Diet too complex to blame one thing or other for disease

This letter from Joan V. caught my attention:

“I am an 80-year-old lady who has enjoyed eating all my life. I am most comfortable eating meat and vegetables … always have been.

“For parts of my life (like WWII and later) we were able to grow a lot of our own food — wonderful fresh vegetables, lamb, pigs, chicken, eggs. I never ate much fruit. I like it, just don’t bother with it.

“In 1961, I had my third child, and the government advice came out to eat less meat and more carbs. I tried it but I felt terrible. Went back to meat and vegetables, and I have been fine for 52 years.

“Recently, I had surgery for 14 rib breaks (had a bad fall off my horse) and the doctor commented that I had the bones of a 30-year-old.

“Because we are in our 80s, we don’t eat much anymore. For breakfast we eat eggs or bacon, or sausage, with toast, butter, or potatoes. For lunch we eat soup or salad, and a piece of meat. For dinner we eat meat and a vegetable, usually. We use butter and a lot of olive oil. We are both very healthy. My husband hikes three days a week, and I ride a horse.

“I do have congenital high cholesterol but also very high HDL, which I feel is more important.

“I have just read the book ‘The Big Fat Surprise,’ which explains why the benefits of giving up meat for carbs is not a good thing.

“Have you read the book? And what do you think? I am just curious.”

Dear Joan,

As one horse lady to the other, I applaud your time in the saddle. And, yes, I have read this book. This is what I think:

Years ago I was lambasted for writing a column about a beef rancher. This book turns the table in the opposite direction with the subtitle, “Why butter, meat &cheese belong in a healthy diet.”

I agree that these foods can belong in a healthy diet. So can olive oil, fish and wine. And fruit. And vegetables.

Author Nina Teicholz states she researched this book with “a dose of skepticism” regarding our current recommendations for fat, particularly saturated fat.

And she rightly acknowledges the complexities of studying the health impact of one particular element (fat, in this case) in the human diet.

She is correct that no one food — be it cheese or steak or bran muffins — has been shown to cause obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. Rather it appears that patterns of eating — the amount of various combinations of nutrients — are more influential on our health than individual substances.

I was disappointed to see — after lengthy analyses of every conceivable glitch in nutrition research regarding dietary fat — on the last pages of this book, an all-encompassing conclusion that obesity, heart disease and diabetes “are caused instead by carbohydrates.”

One piece of valuable research this book seems to have regrettably missed is the landmark Diabetes Prevention Program — a lifestyle intervention trial in 27 clinical centers in the U.S. — that identified lifestyle behaviors that significantly reduced the risk for type 2 diabetes. Along with exercise and weight loss (duh), reducing excess fat (especially saturated fat) significantly cut the risk for developing diabetes.

I’m not the first to suggest that the ideal diet for humans provides the right balance of nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals) in the proper amounts from a variety of foods.

And may we also remember while we sit around and debate which diet is best; our growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes are because we are stuffing in too many calories from fats and carbs.

Putting the entire blame on one food element or the other might be likened to shooting your horse because your foot slipped out of the saddle. Probably smarter to make some corrections as we go down this trail.

I suspect long-lived and healthy people like yourself and your hubby have overall healthy habits and attitudes about life. That may be the most obvious surprise of all.

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at bquinnchomp.org.

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