I’ve learnt 7 things….
By Malcolm McKinlay
So in this short blog post, I hope to capture the advice that both these academics would agree with; and what I think I’ve learned.
1. Reduce the amount of sugar in your diet.
You will not find anyone who advocates eating more sugar. Reducing sugar is probably one of the most beneficial things you can do for your health.
I used to think that sugar was bad for your teeth. But it is much worse than that. It is a key driver of the obesity and diabetes epidemic across the wealthier countries of the world.
2. Reduce your intake of fast burning carbohydrates
Both Jim and Grant agree that reducing your intake of carbohydrate rich foods like potatoes, most bread, pasta and white rice would be beneficial for most people. These foods get converted into sugar in your body very quickly. So in a way, this is simply an extension of the ‘reduce sugar’ advice.
Grant goes further and argues for eliminating these foods (and other carbohydrate rich foods) from your diet, replacing them healthy fats. Jim agrees that you’d do well to reduce them but proposes replacing them with slower burning carbohydrates and healthy fats. But Grant’s set of ‘healthy fats’ is bigger (including a lot of saturated fat) than Jim’s……….and you can see how complex this all gets.
3. Avoid processed food
Processed food is almost always full of sugar and other chemicals. So once again, in part, this is simply restating the ‘reduce sugar’ message. Instead, you should try to eat real food. Whole food. Food that will go off in a few days. Food that your grandmother would recognise.
Michael Pollen advises people to stick to the periphery of the supermarket where food is more easily replaced when it begins to go bad. The processed food (which he describes as ‘food-like products’ rather than ‘food’) can normally be found in the centre aisles and won’t go bad for years.
You might like to try reading the food labels and seeing what the percentage of food you eat is sugar. You might be shocked as I was. High sugar levels in coca cola won’t be a shock to anyone. But check out the baked beans, tomato sauce, milk chocolate, breakfast cereals, fruit juice. And remember that 4g of sugar equals one teaspoon.
It is shocking to think that so many products- many I used to think of as healthy- are clearly not. In fact, I consider this a scandal. And many of these products seem to proudly wear the heart foundation tick. Neither Grant nor Jim agree that this is appropriate. (Which really begs the question of where the NZ Heart Foundation is getting its advice from).
Sadly, both Grant and Jim advised me to go easy on the bacon as well (I was eating it every morning for several months), due to the processed nature of it and the nitrate content.
4. Eat lots of vegetables
Yes your mother was right. You will not find anyone advising you to eat less vegetables. Vegetables are nutrient rich. And make sure you include leafy greens- the darker green the better- in abundance.
The message over fruit is not quite so clear. Some fruit has a lot of sugar. I’ve moderated my consumption of fruit and don’t eat more than a couple of apples a day, for example.
5. Eat plenty of these
As well as vegetables, everybody advocates including the following in your diet: berries (low sugar fruit) especially blueberries and raspberries, nuts, fatty fish (like salmon), olive oil and eggs.
6. Other things to bear in mind
In a broader sense, the human body is able to adapt to different diets. Just look around the world. There is a population somewhere thriving on a diet that contradicts anyone’s particular brand of dietary wisdom. Also, every individual is different. Some advice may be important for populations as a whole. But you need to understand your own body. Your story (your genetics, your health history, your risk factors, your resiliences) might be different.
And you cannot trust the world of industrial food to care about your health. Whenever western diets take root somewhere in the world, they stimulate obesity and diabetes
Michael Pollen used to advise people to avoid food with more than 5 ingredients. The industry then set about creating and marketing food (that Pollen didn’t consider healthy) with just 5 ingredients. So now he says, “don’t buy any food that is advertised- especially if the advertisements include special health claims”- which I think is clever.
7. My individual experience of LCHF eating
While I’ve been investigating and researching nutrition, I’ve been following a LCHF diet. That has meant cutting out all those foods that we normally consider staples. Rice. Bread. Pasta. Potatoes. Oats. And I’ve been eating a lot of vegetables, eggs, nuts (especially almonds), olive oil, cheese, salmon, meats (with fat), butter, and berries with cream. That kind of thing. It was a weird experience trawling through a supermarket choosing food with the highest possible fat content (including saturated fat)- definitely avoiding anything with a ‘low fat’ label (remembering that much ‘low fat’ food will be high in sugar).
And my body has done really well with it. I’m fitter and healthier than I’ve ever been in my adult life. Before I began the diet, I was already running a lot, and completed my first marathon. After I started the diet, I noticed a big improvement in the functioning of my digestive system and my belly fat began to disappear and there is a good argument that I’ve experienced less inflammation in my body generally (although ‘inflammation’ can be a pretty vague concept). Despite the fact I was already very fit, I lost a couple of kgs to take me to the lightest weight I’ve ever been.
And my cholesterol profile improved- although that could have been because of my active lifestyle. In the world of nutrition, it is hard to know anything for sure.
The point is, I’ve done well with this diet.
However, socially, it has been difficult. Some friends were reluctant to have me over for dinner. I caused some stress within the family who were unsure what to serve me. It wasn’t a good feeling to think I’d introduced social awkwardness into my life. (In contrast, the friends who were trying a paleo diet were a godsend).
And soon, I will be spending six months in Myanmar where rice dominates all meals. I’m not sure how I will handle that. I certainly won’t be wanting to socially isolate myself.
Fortunately, my health wasn’t a disaster before I began my LCHF experiment. I’m not at risk of diabetes. I’m not obese. My body can function reasonably on other diets. Although I am reluctant to give up the gains I’ve experienced. Certainly, I will be sticking to the first 5 points above as much as I can.
Which brings me to possibly the greatest gain from my experiment. And that is my increased sense of awareness about food and my body. Previously, I was simply unaware. It is nice to no longer be a mindless, uneducated eater- believing pretty much anything anyone told me. And I’ve never cooked as much as I have in the last six months. That has felt great.
And I’m very thankful to Grant and Jim for giving me their time and helping me negotiate this complex area. There can’t be many countries in the world where it is possible for the interested public to receive the quality of engagement from academia in the way I have. I suppose my response has been to publish my journey here so others can also benefit.
I’m grateful for what feels like a new sense of maturity in this part of my life. And my advice to anyone who is curious about this kind of thing is to carry out your own experiment. After two months, you will probably know whether you are onto a good thing or not.