumption was tested via blood and urine analysis. The primary end point was a composite of myocardial infarction, stroke, and death from cardiovascular causes. Secondary end points were stroke, myocardial infarction, death from cardiovascular causes, and death from any cause.
Remarkably, in less than five years, the two intervention groups achieved a 30 percent relative risk reduction for cardiovascular disease, and stroke reduction was an impressive 49 percent. According to conventional wisdom, such benefits have been seen in the low-fat group, but the converse turned out to be true, and the study was stopped early to protect the health of the control group.
As a General Rule, Whole Foods Contain Healthy Fats
So for the last 60 years, people have been admonished to eat a low-fat diet to protect their heart health. Unsurprisingly, all this time, that dangerous recommendation has actually fueled the very problem it was said to treat — a sad testament to the dangers of following nutritional guidelines based on ideas about nutrients rather than real food. Low-fat foods exist in abundance in nature, and they're called fruits and vegetables.
Other foods, such as olives, avocados, coconut oil, butter from raw milk, and beef, are high in fats, and that's a good thing. Your body needs fat for energy, the production of hormones, nerve and brain function, vitamin conversion, mineral absorption, and a host of other biological processes. As a general rule, if the fat comes from real food, it's "good."
The real problem with dietary fat arises from the processing. Harmful trans fats, for example, are formed when vegetable oil hardens, a process called hydrogenation. Science has now confirmed that the health risks previously attributed to saturated fat are actually caused by trans fats, and this includes raising your LDL cholesterol, lowering HDL, clogging your arteries, and promoting heart disease and other serious health problems.
Fat Versus Sugar — Which Actually Causes Obesity?
Reducing fat in our diet has also increased obesity — another health problem the low-fat diet was said to solve — and the reason for this is because the food industry replaced the fat with sugar. The documentary "The Secrets of Sugar," which you can view in my previous article, "Sugar Industry Secrets Exposed," tells the story of how the food industry has known for decades about the links between a processed food diet and disease.
On a mission to change how the sugar industry operates, Colorado Community Care Dentist Cristin Kearns Couzens stumbled upon evidence that they were already worried about sugar's role in heart disease as far back as the early 1970s.
She unearthed more than 1,500 pages of internal memos, letters, and reports, buried in the archives of now-defunct sugar companies, as well as in the recently released papers of deceased researchers and consultants who played key roles in the industry's strategy.
The sugar industry was sweating the impending book, "Pure White and Deadly," (1972) by British nutritionist John Yudkin, in which he presented decades of research pointing at dietary sugar — rather than fat — as the underlying factor in obesity and diabetes.
The Sugar Association secretly funded a white paper called "Sugar in the Diet of Man" that claimed sugar was not only safe and healthy, but important. Not only did they fund it, but they made it appear to be an independent study.
The Sugar Association's biggest apologist was Ancel Keys who, with industry funding, helped destroy Yudkin's reputation by labeling him a quack. The smear campaign was a huge success, bringing sugar research to a screeching halt. Keys' flawed research was also used as the basis for the low-fat recommendation.
Today, the research overwhelmingly supports Yudkin's initial warnings about sugar being a primary culprit in obesity, diabetes, and related health problems, including cancer and heart disease — two primary killers of modern man.
The Links Between Your Gut Microbiome, Diet and Health
Pollan's film also delves into some of the latest studies showing the role your gut bacteria play in your health, the importance of a plant-based diet, and how the Westernized diet has altered our gut microbiome in ways that beget poor health.
Fermented foods are important for gut health, but so is fiber. Soluble fibers, such as psyllium, are probiotics that help nourish beneficial bacteria. These beneficial bacteria assist with digestion and absorption of your food, and play a significant role in your immune function.
When it comes to fiber, the food industry and nutritional sciences have again done more harm than good by promoting grains as an ideal source. While this may have been true 100 years ago, agricultural practices and modern food processing techniques have made most grains less than beneficial.
For starters, many modern grains, including non-organic wheat, are contaminated with glyphosate, which is now recognized as a probable human carcinogen. Glyphosate has also been linked to celiac disease and other gut dysfunction, which is the exact converse of what you're trying to achieve by adding fiber to your diet.
Secondly, most grain products on the market are highly processed, which further deteriorates their value. Instead, focus on eating more vegetables, nuts, and seeds. The following whole foods, for example, contain high levels of soluble and insoluble fiber.
Psyllium seed husk, flax hemp, and chia seeds Berries Vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts Root vegetables and tubers, including onions, sweet potatoes, and jicama Almonds Peas Green beans Cauliflower Beans
Feed Your Children Real Food From Birth
It's bad enough that most children are eating processed foods and junk food by the time they're old enough to chew, along with excessive amounts of sugary beverages like sodas and fruit juices. What's worse is that sugar addiction is in many cases promoted from day one.
There's a big difference between breast milk and commercial baby formula — the latter sometimes containing concerning amounts of added sugars3,4 (beware that the amount of sugar is typically not listed on the label).
Sadly, many women do not have access to the truth about breastfeeding and have been misled by infant-formula marketing to believe they must spend thousands of dollars a year to provide the best nutrition for their babies. In reality (and barring any extreme exceptions such as certain transmittable diseases or drug use), breast milk is the best food for babies, period.
As noted by Pollan, the more we discover about breast milk, the more we realize that formula just isn't as good as breast milk. For example, breast milk contains undigestible oligosaccharides — sugars unique to breast milk alone — that nourish healthy bacteria in your baby's gut.
Ideally, you'll want to strive to breastfeed your baby exclusively for the first six months, at which point you can begin to supplement with solid foods and continue to breastfeed for a year or longer. But remember, even breastfeeding for as little as one month can impart great health benefits for both you and your baby.
The next best alternative to breast milk is to make a healthy homemade infant formula. There may be others, but here is one recipe for homemade formula created by the Weston Price Foundation, which I believe is sound.
'Eat Real Food, Mostly Plants'
Pollan covers a number of other topics in his film, including the impact of sugary beverages, which is a major source of calories for most Americans, including kids; New York City mayor Bloomberg's attempts to limit soda sizes in restaurants; and Mexico's national soda tax, which I discussed in a recent article.
There's no doubt that cutting out sweetened beverages of all kinds, including fruit juices and artificially sweetened drinks, can go a long way toward warding off unwanted pounds, insulin and leptin resistance, and related diseases. Remember, when it comes to diet, eating healthy is really not such a complicated affair. It's simply a matter of remembering to eat REAL FOOD. To recap the advice given by both Pollan and myself:
- Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants
- Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food
- Eat only foods that will eventually spoil or rot
- Go easy on the meat, and eat only high quality grass-fed/grass-finished or pastured meats