In the 1980s I used to see adds for a new “superfood” – amaranth, which was advertised as the “mystic grain of the Aztecs”. This became a standing joke in our household, one which still pops up from time to time. There’s just something funny about the marketers’ attempt to sell this starchy food as a breakfast cereal by tying it to mysticism and feathered serpents that naturally invites mockery.
Amaranth is a grain (mystic or not), and I won’t eat it now. There’s nothing in any grain that I can’t get from vegetables and meat, and there is a lot in grain that I don’t want to get; gluten, gliadin, zein, avenin, lectins, and so forth. These proteins have one thing in common: they cause inflammation. And they do it to everybody to some extent, although some people are affected more than others, and some proteins are worse for some people than others.
There is a common meme among the paleo eaters of the world that a percentage compliance of 80/20 good/bad will get you the most benefit for your effort. Whether this is true or not, when it comes to trying to improve your health it makes sense to pick off the weakest pack members (hunter analogy) or harvest the most low-hanging fruit (gatherer analogy) first. In terms of general health, that is, discounting specific problems like your acromial impingement or tennis elbow, I think the most effective targeting strategy is to reduce inflammation in your body. This is a great idea because at the same time you address the causes of so many potential problems – joint pain, fatigue, multiple skin conditions (including dandruff), and mental problems like fog (possibly even dementia) can often be tied directly to inflammation, and excess weight has a relationship with inflammation as well.
Personally, because of the problems I experienced with wheat and all of the nasty ingredients in it, I don’t even try to go for the 80/20 protocol where it is concerned; I have to stick to 100/0 because if I don’t, I get in trouble. Right away. That acts as a reminder for me and an incentive to try to take the same approach to the other inflammation triggers that I know about. There are three broad classes of these, and they are the ones in the graphic above: sugar, grains, and vegetable oils. The order doesn’t matter; they all important.
Reducing (eliminating would be better) our intake of these is probably the most useful health strategy we can employ in terms of what we get back for the effort.
Eat Sugar For Energy?
Sugar is everywhere; it’s literally omnipresent. And if you’ve read any of my earlier posts about Sugar Information, Incorporated, you know that this is no accident. Sugar is made from federally subsidized crops, so we are all paying to keep it cheap, just as we pay to keep wheat, corn, and soy cheap, as well as many other crops. But let’s stick with sugar right now. We are all aware of the sugar in soft drinks (or I hope we are), but many of us don’t realize that those helpful food labels carefully manipulate the ingredient lists in such a way that the sugar in other products is often hidden by virtue of its multiple appearances under different names. The sugar lobby is fighting tooth and nail to avoid having a category of added sugars listed on these labels because that would tip their hand, but let’s gloss over that for the moment.
Here is a list of extra sugars that you can find on food labels. Because ingredients are listed in the order of their volume, if you see any of those in the top percentage of the list you know you have got a fair amount of less-than-visible sugar. Of course, the advisability of eating anything with a long list of ingredients is questionable, but perhaps there is some food product out that that meets the test.
Dr. Robert Lustig really has a bee in his bonnet about sugar, but he has a point; the stuff is nasty. He has several YouTube videos if you don’t like reading printed matter, but his books are worthwhile. He focuses his attention on sugar to the exclusion of other possible contributors to the obesity epidemic (and while I believe there are several, sugar is a big one), but aside from that I think he’s spot-on. If you view his work as a critique of sugar itself and not an overall analysis of why we get fat then his books and videos are absolutely invaluable. Short version: eating sugar in the quantities that we do leads to inflammation. And we do eat sugar in quantity: 156 pounds per person per year. But “only” 29 pounds of of that is in the form of table sugar; the rest comes in the form of sugar in the processed food we eat and drink.
So perhaps the topic of “paleo desserts”, which you will see everywhere on the net, is something of an oxymoron in health terms. But people like sweets and once you’re addicted to something it’s hard to give it up. Boy, is it hard. My great-grandparents ate a small fraction of the sugar that the average American today eats, and in their time the biggest cause of death was infectious diseases. Western medicine has done a good job on those and today, our biggest health problem is chronic diseases, most of which are directly related to what we eat. And we are not eating what my great-grandparents ate. That results in conditions like obesity, diabetes, arthritis, and others, most (if not all) of which can be tied directly to our diet.
Short version: if you’re going to start with anything, start with sugar. But don’t stop there, because grains are just as bad in their own but more subtle way.
