• Dr. Dawn Harris Sherling

Winning the game

By: Dawn Harris Sherling

In the 1990s, we were told to avoid fats. Boxes and packets promising low-fat contents lined the supermarket shelves.

And yet, Americans got fatter and sicker.

In the 2000s, we were told to avoid carbs. Boxes and packets promising low-carb contents lined the supermarket shelves.

And yet, Americans got fatter and sicker.

In the 2010s, we were told to avoid gluten and other grains. Those boxes and packets now touted gluten-free foods.

And yet? You guessed it, we’re still not any healthier for having made more radical and difficult dietary changes.

Perhaps the problem is not with the fats or the carbs or the grains. Perhaps the problem is with the packages, or at least what’s inside them. It turns out the issue was never with the full fat avocado or hard boiled eggs. It’s not with the dietary staples of rice, beans, or pasta that much of the world relies on either. The problem is with the ultra-processing of foods that disrupts our microbiomes and causes us to gain weight and wreaks havoc with our intestines and metabolism.

When you substitute carrageenan for fat, sucralose for carbs, and food gums for gluten, as processed food purveyors do, you are eliminating the devil you know (calories) for the devil you don’t know (poorly studied additives). And it turns out that the devil we don’t know, but are learning about, is much more complicated than the mildly evil calorie.

Life was a lot simpler with the devil we knew. Calories in/calories out was a reasonable mantra for weight loss. Eat more fiber was an uncomplicated tip to keep our bowels regular. Avoid too many sweets would keep diabetes at bay. But those rules only apply to real food. Trying to apply them to the Frankenfoods we currently consume is like trying to apply the rules of checkers to a game of chess—the pieces just don’t move that way and it no longer makes any sense.

Take sucralose—it’s a sugar molecule that our bodies can’t break down, but somehow it raises insulin levels just as a sugar we can break down does. The bacteria in our microbiomes can break down the sucralose. Does that cause our insulin levels to rise? Unclear. But a higher insulin level does cause us to get hungrier as our blood sugar drops. And also, higher insulin levels seem to cause more weight gain. So, paradoxically, even though we are eating a food with no calories, we may gain more weight. The checkers rules of calories in/calories out do not apply here. There is a fair amount of evidence that carrageenan can cause inflammation and eating some fat may be a lot safer. Likewise, food gums can disrupt our bowels more than gluten ever did (unless you have celiac disease, in which case gluten is to be avoided).

The old rules, articulated brilliantly by food writer Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” served humanity well for a long time. If you want to be able to play by the old rules, get rid of the new so-called foods. Eat real, whole foods and get back to a place where food makes sense.

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