I just finished Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Special Interests Have Ruined Our Health by Denise Minger. The title gives a pretty good summary of the book, but it covers how our food pyramid (here in the U.S. of A.) got its start and grew into the recommended daily diet that it is today. It covers several of the studies involved in shaping those recommendations and the politics and special interests involved in further “refining” it. Then it covers several other studies that weren’t used for the recommendations.
One thing I liked was that the book spent some time explaining and clarifying a lot of the terminology used in scientific studies and how those studies are then represented in the media. That was good for a lot of us non-scientist types. I think most people are reasonably intelligent and know what the words themselves mean, but some explanation on their use in the context of a scientific study is helpful. And I especially liked her emphasis on some of my pet peeves in how study results are presented/reported, in particular this one: Correlation does not equal causation!
The whole book is good, but I really enjoyed the last chapter. It brings up the obvious topic of if we reject the food pyramid as a healthy diet (which the author obviously does. And so do I.), what should we do instead? Comparing a few diet plans, and their variations: Paleo, Mediterranean and whole-food plant based, the author points out how large populations of people have had long-term success on these plans compared to our modern processed food diet. All of the diets have evidence of keeping their followers happy, healthy and relatively disease free for generations. Then she points out the commonalities of these three approaches – elimination or drastic reduction of grains/processed grains, added processed sugar and industrial (AKA vegetable) oils.
She also touches a bit on how each individual is exactly that, an individual. So, while there may be some aspects of these diets that could be the universal keys to why they seem to be effective, different people will have different experiences with each of them based on their own genetic makeup. So, where I am having great success at a diet that would be closest to what people consider a Paleo diet, other people may do much better on a Mediterranean inspired diet. Or some combination of the two. Or, maybe we just don’t need to put a name on it, and just eat good natural stuff rather than laboratory food (that’s my opinion, not from the book!)
That resonates with me – and the rest of this post is my opinion and not from the book. I’ve adopted a diet that, of these three, is closest to the Paleo diet. That’s mainly because I think animals are delicious. But, I agree that the key for my weight loss and health improvements have been cutting out the processed carbohydrates – the added sugars, the grains, etc. I’ve also switched to healthier fats, but that’s a little harder for me to single out the benefits of.
I really like the approach of focusing on the common good things in any diets rather than trying to argue which one is best. From this book, and my other research, it seems that most good, long-term diets all emphasize eating whole, nutrient-dense foods rather than processed, nutrient-poor foods. I believe any diet that does that is much better than the food pyramid. Really, most of the long-term successful diets are all very similar, with the main differences being whether or not you are going to eat animals and consume dairy. The key is eating whole foods…things your great grandmother would have recognized as food and avoiding the industrialized, processed stuff. If it comes in a box or has a barcode, it should be suspect.
Finally, the book includes a bibliography, which I really like. I’ve added several items to my reading list from it.