Week 5: Diets - Why They Don't Work

"Prohibition didn't work in the Garden of Eden. Adam ate the apple."

This poignant quote by Vincente Fox was about Mexico's drug problems during his tenure, and his attempt to legalize them to take the wind out of the cartels' sails. It didn't happen, of course. But he could just as easily have been referring to diets today. Why? Hunger for the forbidden goes back since long before the story of Adam was written. It's in our genetic code.

We saw in Week 1's post that we need all nutrients found in the human body, in adequate supply, to be present and available when needed in order to function optimally. When it is short-changed of nutrition, as during diets, the body signals the brain to crave whatever it's missing in order to spur the action that will result in its obtainment, short-changing our attempt to deprive it. Diets don't work. They invariably miss the central point that the body needs food from all nutrient categories - categories that include foods that every diet, from the first to the latest, has tried to omit.

Understanding what these nutrients are, what they do for us and where to find them is the first key - and the primary focus of this website. Once we can distinguish health-promoting foods (those produced by nature and which promote health) from unhealthy foods (those altered and/or produced by industry and which promote sickness), we can move on to issues of sourcing, nutrient balances, combinations and preparations that best support your long-term health.

But first, we need to understand the body's biology insofar as how it sees food. Which brings us to diet strategy number one: reduce calories. This is a dangerous game, because it backfires and results in weight gain. To explain: the body is extremely good at managing its fuel supplies. In the absence of adequate intake, the brain (correctly) perceives the loss as a threat, and starts producing large quantities of cortisol and adrenaline, the so-called 'stress hormones'. These in turn send a signal to the body's metabolism to slow down, conserve fuel and reserve the rest for later. Slowing your metabolism prevents nutrients from being absorbed and calories from being burned, i.e.: used up. Instead, the body stores the nutrients it's trying to protect in fat cells, making us gain weight and girth. So, instead of nourishing the body and fueling its metabolic processes, we are telling it to hunker down and hoard what little it has, much as a squirrel does in storing nuts for a long winter. If the nuts aren't eaten and used up, they accumulate. Except that in our case, instead of nuts sitting in a tree, we store fats in our bodies. The result is that losing weight becomes even harder.

This is why dieting by calorie reduction is a game of attrition: even if your overall weight reduces (maybe you're exercising in addition to limiting intake), your willpower to keep starving yourself is pitted continually against your body's inexhaustible ability to produce stress hormones and slow your metabolism. Eventually, biology will triumph. 

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So much for diet strategy one. Let's look at another common strategy: reduce fat intake. We saw in Week 3's post that fats are an essential set of dietary nutrients without which our bodies cannot properly function. Fats fuel metabolism. Your brain is comprised of cholesterol and fat - primarily saturated - and needs to be fed in order to function. Without fat, calcium cannot be absorbed by your bones, making them weaker. Fat insulates your liver from the damage of alcohol and medications, and fat coats your nerve endings, protecting them from damage. Further still, unsaturated fats are critical anti-inflammatories that keep the body from attacking itself. 

Fat - saturated or unsaturated - is not the enemy. They are produced by nature for the reasons listed above - to fuel life, when paired with the other nutrients the body evolved to need and use: vitamins, minerals, fiber, carbohydrates, protein and water. The fats that do cause damage are man-made fats, which are called trans-fats. We have covered these extensively in Week 3's post, and won't duplicate that discussion here. 

Besides the profusion of illnesses that inadequate fat intake promotes, the loss of this fuel source chemically tells the body to signal the brain to replace it. But with what? Since the 1977 release of the McGovern report, the 40-year trend in the United States - and subsequently elsewhere - has overwhelmingly been to substitute fats with carbohydrates. Besides fueling vastly different functions in the body, carbohydrates in their most common form - the refined starches, flours and sugars found in nearly every boxed, bagged or bottled item in your supermarket - are not just nutrient poor: they are overwhelmingly responsible for the raft of chronic diseases we as Americans - and those who mimic our dietary habits - are experiencing: heart disease, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, to repeat a few here, conveniently packaged in a human host. A good article by Harvard's School of Public Health on the subject is linked here.

So we can see here that the two most common approaches to dieting: 'eat less' and 'reduce fat intake' are destined to fail and moreover can and do cause severe damage to the people implementing either.

A proper diet - defined in one entry by Miriam-Webster as 'habitual nourishment' - not dieting - defined by M-W in another entry as 'a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one's weight' - must be the foundation of any approach to improved physical and bio-chemical health, if it is to have any chance of success. And a proper diet, if you've not guessed by now, begins with the selection, preparation and consumption of quality, whole, natural, 'unimproved' foods as found in nature. That means eating foods from all nutrient groups that are high in nutrient density and variation, and are as fresh as possible to avoid spoilage and the deterioration of nutrient quantities and qualities. These are the foods with which we evolved, and with which we coexisted almost exclusively until the recent past.

There are other considerations besides food that greatly influence one's health beyond diet. These are obvious, but are worth repeating in brief here because when we speak about diets we are essentially talking about returning to a state of optimal health that supports happiness, longevity and vigor. Adequate sleep is one. Reduction of stress is another. A third - the focus of much ink and in itself a multi-billion dollar business - is exercise.

What we need to remember is that exercise is the expenditure of energy - energy that comes from foods. The more we use, the more we deplete our resources, and the more we need to eat in order to replace what has been lost. At rest, without moving, our bodies use up roughly 1200-1600 calories per day to feed its automatic processes, such as pumping blood, producing cells, operating lungs and other organs; repairing itself, etc. This is called your basal metabolic rate, and you can calculate yours here. From a purely caloric standpoint, if you slept for 24 hours, your body would use that amount to fuel itself. 

