Why There Is so Much Commercial Corruption in Nutrition

The prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes has skyrocketed, as has the number of articles published about diabetes in medical journals. “Why does our wealth of academic knowledge not translate more directly to improving the human condition?” Perhaps our over-attachment to the reductionistic mindset that proved so successful with acute deficiency diseases may actually represent an obstacle to success battling chronic disease.

These days, health seems to have been reduced to a highly commercialized commodity, in which we’re marketed all sorts of high-cost, high-tech tests and treatments of dubious value with substantial risks attached. “This is worrisome because most of the things that make us healthy and keep us healthy are cheap and largely available without professional help or commercial prodding.” This isn’t to say modern medicine can’t work miracles, but what about the big picture? That is, what about the 80 percent of death and disability caused by preventable diet-related diseases?

What about the field of nutrition? In my video Why Is Nutrition So Commercialized?, I discuss how it’s become about profits and products, and extracting nutrients from whole foods so they can be repackaged and marketed. But food is best eaten whole. Eat the broccoli and the blueberries, not some broccoberry supplement. But the reason there aren’t more studies on whole foods is fairly obvious: You can’t patent them. Why should a company spend a lot of money, time, and effort to convince you to buy broccoli when any other company can sell it to you? That’s why the field of nutrition can be more about marketing profitable products than educating people about the fundamentals of health and wellness. For example, the benefits of whole grains over refined grains is commonly attributed to the fiber, which enables the food industry to whip out fiber-fortified Froot Loops and make you feel all better.

Let’s consider this ingenious study: Burkitt and colleagues thought the extraordinarily low rates of killer chronic diseases in sub-Saharan Africa were due to all the whole, plant foods they were eating. This turned into the fiber hypothesis, the reductionistic thought that fiber must be the magic bullet active ingredient. What happens if we put it to the test? What if we compared two groups of older women, both getting around six grams of grain fiber a day, but one group mostly from whole grains and the other mostly from refined grains? Who do you think lived longer? If it was just the fiber, there shouldn’t be much difference because both groups ate about the same amount. In fact, the whole grain group lived longer and with a significantly lower mortality rate, which implies that it may be all the other wonderful things in whole plant foods “linked to fiber [that] may confer important health benefits above and beyond effects of the fiber itself.” That’s why fiber supplements wouldn’t be expected to offer the same benefit.

Indeed, food, not nutrients, is the fundamental unit in nutrition.

As Dr. David Katz has pointed out, “Our culture doesn’t want to hear that the active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli—it wants to know what supplement it can take.”

This is part of my extended series on the reductionist trap, which includes:

The Five to One Fiber Rule still holds, though, since it’s an indication of how heavily processed a product is.

There are two sides to the intellectual property argument when it comes to food. I explore both in Plants as Intellectual Property: Patently Wrong?.

And, of course, this is why I always recommend Taking Personal Responsibility for Your Health.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

What’s the Secret to Latino Longevity?

Latinos living in the United States tend to have “less education, a higher poverty rate, and worse access to health care” and “represent the ultimate paradigm of healthcare disparities,” with the highest rate of uninsured, lowest rates of health screening and counseling, and poorest levels of blood pressure and blood sugar control, as well as “other measures of deficient quality of care.” So they must have dismal public health statistics, right? According to the latest national data, the life expectancy of white men and women is 76 and 81 years, respectively, and that of black men and women is shorter by a handful of years. And Latinos? Amazingly, they beat out everyone.

Latinos live the longest.

This has been called the Hispanic Paradox (now also known as the Latino Paradox), which I explore in my video, The Hispanic Paradox: Why Do Latinos Live Longer?. Latinos have a 24 percent lower risk of premature death and “lower risks of nine of the leading 15 causes of death,” with notably less cancer and heart disease. This was first noticed 30 years ago but was understandably was met with great criticism. Maybe the data were unreliable? No, that didn’t seem to be it. Maybe only the healthiest people migrate? Turns out the opposite may be true. What about the “salmon bias” theory, which “proposes that Latinos return to their home country…to ‘die in their home’” so they aren’t counted in U.S. death statistics? That theory didn’t pan out either.

