Thursday, October 16, 2008

Grandma knew better than this

Once in a while, whenever I'm feeling flush at the supermarket, I buy a copy of Mother Earth News. I have an ongoing fantasy about having a couple acres in the country with a big garden and chickens, the whole Barbara Kingsolver thing, and this is basically the only way I have to scratch that itch. (I'm really a city boy, and wouldn't know what to do with a chicken that didn't come already plucked and quartered.) I bought the new issue last week - the cover story was "Expert Tips for Simple Living" which is a sale for me right there - the story was written by Wanda Urbanski, whom I've never heard of but who apparently has a simplicity show on television, and another one on the Nearings' house in Maine.

There's another article in there called "Good Calories, Bad Calories: What really makes us fat" and the apparently the answer is: carbohydrates.
If you had asked your mother or grandmother for diet tips, you might have heard, "Every woman knows that carbohydrates are fattening." In fact, that's from a 1963 article in the British Journal of Nutrition, co-authored by one of the leading nutritionists of the era. And for the previous 100 years or so, this was the conventional wisdom: carbohydrate-rich foods such as bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, sweets and beer make us fat, and, by implication, foods rich and fat and protein do not.
Now, I'm the kind of person who always looks askance at conventional wisdom and hype, and am fairly (over-) sensitive to conspiracies, so I'm perfectly willing to accept the growing conventional wisdom that the focus on fat in the diet over the past 30 years has been overblown. (Especially since it formed a prominent part of Michael Pollan's latest book.) I've never been afraid of cheese, for instance, and the idea of low-fat cookies always struck me as rather an abomination.

But there's a difference between recognizing the anti-fat hysteria was so much hype and simply swapping carbohydrates for fats and making them the new bogeyman. This article recommends a protein- and fat-rich diet that lacks virtually all starches and sugars, with a special focus on unlimited quantities of red meat.
If you actually look at the fat content of a piece of red meat (or eggs and bacon), you'll find that the principal fat is not saturated fat - which is supposedly bad for the heart - but the same monounsaturated fat as in olive oil, which is supposedly good for the heart. And much of the remaining fat is still what nutritionists would call heart-healthy.

(snip - a discussion of the various levels of HDL and LDL cholesterol in red meat)

... animal products happen to contain all the amino acids, minerals and vitamins essential for health, with the only point of controversy being vitamin C. [And even then] the content of meat is more than sufficient for health, so long as the diet is indeed carbohydrate-restricted, absent the refined and easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars that would raise blood sugar and insulin levels and so increase our need to obtain vitamin C from the diet.
So in other words, if it wasn't for the fries and buns, McDonald's would be good for you! Forget the orange juice, for vitamin c eat more red meat! In fact, OJ ruins the health benefits of the red meat!

This Atkins-ist nonsense is pernicious in a number of ways. First of all, meat is high in B vitamins, zinc and iron, and not much else. It's ridiculous to claim that you could get all the vitamins - C! - you need this way. Not even the industry claims anything like this.

There's also actually some benefit to the eating of grain, like fiber, and if you ate as much meat as this you would basically never poop again. The model proposed is opposed to many of the the more healthy diets in the world: the Mediterranean diet, for instance, held up as a uniquely healthy way to eat, does not focus so exclusively on protein and fat. (He does say that we should eat leafy greens, so that covers some of it.)

And this doesn't even take into account the costs of a meat-based diet, not only on health but on energy usage and climate change - it takes more calories to produce the meat than you get from it - and the problems inherent in the CAFO system that would only have to be expanded if everyone were to take this advice.

The problem is not grains as such but processed grains that have had the living element removed - processed grains such as you find in most processed and supermarket-baked goods. And anyway, my grandmother never said not to eat pasta and potatoes. She said not to eat soda and candy. For everything else, she was a great believer in moderation - especially when it came to eating meat. I'm surprised that a decent and fairly crunchy magazine like Mother Earth News would have forgotten that lesson.

1 comment:

Pokeberry Mary said...

I believe in the wisdom of my grandmas too. My Grandma was Milwaukee Polish, complete with the big hook nose. She loved lard! She never had a demon food group and she wasn't fat. I think its not that any one food group is bad--its that what we eat we eat too much of and we don't excercise enough. You being always biking though have got that whipped. Good for you! Before the food pyramid we used to have certain food groups and we'd try to just balance out the meals as I recall. Nobody was very intense about it all. I wonder how much the 'stress' of all the expert warnings is contributing to folks overeating to just calm the nerves.