1. Antioxidant vitamins get a lot of attention these days. If you go into a vitamin store, you will see promises of eternal youth. These promises are made on supposedly scientific grounds. What's your view on this?
It's salesmanship. There is no direct evidence that supplementing antioxidant vitamins above what you can get from a nutritious diet is healthy. In fact, there's evidence that it's ineffective and even outright harmful in certain cases. Ironically, big doses of antioxidants can actually increase oxidation under certain circumstances. Furthermore, the whole concept that oxidation is a bad thing that we need to eliminate is incorrect. Excessive oxidation is a problem, but the body uses oxidation in a number of ways that are normal and beneficial.
2. Fat is often portrayed as the enemy for adults trying to eat a healthy diet. Is all fat bad? Please elaborate.
Not all fat is bad. The bad fats are the ones that are alien to the human body: those that are industrially processed, that didn't exist in the human diet before the 20th century. I'm talking about corn oil, soy oil, cottonseed oil, and particularly their hydrogenated counterparts. These oils have never sustained a truly healthy culture. When you look at cultures that rarely have heart attacks, what fats are they eating? Animal fats, dairy fat, palm oil, coconut oil, and olive oil. I know this may come as a shock to some people. After all, we've been told for decades that saturated fats cause heart disease. What may shock people even more is that most studies to date show that people who eat more saturated fat have no more heart attacks than people who eat less. The Framingham heart study, one of the longest-running diet-heart studies of all time, looked specifically at the relationship between butter consumption, margarine consumption and heart attacks.
Researchers followed volunteers for twenty years, and found that the amount of butter they ate had no relation to their risk of having a heart attack. On the other hand, people who ate the most margarine had nearly twice the risk of having a heart attack as people who ate none. Saturated fat is a red herring that has been overemphasized largely for historical reasons. One fat that is clearly important is omega-3. It's found mostly in seafood, flax, green vegetables, and fats from pasture-raised animals. It's critical to have a regular source of omega-3 in the diet.
3. We hear so many claims and promises about what's good for us and what's bad for us to eat. How can a person bring a scientific approach to the task of sorting through all this information?
Yes, that's a tough question. There's a lot of information out there and it's difficult to judge its accuracy. You need a rudder for your ship, and here's the one I like to use: go with what has worked in the past. There are a number of cultures, past and present, that don't suffer from the modern disorders we're trying to avoid.
There's also the human evolutionary context: which foods have we eaten for hundreds of thousands of years, since before these disorders were common, and which foods are products of the 20th century industrial food system? That's your context. Anything that doesn't fit with those fundamental concepts is suspect.
For example, some nutrition authorities tell us to eat industrial oils like soy oil because a few studies have shown that people who eat them have a slightly lower risk of having a heart attack. But when we look at cultures where thorough studies have shown no heart attacks whatsoever (rural Nigeria, Uganda, Kitava), or very few, are they eating soy oil? Of course not! No one has ever eaten soy oil in all of human history except 20th century populations eating an industrial diet. That's because you can't even extract it without machines. It's clearly not the answer to the epidemic of heart attacks that began in the 20th century Western world, and has since been spreading globally.
4. What are your thoughts on curbing the obesity epidemic among women?
Obesity is a difficult problem that probably has many causes. But let's think about what has changed in the American diet since 1970, while the obesity rate has doubled. We're eating less animal fat and more industrial vegetable oils, for a total fat consumption that hasn't changed. We've replaced whole milk with low-fat and skim milk. We're eating more carbohydrates, mostly in the form of white flour and sugar. So diet quality has deteriorated significantly, becoming increasingly processed.
We're also eating more calories. You may be tempted to think that's the sole explanation for the weight gain, and I'm sure it's a big factor. But it's actually beside the point. The real question is, "why are we eating more?" Are we simply gluttons, not able to stop eating like our supposedly iron-willed ancestors? Doubtful. I think a big factor is diet quality. The human body is gifted with a very complex system designed to maintain body fat within a fairly narrow window, both by regulating food intake and energy expenditure. Obesity only occurs when the system breaks. So what broke the system? I think it's diet quality. In other words, junk food killed our metabolism, which caused us to eat more, which caused us to gain weight.
How do we fix it? It's always easier to prevent a problem than to repair it, but we still have some tools. First, eat Real Food. Whole, natural foods that you have prepared at home. Throw out anything made with white flour, sugar and vegetable oils. No soda, no snacks. Fat is not the enemy. In fact, it's part of the solution for many people. Many overweight people find that low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets are helpful for weight loss and general health. I don't think low-carb is the solution to all the world's ills, but it has its place. Prioritize foods rich in fiber such as leafy greens, and include seafood in your diet. Many people find that eliminating wheat aids weight loss and general health.
Exercise is another potent tool, but the type is critical. Running slowly for an hour on a treadmill is ineffective for weight loss. The best is brief, intense exercise such as sprints. I know many people aren't willing to do running sprints, and that's all right. Cycle sprints on a stationary bike are effective as well. Thirty seconds of intense effort, thirty seconds of rest and repeat a few times. Five minutes of this twice a week has been shown to have a profound effect on weight loss and metabolism in several studies. Losing weight is not about burning calories. It's about restoring the normal function of body's hormones. Walking or cycle commuting at a gentle pace every day is helpful as well.
5. How do you feel about genetically modified foods?
I think they're unnecessary in most cases. In the U.S, we have abundant, low-cost foods. GMOs have nothing to offer us. What have they done for us so far? Given us tomatoes that are still rock-hard when "ripe?" GMOs have given us herbicide resistant crops. Now farmers are dependent on high-tech seeds and herbicides provided by large corporations. Meanwhile, farmers can't make a decent living anymore. The main thing GMOs have given us in the U.S. is a better bottom line for a few executives. Improvements in food quality in the U.S. are coming from farmers selling directly to consumers at farmer's markets, not from giant corporations tinkering with plant DNA.
6. What are your thoughts on the latest trends in the culinary field towards better nutrition? How are restaurant menus evolving?
Restaurants have begun focusing more on local, wholesome ingredients. It's a great trend. I often see the provenance of the food I'm eating on menus now. Pork isn't just pork anymore, and that's a good thing. Meat doesn't have to be inhumane and damaging to the environment. Unfortunately, restaurants still use a lot of nasty ingredients you don't see. Most restaurants use the cheapest cooking oils available, because customers can't tell the difference. It's best not to eat out too often unless you're extremely confident about the ingredients that are going into it. You have to be on your toes. Ill health is built into the very fabric of our agricultural system, due to misplaced agricultural subsidies. We subsidize corn, soybeans and wheat, making them artificially cheap.
The result is an avalanche of high-fructose corn syrup, industrial "vegetable" oils and inhumane, industrial meat. What are you trying to do to us, Uncle Sam? If we shifted our subsidies to pasture-raised meats and dairy, vegetables and fruit, we would be prioritizing health over disease, and not paying any more for food than we do now. But it hasn't happened yet, so going with the flow can be deadly!
7. What would you consider the most important "take-home" message for our readers with respect to your time-tested strategies for achieving and maintaining health and well-being?
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Don't wait until you get sick. The key to health is the same as it's always been: eat whole, natural foods, get sunlight and exercise. There are some nuances of course. Some people have food sensitivities and other pre-existing problems that need to be addressed, and there are other factors as well like sleep and psychological stress. But that's the basic formula that has worked for our species since the beginning.