Scandalous health documentaries are kind of the reason I got into nutrition. Who wasn’t fascinated/appalled by Super Size Me? As a young, idealistic teen with a lot of health issues, I was happy to leap on any train that promised better health. First it was no fast food. Then no meat. Then no dairy. Then no processed foods. I even gave up gluten several years before I found out I had Celiac disease. I was cutting so much “bad” stuff out, I was a bit lost when, by the age of 22, I still didn’t feel better. In fact, I felt worse. Why wasn’t any of this stuff working for me? That’s the trouble with nutrition science and documentaries: They aren’t for everyone.
The thing about these buzzy documentaries and celebrity thinkpieces is that they’re usually cherry-picked affirmations of what the people involved already believe… and they often gloss over other contributing factors to disease and don’t talk about the kinds of foods you should eat. It’s really hard to know what to believe when nutrition science seems to have such a nebulous definition of “healthy”.
“Eggs raise your cholesterol–no wait, they don’t.”
“Alcohol is unequivocally bad, but wait, red wine is beneficial?”
“Fat is actually good for you! But wait, not that kind of fat.”
I have a friend who once said he was going to eat as much fast food as he wanted because nutrition science couldn’t seem to make up its mind on anything. It flip-flopped on so much, why not McDonald’s? What if cheeseburgers actually weren’t bad for your heart?
Okay, so he’s a pretty extreme example. The thing is, nutrition and its effects on large populations of human beings is extremely difficult to study. The “red wine is good” crowd likes to cite the French’s predilection for red wine at every meal as the reason for their generally better health, but what if it’s something else in their environment? Or their genes? Maybe even their temperament? Maybe they have a higher tolerance for the negative effects of alcohol and the benefits wouldn’t apply to another population. It’s damn near impossible to find an actual causal link between any one food and positive or negative health outcomes: There are just too many other variables. Instead, we can say things like “people who eat more trans fats are generally at higher risk of heart disease”. This doesn’t mean trans fats cause heart disease, but it does imply they might increase your risk. It’s a subtle but significant difference.
In the end, nutrition’s a complex issue and we have made some pretty significant strides… but we need to be careful when applying them universally or shrugging them off altogether.
The latest documentary to make waves, What the Health, is the perfect example of everything that’s wrong with nutrition punditry. It’s full of exaggeration, misinterpretations, and scare tactics without providing a cohesive view of what is actually “good”. It’s the kind of thing I would have gone nuts for back in my teens and the kind of thing we need to be careful of as conscientious, health-seeking adults. One of their big messages was that animal products cause cancer–that eating a single egg is as bad as smoking five cigarettes. Holy shit, right? That would terrify any sensible person away from eating animal products… if it were true. When you look at actual, peer-reviewed scientific studies, you see that there’s no link between animal products and cancer and that while we could all benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables, there’s no good reason to be especially afraid of eggs, milk, or fish. The “experts” in the documentary were all vegetarian/vegan advocates and activists who, having already dedicated their lives and careers to something, aren’t exactly unbiased sources.
So what do we do? How do we know what to believe?
The bottom line is that everyone’s needs are different and genetics and environment play a bigger role than we’d all like to admit. But the one thing that nutrition experts across the board have consistently agreed on is that fruits and vegetables should be the bulk of our diet. If they are, there’s plenty of wiggle room for everything else. So don’t let the “meat causes cancer” and “grains are necessary for a healthy heart” crowd scare you. There may actually be a lot of “bad” things you have to cut out when you have autoimmune disease, diabetes, or other health problems directly aggravated by the food you eat, but when you consume plenty of fruits, vegetables, and omega3-rich meats like we do on the AIP, you’re well ahead of the curve.