Systematic reviews “confirm the existence of a Hispanic Paradox.” Given the strong evidence, it may be time to accept it and move on to figuring out the cause. The very existence of the “Hispanic Paradox” could represent “a major opportunity to identify a protective factor for CVD [cardiovascular disease] applicable to the rest of the population.” After all, whatever is going on “is strong enough to overcome the disadvantageous effect” of poverty, language barriers, and low levels of education, health literacy, quality of healthcare, and insurance coverage. Before we get our hopes up too much, though, could it just be genetic? No. As foreign-born Latinos acculturate to the United States, as they embrace the American way of life, their mortality rates go up. So, what positive health behaviors may account for Latino longevity?

Perhaps they exercise more? No, Latinos appear to be even more sedentary. They do smoke less, however the paradox persists even after taking that into account. Could it be their diet? As they acculturate, they start eating more processed and animal-based foods, and consume fewer plant foods—and perhaps one plant food in particular: beans. Maybe a reason Latinos live longer is because they eat more beans. Although Latinos only represent about 10 percent of the population, they eat a third of the beans in the United States, individually eating four to five times more beans per capita, a few pounds a month as opposed to a few pounds per year. That may help explain the “Hispanic Paradox,” because legumes (beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils) cool down systemic inflammation.

In my video, you can see the mechanism researchers propose in terms of lung health. While cigarette smoking and air pollution cause lung inflammation, which increases the risk for emphysema and lung cancer, when we eat beans, the good bacteria in our gut take the fiber and resistant starch, and form small chain fatty acids that are absorbed back into our system and decrease systemic inflammation, which not only may inhibit lung cancer development, but also other cancers throughout the body. Latinos have the lowest rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer, and also tend to have lower rates of bladder cancer, throat cancer, and colorectal cancer for both men and women.

This “systemic inflammation” concept is also supported by the fact that when Latinos do get cardiovascular disease or lung, colon, or breast cancer, they have improved survival rates. Decreasing whole body inflammation may be important for both prevention and survival.

Asian Americans also appear to have some protection, which may be because they eat more beans, too, particularly in the form of tofu and other soy foods, as soy intake is associated with both preventing lung cancer and surviving it.

Hispanics also eat more corn, tomatoes, and chili peppers. A quarter of the diet in Mexico is made up of corn tortillas, and Mexican-Americans, whether born in Mexico or the United States, continue to eat more than the general population. Looking at cancer rates around the world, not only was bean consumption associated with less colon, breast, and prostate cancer, but consumption of rice and corn appeared protectively correlated, too.

Since NAFTA, though, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mexican diet has changed to incorporate more soda and processed and animal foods, and their obesity rates are fast catching up to those in the United States.

In the United States, Latinos eat more fruits and vegetables than other groups, about six or seven servings a day, but still don’t even make the recommended minimum of nine daily servings, so their diet could stand some improvement. Yes, Hispanics may only have half the odds of dying from heart disease, but it’s “still the number one cause of death among Hispanics. Therefore, the current results should not be misinterpreted to mean that CVD is rare among Hispanics.” Ideally they’d be eating even more whole plant foods, but one thing everyone can learn from the Latino experience is that a shift toward a more plant-based diet in general can be a potent tool in the treatment and prevention of chronic disease.

Data like this support my Daily Dozen recommendation for eating legumes ideally at every meal, and we have free apps for both iPhone and Android that can help you meet these dietary goals.