“Healthy” Whole Grains
Again, these tend to be subsidized crops which we pay to keep cheap so manufacturers can add them easily to our food. If you visit your local supermarket and don’t prowl the outside of the store but instead walk through the maze of aisles and freezer compartments, take a look around you and make a note of how much grain there is in everything; it’s astonishing. Almost everything that comes in a box has wheat in it to some degree, unless it has corn.
This is not an accident; wheat has so many great properties from a seller’s point of view that they can’t resist using it: it makes you want to eat more because of the effect it has on your brain, which mimics hard drugs albeit in a much less potent way; it is so cheap for them to add that its inclusion costs virtually nothing in the context of the product itself, and in fact the advertising and packaging for the product probably cost more than the ingredients by quite a bit; the texture that gluten imparts makes for great mouth feel in breads, crackers, and others; it thickens liquids very nicely, and it acts as a cheap extender to replace more costly ingredients.
What’s not to like from the perspective of the American Tobacco Company, now owner of Kraft Foods but also the company behind that incredibly offensive ad campaign for Tareyton cigarettes that I have have already profiled. The thought that the tobacco industry moved into industrial food after it got burned so badly by the states’ lawsuits (which inflicted some real damage to them for the first time) should make you pause to think: how did this industry behave when it was in control of tobacco, a product that we knew at the time was dangerous? Is there any reason why they should change their behavior when the financial motives that applied to tobacco then are exactly the same now?
Anyone who needs proof of the harmful effects of wheat (and the mechanisms whereby they are produced) can go to Dr. Davis’ Wheatbelly site and certainly find it. But wheat is not the only suitor in this engagement from hell; for various reasons, it’s best to avoid the other grains, too. I referred to zein and avenin earlier – they are the gluten equivalents found in corn and oats, respectively, and the more you dig into this subject, the deeper it gets. In the end, I decided that I would just skip the whole issue and get my carbohydrates from vegetables because as I also mentioned earlier, there isn’t anything in grain that you can’t get from vegetables and meat; in fact, the nutrient density of vegetables and meat is far, far higher than that of grains, but without the antinutrients in grains (such as phytates, which actually prevent your body from utilizing minerals – how useful is that?) and without the concomitant weight gain, which none of us needs these days.
These grains were a lifesaver thousands of years ago when people needed a way to feed populations that were getting bigger and bigger and more and more sessile – in other words, cities. But we paid a huge price in health for the advantages we got so the bargain was not quite the deal we thought at the time. Advantageous in the short term, in hindsight it has become something of a lemon of a buy in the long term because we got smaller, our facial structures changed (causing problems with our teeth) and our problems with degenerative diseases ramped up. It’s interesting to read about Ötzi, the so-called “Ice Man” found in the Swiss mountains in 1991, and learn that he ate grains and had lousy teeth 5,000 years ago. And yet many, many fossils of primitive people do not suffer from this; in fact, Dr. Weston Price has documented 15 or 16 so-called “primitive” societies that had survived into the Twentieth Century and yet had excellent dentition and health. His book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject. The final word on grains’ impact on the health of early peoples comes from the ancient Egyptians, most of whom were not affluent enough to eat large quantities of meat. There, you find folk subsisting mostly on grains (and beer, which is made from grain) and leaving behind a trail of mummies with bad teeth, periodontal disease, arthritis, diminished physical size, and many other characteristics that accompany a lousy diet. It’s in the archaeological record, people.
As a side note I should add that soy, which I haven’t really spoken about here because it is not technically a grain (it’s a legume) is another problem food which is, you got it, subsidized. Until comparatively recently soy beans were only used to replenish the soil during an off year when the farmer wasn’t growing a productive crop. Their weird estrogen mimicry in the body makes them a food I’d rather do without.
Oil From Plants
Well, some of them, anyway. A couple of them turn out to be pretty good for you but except for olive oil they aren’t the ones you usually hear about.
The third corner of this subsidized Devil’s Triangle is vegetable oils. Corn is so heavily subsidized that the state of Ohio practically exists to serve it; what a great deal corn has gotten for itself! (So says Michael Pollan, anyway.) But corn is only the second biggest crop in Ohio; our friend from a couple of paragraphs ago, soy, is the biggest. Iowa is the state where corn is number one; this otherwise uninteresting fact gains new meaning when you remember that Iowa has an unfortunate influence politically by virtue of our peculiar system of primaries; in America, the farm lobby can keep someone from becoming president because Iowa’s primary is the first one in the country and nobody runs there that the lobby (which gives to both parties) won’t accept. [Note: Iowa grew 13.1 million acres of corn in 2012, but only a tiny fraction was sweet corn. The same source shows that in 2007 Iowa only grew 3,500 acres of sweet corn. Sweet corn is usually not GMO, while feed and ethanol corn almost always is. Think about that.] Corn oil, soybean oil, canola oil (which is actually rapeseed oil, only how good is that for PR?), safflower oil (which until the 1960s was used mostly by the paint industry!), and of course, their unholy stepchild margarine, are all made from subsidized crops and they all oxidize easily, turning to toxic substances when heated or exposed to the air for too long. (Even exposure to light will oxidize them but they still get sold in clear bottles that do nothing to prevent it. What matters most here?) This causes inflammation when living creatures ingest them (zombies may fare better but that’s a different story and there haven’t been a lot of studies yet on the effects of trans fat consumption among the undead anyway) and then we are back to the litany of so-called “civilized diseases”.
