Opinion

Some diets have proven benefits, some don’t

Gluten intolerance has become an epidemic. Grocery shelves are loaded with gluten-free products. Celiac disease, the most extreme form of gluten intolerance, may be genetically carried, but many carriers do not develop the disease. The disease, like other immune system disorders, has to be triggered. ‘Triggered’ appears to be the operative word in allergies. That should mean that while the tendency may be genetic, the trigger is in our environment.

Dr. David Perlmutter’s recent bestseller, Grain Brain, targets carbohydrates, accusing them of causing dementia related to diabetes. Perlmutter advocates his version of the Stone Age or Paleolithic diet, with 75 per cent fats and five per cent carbohydrates. Sweets, fruits, vegetable cellulose, seeds and nuts, anything that is, or turns into sugars, are to be replaced, mostly with fats.

The jury is still out on Perlmutter’s theories and facts, and many independent experts disagree, but the impact on the general public of this kind of prescription for healthy eating could seriously affect our food systems if readers adopt his diet uncritically. Availability of what we have regarded as staple foods could be drastically reduced due to low sales.

It is very recently that excessive processing of foods has invaded our meals. Carlos Monteira, a senior UN nutrition specialist, is urging much less dependence on ultra-processed foods and we have a long way to go in stepping back from the kinds of cheap fast foods and snacks which provide almost no nourishment.

Michael Pollan’s advice in his excellent book In Defence of Food, is “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Rather than jumping on the Stone Age diet bandwagon, we could simply reduce our intake of sugars and take the advice of Monteira and Pollan in avoiding the over-processed foods we know to be bad for us, while acknowledging Perlmutter’s concern by reducing excessive intake of sweet treats.

There are two diets that have a great deal to recommend them: the Mediterranean diet and the Okinawa diet. Both are proven to have major health benefits. Both include diet as an integral part of lifestyle, including high activity, stress-free attitudes and little money.

There is nothing commercial about these diets, no corporate ownership and no one stands to gain from promoting them. Neither outlaws carbohydrates. The Mediterranean diet is high in consumption of olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruits, and vegetables, moderate to high consumption of fish, moderate consumption of dairy products, moderate wine consumption, and low consumption of meat.

As for the Okinawa diet, people there have lower incidences of cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s than the U.S. They eat a lot of vegetables they grow themselves, as well as sweet potatoes, and they get their protein from soy, legumes and fish. They have interactive, intergenerational community social lives. And they have five times as many centenarians as the U.S.

Marjorie Stewart is board chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at marjorieandalstewart@shaw.ca.

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