My experience of the food pyramid

I am a 62 year old male who diligently followed the government’s food and nutritional guidelines for my whole life. I complied with the food pyramid and made sure I ate low fat foods with lots of complex carbohydrates. I limited my red meat and egg intake, used margarine instead of butter and avoided anything that looked like fat. I had also been a heavy smoker. Around my 30th birthday I quit smoking and started to keep seriously fit and within a few months, I had completed my first standard marathon, and I managed to complete another four or five marathons before the end of that year. Then, each year I would run and complete between 7 (lowest number) and 15 (highest number) standard marathons and ultra marathons (all the way up to 160km). Best time over 10k was 38 mins, best half marathon time was 83 minutes, best marathon was 2:50. Best 50k was 3:50. Best Comrades Marathon (look it up if you don’t know what it is) 7:25.

I maintained my fitness diligently and watched what I ate (and yeah: Never ate “junk food” and still don’t). But, as the years passed, so my weight slowly crept up, no matter how carefully I chose what I was eating and no matter how much I avoided any food that was high in fat. Being the diligent person that I am, I continued to watch my food intake, but it became harder and harder to maintain a constant weight and still keep training.

By the time I reached my early 50s I was weighing about 8 – 10 kg more than I had fifteen years earlier and worse, my marathons times became slower and slower. And my fasting blood sugar slowly rose. So also did my cholesterol. So much so that when I visited my doctor and underwent a series of “you have reached 50” tests they indicated that I was pre diabetic, my blood pressure was high and my cholesterol was high.

The Doctor advised that I should be far more careful about what I ate and that I should start taking cholesterol reducing medication lest I suffer a heart attack. (Turns out these miraculous  medications were “Statins”.) At fifty, you should be taking better care of yourself, he told me. I started to take the medication diligently, as instructed.

After a couple of months on this plan I was feeling absolutely awful. I had sleepless nights, suffered acute and painful muscle cramps, struggled with night sweats and experienced “arthritic pain” in my fingers knees and shoulder. I started to feel bloated and my belly began to protrude like a big, round Swiss gym ball. I hated waking up. I could barely face each day. And I was no longer running – I had no interest and no desire to run or train. I had basically lost all motivation for training or living for that matter.

The Doctor of course didn’t believe me and said that these “symptoms” were just psychosomatic, but he could offer no advice or help other than to prescribe more medication – anti depressants.

After 6 – 7 months following the plan, I was desperate. Lost the will to live and began to believe that I was in a terminal stage of an unidentified illness.

As I was in the process of dying, I decided that I was no going to live out the last months of my life avoiding all of those things that I liked so much. I took it further and promised myself that I would just break all the rules and dietary guidelines. And just to show it, I would turn the food pyramid upside down. If I was going to die, I would at least make the most of my time left and enjoy it as much as I could.

Bacon and eggs anytime I liked. Beautiful rare steak with plenty of fat. Lamb chops, pork belly or roast chicken. Vegetables steamed and covered with butter. Plenty of full cream/full fat cheese. Full cream milk. The only concession I made was that I continued to eat plenty of raw foods and salads like lettuce, tomato, onion, carrots and leafy vegetables. these were all things that I enjoyed anyway. No margarine. No sugar. No carbohydrates. No breakfast cereals. No bread. No potatoes. No rice. No pasta. Snacks of biltong (look it up!) and nuts. Salt enough to make it taste good. If I was going to die, I may as well enjoy the last few months of my life.

Oh, yes. I stopped taking “statins” and anti-depressants too.

To my surprise, it didn’t take long before I started to feel better. Sleepless nights, and night sweats decreased and then stopped altogether. The awful painful leg cramps disappeared. And a bigger surprise was that my weight started to fall despite all the fat and “unhealthy animal fats and products” that I was eating.