Calories ingested beyond these are either stored as fat or used to feed voluntary processes that are the sum total of our physical activity: walking, talking, working, playing or exercising. So you'd expect that what follows is the simple need to consume only as many calories as you use - simple math. Right? Well, yes in mathematical terms. But as Dr. Mark Hyman, MD, writer and Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine says, "food doesn't just contain calories, it contains information. Every bite of food you eat broadcasts a set of coded instructions to the body - instructions that can create either health or disease." He illustrates this point in a web posting here, in which he compares the consumption of 750 calories of soda with 750 calories of broccoli. In terms of size, the first is a 'Double Gulp' from Seven-Eleven, while the latter is 15 servings, or 15 cups / 5 lbs., of broccoli - unlikely as your stomach cannot hold that much volume. Regardless, the theoretical comparison is an important one. Both sources are predominantly carbohydrates, but here again, to paraphrase, a carbohydrate is not a carbohydrate. The results of our consumption of each, in brief: the soda promotes what he calls 'biochemical chaos', including unchecked fat production, inflammation, bad cholesterol and blood pressure - delivered via 46g of sugar. The % of your daily requirement of vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats that the soda delivers? ZERO. Not a single vitamin, mineral, fat, fiber or protein. On the other hand, an equivalent caloric intake of broccoli - however unlikely - contains from 100% to 3,000% of your daily need of eighteen different essential vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber and omega-3s, which is astounding and what makes broccoli one of the plant world's most super superfoods, even in one serving. There is essentially no relationship between the two 'foods'. Dr. Hyman quips that a kindergarten class knows this, and yet 'every major governmental and independent organization has bought into [this] nonsense' - that a calorie is a calorie. 

Which brings us back to exercise. Michelle Obama has spent much of her professional life as First Lady promoting a campaign called 'Let's Move', aimed at reducing obesity, particularly in young children. The term was originally meant to provoke a call to action (the movement), and she regularly addressed underlying causes of obesity, namely the foods that caused them. However, the candy, soda and processed food lobbies saw the potential loss of control over their marketing message, and banded to 'partner' with Let's Move in providing corporate sponsorship. Kellogg, Coca-Cola, Nestle, General Mills... all of them now in control of the marketing message and opportunities for yet more food product to be introduced to 'address the issue'. The result: over the past few years, Let's Move has gone from attacking obesity sources (i.e.: dangerous food-like substances) to addressing its symptoms - namely getting outside more and moving your body, in a perversion of its original name. While exercising is positive for anyone and critical to holistic health, look again at the numbers: Americans are exercising twice as much as they did 30 years ago, while in the same time the rate of obesity has also doubled, as conveyed in the informative documentary, Fed UpSomething doesn't add up. And that something is what people are choosing to consume.

To wit: since joining Let's Move, the food industry in principle has taken no products off of shelves, but rather have added new products to address a new market: the 'healthier snack alternative'. In just one example, partner Nabisco created a new product: the low-fat Oreo. At 150 calories, it's 9% less caloric than 'regular' Oreos. The accompanying reduction in sugar: zero. A three-cookie serving contains the same whopping 56g of sugar as its 'original' version on the shelf. You'd have to eat twenty plates of pasta (another carbohydrate) to glean the same amount of sugar contained in three oreos. 

In short, Let's Move has been neutralized; industrialized food product companies have gained market share; and nothing has been done to reduce the underlying cause of obesity, which would necessitate the reformulation or better yet removal of scores of products from store shelves. We will leave the discussion there, but to read more, here's a good article on the subject.

We've seen that calorie reduction, fat reduction and exercise alone do not promote health or weight loss, and that we need to change what we eat in order to truly be healthy and lean. But what about the proliferation of so-called fad diets? Atkins. Paleo. Juicing. Low-carb. These are just 4 of the more recent fads created to move product and make someone money. The key problem? They all emphasize one food or food group. They ignore the entire point: that variety is key to health. This includes fats, carbs, fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein - all present in the body and all present in nature - for the reasons we've explored in this and our other posts. Juicing? We need the fiber that juicing removes in order to regulate digestion and nutrient absorption. Paleo? (High-quality) cultivated carbohydrates that Paleo forbids provide critical nutrients that allow us to ensure food supply over a larger population and broader nutrient access. Low-carb? Ditto. Atkins? It's the pre-Paleo Paleo Diet. Beyond being unhealthy, diets ignore human psychology, which as we saw at the beginning of this post creates hunger - in this case, psychological hunger for what we can't have, and leaves us with the overwhelming feeling that we are denying ourselves, whether or not our bodies are receiving adequate nutrition. Thus, they are doomed to fail like calorie reduction: the body will produce enough hormones to eventually overcome our willpower. So what may work in the short term will invariably fail over time. Unless we change our habits, starting with an education like this one.

If there were a diet that worked, we would not keep inventing new ones. Nature devised a successful diet from which we evolved into being. Start trusting her instead of business executives.

Stop eating junk - all of it. Eat real food - the kind grown by nature. Eat for nutrient density, completeness and balance - in the right amounts. Keep tabs on what you've eaten. Prepare it at home when possible and practical; and make the healthiest choices at food stores and restaurants when you cannot. 

And Let's Move... on.