My Humble Opinion on Nutrition

Food for Life distributes food on an internati...

I have taken part recently in some interesting conversations on nutrition and I thought I would put down my current views on the topic. I will preface this with the fact that as an internal medicine physician my formal training in nutrition is minimal at best. The level of education on nutrition offered in even the most prestigious medical schools these days is embarrassing. We did not have even one course on nutrition and the whole topic was summed up in a few lectures over the course of my four years of medical school. In residency it was hardly ever mentioned. For something as important as what we put in our bodies multiple times a day and given that it in my opinion has the largest effect on health than any other behavior, this is appalling. So what I have learned about nutrition has been learned through my wife who is a naturopathic doctor and had extensive education on nutrition during her training, from self research and reading. There are two books that I have recently read that I highly recommend. Whole by T Colin Campbell (the researcher behind the famous China Study) which discusses not only nutrition and its role in our health but much of what is wrong with our current medical research and medical care delivery system. The second is In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan who also wrote The Omniovore’s Dilemma.


In my research I have found a few key facts. First, there has been very little research on food and nutrition. Again, I blame this mostly on the lack of profit incentive for the research to be done. No patented drug or medical device can come from the research hence no money. Therefore the investment simply is rarely made. Second, is that nutrition is far more complex than most of us think it to be, therefore studies that are done in test tubes or rats are often mistakenly and with disappointing results generalized to humans. Studies showed that foods high in vitamin C were good for you so supplementing vitamin C must be good for you. But experience has not shown this to be the case. Food high in beta carotene seemed to prevent cancer but supplementing it increased cancer. Same for vitamin E. So what is the problem? How come our research never seems to allow us to get to those isolated chemicals in food that make us so healthy? How come we are no closer to that pill that can make us healthy no matter what we eat now than we were 20 years ago?


The problem is complexity. With the micro-nutrients (minerals and vitamins) that we have isolated so far we have only scratched the surface of the over 10,000 phytochemicals in foods. Phytochemicals are plant made chemicals that have biologic functions in our body. So why can’t we simply isolate these and take them in pill form to achieve immortality and perpetual youth? Because we don’t even know what all of them are, or what they do to the body.


When you eat one piece of fruit you are likely taking in hundreds of phytochemicals. The quantity depends on the health of the soil that plant was grown in, how the growing season was that year, rainfall, sunshine, pests, symbiotic fungi and other organisms in the soil, how ripe the fruit was when it was picked, and even what time of day it was picked. Then when you eat that piece of fruit those chemicals will act on each other. Some blocking the absorption of others and others facilitating the absorption. Then as they act on your body some will deplete other nutrients in your body or increase them. And your body will change what it takes from the food based on its needs and current health. If the body needs more of a nutrient it will take in more and if it does not need it will not. Or absorption may be impaired by an infection or damaged gastrointestinal tract.


So when we see that a specific nutrient has antioxidant capabilities in a test tube, that does not mean that it will when combined in food form or in our bodies, or even that more antioxidant intake is what our body needs at that time. The only way to tell if an isolated nutrient of food is good or bad for us is to randomize a group of people to either receive the nutrient or food or not and compare the two groups. However, these studies are rarely done due to many issues I have discussed before. But these are really the only studies conclusions can be absolutely drawn from and that is why those studies are the final and necessary step before approving any pharmaceutical drug. But even pharmaceutical drugs prove the point as even though they are designed to have one desirable effect such as lower cholesterol or blood pressure they all have a long list of side effects because our knowledge of the complexity of the human body is still in its infancy.


So in the face of all this complexity what is one to do when deciding what to eat? Well in everything I have learned and come to believe I think it comes down to the basics of eating what evolved to eat as much as possible. Our diet has changed dramatically in the last 10,000 years since the spread of agriculture. And with industrialization our diet has changed even more in the last 100 years than in any other time in history. The problem is evolution does not act that fast and so our bodies are unable to adjust to such rapid change. And our changes in diet are based on taste preference and convenience, not on what is healthy for us. And the few health related food choices we make are based on very superficial and limited information.


Human history has shown us that humans can survive on a wide variety of foods. From Eskimos to Bedouins the climates we can survive in and the diets associated with the climates are amazingly diverse. But surviving on a diet and thriving on it are two very different things. Animals can adapt to survive on new food sources quickly as those that cannot survive on it die off and only those that can survive to reproduce. But the selective pressure between those that thrive on the diet and look healthier and have more energy get more mating opportunities separating them from those that merely survive but do not thrive on the diet can take hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. To put the time scale of evolution in perspective if you took all the time since the beginning of dinosaurs to now and compressed it into one day the dinosaurs would have existed for the equivalent of 18 hours. Humans would have been on earth now for the equivalent of 10 minutes. So the selective pressures on humans from evolution have been minimal at best. Most of our evolution happened before humans walked the earth.


With this in mind I find the best reference for what we should eat to be Chimpanzees and Bonobos. We share a common ancestor with these primates in the not too distant past and genetically they are the most similar to us than any other living thing on the planet. We share over 98% of our DNA with Chimpanzees. However, while our diet has changed dramatically in the last 10,000 years and even more so in the last 100, chimpanzees and Bonobos eat very similar diets to what our common ancestor would have eaten.


So what is this diet? It is the exact same diet that most of the research done on diet is showing us is healthy. A mostly plant-based diet with as wide a variety of plants as possible and very little lean meat. Chimpanzees eat about 60% fruit, 38% vegetables, nuts, seeds, leaves, and 2% meat (usually in the form of monkeys). There are usually well over 100 different types of plants in a Chimpanzee’s diet. And there are no refined grains in this diet such as wheat, corn or rice.


