America: The world’s diet laboratory

Low-fat, low-carb, high-protein, Pritikin, Ornish, Atkins, South Beach, Sonoma, Sugar-Busters, Weight Watchers, vegetarian . . . Have Americans tried them all?

We’ve witnessed the relative success of diet habits in selected regions world-wide: the longevity of the Japanese on a spare soy and fish-based diet; the reduced heart disease incidence of the French despite an indulgent food-centered culture; the extreme heart disease-free lives of the Cretan Greeks.

Contrast this with the startling failure of the American diet experiment: We’re all (speaking for the collective whole) fat, diabetic, and miserably mired in the diseases of obesity. We’ve experimented with every possible iteration of diet from grapefruit or cabbage only, to calorie deprivation (a al Weight Watchers), to restricting this or that element of diet. The “official” organizations have made their contributions, as well: the American Heart Association’s Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (formerly Step I and II diets), a program eerily similar to what Americans are already eating and resulting in failure; the American Diabetes Association diet, incomprehensibly embracing carbohydrates when they are the root of the nutrition-habit-gone-wrong that caused the disease in the first place; the USDA and their Food Pyramid, encompassing a design that contains the germ of wisdom but is so heavily overweighted in grains that it is a sure-fire way to increase weight and heart disease were you to follow their recommendations.

What have we learned from our grand experiment, our nationwide misadventure in nutrition?

I believe that we’ve learned how not to eat: Processed snack foods, meals delivered in a fast-food setting with the offer to “super-size” your order, make-believe food ingested in your car eaten for the sake of staving off the inevitable hunger pangs. Few would argue that these are certain paths to obesity and poor health.

Certainly, if we’ve learned how not to eat, can we extrapolate just how to eat? And not just for weight loss, since most diets focus just on that, but on health, particularly heart health?

If Americans have so far failed to learn the lessons of the nutritional world, we certainly have not failed at talking about it. From books to blogs, websites, information gurus to infomercials, we certainly celebrate the capacity to share our experiences, our grief over our nutritional “misfortune,” despite a world of plenty.

Yet we swim in a sea of information. Can we sift through the chaff to discover the essential truth?

Let me articulate an extreme (extreme meaning closer to the truth, I hope) interpretation of nutritional wisdom:

--If it requires a label or nutritional analysis, reject it. The wondrous green pepper, or bottle of olive oil, for instance, require no such qualifications. Some exceptions: milk, yogurt, cottage cheese (unless, of course, you purchase straight from a local producer). I am always impressed with the contortions and frustrations people experience trying to decipher labels. Ironically, the healthiest foods don’t even require labels.

--If it is ingested in a rush, it’s likely to add to poor health. True food is meant to be consumed at leisure, not in haste to satisfy some irrational, unthinking impulse.

--Search for natural, whole foods. Natural, whole foods require no marketing. You pay a premium for a company to adorn a product with glitz, glamour, and appeal. Repackage Cocoa Puffs as chocolate flavored, round overly-processed wheat flour, sans marketing spin, and what is left? Processed foods are?intentionally?addictive. They are added to, modified, high-fructose corn syruped, etc. to increase desirability, but also create addiction. Eliminate them just as a smoker eliminates cigarettes.

--A corollary to the above issue: purchase foods that appear as if you had grown it or raised it yourself. If you were to grow corn in your backyard garden, you would eat it on the cob or some similar way. You would not grind it, pulverize, process it, nor serve it as cornstarch and add to a pile of chemicals to make breakfast cereal. Eat foods in their natural state, not the highly processed food-product that requires a colorful package and advertising to sell.

--Don’t keep bags of chips, boxes of breakfast cereal and crackers, frozen dinners, all “just in case.” Don’t allow yourself that opportunity because you will more than likely seize it. An alcoholic who keeps a secret bottle of gin hidden in the cabinet is well aware that it’s there and will eventually give in to impulse.

--When you eat meat, try to find free-range, organic products. Even better, purchase from a local producer who you trust.

--For anyone with patterns like low HDL, small LDL, high triglycerides, and blood sugar >100 mg/dl, following a diet that is as free of wheat products as possible will yield enormous benefits. Wheat is a part of all breads, virtually all breakfast cereals, pretzels, crackers, bagels, cookies, cupcakes, pancakes, waffles, etc. Going wheat-free is also a surprisingly effective weight loss strategy.

That’s just a few thoughts. The approach we use in the Track Your Plaque program helps achieve weight loss, but also helps correct lipoprotein patterns, often dramatically.

