by Dr. Bryn Hyndman, MD
Have you been confused or overwhelmed by conflicting nutritional information and popularized, trending diets? Welcome to the world of the Internet, documentaries, personal health, wellness gurus, health care professionals, and Canada’s Food Guide.
Nutrition and dietary trends are verging on religious fervour; there are doctrine-filled diets led by their proponents’ interpretations and convictions, without so much as a personal intake and medical history.
The Weston A. Price foundation encourages us to eat grass-fed butter, lard, and certainly never margarine. But wait! Butter and all animal (saturated) fats will shorten your lifespan and increase your risk of heart disease, according to the plant-based vegan doctrine.
Next up, we are told that kale is a superfood. But wait! Don’t eat it raw because the antinutrients it contains can cause nutritional deficiencies and destroy your gut lining! Some say eggs are an excellent source of protein and possess almost all essential amino acids. But wait! They are full of hormones and are fertilizer for cancer!
And have you heard this podcast yet: Stay Sick or Eat Meat? Facing a Vegan Crisis, by Monica Hershaft?
Depending on who you read and what you believe, animals and their byproducts will drastically increase our risk of major “modern” diseases: heart disease, cancers, and strokes.
Conversely, following the dietary habits of our ancestors before food became what it is now — driven by an agricultural industry with large-scale production and processing capabilities — will increase our waistlines and our cholesterol levels, and will kill us sooner.
Even the experts cannot agree on the best diet. In March 2015, The New York Times published “The Myth of High-Protein Diets,” which was criticized by science and health writer, Melinda Wenner Moyer.
It appears that proponents of all dietary schools cherry-pick studies. What does that mean? They only use research studies that support their point of view and omit or ignore contrary evidence. Studying nutritional habits is not easy.
Often, we rely on patients’ recall, which is difficult at best. Do you recall what you consumed in the past two days?
Other times, a study might require you to follow a certain restricted diet, but who’s checking if you’re indulging in the restricted foods you are supposed to be avoiding?
The most logical approach to studying humans’ diets, longevity, and wellness, can be found in Dan Buettner’s work, author of the Blue Zones research.
The Blue Zones are seven populations from around the globe that Mr. Buettner studied for longevity, health, and happiness.
(Spoiler alert! Health and happiness are enmeshed and being fulfilled and happy may be more important than what you eat.)
His 2015 article in the Wall Street Journal aptly sums it up: Want Great Longevity and Health? It Takes a Village. “The secrets of the world’s longest-lived people include community, family, exercise, and plenty of beans.”
When we examine the trends of these populations who inhabit seven distinctly different regions around the world, food is one of the key factors for their robust population of elderly folks who live well into their eighties, nineties, and even hundreds (centenarians).
The dietary patterns of these populations had some themes that are very nutritionally sound, and whether you are a vegan or a meat proponent, you should eat an abundant variety and volume of vegetables—at least half your plate. (Note: chips made from vegetables don’t count!) Eat foods prepared in your kitchen, not by a food company and not prepackaged and ready-to-eat. Make mealtimes ritualistic and eat with family, not alone or on the go. Eat until you are roughly 80% full. Do not eat so much that you feel excessively full.
Treat meat like a condiment and eat it in smaller servings than are traditionally served in restaurants. Alcohol is limited to a modest glass of wine, mostly red and in the afternoon (not evening) with food and with company.
Essentially, the Blue Zones research shows that we cannot go wrong by eating an abundance of plants and legumes.
If you’re familiar with Stephen Gundry MD, you may have read that certain plants and all legumes are lectin-ridden and could have a disastrous impact on your health and your waistline. I have had patients lose weight, lower their blood pressure naturally, and feel excellent by following the Gundry diet. But I cannot say for certain whether the weight loss and lowered insulin improved their health and biomarkers, or whether it was restricting lectins.
But beyond these sensible guidelines, why do some people thrive on one diet, while others crash? Why do some lose weight and feel great, while others’ weight does not change, and they may even feel worse? And why do their cholesterol and insulin levels respond differently?
One size simply does not fit all in health and wellness, and this could not be truer than with diet. It’s likely true that some of these diets will help us and others will harm us. Why? It depends on our genetics.
Why do some people see their lipid levels decrease and are even able to come off their statin medications when they eat a high saturated fat diet and reduce their sugar and carbohydrates, while others see their lipids increase? It depends on what your genetic makeup is.
Recently, I did genetic testing on a patient in her mid-seventies who had elevated blood cholesterol, specifically lipoprotein (a), which is a “dangerous” form of cholesterol when elevated.
What I discovered using Dr. Penny Kendall-Reed’s genetic testing services was that my patient was a variant for ApoA2.
What does this mean? As a variant, she can tolerate 22 grams of saturated fat per day. If you are variant for ApoA2, any fat you eat once you exceed 22 grams of daily saturated fat, you will start hyper producing IL-6 and ApoA and ApoB and LL. IL-6 is an aggressive inflammatory mediator and therefore creates a huge amount of inflammation when you go past your ApoA2 variant limit of 22 grams of saturated fat per day.
Apo-A and Apo-B and LDL are forms of cholesterol (fats) in the blood. Sticky fat is the most dangerous (by being inflammatory) in the food, and IL-6 makes cholesterol just that, sticky. This inflames the endothelium of the coronary vessels, which is where coronary artery disease can begin.
In a nutshell, human beings and their bodies are wonderfully complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to optimal health, wellness, and longevity. If there were a religion that manifested nothing but peace and ensured all marriages last, wouldn’t we all be converts?
I think the same for diet–if there was one way of eating that single-handedly demonstrated fabulous health for everyone, wouldn’t most of us embrace it to see and feel the results? The closest we’ve come to that is studying the Blue Zones populations. Based on that research, and applying common sense, here are some takeaways I review with my patients:
Examine where each of your meals and snacks are coming from: A factory? A shop kitchen? Made fresh by someone else? Made fresh by you?
Minimize relying on others to make meals and snacks.
Food companies are in the business of making money, and the bottom line is their top interest. Taste is probably second, and your health is far down the list. (If it’s on their list at all.) If you want more freshly made foods or need to find time to make your own meals, ask yourself what current expense is less important to you than your health? And consider this advice:
Eat an abundance of vegetables, half your plate, at mealtimes.
Choose legumes that agree with your body but match the portions to your activity levels and burn rate (besides protein, they are also full of starch, which is converted to sugar in the body).
Eat purposefully, and ideally not alone. Sit down and make eating a time of connection and sharing. This way, your fullness hormones will have time to kick in before you eat more than you might need.
Read labels and choose items with the fewest ingredients possible .
Avoid most vegetable oils. They are inflammatory and contribute to a host of chronic diseases .
Choose olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, coconut oil, butter, ghee, and lard. Ideally, test your genes and learn how much saturated fat you can tolerate. Or experiment with your diet and have your biomarkers and cholesterol monitored every three to six months during experimentation.
Minimize your liquid calorie intake and alcohol intake; replace with water or sparkling water. (You can add sliced lemons, limes, cucumbers, or mandarin pieces if you find water dull).
Enjoy animal protein (ideally free range and/or organic) in serving sizes of 4 ounces, roughly the size of a deck of cards. If you are very physically active, and depending on your genetics, you may benefit from more animal protein. You may also go without animal protein and feel well or even better.
Remember to check your biomarkers and cholesterol levels!
Dr. Bryn Hyndman, MD, is an Integrative Medical Doctor. Bryn supports on-the-go women to reclaim their energy using lifestyle medicine. She educates women on healthy iron, thyroid and blood glucose levels and incorporate lifestyle medicine and wearable technologies. re-genwellness.com