These oils are high in Omega-6 fatty acids, with soy being the biggest source. Omega-3 fatty acids, which come from fish and pastured animals, used to be found in human diets in much greater proportions that they are now; from a near 1:1 ratio long ago they are now in the range of 20:1 [O6:O3] or even higher, depending on your source. More inflammation. The mechanical process which is used to produce vegetable oils uses high pressure, which produces heat, which guarantees some oxidization. Canola oil has a better ratio than the others here, but it has its own problems. Take a look at this video, which is sponsored by the industry:
Don’t you feel better now? Love that “don’t eat saturated fat” message. Believe it if you want to. This is a great example of the way industry slants its message. “The producers of canola oil have your best interests at heart” – would you believe that if you knew who was saying it? “We don’t need to eat fast foods that are not made with canola.” Some of us might argue that we shouldn’t be eating fast foods at all, but let it go. Bottom line here (reinforced by the text at the bottom of the video): eat less fat. Nobody should go overboard on anything, but it’s not that simple.
At first I found it hard to tell friend from foe when it comes to oils because there are so many of them and like the rest of us I grew up hearing that fats are bad for you anyway. Rather than running it all down here is a link to a reasonable summary. The short version is that you can (and should) eat (not necessarily in order) these oils/fats, many of which have been demonized by groups that should know better.
and some others, but also other sources of fat such as pastured eggs, and wild fish. More info here.
If you have not already read it, I recommend getting a copy of Nina Teicholz’ book The Big Fat Surprise from your library and spending some time with it. When even Time magazine is running pictures of butter on its cover and saying “Eat Butter” you know the times they are a-changin’. (Registration required for the full article, alas, but if you search around the net you can find the entire text. However, the video does not require registration and it’s not bad, especially from a mainstream publication.)
The war on fat has had a lot of casualties over the years, including my own father-in-law, who did his very best to eat no fat, eat lots of “heart-healthy whole grains”, exercised like crazy, and yet died of pancreatic cancer, a cancer which is made much more likely on a low fat, high carb diet because of the way it stresses the pancreas. As far as I am concerned, he was a victim of iatrogenic disease, or “doctor-caused disease”. But just look around you; look at all the obese people in America and remember that most of them are not lazy slobs who simply don’t want to eat right; most of them are trying like crazy to lose weight…by eating the way their doctors tell them to. Only since their doctors don’t know anything about nutrition their success rate is abysmal.
¿uǝddɐɥ sıɥʇ pıp ʍoɥ ¡uʍop ǝpısdn sı pןɹoʍ ǝɥʇ
I think that the causes (note the plural) are so complex that there is no solution, there are only incremental actions that we can try to take and most of them will have little or no immediate impact. First of all, we can try to eat the way we think is best and stick to our philosophy, voting with our money. At the same time, there will, of course, be vegans and low-fat dieters doing the same thing, and a majority of people ignoring the entire issue, so the impact of a few paleo eaters isn’t going to make that much difference. But we can make a huge difference on our own lives, just as I have already done with mine.
More importantly, and this is where my speech here becomes “inflammatory”, I believe we have to change the political and financial environment that makes these three inflammatory commercial powerhouses so strong: we have to change the subsidy program that literally feeds them, and to do that we probably have to change the way our primaries are scheduled to remove the death grip Iowa has on our national elections. I don’t see anything less having an effect, but I am also realistic enough to know that the chances of this are…well, they suck. But this will be a bottom-up movement, not one from the top down, so I guess it’s a little less disheartening to know that I’m on the bottom. And you probably are too, if you’ve managed to read this far.
What would those Aztecs think of us, I wonder: millions of people too fat to run, millions of people too sick to climb trees, millions of children with diabetes that could have been prevented by eating different food, and millions of unnecessary deaths. And we see them as bloodthirsty murderers who idolized pagan gods.