Many diets have failed to keep pace with the changing nutritional habits of Americans. In 1960, we ingested close to zero high-fructose corn syrup. We’re now approaching 80 lbs per year per American. Breakfast cereal in 1950 consisted of a handful of products, eaten intermittently; today, it is a staple with enough products to fill a modern supermarket’s entire aisle. Meats have changed, thanks to the factory farm phenomenon feeding its animals corn in inhumanely restricted conditions, a dietary shift for livestock that has modified the fat composition to something far different than 50 years ago, not to mention the antibiotics and other chemicals used to accelerate growth and fight off infection from the artificial, overcrowded conditions.

The American nutritional shift, along with rampant obesity, have also caused a relatively new cause of coronary heart disease to explode: small LDL particles. The contribution of small LDL has been enormously underestimated, since most physicians don’t know what it is, don’t know how to check for it, and don’t know what to do with it. Yet it has emerged as the number one cause for heart attack and heart disease nationwide.

Stay tuned for our rewritten New Track Your Plaque diet to be released as a Special Report on the website in future.

Comments (14) -

  • jpatti

    10/23/2007 2:34:00 AM |

    I agree wholeheartedly!

    I've been very heavily studying diet the past few months - reading widely from a lot of sources with a lot of different biases.

    The main conclusion I've come to is that hardly anyone one eats enough fresh low-sugar fruits and non-starchy vegetables; they should be the bottom of everyone's food pyramid.  

    We eat so much junk that you can't tease out what the problems are.  For instance, people say if there were a problem with artificial sweeteners, we'd have discovered it by now.  Well, we *have* discovered increasing rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.  We can't know it's the artificial sweeteners specifically anymore than we can know that it's any of the other individual things that have changed in the diet in the past 50 years or so.  Maybe some are worst than others, who knows?  There's too many changes to be able to tell exactly what the problems are in detail.  But we do know that all these lifestyle diseases increased tremendously when we all began eating so many highly-processed foods.  

    I think a lot of the problems in the typical western diet are additive - lost good effect from an unknown micronutrient in real foods plus bad effects from highly-processed stuff.

    So... maybe aspartame is perfectly safe, but I quit the Diet Pepsi for stevia-sweetened lemonade and limeade anyway.  Cause I *do* know that real whole foods are healthy, so I don't have to know the ultimate truth about aspartame.

  • Anonymous

    10/23/2007 4:24:00 AM |

    Excellent post, and you are quite right about high-fructose corn syrup.

    Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore Dilemma's" has quite a lot of information about corn in the US.

    --Michael G.R. /

  • Sue

    10/23/2007 8:11:00 AM |

    I agree with all this food tips.

  • Peter

    10/23/2007 8:29:00 AM |

    Hi Dr Davis,

    The only information I have been able to find on soy intake in Japan estimates that in men it is 8.00 g/d and in women 6.88g/d. I realise that quoting two decimal places from a food frequency questionnaire is a bit silly. The standard deviation is around 5g/d. This does not seem like very much to me. To suggest that 8g per day is associated with longevity makes soy protein powerful stuff, literally beyond belief. Are there any better data than this?

    I got my info from the bottom line of table 1 in the results section of:

    Nagata C, Takatsuka N, Kurisu Y, Shimizu H (1998) Decreased serum total cholesterol concentration is associated with high intake of soy products in Japanese men and women. J Nutr. 128(2):209-13


  • Alan

    10/23/2007 10:18:00 AM |

    Thanks Doc.

    When choosing foods for purchase I use a fairly simple rule. I try to choose foods that owe more to the farmer than to the chemist for their production, and do as much of the processing as I can in my own kitchen rather than accept the results of a factory kitchen.

    As a diabetic I believe that cooking for oneself improves one's health. That way you get to choose exactly what you eat and there are no hidden surprises.

    You already know my thoughts on the AHA/ADA/USDA nutrition guidelines for cardiac and diabetic patients.

    Thanks for a marvellous post, which I will be passing on to many others.

    Cheers, Alan, Type 2 diabetes, Australia

  • Dr. Davis

    10/23/2007 11:52:00 AM |

    Actually, I'm referring to the epidemiologic data on length of life and incidence of cardiovascular events in Japanese. Obviously, pinpointing the aspect of diet--or other component of lifestyle or genetics--that confers longevity is not revealed by these observations. However, though I like soy products, I don't think they are responsible for the difference.

  • Anonymous

    10/23/2007 1:40:00 PM |

    I think you are a fan of the south beach diet except that he uses too much wheat. What do you think of his south beach diet
    "products" and why do you think he created them?
    Also- can you comment on the use of Splenda.

