First, it was the mantra “fat makes you fat.” Now it is the mantra that “carbs make you fat.” Perhaps the next hot topic will be “protein makes you fat”??? The problem with these reductionist viewpoints about food is that we ignore the fundamental issues in our Westernized food system. Our bodies need all major macronutrients at varying levels. Inherently, fats, carbohydrates, and protein are not bad for our bodies and each macronutrient plays important roles for normal body functioning. Additionally, there are many “right ways” to eat, perhaps some are also inherently better than others when it comes to disease risks and outcomes. However, getting hung-up in our “dietary-tribes”, as Andy Bellatti, MS, RD suggests, largely ignores the common thread to many healthy dietary patters---healthy diets are relatively low in processed foods, trans fats, added sugars, and artificial ingredients. Ultimately, it is the overall quality and dietary patterns that either promote or prevent diseases. Reductionism about food can also undermine the importance of creating sustainable food systems that promote not only good health for our nation, but also promote good health for our global population and the Earth. I recently published a blog post in response to the “war on fat” that was featured in TIME magazine. I was troubled by the journalist’s misrepresented, and possibly skewed viewpoint on what has fueled the fire for America’s obesity and chronic disease crisis. It appeared to me that the journalist’s main conclusion is that carbohydrates, regardless of where they come from, make people fat and cause heart disease. While the journalist does makes some valid points, such that fat is important in our diets and that Americans are eating too much refined carbohydrates, he did miss key points and many other possible causes for the rise of chronic diseases and obesity in America. When talking about the rise of chronic disease, we cannot ignore the role trans fat has had in the food supply, the rise of fast food establishments, health disparities, factory farmed animal products, and increased consumption of food eaten away from the home. We cannot ignore the fact that many Americans are not even meeting the recommendations for whole fruits and vegetables. My response to TIME can be found here: “10 key points on the “war against obesity””
The approach to solving America’s health crisis suggested by the journalist appears biased towards a fairly low carb, high fat, and high protein diet. While low carbohydrate diets can help people lose weight, there is also evidence that a whole, foods plant-based diet can do the same. So rather than continuing to foster American’s obsession with reductionism about nutrients, I believe TIME’s main message should have been more like this: “Eat more plants! Eat less highly processed and refined foods! Learn to cook from scratch!” I think most health providers would agree that Americans need to eat less fast-food, sugary beverages, fried food, chips, cookies, candies….and so on, and learn how to prepare and enjoy eating more fruits and vegetables in their natural state.
As health professionals and consumers, we also need to start talking more about how we can create a healthy population, while also creating a healthy planet. For example, factory farmers, which have been created to increase production of animal products for a growing population, are largely contributing to many of our environmental and climate change issues around the world. Suggesting a high consumption of animal products may not be a sustainable solution for solving our global health crisis (see: UNEP 2012 on Meat and greenhouse gas emissions, Johns Hopkins on antibiotic resistance).
When making recommendations on how to solve our American health crisis, we must also consider the implications this has on our food system. What ramifications do these recommendations have on our environment? Are these recommendations sustainable and cost-effective solutions that ALL Americans (including lower income populations) and ALL nations can participate in?
Many institutions, non- profit, and/or advocate organizations would agree that shifting our plates to include whole, plant-based foods is a solution for both mitigating the effects of climate change and improving human health (see: Johns Hopkins Meatless Monday, Why Hunger on climate change, Harvard Sustainability on plant-based, World Watch on “Is meat Sustainable?”, Food Tank on meat’s water footprint, Johns Hopkins on health and environment, University of Minnesota on feeding 4 billion more. Research Articles: Masset et al. 2014, Scarborough et al 2014 )
Tips for prevent chronic disease and protect the Earth:
Eat whole plant-based foods, including carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Eat combinations of the macronutrients at each meal/ snack (e.g. peanut butter (fat/ protein) with an apple (carbohydrate)). Learn to listen to your body for hunger, fullness, and thirst cues. Strive to eat seven total servings of fruits and vegetables for optimal health benefits. If you eat animal products, purchase organic and consume less of them (see: Myths of Protein). Try a few meatless meals per week, or maybe become a weekday vegetarian. Eat less highly processed foods and fast food, and learn to cook/ prepare foods from their natural state (e.g. making baked sweet potato fries rather than McDonald’s french fires; eating homemade kale chips rather than Doritos). If feasible, choose to eat all or majority organic foods. When possible, shop at local farmers markets to support small farmers in your communities. And don't forget Michael Pollen's famous quote, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
In good health,