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Don't drink the (diet) Kool-Aid

Posted Sep 12 2011 12:00am
All of a sudden, fat is no longer evil. Fans of real food have known this for a long time, but now mainstream nutrition is beginning to wake up (better late than never!). In a TIME magazine cover story a couple weeks ago, TV health wizard Dr. Oz actually bestowed his blessing on whole milk and real eggs and chocolate. Chocolate! That means it’s no longer a guilty pleasure - it’s just a pleasure.

Of course, there are plenty of folks out there - including some doctors and nutritionists - who haven’t gotten the memo and still think fat-free yogurt and egg white omelets are the way to go. They’re like your friend whose musical tastes were set in stone when she was about twenty years old and who refuses to acknowledge any music released after the mid-'80s. If you’re still avoiding fat like it’s 1988, great news: it’s okay to enjoy nuts, avocados, olives, chocolate, fish, eggs, and pasture-raised meat and dairy again (without going overboard, natch). Real fats from whole foods are far healthier than the cheap oils in processed products. Haven't you always suspected as much? If you have margarine in your refrigerator - of any brand or stripe - please get up and go toss it in the trash this instant. I’ll wait.

Back when I was dieting, one thing I used to notice about low-fat food was that it didn’t stick with me for long. Within a couple hours of eating a “healthy” salad with lean protein and low-fat diet dressing, I’d be starving again. And don’t get me started on the classic diet breakfast of cereal, skim milk, and fruit. That meal would all but guarantee me cookie cravings by 10 a.m.

See, the problem with low-fat diets is that by default, they tend to be very high in carbohydrates, which wreak havoc on your blood sugar. Long before the nutrition poobahs discovered this, I could sense it in my gut. What about you - were you chronically unsatisfied with diet yogurts and those sad little 100-calorie packs of crackers? Were you confused or frustrated that you felt cruddy when you ate what the health experts said was good for you? Worst of all, when the munchies struck, did you blame yourself for your lack of willpower? I know I did.

Now that fat is back in vogue, some health advocates are tacking in the other direction. Followers of Dr. Weston A. Price , for example, enthusiastically embrace butter, cream, and marbled meats, while largely shunning carbohydrates. Suddenly the internet is replete with recipes for cakes and muffins made with nut flours and liberal amounts of coconut oil.

Count me as a fan of Price’s real-food philosophy, but his dietary approach isn’t quite right for me, either. Whenever I eat a lot of fat, even if it’s from healthy sources like fish or avocados, my digestion slows to a crawl. The food goes nowhere. I can still feel it in my stomach hours later, sometimes even the next day. A super high-fat, low-carb diet is just as problematic for me as a low-fat one.

Eating is a balancing act of finding the foods that give you energy and keep you satisfied, without leaving you either stuffed or wanting more. The right combination of foods is totally unique to you and your situation, and it changes from day to day. How could the nutrition gurus know exactly what you need? They’ve never even met you!

In nutrition school, I once got into an argument with a classmate who announced, “I never eat peanut butter. It’s so unhealthy. Peanuts are full of toxins. They’re impossible to digest. Every ancient health tradition in the world rejects them.”

“So you’re saying peanuts are bad for you,” I said innocently.

“Yes, they’re terrible for you!”

“No, they actually work fine for me,” I said, “but it sounds like they’re bad for you.”

Ha! Score, right? Well, no. Because you can’t hope to change the thinking of a True Believer. Low fat, high fat, anti-peanut butter, whatever, their minds are made up. Which is fine by me, really. Maybe peanuts really were the wrong food for this woman. They’re the kiss of death for some people. Or maybe she’d just read a book or website and bought into its diet theory. One way or another, she’d drunk the Kool-aid. She was utterly convinced of the perniciousness of peanuts.

As I say, I have no problem with religious people. They’ve found a belief system or a diet that works for them, and more power to them. Where I do have a problem is when they think they know what’s best for everyone else. Just because one person can’t eat peanuts, no one should eat peanuts. (Of course, if that woman were severely allergic, I certainly wouldn’t eat peanuts around her. But I would go home and eat them.)

In yoga, it’s sometimes said that the best kind of knowledge is the kind you gain first hand. Don’t believe something is true just because you heard it from someone else, whether it’s your yoga teacher or a celebrity doctor or the person eating lunch next to you. Test it out for yourself and see if it’s true for you. I like that yoga accepts the possibility that not everything works for everybody.

Is there any supposedly “healthy” food or diet that just doesn’t sit right with you?
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