Nutrition can be a confusing topic. But that has less to do with how difficult it is to understand and more to do with the deliberate confusion sown by industry. The science has been clear on what constitutes a healthy diet for a long time. But special interest groups have sought to muddy the water as a strategy for getting the public to continue eating their products. Just as Big Tobacco continued to peddle science arguing smoking cigarettes was healthy, Big Meat, Big Dairy, and Big Sugar continue to peddle science suggesting that their foods aren’t toxic.
But despite industry-funded studies and the constant confusion whipped up by the media, genuine, unbiased nutrition science is fairly clear on what constitutes proper nutrition. One of the most widely cited good-eating aphorisms is from Michael Pollan, a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley. He says “Eat foods, mostly plants, not too much.”
Each word in this short little nugget of wisdom conveys valuable information. “Eat foods” means eat real whole foods, like apples and broccoli, rather than food-like products, such as Oreos, Twinkies or Frankfurters. “Mostly plants” is pretty self-explanatory too. Humans should derive the vast majority of their calories from beans, grains, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, and seeds. Very little, probably less than 5 percent, should come from animal products.
The “not too much” part is also important. Research on populations like the Okinawans has shown that those who eat fewer calories than on the Standard American Diet or the Western Diet, live longer and have fewer chronic diseases.
Too Little, Or Too Much?
When it comes to nutrition, the vast majority of people think that the problem that needs to be solved is one of deficiency. We need to eat lots of meat to get protein to build up our strength, lots of milk to get calcium for healthy bones and lots of oranges for vitamin C. But the reality is that the diseases of deficiency only really show up in situations of extreme privation, like being a trader on a sailboat for six months, surviving a famine or living with anorexia. Protein deficiency is unheard of in populations eating sufficient calories, even among people who eat no animal products at all. And overt vitamin and mineral deficiencies are incredibly rare in the West. When was the last time you saw someone with scurvy?
The real problem in rich countries is not one of deficiency, but one of excess. We get too few of the healthful phytonutrients, vitamins, and fiber in plants – the stuff that’s good for us – and too much of the salt, fat, sugar, cholesterol and meat which is bad for us.
So what do you need to know about proper nutrition? You need to know that the industry corrupts the information you receive through the media, that animal foods ought to be minimized if you want to live a long and healthy life, and that whole plant foods diets often have miraculous benefits, as physician Dean Ornish demonstrated in his heart disease reversal trials of the 1990s.