The Fad of Warning About Fad Diets

Over at the Hurn Publications blog, the author warns against “fad diets”, specifically ketotarian diet, snake diet, and peganism. Let me clear up a few misconceptions. First off, none of these diets are exactly a fad. Various populations have been following diets like these for as long as humans have been around. There are many anthropological and historical examples that can be pointed to.

One-meal-a-day (OMAD) diets like the snake diet were practiced by the Spartans and Romans, but OMAD is common among hunter-gatherers as well. It is the three-meals-a-day-with-multiple-snacks-between diet that is bizarre by the standards of history and evolution. OMAD is one way to dispose the body to ketosis, especially if the diet is at least somewhat low-carb as were most diets in the past. Many populations would be ketogenic for long periods of time, such as during winter when starchy and sugary plant foods were scarce. Mongol warriors under Genghis Khan did extended fasts before military campaigns that would’ve put them into ketosis and then following that typically only ate meat, blood, and milk paste; although they might eat any food available in a city once conquered.

It’s not unusual for hunter-Gatherers like the Piraha to eat all the food they can take in at a time, sometimes until their stomachs are distended, as food can’t easily be stored, and then sometimes not eat for days. This is the standard feast and fast style of eating that was common throughout human evolution and remained far from uncommon around the world until the agricultural surpluses of past century or two. Fasting was a typical and regular practice among Europeans into the Middle Ages. On a related note, most Europeans and Americans didn’t start fattening up their cattle and themselves with grains until the 1800s. By the way, the Piraha’s fasting, intermittent and extended, would have left them in ketosis fairly often. There wasn’t much that would kick them out of ketosis since starchy plant foods are limited in their diet, such as occasional tubers. Ninety percent of their calories come from animal foods, mostly fish.

I might add that nothing equivalent to a baked potato, french fries, or potato chips were a part of the human diet until agriculture. the few wild tubers hunter-gatherers had access to were extremely tough and fibrous, hard to obtain, prepare, and eat (with chewing each bite being a slow process followed by spitting out a big wad of indigestible fiber)— and not nutrient or energy dense for all the work that went into using them in the diet. Most wild plants are extremely fibrous which is why hunter-gatherers got so much fiber in their diet, even when they didn’t eat a lot of plants. Modern plant foods have far less fiber and far more starch and sugar, not to mention nutrient-depleted.

Peganism would be the closest to a fad diet. But it really is rather moderate. It’s mostly about balancing foods for optimal nutrient content and bioavailability while eliminating the foods most often problematic for people. If followed carefully, there is no nutrient one would lack. It fits well within the evolutionary boundaries of human eating. The diet emphasizes food quality including large amounts of nutrient-dense plant foods and does allow moderate amounts of meat, fish, and eggs; but like paleo diet, it restricts foods not eaten for most of human evolution: grains, dairy, and legumes. I should point out that peganism is far from being the only paleo-style diet that heavily emphasizes a plant-based approach. There is Dr. Terry Wahl’s protocol and Dr. Will Cole’s ketotarian diet, both former vegetarians who now recommend ketosis. Like Mark Hyman with his peganism, Wahl’s protocol and ketotarianism allow moderate amounts of animal foods and Wahl’s protocol only recommends ketosis for some people.

Consider that all of these diets fit the profile of what we know of hunter-gatherer and other traditional diets from historical accounts, the anthropological record, and from archaeological evidence. There have even been dietary studies that have measured the macronutrients and micronutrients of hunter-gatherers. We still need to know a lot more, but we are far from merely speculating in ignorance. We do know, for example, that after everywhere agricultural foods were introduced there was a deterioration in height, cranial size, and general health. The vast majority of humans survived and thrived for hundreds of millennia without agricultural foods, without nutritional deficiencies, and without diseases of civilization. Sometimes people point to the high infectious rates of hunter-gatherers, but the infectious rates of agriculturalists was much higher and, besides, many of the infectious diseases harming hunter-gatherers were introduced by agriculturalists (e.g., malaria). Excluding high death rates from infections in childhood, the average lifespan of hunter-gatherers is about the same as a modern Westerner.

Ketosis has always been a normal state and, until quite recently, a state that humans entered into on a regular basis — since constant and unlimited access to carbs was unusual in the past. Ketosis doesn’t trick the body into a pseudo-fasted state. It is its own physiological state, one of the ways of fueling the body, what some argue as being the original preferred fuel in how the body uses it so well. So many diseases are related to glucose and insulin resistance, in a way not seen with ketones and ketosis. Quite the opposite in fact, since ketosis has been used to treat numerous diseases: epileptic seizures, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, autism, ADHD, etc. In particular, a ketogenic diet is one of the best options in the world for blood sugar conditions and one would be insane to not advise cutting out carbohydrates. And there isn’t necessarily a reason to worry about problems with eating disorders, as ketosis is well known to make cravings disappear and improve diverse psychiatric disorders, but it would have to be decided on an individual basis in working with a doctor. Since the Hurn Publications article appears to be written for or promoted by the Cancer Wellness Center, I’m surprised the author didn’t bring up the contentious debate over cancer’s relationship to glucose, specifically in relationship to diet — there are recent books that discuss the science. No matter which side of the debate one falls on, the debate should at least be mentioned.

