Much Ado About N...utrition
by Benedict Francis D. Valdecañas, MD, MSc, FPOA, FPCS
Medical Director, Aegle Wellness Center
"Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never."
- William Shakespeare
(Much Ado About Nothing)
Although the passage from the immortal play was meant to describe men's behavior towards women, let's instead apply this to how we mortals view dieting in this day and age. Most of us turn to dieting for two reasons and two reasons alone. One, we cannot get into that dress or suit we plan to wear to a cousin's wedding, or we need to look good when we hit the beach in summer, so we have to lose unwanted kilos fast! Second, we realize, or our doctors inform us, that we are on a straight and narrow path towards disease. Or they may even break the news to us that we already have it: diabetes, hypertension, heart disease. And that if we do not modify our lifestyle and lose weight, we are certainly going to progressively deteriorate health-wise.
The term "diet" has been associated with losing weight, and losing weight fast, to achieve a goal over a specified period of time. Diet is defined as the food that a person, animal, or community or culture habitually eats. Nutrition, however, is defined as the process of obtaining or providing food necessary for health and growth. Diet may have a negative or positive effect on an individual, but nutrition is always positive for health. Diet is but a means to an end; no, not weight loss, but nutrition! Thus when we talk about diet, it's not the food you eat for 2 weeks or three months. Diet is the food you eat to achieve nutrition. Then why all the fuss about nutrition? Because the body heals and repairs itself so long as it gets the nutrition it needs. When a doctor puts you on a diet, it's because with whatever you've been eating, you have been getting sick or sicker.
And of course, lifestyle modification should always involve not just our diet but also exercise and supplements, to make sure we get all the nutrients our body needs to not only function well but repair itself daily.
Let's now take a look at all the fad diets that have attracted our attention over the last century. Let's face it, diets become fads because they made a celebrity lose weight in record time. Books have been written about them, talk shows have featured them, cookbooks have sold worldwide, merchandise has flown off the shelves. Don't get me wrong; I love fad diets! They have made people lose that harmful extra weight and gotten them into somewhat healthier eating habits when they might not have otherwise changed their diet towards better health.
Some of the twentieth century's many diet fads were ludicrous inventions of quack doctors, food companies, ministers, and even in some cases, cigarette brands, but despite being crazy and absurd, these diets shouldn't be viewed with disdain; rather they should be interpreted as badges of society's dogged, if often misguided, pursuit of a healthier existence, towards better nutrition so to speak.
In the 1900s, Horace Fletcher promulgated mastication. Yes, chewing your food, even liquids, at least 100 times to lose weight. Logically it did burn calories, and his foremost followers were the Sinclair family, Mark Twain, and John Rockefeller himself. Speaking of calories, Los Angeles physician Lulu Peters encouraged counting them in the 1920s to balance energy expenditure. Believe it or not, in the 1930s they promoted cigarette smoking as a means of losing weight. Nicotine not only suppressed one's appetite but increased metabolism as well.
In the 1940s no one needed to go on a diet with all the rationing gong on during the second world war. In the 1950s, religion was used to keep people slim. Reverend Charlie Shedd promulgated prayer and counting calories, equating being overweight with sin. Well, gluttony is indeed one of the seven deadly ones! In the 1960s, the “weight watchers” phenomenon was born and changed the face of weight management forever. Calories were still counted, but no one cared to look at its myriad forms. It wasn't until the '70s that the world became conscious of the types and kinds of calories they were eating.
Awareness of gluten gained a foothold in the world...in the western world, that is. Gluten sensitivity was thought to be a Caucasian condition that Asians need not worry about. It was not until the Scarsdale Diet of the 1980s that more sensitivities and allergies were blamed on food; sensitivities that cause symptoms resulting from carbohydrate intake now associated with disease, particularly metabolic syndrome and diabetes. It encouraged minimizing carbohydrates in one's diet.
This was further popularized with the Atkins Diet of the 1990s—the first diet that eschewed all forms of carbohydrates so as to push metabolism towards one of ketosis (as in today's ketogenic diet). With the completion of The Human Genome Project in 2003, every human's reaction to food was associated with a genetic mutation that may or may not cause him or her to develop lifestyle diseases. Yes, choosing what you eat now has a genetic basis! But that's as technical as we will get here.
What followed in terms of fad diets were more melodies from the same symphony, so to speak. The Atkins and South Beach diets condemned simple sugars and identified complex carbohydrates as the way to go. They emphasized proteins as the greater portion of our daily macronutrients. And more recently, the Paleolithic Diet and the more extreme Ketogenic Diet aim to totally eliminate all carbohydrates.
The Paleo Diet is basically what its prehistoric namesake indicates: you eat only what you can hunt or gather—animals and plants—thus minimizing carbs, and restricting yourself to only complex ones at that. The Ketogenic Diet, on the other hand, which is designed for cancer patients, eliminates all sugars on the premise that cancer cells feed on sugar. But even people with no cancer swear they lose considerable weight and get rid of their disease while on this most extreme of diets.
And now intermittent fasting, or IF, comes to the fore. Based on the longevity concept of caloric restriction, or limiting one's calorie intake to only that which the body needs, IF has become popular as another weight-loss tool for a lot of people. However, science shows us that it should be practiced towards the end of the day; no food after 4pm and not the prescribed fast until afternoon. What IF devotees don't realize is that a prolonged fasting state upon waking up, when the body naturally revs up its metabolism, pushes the body into longer hibernation mode, thus lowering metabolism instead.
The adage “Break fast like a king, lunch like a prince, and sup like a pauper” is still good advice. One should not miss breakfast, our parents used to say. IF has become popular because it fits right into the bad habits of the working population, those who do not have the time to eat breakfast because of the morning rush, only to gorge themselves with food at the end of the work day when they have more time. Why do you think we've evolved into obese executives?
Diets should be seen as a tool towards proper nutrition the way it was intended to be. Our diet should therefore be one that we customize to how our bodies function and that we adopt for the rest of our lives as the tool for achieving nutrition and healthy well-being. One diet thus does not fit all. And so to modify Shakespeare's immortal words...
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Food can be deceivers ever,
One foot in the ref and one on the scale,
To one thing constant never.
This article was originally published on Alphaland Atmospheres Issue No. 4
Dr. Valdecañas is a specialist in regenerative medicine research for both hospital-based programs and clinical applications. He utilizes the latest findings and innovations that molecular biology has to offer in optimizing health and human performance through customized micronutrient supplementation, personalized exercise programs, and careful attention to diet and nutrition.