Six weeks after starting this, I went to see the doctor. I didn’t tell him much other than that I was feeling a little better and I asked to undergo the tests again. He checked blood pressure and was surprised to note that it had improved. The following week when I went to hear the test results, his comment was fantastic: “That diet and medication plan that we put you on is working really well. Look at that. Blood sugar down. Cholesterol well down. Blood pressure down. Even your weight is down. I am glad that we finally found the right recipe”.

When I told him what I had done, he went into total denial. Would not believe me. Could not believe me. Angry that I wasn’t taking the prescribed medication. He warned me that I was jeopardising my health. After all he was a trained health professional and knew what he was doing. I was just a patient. So I never went back to him.

That was ten years ago. Since then the “Paleo” diet has become the new fad. I don’t follow it. But coming out of South Africa is a similar concept – Banting. This is an eating plan that promotes the consumption of fat and limits the consumption of carbohydrates. It is a concept identified by a sports science professor who is the world’s leading endurance sport scientist. It is worth a read. Look him up, his name is Professor Tim Noakes.

What I have noticed in much of my “research” is that most of the proponents of the food pyramid and most supporters of the current dietary guidelines adopt a position of ” we know what is good for you” or “this is all settled, we know that cholesterol causes death from cardio vascular disease” or “we know that fat clogs your arteries”.  Most often these comments come from “trained dieticians” who have “studied nutrition and dietetics”, but the reality is that they have spent three years sitting listening to lectures by academics who learned what they did by spending three years and listening to lectures by yet more academics. From the diet industry, there are plenty of assertions but very little reference to real research or evidence. On the other hand contrarians generally cite pieces of research or evidence that supports their point of view.

What I conclude from this is that most proponents of conventional “wisdom” simply repeat the contents of their lessons and lectures back at everyone. This is especially true of the “dietician” industry, who are products of the food pyramid. Not one of them stops to think about evidence or to question conventional wisdom.

I have also discovered that the concept of the food pyramid was first proposed by Ancel Keys in the USA. His theory was based upon research that he had conducted. This is known as the “Seven Countries Study”. However, the research was not as clear cut as he claimed because he selected only those results that supported his theory and while he rejected and did not mention the results that did not support his theory. This is academic fraud.

And critics of my eating plan are quick to point fingers at it. It is just there to sell books or sell products they will say. The guidelines are neutral and are not designed by people with “commercial drivers”. Except that they are. The original Ancel Keys guidelines were designed to protect USA grain farmers. Much of the modern “theories” on drinking and exercise are developed at research centres sponsored by Danone – a “producer” of bottled water and sports drinks. If a journalist writes a book on food choices that can be described as having a conflict. But when Danone sponsors a “research” centre then that’s science. Really? And best to say nothing of Statins and other medications developed by the pharmaceutical industry.

It is quite clear that most “guidelines” are not based on solid evidence and probably don’t represent a genuine expert consensus. Instead, a lot of experts get together and agree to agree, even though they often really disagree and so they agree to disagree to at least agree not to disagree publicly. There make tradeoffs, and compromises all intended to reach agreement and build “consensus”. This is a recipe for disaster. Even the food/dietary guidelines differ from country to country – how can this be if they are based on fact? Facts are facts and they are absolute. They are not subject to dispute.

How primary evidence and its comments and interpretations are accumulated is akin to sausage making…It gives me pause when I wonder how it is decided what studies are done, how these studies are conducted, how they are analysed, how they are reported and how they are interpreted. I am curious about how they are seen by reviewers and editors and rejected unless they fit to their world view. I am curious about and what changes in analyses, results, must-cite references and interpretation are potentially imposed by the editors and reviewers as a condition for publication. Sometimes I wonder whether published observational epidemiology is simply reflecting a power-weighted vote count of the opinions of epidemiologists. And I am curious about what is not published, what we are not told and what remains hidden because it does not fit the conventional mindset.

I am reminded of the story of Galileo Galilei. Galileo was forced to recant his theory that the earth moved around the sun because his theory was viewed as heretical and did not fit the mindset current at the time. It seems to me that the nature of science and its ability to deal with challenging ideas has not changed much since then.