Health is in the big picture, not the details!

Health is in the big picture, not the details!

When I was just starting my personal lifestyle modification journey in the third week of June 2003, one of the things that confused and frustrated me was all the controversy surrounding the details of nutrition. Some doctors and scientists thought one thing and argued with others that thought something different. So I decided to back up and take another approach. I asked what is it that all these folks can all agree on, and how did we all get in this mess, to begin with anyway? Here’s what I found that they all agreed on. Americans consume far too much salt, fat, sugar, meat–especially high-fat meat–dairy–especially high-fat dairy–and we eat too few fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains. I don’t know any self-respecting nutrition expert, dietitian, medical practitioner or public health official that would disagree with that statement. Frankly, it would just be irresponsible to say anything different!

Every effective diet is built on these general macronutrient principles; eat less salt, fat and sugar; reduce fat–especially saturated fat–and cholesterol; reduce all processed food and increase “whole foods” like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains. All effective diets on the healthy diet spectrum from the moderate DASH diet on one side to the more rigorous plant-based whole foods diet on the other side of the spectrum all follow those same general guidelines. No matter what diet you choose on the healthy diet spectrum, you will find health by viewing the general principles from 30,000 feet rather than the details of nutrition at ground level! The real fact is that if eating was rocket science, we would have never made it to 2020!

We’re looking in the wrong place for clues about health and what to eat. It’s important to note that most folks that talk about our population’s health– that of the United States and other Western developed nations–speak in terms of moving back towards it like our health was derailed at some point in time. Health is something that we’ve had in the past and somehow lost. We did something or switched something or changed somehow and lost our health.

Denis Burkitt and Hugh Trowell made the mid-20th century observation that chronic diseases that affect people in Westernized countries were almost absent in rural, less developed African communities. Dennis P. Burkitt, MD (namesake of Burkitt’s lymphoma) made population comparisons between Africa and Western populations in the United States and the United Kingdom. Before there was substantial migration between African countries and the US and UK, these two were able to study their differences easily. Diseases that were labeled “Western-style diseases” like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity were nearly non-existent in Southern Africa where the population had not adopted our lifestyle of low exercise and consumption of highly processed, calorically dense and nutritionally deficient food almost utterly void of dietary fiber. Burkitt and Trowell published many papers in peer-reviewed journals that are still cited liberally today. Many of these were compiled and published in book form. Though falling short of showing direct causation, they established an irrefutable relationship between lifestyles–including consumption of highly refined food products–and diseases prevalent in western industrialized cultures, but almost absent in rural African populations except where contact with western culture was implicated.

In 1979 Burkitt wrote a small 100-page, easy-to-read book intended for the general public entitled; “Eat Right To Stay Healthy and Enjoy Life More: How Simple Diet Changes Can Prevent Many Common Diseases.” The same material is published in a different edition under the title, “Fibre In Your Diet.”  These books are out-of-print, but still available at the Amazon links provided. These books are an excellent example of how you can derive a very simple and actionable general principle of health from volumes of scientific details. I keep a copy on my desk at all times!

We have our heads faced downward, looking into the details, the nutrients involved, and the minutia of metabolism, trying to identify all the variables involved in the exceptionally complicated choreography of elements and systems that make up our physiology. But health isn’t in the details at all; we need to look upward towards the general principles derived from the details. Health isn’t found in an individual tree, it’s found in the way all the trees interact as a forest!

I’m often asked what I think about the latest phytochemical or “nutrient de jour” as it relates to a specific condition, and my response is almost always, “I don’t think about it at all and neither should you!” If we eat following some simple guidelines, those concerns about individual nutrients go away.

There is a whole lot in what I have written above. The first paragraph alone raises some serious questions that need to be addressed further, so I am going to break this down into another 5-part series of posts that will give us a very brief look at some details that will ultimately point us back to the big picture.

Over the next five posts, we will review the following topics in more detail:

  1. What does it mean to own your own health?
  2. How did we all get in this mess anyway?
  3. Why is lifestyle modification so hard in 2020?
  4. What is the healthy diet spectrum, and why isn’t there one diet that is best for everyone?
  5. It’s not what you know; it’s what you do!

Next week we’ll start with what it means to “own your own health.” Until that time remember that health is in the big picture and the pillars of healthy eating are to eat less salt, fat and sugar; reduce fat–especially saturated fat–and cholesterol; reduce all processed food, and increase “whole foods” like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains. Start by reducing foods that have a nutrition facts label on them and come in a box, can or a wrapper from a restaurant. Whole foods come from the earth, not a container, and don’t require a nutrition facts label!

Here are the references for today’s Healthy Eating Tip:

Burkitt DP.  Some diseases characteristic of modern western civilization.  British Medical Journal. 1973;1:5848:274-8.

Burkitt DP, Trowell HC.  “Refined Carbohydrate Foods and Disease: Some Implications of Dietary Fibre.” London: Academic Press, 1975.

Burkitt DP, Trowell HC.  “Western Diseases, Their Emergence and Prevention.”  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Trowell, H. Definition of dietary fiber and hypotheses that it is a protective factor in certain diseases. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 29.4 (1976): 417-27.

Trowell HC.  Dietary-Fiber Hypothesis of the Etiology of Diabetes Mellitus.  Diabetes 1975;24:8:762-5.