  • Dr. Davis

    10/23/2007 5:06:00 PM |

    Yes, the South Beach Diet is a reasonable way to lose weight and improve lipoprotein patterns, provided you don't proceed fully to phase 3, in which grains are added back in abundance. Many people regain their weight in phase 3.

    I doubt Arthur Agatston plays much of a role in developing his packaged products. Nearly all of these are outsourced or licensed products, with which I suspect he has just passing acquaintance. I don't think they are good products, at least the ones I've seen and tried.

  • Dr. Davis

    10/23/2007 7:16:00 PM |

    Also, so far I've not witnessed nor heard of any ill-effects specific to Splenda. So far, so good.

  • Anonymous

    10/23/2007 8:53:00 PM |

    Dr. Davis have you readf the excellent new book Good Calories Bad Calories? If so I would love to hear your oppinion.

  • Dr. Davis

    10/23/2007 9:06:00 PM |

    I'm several chapters into Gary Taubes' book and loving every page. I have to say that many studies I accepted as gospel do indeed appear suspect when recast in his skeptical light. After reading the entire book, I believe a re-examination of the old studies will be necessary.

  • Anonymous

    10/24/2007 5:39:00 AM |

    Is there a practical diet available today that a normal, average person in US can follow to maintain decent health without getting bogged down with the ever increasing "DO NOT EAT" list?

    I think that this is a very tough question to answer; I hope you can share your thoughts on this issue in a future article.

    I have realized lately that people   like me who are conscientious of following a healthy lifestyle, would not realize the impact of religiously following the common
    health options propounded by the food industry.  

    Examples of healthy choices we think we are making:
    - eat more whole wheat, multi grain instead of white bread
    - drink fruit juice (with vitamin attractions) instead of soda pop or other beverages
    - eat more cereals (with vitamin, mineral benefits) and whole wheat, raisin bagels instead of eggs, bacon and cream cheese.

    But thanks to Track the plague research program, we now know that even these cause issues to our health.

    As I read about your total grain elimination diet, I keep wondering - What CAN one *practically* eat from a preventative aspect to maintain decent health?

    If you walk into any cafe, there is an abundance of sandwiches, snacks, pastry etc. What does one do in such cases? It's a common situation that I think we all must be facing from time to time, and I wonder what acceptable choice can we make in such situations?

    I believe that's why there should a new diet approach/guideline that both follows the principles as outlined in Track Your Plague or your blog, and also emphasizes on being practical for an average person. These guidelines will empower the average health conscious public to make healthy  diet choices.

    I find this analogous to our fuel situation today - Everybody knows that ideally we must stop our fuel consumption and switch over to alternative energy sources.
    Since this is not a feasible option today, an alternative practical approach (eg: hybrid cars) comes into place to start the slow but gradual transition

    Some questions/options that I would expect that this practical diet approach to answer/provide: -

    Breakfast options
    Ideal: Avoid all cereals, grains (But again, what would one eat then instead?)
    Acceptable (while on the road): oats, water, peanut butter on multi-grain bread, cereals, fruit juice
    Avoid: bacon

    Brunch options:
    seeds, nuts

    Lunch options
    Ideal: have lean meat, whole fruit
    Acceptable: fruit juice, sandwitch on multi-grain bread
    Avoid: fried food


    If you know of any such guidelines that are published or available, I would be appreciate some pointers.

    Personally for a 28 year old person like me, just trying to stay on multi-grain and not trying any fried foods has been a major challenge for me to follow diet wise, but nevertheless I have still been able to maintain the discipline to continue on this.

    I am glad to know that elimination of all grains will bring a lot of health benefits; however it also reminds me on how gloomy the situation is for me when I have to eat outside; the choices then become extremely limited or in some cases the healthy options become non existent.

    thanks Doc. Keep up the good work!

  • Dr. Davis

    10/24/2007 11:59:00 AM |

    Thanks for the wonderful thoughts.

    The forthcoming new Track Your Plaque Diet will articulate many of the issues you discuss above. However, I need to emphasize that the diet is not meant for the average person to follow. It is meant to be part of an effort to seize control of heart disease risk, while providing an health effect. There is a difference.

    Also, I find it easier to understand food products offered in stores and restaurants when you see them as vehicles for profit, not health. Health claims often parrot the popular issue of the day, but the product is sold for profit.

  • Sue

    10/25/2007 11:59:00 PM |

    Good Calories, Bad Calories is brilliant - I hope a lot more professionals read it.