You are probably getting tired of my ranting on about the value of ancient diet, but the evidence to support this simple, intuitive approach to eating keeps mounting. In fact, there is something almost farcical about the intense search for the perfect diet when we keep coming up with single pieces of the original diet, shouting “eureka!” and completely ignoring the rest of the parts.
This week, I wrote a response to a blog in the “Well” section of the NY Times.(Click here to read it; my comment is #59). This particular blog focused on meat eating and a study that suggested that meat eaters may have a slightly higher risk of dying than non-meat eaters. Many of the comments focus on the health aspects of meatless or almost meatless diets. None address the larger issue of diet “gestalt” (totality).
Now, a large study from rural China reveals that salt has quite a magnified effect on the blood pressure of people who tend toward metabolic syndrome (weight in the middle and its frequent companions: blood pressure, sugar problems, cholesterol issues). When given salt, these overweight people had very significant jumps in blood pressure. When the salt was removed, blood pressure fell markedly. If you believe that we were constructed with the ancient diet in mind, this all fits perfectly. Our original diet had far more potassium than sodium. We don’t do well when we reverse this ratio.
A strong sensitivity to salt is a phenomenon that I frequently observe clinically. When patients have been “good” on their diet but haven’t lost weight, it is often because of salt. Take the salt out, and their weight declines. This is an interesting point for maintainers. You may well notice that taking better care of your salt intake makes it easier for you to stay at goal weight. Salt is often buried in prepared foods and restaurant foods. Being careful to avoid it is a healthy habit.
Indicting salt is all well and good, but Chinese researchers who commented on the salt studywent on and on about reducing salt intakes in their country without placing the salt issue into its larger context. Salt intakes were low for hundreds of thousands of years and these low intakes were part of a very different dietary pattern than the one we currently consume. Metabolic syndrome results from multiple elements that depart from this original human diet….not one. While controlling salt intake is a good idea, it will not do much if a diet is still high in foods that turn into blood sugar, saturated fats or tons of inflammatory omega six fatty acids.
Another example of this singular focus is our reliance on vitamins. Vitamins are part of healthy food so we assume they must be good for us. Before long we all rush to buy more and more advanced vitamins. The prices go up as the formulations become fancier and more complex. Then we start reading the studies. With a few exceptions, virtually none of them show any benefit to taking vitamins. Once again, we’ve focused on one element of a larger picture and that element alone is meaningless. It turns out that vitamins need to be cradled in the original foods from which they came if they are to be effective. Isolating them and putting them into pills leaves them shorn of all strength and potency.
I believe that we are making diet a lot more complicated than it really is. As soon as one element jumps to the fore, we all rush to focus on it. We’re like the blindfolded man trying to identify an elephant. First we touch an ear, then a foot, then the tail. What we really need to do is pull off the blindfold. What we would find, standing before us in the bright light of day, would be some version of the diet we ate for hundreds of thousands of years.
A modern day version of this diet can take many forms. It can be vegetarian (assuming that starches and sugars don’t overly dominate it) . It can be a raw food diet. It can be a Primarian diet. It can be a Mediterranean diet. Inevitably though it will be mostly original and only minimally modern. The degree to which we can control those modern elements will dictate our weight and the state of our health.