Given this I do not find it surprising that study after study shows that plant-based food decrease the risk for cancer and heart disease. That vegetarians and vegans have lower risk for diabetes and hypertension. That eating meat increases the risk for heart disease and cancer. In fact one study I have highlighted before showed that a vegan diet was better for diabetics by every health measure they looked at than the American Diabetes Association Diet.


Chimpanzees and their ancestors have had time to adapt so that they not only survive but thrive on this diet. Over millions of years mammals have been eating adaptations to this diet and with each generation those that are healthier, more robust appearing, stronger, and had more energy had more chance to mate and increase their numbers. This subtle pressure takes a long time, much longer than the 10,000 years that agriculture has been prevalent.


Only after the widespread use of agriculture did refined grains such as rice, wheat, and corn enter our diet in large amounts. And only after farming came about did we start to eat meat that was from domesticated animals such as cows and pigs that is much fattier and has much more omega 6 fatty acids which are inflammatory than omega 3 fatty acids which are anti inflammatory. The animals we ate prior to this we monkeys, deer, rabbit, squirrel and a myriad of other lean, wild and much healthier animals. Our ancestors used to eat about 50% omega 6 fatty acids and 50% omega 3. Today that ratio is about 15 to1 in the average Western diet. And only after farming did meat become such a large proportion of our calories.


There is no doubt we have evolved to the point where we can survive on this diet but given the increasing spread of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity it is clear we have not evolved to thrive on it.


I feel much more research on a microscopic scale will need to be done before we even have what we could consider a beginning to understanding the effect food has on our body. And I would love to see far more studies that randomize people to certain diets so we can actually draw some conclusions from them. Lets do a study randomizing people to a diet with naturally occurring foods with no refined grains or processed food and very little meat (preferably lean meat high in omega 3) and compare that to the American Heart Association diets, or ADA, or TLC, or Atkins diets. Diet is the most important health recommendation we make to a patient so it should be evidence based.


Until that happens I think we are best suited to staying on the diet we have evolved to thrive on. Clearly eating what we can survive on is not working.



5 thoughts on “My Humble Opinion on Nutrition

  1. Hello, first time visiting — Lady Fancifull sent me here to check out your interesting posts on natural food and the like. What a great post, and I think you aren’t alone when it comes to medical doctors not knowing a lot about nutrition. I try to talk to my dr about calcium and caffeine interactions, things like that, and she has no info. One of the first sources people will go to is their trusted dr, so it is a shame they don’t know more about something as important as nutrition.

  2. Another humdinger! Thanks – my own twopennorth on this is also that eating meat which is factory farmed (growth hormones, antibiotics) is particularly poisonous, and has led to a depletion in our natural immunity, the rise of candidiasis, and also has played a huge part in obesity, and gynae conditions such as PCOS, fibroids, endometriosis, PMS, menopausal difficulties, and, for men, low sperm count and gynaecomastia. We are (if we eat non-organic meat, particularly in large quantities) awash with oestrogen.

    PS I adore Pollan, one of my food gurus, but I will explore your other link – the China Study is something I am unaware of. Goody more food for thought!!

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  4. Common mistake: You neglect the huge amount of insects that primates and all animals eat. It is probably their primary source of protein. Just check out ManVsWild – the most abundant food source for survival in any subarctic non-marine climate is insectoid in nature. Even cows like to munch on insect patches when they can. Our homonid ancestors all the way back to the very first mammals all relied on abundant sources of insect protein.

    Studies showing a connection between meat and heart disease are almost always done with industrial meat, not organic meat. Also, any natural animal (without so many human concepts) knows that raw organs and marrow are the best meat to eat first.

    The ancient prohibitions on pork consumption may be related to the fact that pigs were reared in conditions comparable to the conditions at all industrial meat facilities today, with animals crowded into a small space and feces everywhere.

    Given the difficulty of sourcing good non-toxic meat, it would be wiser to rear insects in guaranteed non-toxic conditions (a rarity in today’s world given the present chemical and nuclear extermination of life on earth). There are over 2,000 species eaten for food around the world. Some very good, some quite nasty, but they each have unique flavours, some having unique spices never experienced before, indicating the presence of many potential insecto-chemical medicines, unique protein synthesis precursors. etc.

    Easily ground into flour or mixed with textured soya (etc) to make a synthetic meat.

    • Fantastic points. You are correct, that was a huge ommision of mine. I did neglect for instance the huge amount of termites that Apes eat which is a great source of protein. In fact the great lengths they go to using sticks with great dexterity and teaching their young to do the same are a testiment to how precious protein is in the wild and to our diet. And yes to this day many cultures still eat insects. When I was in Oaxaca Mexico I tried the chapulines which are grasshoppers eaten often in tortillas. Must be an aquired taste though.

      And yes, in omitting organ meats and bone marrow from our diet we are leaving out the most nutritious and vitamin rich parts of the animal getting us even further away from a natural diet that we are evolved to eat.

      Overall my view is in complete agreement with yours. I feel meat (including organ meats and insects) are likely an essential part of a healthy diet. I think a vegan diet is possible in modern society given the variety of food we have available but it takes a very diligent person to make sure that variety offers all the protein, fat, and nutrients needed to stay healthy. Likely an easier way is to eat some meat. But I do feel we are natually meant to eat far less meat than we do. And I do feel that meat should come with far more organ meats and marrow. And I totally agree that much of the harm that we see from eating meat is likely due to the farm raised unhealthy meat we eat that is high in chemicals, antibioitics, hormones, omega 6 fatty acids and low in omega 3s and overall very inflammatory. Much more inflammatory than the wild animal meats we evolved eating.

      You also make a great point that if we could get over the ick factor insects would be a FAR more sustainable way to get protein in our diet than raising farm animals.

      Fantastic points. Thank you

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