There is a lot of research out there right now and it is accumulating quickly (including that of Dr. Terry Wahls and Dr. Dale Bredesen, both with books out). It’s been studied for almost a century at this point and it is well understood. I might suggest not worrying about being in ketosis in the scientific sense, unless you have a serious medical condition. The scientific measurement for the amount of ketones to be called ‘ketosis’ is somewhat arbitrary. Even at lower levels of ketones, many of the same benefits are seen. And any significant level of carb restriction will produce more ketones. It doesn’t matter if one occasionally slips out of ketosis. But if one is concerned about this, there are multiple ways of measuring ketones at home.

Even millennia ago, physicians would use ketosis to treat some conditions, although they didn’t have the knowledge of what ketosis was and they were mostly limited to using fasting to induce it. The Chinese observed how the Mongols on their ketogenic diet could ride and fight for days without stopping to eat. That is the power of beta-hydroxybutyrate, the human superfuel. It’s the reason humans were able to cross deserts and oceans with little food or else go without while tracking down, sometimes over days, the next meal. You can’t do that with carbohydrates. Even more awesome is that ketosis creates the conditions for autophagy, which is how your body heals from damage and, by activating stem cells, building new cells, including in the brain. Both ketosis and autophagy reduce inflammation, a major reason for the health benefits, but reversing insulin resistance and bringing diabetes under control is no small feat.

More broadly, low-carb diets are even less of a fad. They’ve been discussed by medical professionals and scientific experts going back to the 1700s and have been well known and widely used since the 1800s. Compare that to fad diets like that of the high-carb/low-fat that has been recommended in the mainstream only for about a half century now. If you are worried about “essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, as well as anti-oxidants and phytochemicals in a healthy diet to support wellness”, then these supposed “fad diets” can be a major part of it. Most people focusing on these kinds of diets tend to be highly informed about potential nutritional deficiencies and about the sources and bioavailability of nutrients. Their obsession with nutrient-density might turn some people away. Peganism explicitly is about nutrient-density as are other forms of the paleo diet, but the ketogenic and snake diets are easily adapted to nutrient-density (e.g., ketotarian). This sector of the diet community is one of the last places one would expect to find malnourishment.

As for the fear-mongering about side effects, there is far less to worry about health-wise on any of these diets than what you are likely to experience from what is recommended in the mainstream. Few people experience side effects and most people experience dramatic improvements, unlike seen on conventional diets. And these dramatic improvements tend to be permanent, not transitory. Ketosis, OMAD, peganism, etc are about changing your dietary lifestyle and fundamentally changing how your body functions. Opposite of what the Hurn Publications article warns, you are less likely to feel “hangry” (hungry and angry) on the snake diet, as you’d be spending most of your time in ketosis. It’s on a diet of constant carbs that people tend to get hangry. These kinds of diets aren’t merely or primarily about losing weight. They can transform the way you feel and even the way your brain operates. There are plenty of people who explain the science behind why this happens, if you’re motivated enough to dig into the details.

The author is right about focusing on nutrient-density, but that is an irrelevant point in terms of criticizing these diets, as I already explained. Even less relevant is the continued focus on calories. If you are eating satisfying and satiating nutrient-dense foods while avoiding carbs that cause cravings, you probably won’t need to worry about calorie counting and portion control. There is a good chance you’ll naturally find yourself only eating the amount of food your body needs. These “fad diets” readjust your taste and hunger. There is nothing simpler and easier than that.

* * *

This post is critical of what I perceived as unfair criticism. But it wasn’t intended to be mean-spirited. As for many people, diets touch upon the personal for food is central to life. And as with others, I’ve used diets in seeking health.

The reason I started following the Hurn Publications blog is because of a piece on the EAT-Lancet that I appreciated. I think I linked to it in my own writing about the topic. That brings me to a concern. We were both critical of EAT-Lancet and so there was some basic agreement. But this latest post of mine is about disagreement.

So what exactly bothered me? One thing is that the attack on fad diets is precisely what turns people toward such things as EAT-Lancet that, in the end, is simply a repackaging of status quo dietary ideology. The advice given in the recent Hurn Publications post fits perfectly in with the EAT-Lancet diet, despite their earlier post rightly discrediting EAT-Lancet.

There is an inconsistency there. But also it puts the two posts at the same blog at cross-purposes. No one can serve two masters. Challenging and defending the status quo are separate positions. Speaking of fad diets is to use the language of the status quo, which is simultaneously misleading since the closest to a fad diet is the status quo.

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