21 February 2012

Lifestyle Zealotry

Humans deciding what to eat without expert help — something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees — is seriously unprofitable if you’re a food company, distinctly risky if you’re a nutritionist and just plain boring if you’re a newspaper editor or journalist.
                                                --Michael Pollan

I made a mistake today.  I did something that I knew in advance would make me angry.  I looked into why Paleodiet advocates avoid legumes.  I shouldn’t have done this, as I knew their rationale would make little sense and would irritate me.  Actually, the only defense I could find that did make sense was that beans and lentils were not a part of Paleolithic people’s diets and, therefore, should not be a part of a Paleodieters diet.  While I find the line a Paleodieter draws arbitrary, at least that line can be used consistently as a criterium for what should and should not be eaten.  The mistake most Paleodieters make, however, is that they try to argue for the elimination of beans and lentils on some other grounds, mainly the lectin and phytic acid content of beans and lentils.

I don’t want to bore you with a lecture on lectin and phytic acid, so I’ve provided links to Wikipedia’s pages on those two things.  Most of the lectin and much of the phytic acid in beans can be eliminated by preparing them properly, i.e. soaking them before cooking.   As well, some of the foods, like Brazil nuts and Almonds, that the Paleo crowd does advocate eating are higher in lectin and/or phytic acid than are beans.

Would there be harm in eating only beans and/or lentils?  Sure.  Harm can result from relying too much on any one food.  A healthy diet is a varied diet, and beans and lentils most certainly can be a part of a healthy diet.  In fact, legumes have been shown to reduce one's risk of colon cancer and to provide fiber, proteins (best when combined with quinoa or brown rice), and essential minerals.  And, of course, a big bowl of lentils (with spinach, celery, carrots, and onions) and quinoa or black beans (with spinach, bell pepper, tomatoes, onions, and cheese) and brown rice, both with a few shakes of Tabasco, is just damn good.

When it comes to diets, I’m skeptical of anyone who argues that you should eliminate some type of real food from your diet.  As a father, an athlete, a coach, and a trainer, I do a good bit of reading on health and nutrition.   From my reading, I have yet to find someone who, with regard to a healthy diet, says it better than Michael Pollan: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly Plants.”  You don’t need a fancy title or a desire to live as a hunter-gatherer for a diet of that kind; you just need common sense.

Like religious zealots, lifestyle zealots, whether we call them Paleos or Vegetarians or Vegans or Raw Foodies or China Studiers or Atkins folk or South Beachers or Calorie Restrictors or Cleansers, believe the world—and your health—can be saved if only you live as they do.  They sell their books by insisting that science is on their side and by allowing you to think they’ve found a simple way for you to change your life for the better.  You no longer have to be in tune with your own body or your environment or to think about what is best for you, you merely have to follow the plan they outline.  Unfortunately, they seem to forget that each of us is an individual with individual lives and needs and desires.

Never trust a diet (or lifestyle) with a title.  Always verify any information lifestyle peddlers want to sell to you.  And understand that if you seriously limit, if not eliminate, the amount of processed and refined foods and soft drinks you ingest, you’ll feel much better.  It's the one thing all lifestyle peddlers seem to agree on, and it's the only thing they're all totally right about.

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