Something happened at about the same time as the 1980’s opened for business. Low fat, no fat and skinny food and drink alternatives started lining the shelves in supermarkets. Diet soft drinks reigned supreme, all so the general population could enjoy all the perks of food but without the calories. Promising a reduction in heart disease, real food was quickly being replaced with highly processed chemical storms in convenient packaging.
But for all the talk of lowered fat and calories, some things didn’t improve. Obesity statistics got worse. Cholesterol didn’t improve. Heart disease rates didn’t drop. In fact, these problems are still rampant today. We seem to be fatter and sicker than ever before.
Fortunately, the pendulum started to swing back over the course of the last five years. Fats are back in fashion with new data indicating that saturated fats are actually harmless . Coconut oil is making a resurgence, praised for its health benefits and ability to decrease appetite and increase energy. Margarine, and its thousand-odd included chemicals, is being increasingly replaced with butter or avocado on sandwiches across the western world.
Nutritionists now tell us good quality fats serve a vital role in our health. Real food is back, and it’s lighting up the headlines.
This can be a good thing, as ‘real food’ should be the first thing we reach for. It’s unfortunate that the highly processed foods that are loaded with chemicals and destroying our gut microbiome have long been the first choice rather than the alternative.
However, in amongst the healthy resurgence of good-fats, there lies a potential problem: good, old-fashioned extremism, where a research-backed concept is stretched to the limits of reasonability.
One such trend hitting America is “the bullet coffee.” Imagine taking your morning stimulant, adding two tablespoons of butter and two tablespoons of a Medium-Chain Triglyceride and putting it all in a blender. It’s been advocated as the bio-hackers alternative to breakfast. Small problem: you’re replacing a highly nutritious meal with something that offers you more than 50 grams of saturated fat in one hit, but barely any other nutrients. The impact of such high concentrations of fat has not been tested over time.
It has been advised that this type of high-fat intake may only be of benefit to those on a ketogenic diet, but other indications have shown extreme alterations in cholesterol levels – surely something that is worth a note of caution .
So many trends? Where’s the balance? Is there a one size fits all?
Two years ago, ‘clean eating’ was the trend. This gave way to the paleo and hunter-gatherer movements that are so popular today. High-fat low carb (ketogenic) diets are now as well known as the ‘low fat low sugar’ approach to weight loss used to be. For many people, it can be hard to wade through the fads and figure out what is ‘good’ diet, especially when there seems to be extremism on both sides of the dietary paradigm.
To nutritionist, Cyndi O’Meara, there is a really good reason behind the ketogenic diet. “It’s been around long before science knew it existed. It has been used mainly for children with epilepsy. They found without the carbohydrates, their seizures would decrease. It was always used for that, although I have spoken to neurologists who say ‘why eat that way when the drug is far better.’ But some prefer the diet.”
Hailing back to the hunter-gatherer days, the ketogenic diet was a naturally occurring phenomenon based on seasonal food. “It was a diet that stopped fertility. If there were no carbohydrates in the summer, it meant it wasn’t a good time for a baby in the coming seasons, as the ketogenic diet takes fat off you. They wouldn’t have enough fat on them. They wouldn’t produce the hormone leptin, which would signal the rest of the hormones to go crazy and make that baby by the next spring. That was what the ketogenic diet was all about and that’s why there is that extremism now. Because it is good. It serves a purpose especially for intermittent infertility or for children and adults with epilepsy. It does also make you lose weight because there are no carbs.”
But it’s not for everyone. O’Meara is aware that the extremism can be confusing. “Why are we seeing diets like Paleo as being extreme? No dairy, no grains and no legumes. It’s because we have completely stuffed up our microbiome and that is the one thing that helps us deal with our immune system, our allergies, helps us digest our food and get vitamins out of our food. It’s the driving force that helps us be robust and adapt to our environment,” she says.
“How have we destroyed our microbiome? We’ve done it through the foods that we consume, herbicides, pesticides, preservatives, the pill, antibiotics, antacids and so on. That’s why we can’t eat the way we used to eat. Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, gluten wasn’t a problem. Nuts weren’t a problem. Nobody didn’t drink milk.” Indeed, the trend of food allergy and food intolerance seems to have been one that has developed in the Western world largely over the course of the last 20 years.
Cyndi’s model of an ideal, healthy diet isn’t necessarily one that stays stuck at one point in time, nor is it about embracing every fad that hits bookshelves. It’s about adaptation. “To me, a healthy diet means that we eat seasonally. We adapt to the foods that are around us. We adapt to the foods that we consume and we are robust because of it.”
“I know people on the ketogenic diet and it works for them. Time will tell whether it can be sustained for a long time. Often people suffer from a variety of symptoms and then go looking for answers in books. They decide to try the Atkins diet, the blood type diet, vegan, paleo, ketogenic and so on.
“At the end of the day, we can tell what is good for our body. As an intelligent individual we learn to adapt to what our body needs. But can an individual read a book, pick a diet and have it work for them forever? Most likely not. If you get down the road and are suffering symptoms, your hair is falling out, you’re infertile and so on, you have to question whether your diet is serving your needs.”
The key take-away from all of this: food is about adaptation. If we eat seasonally, and keep the focus on what our body needs, then we are headed for health. This is not about picking your path and sticking to it, it’s about balance, adaptation, and supporting the microbiome. We may have a world of work to do before we can turn back the clock on issues like autoimmune disorders, heart disease, inflammation, allergies and intolerances, but if we start from a point of supporting adaptation, we really can’t go wrong.
 Siri-Tarino P, Sun Q, Hu F and Krauss R (2010), “Meta Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies Evaluating the Association of Saturated Fat with Cardiovascular Disease,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2010/01/13/ajcn.2009.27725.abstract retrieved 19 May 2015
 Gunnars, K (2015), “3 Reasons Bullet Proof Coffee is a Bad Idea,” Authority Nutrition, http://authoritynutrition.com/3-reasons-why-bulletproof-coffee-is-a-bad-idea/ retrieved 19 May 2015
 O’Meara, C (2014), “Research and Diet Obsession VS. Real Food,” http://changinghabits.com.au/blog/research-and-diet-obsession-vs-real-food retrieved 19 May 2015