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Health Hack #51 - Ditch the Dogma: The Need for Open Mindedness Towards Food

A Simple Thought Experiment

Pause for a moment, and consider a company that you’ve been fond of for many many years. Maybe their attire is hanging in your closet. Maybe it’s a web-based business that you interact with daily. Who knows. Choose one, and keep it in mind.

Whatever business you’re envisioning, consider where they were when you first transacted with them. What was their aesthetic, their primary marketing angle? What about them drew you in, then?

Now consider where they are today. Their modern day aesthetic, their current messaging. What about them keeps you engaged?

Chances are aside from name and logo, the company you fell for years ago is barely recognizable to its modern day version. Its product lines and offerings have completely evolved over time. It’s probably hard to imagine the you today fawning over what initially drew you in way back when.

This may seem interesting, but it’s common sense. Companies evolve with the changing times. Save for a few timeless exceptions in select industries, remaining permanently steadfast is bound to trigger a premature death for any business. Things quickly become stale as future competition emerges with the insights of newer trends and available technologies that make resonating with customers so much easier to understand and build.

The Food Conundrum

Strangely, of all of the various subsets of sciences, food science falls far to the side of unsettled on the spectrum of open or closed for debate. You’d think that with all of the scientific understandings we’ve acquired through research - from physics, to astronomy, to more modern day advancements in fields like forensics - that we would be able to determine, with conviction, precisely what constitutes a good diet. It seems so silly that there’s so much debate. Upon a bit of reflection, however, it makes at least a little bit of sense.

We find ourselves living in a very unique era. A hundred thousand years ago, things remained fairly static from one generation to the next, and this continued for countless generations. The diet didn’t change, because our ancestors were limited by a lack of knowledge, which meant a lack of new discoveries, in this case towards food. Fast forward to today, and each decade marks new innovations, which lead to rapid changes that completely alter what we interfaced with not very long ago. There is a very direct analogy to the thought experiment that kick-started this article.

Industrial seed oils came into prominence in the middle of the 20th century, revolutionizing our marinades, dressings, and cooking lubricants, as they drastically undercut all competitors in the field on price and were branded in such a way to portray them as the beacon of good health. Soon thereafter came the G.M.O.’s (Genetically Modified Organisms), crops that were modified to increase yield via built-in defense mechanisms against common invaders like disease and pests. Our current century has now ushered in the advent of plant based “meats” from companies like Beyond and Impossible (think “Impossible Burgers”, which you’ve surely seen advertised everywhere from Whole Foods to Burger King), which provide plant based (albeit lab grown) alternatives to real meat.

In a world of such rapid fire change, it’s important for us to step back a bit and realize that we are in fact the lab rats and guinea pigs in many ways. We can follow in the footsteps of our ancestors in our approach towards food, but it can prove quite difficult to do so as we navigate the onslaught of choices we’re confronted with in our modern world. How do we know who to trust, and how do we decipher so much information splayed across every food label? Furthermore, if we’re to continue to evolve and progress as a society, then doesn’t it seem a bit backwards for us to seek all of our meaningful guidance for future progress by looking through our rear view mirrors?

The China Study Example

Not to pick on a particular dietary camp, but let’s use veganism as a quick example to build towards our conclusions here. For those unfamiliar, a vegan diet is one devoid of all animal based products. Not just animal meats, but dairy, eggs, and even honey (which is derived from bees). The movement gained tremendous momentum following the publication of a book called The China Study. Pulling from a variety of sources (epidemiological observations/studies in humans and clinically controlled rat studies), the overarching thesis was that consumption of animal proteins causes cancer. This provided a health-based argument to the pre-existing environmental push towards veganism that was already well underway.

In the years following the book’s release and popularity, numerous holes have been punctured into the story it purports to convey. For one, only casein protein was used in the lab trials on rats, which showed the triggering of tumor growth, following a copious serving of carcinogenic aflatoxin, a mold that can grow on peanuts and corn. Casein is a form of milk protein. Not only does it not represent animal proteins at large, it doesn’t even represent milk proteins at large (there is also whey, which many are more familiar with than casein). Isolating casein doesn’t make much sense. There are synergistic effects with real foods, which is precisely why guzzling 100g of apple juice will spike your blood sugar much more rapidly than the consumption of 100g of actual apples, which have the full fiber matrix intact. It may be that an exorbitant amount of casein protein (when casein comprised 5% of the diet the rats remained tumor free; it was only when casein became 20% of the diet that the tumors formed and grew) causes cancer to arise when conditions are conducive to its emergence. Ok, but how is that important? Can we name a single human being whose diet is derived from 20% casein isolate? And if we found one, we’d need to be sure that they were scoffing down hearty amounts of mold-laden peanuts and corn to boot.

In addition to this strange (one could argue deceptive would be a better word for “strange”) clinical control, there were a number of other confounding factors present in The China Study’s thesis. Since we’re using this story merely as a through line, and not as the basis for this article, we’ll quickly touch on just one more of these before moving on.

The study contested that when protein from wheat and pea sources were given to the rats in equivalent dosages to those that created rapid onset cancer with casein isolate, there was no onset of cancer. In other words - or rather in the words of the thesis - when you shift from “animal protein” (which, in reality, was merely one isolated constituent of one type of animal protein) to “plant protein”, the risk of cancer goes away.

It was later divulged that Colin Campbell - the author of the book and the researcher conducting the lab trials - made no mention of a particular finding that his lab had made, which by all measures had very significant relevance to his other findings. To suit the criteria of a complete protein, an adequate source of the nine essential amino acids must be found. Wheat gluten is not a complete protein. To make it such, the essential amino acid lysine must be added. Low and behold, when lysine was paired with wheat gluten, it bore nearly identical results to those seen with casein, in its innate ability to drive cancer growth in the lab rats. In other words, were these findings taken into account - as they should have been - the narrative would have changed quite dramatically. “Animal proteins” did not possess some uncanny ability to amplify the devastation wrought by carcinogenic inputs. Rather, it meant that when a certain combination and ratio of essential amino acids are found together, there exists the building blocks of growth. Dependent heavily upon context, this growth could come in different ways. It could build upon healthy cells, or it could lead to the proliferation of malignant ones.

No Country for Old Dogma

Let The China Study narrative serve as an anecdote meant to villainize dogma, not veganism. Every dietary camp is culpable of similar pitfalls. Dr. Atkins, the famed American physician largely responsible for introducing the world to a low carbohydrate lifestyle founded on some ketogenic principles, got a great deal wrong. His work instigated a culture of snacking on highly processed lunch meats, loaded with nitrates, extremely robust in their inflammation inducing capabilities. It’s by now known that Dr. Atkins himself battled severe heart issues throughout much of his adult life, and died of a heart attack at age 72 while weighing 258 pounds (he was 6’0 tall).

The primary key to navigating this highly complex, ever-evolving food-scape, is to remain open minded. If you’re confronted with advice that suggests this is the only way you should eat, then run for the hills. But if the doctrine allows for nuance, and has continually evolved as new science has emerged, then maybe it’s worth paying attention to. But all the while, remain ever aware of our biological differences. What works for someone else may not work for us. There is no one size fits all approach to food.

Nutrition science plants very few flags, so be wary of individuals and dietary camps that do. The trademark of true wisdom is not one who knows all, but one who openly admits to what they don’t know and willingly changes their views upon realizing they’ve been wrong.

Stay Open Minded.