For more on the wonders of beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils, see my videos and love your legumes!:

What’s the best way to eat them? See Canned Beans or Cooked Beans? and Cooked Beans or Sprouted Beans?.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

From Adequate Nutrition to Optimum Nutrition

Research in human nutrition over the past four decades has led to many discoveries as well as a comprehensive understanding of the exact mechanisms behind how food nutrients affect our bodies. As I discuss in my video Reductionism and the Deficiency Mentality, however, the “prevalence of epidemics of diet-related chronic diseases, especially obesity, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers, dramatically increases worldwide each year.” Why hasn’t all this intricate knowledge translated into improvements in public health? Perhaps it has to do with our entire philosophy of nutrition called reductionism, where everything is broken down into its constituent parts; food is reduced to a collection of single compounds with supposed single effects. “The reductionist approach has traditionally been and continues today as the dominant approach in nutrition research.” For example, did you know that mechanistically, there’s a chemical in ginger root that down-regulates phorbol myristate acetate-induced phosphorylation of ERK1/2 and JNK MAP kinases? That’s actually pretty cool, but not while millions of people continue to die of diet-related disease.

We already know that three quarters of chronic disease risk––diabetes, heart attacks, stroke, and cancer—can be eliminated if everyone followed four simple practices: not smoking, not being obese, getting a half hour of exercise a day, and eating a healthier diet, defined as more fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and less meat. Think what that could mean in terms of the human costs. We already know enough to save millions of lives. So, shouldn’t our efforts be spent implementing these changes before another dollar is spent on research such as figuring out whether there is some grape skin extract that can lower cholesterol in zebra fish or even trying to find out whether there are whole foods that can do the same? Why spend taxpayer dollars clogging the arteries of striped minnows by feeding them a high cholesterol diet to see whether hawthorn leaves and flowers have the potential to help? Even if they did and even if it worked in people, too, wouldn’t it be better to simply not clog our arteries in the first place? This dramatic drop in risk and increase in healthy life years through preventive nutrition need not involve superfoods or herbal extracts or fancy nutritional supplements—just healthier eating. When Hippocrates supposedly said, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food,” he “did not mean that foods are drugs, but rather, that the best way to remain in good health is to maintain a healthy diet.” (Note: Hippocrates probably never actually said that—but it’s a great sentiment anyways!)

The historical attitude of the field of nutrition, however, may be best summed up by the phrase, “Eat what you want after you eat what you should.” In other words, eat whatever you want as long as you get your vitamins and minerals. This mindset is epitomized by breakfast cereals, which often provide double-digit vitamins and minerals. But the road to health is not paved with Coke plus vitamins and minerals. This reductionistic attitude “is good for the food industry but not actually good for human health.” Why not? Well, if food is good only for a few nutrients, then you can get away with selling vitamin-fortified Twinkies.

We need to shift from the concept of merely getting adequate nutrition to getting optimal nutrition. That is, we shouldn’t just aim to avoid scurvy, but we should promote health and minimize our risk of developing degenerative diseases.

Bringing things down to their molecular components works for drug development, for example, discovering all the vitamins and curing deficiency diseases. In the field of nutrition, “[h]owever, the reductionist approach is beginning to reach its limits.” We discovered all the vitamins more than a half-century ago. When is the last time you heard of someone coming down with scurvy, pellagra, or kwashiorkor, the classic deficiency syndromes? What about the diseases of dietary excess: heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension? Ever heard of anyone with any of those? Of course we have. Yet we continue to have this deficiency mindset when it comes to nutrition.

When someone tries to reduce their consumption of meat, why is “where are you going to get your protein?” the first question they get asked, rather than “if you start eating like that, where are you going to get your heart disease?” The same deficiency mindset led to the emergence of a multibillion-dollar supplement industry. What about a daily multivitamin just “as ‘insurance’ against nutrient deficiency?” Better insurance would be just to eat healthy food.

Professor Emeritus T. Colin Campbell wrote a Whole book about this issue, and I’m looking forward to doing many more videos on the topic.

So, where do plant-eaters get protein? Check out Do Vegetarians Get Enough Protein? to learn more.

The concept of optimal, rather than merely adequate, nutrition is illustrated well in this video about fiber: Lose Two Pounds in One Sitting: Taking the Mioscenic Route.

Other videos on reductionism include

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: