food · nutrition · sports nutrition · weight lifting

Want to keep muscle after 40?: Eat all the protein and lift all the things

A cricket protein bar
A cricket protein bar

Researchers at nearby MacMaster University set out to do a meta analysis in search of an answer to the question of whether protein consumption made a difference to ordinary adults over 40 who set out to gain muscle.

What’s nice, from this blog’s perspective, about the studies is that many of them included women.

Gretchen Reynolds wrote about their research in the New York Times.

Lift Weights, Eat More Protein, Especially if You’re Over 40

“They wound up with 49 high-quality past experiments that had studied a total of 1,863 people, including men and women, young and old, and experienced weight trainers as well as novices. The sources of the protein in the different studies had varied, as had the amounts and the times of day when people had downed them.

To answer the simplest question of whether taking in more protein during weight training led to larger increases in muscle size and strength, the researchers added all of the results together.And the answer was a resounding yes. Men and women who ate more protein while weight training did develop larger, stronger muscles than those who did not.”

How much protein? 1.6 grams per day per kilo of bodyweight. That’s well over the recommended daily amount of protein.

When? It didn’t matter when in the day people are the extra protein. So you don’t need to fuss about before or after workout or other special timing.

What kind of protein? That didn’t matter either. You can eat it in the form of animal protein or vegan protein. You can drink protein shakes. It’s all good.

See the scientific article here.

I haven’t tried the cricket protein bar just yet.

Fit Feminists Answer · nutrition

You Ask, Fit Feminists Answer: Do you have to start eating more food if you exercise and get muscles?

This is the fourth in a new series where we answer readers’ questions. If you have questions send them our way, using the “contact us” form on the left hand side of the blog. I’ll forward them to the appropriate blogger. We’re not experts by any means but we do have a wealth of real world experience with many, many physical activities.

Cate: I think the feminist answer is “you don’t HAVE TO do anything” 😉

Christine: My immediate (non-expert) response is that you may find that building muscle leaves you feeling hungrier. If it does, you may want to change what/when/how much you eat.
The goal would be to ensure that you have the energy you need so your body can do what you need it to. Eat in whatever way serves that goal best, but please don’t get caught up in the ‘shoulds’ of eating.

Kim: I agree with Christine: exercise and muscle-building generally takes more energy than you’d otherwise expend (if you are doing it correctly, it will tire you out and make you hungry), which means your body needs fuel to recharge and rebuild. Listening to your body here is a good idea, but at the same time my own experience has been that I sometimes over-eat when I’m fatigued and really hungry from exercise. So listening to your body when it says it’s hungry is good, but so is listening to it when it’s full (even if you might not immediately think you could or should be full yet). I’d also say that shifting or beginning an exercise routine is a good time to have a look at what you’re eating, and to ask yourself if you’re eating the best things to help your body recharge well and build muscle. If you’re not sure, it’s a good idea to do consult someone about nutrition choices, and about the best choices you can make given all of your lifestyle factors. (There’s no one easy solution or plan.) But finally: yes, eating more will happen, and yes, that is a proper, good thing!

Tracy: I think the short answer is “no,” you don’t have to eat more food but sometimes when people start working out seriously they start to think of food differently, as a way of fueling their workouts for optimum performance. It’s also often recommended (though this doesn’t make it a “have to”) that people follow a resistance training session with a protein rich meal.

Sam: I think it depends on what you’re doing. Cyclists need to eat while riding and often struggle with consuming enough calories on the bike. After riding you might be ravenous but you don’t need to eat as much as you might think. It takes awhile to work this stuff out. Ditto with what you eat. Experiment. This stuff varies between people so figure out what’s best for you.

Okay, blog community, over to you… What’s your answer?

Donuts covered in fruit slices
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash
fitness · nutrition

Meat vs. veg: when headlines can be misleading (or actually not true)

A couple of weeks ago, a new study came out, comparing forms of vegetarian diets with forms of meat-eating diets; the study itself is found here.  Probably all readers of this blog are automatically a little skeptical when they see a splashy headline with new, strong advice that goes against the prevailing wisdom in fields of health and nutrition.  Not that the so-called “prevailing wisdom” is always wise, or even prevailing– there’s lots of dissent and several conflicting theories about nutrition and health.

However, in the case the comparative benefits of vegetarian diets, compared with meat-eating ones, there is prevailing wisdom:  vegetarian diets are generally better for us on multiple health and nutrition fronts.

Just to provide one (of hundreds) of standard reports that support the health benefits of vegetarian diets, check out this World Health Organization report from the International Agency for research on cancer.  Here’s the bit that gets at the meat of the matter:

After thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, a Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the IARC Monographs Programme classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect. This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

So, meat is probably carcinogenic to humans.  Well, that’s not good. Of course, real science and real science policy are nuanced, so here’s their summary recommendation:

These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” says Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.

This is not really news, but of course good to hear from a knowledgeable and trustworthy source.

But then comes this new study, which was reported like this:

Caption: New study shows a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health
Caption: New study shows a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health

 

What?  How could this be?  Here’s what the news report said:

Interestingly, while there were positive benefits associated with vegetarianism, the group concludes the following: 

Overall, our findings reveal that vegetarians report poorer health, follow medical treatment more frequently, have worse preventive health care practices, and have a lower quality of life… Our results have shown that vegetarians report chronic conditions and poorer subjective health more frequently.

They also discovered “significantly higher” incidences of cancer in vegetarians, as well as increased rates of anxiety disorder and depression, although they note that this is inconsistent with other research. They did point out another study which shows an increased risk of mental disorders in vegetarians. In general, vegetarians suffer from more chronic conditions and take more medication than even occasional meat eaters. 

Wait a minute.  Did the study REALLY show all this?

No.  Not if you’re asking me. Or, rather, not if you’re asking some friends of mine who are much more familiar with the research on vegetarianism than I am (thanks, Angus and Bob!)  One sent me a laundry list of problems with the original Austrian study.  Here’s his list:

Problems with this study include:

  • Small sample
  • Questionnaire-based
  • Lack of distinction between vegetarians for ideological reasons (e.g. animal suffering and environmental reasons) v those that may be vegetarian on medical advice or due to self-treatment due to pre-existing health conditions
  • Many data points are subjective (self-declared)
  • They make some weird claims (a Veg diet is ‘related to’ less frequent alcohol use)
  • There are a huge number of confounders given the association of other factors related to veggie diets – I don’t think they are able to fully account for these – especially given sample size.

The other friend sent me these comments:

  • First, there is — as the authors suggest — evidence pointing the other direction with respect to each of their specific conclusions. So that should adjust our confidence level a bit.
  • Second, it’s pretty plausible that because foods aren’t fortified in a way that assumes that people are going to eat vegetarian or vegan, some less health-conscious vegetarians and vegans are going to suffer from nutritional deficits that will negatively impact their health. It isn’t clear how much of the effect this would explain, but it helps us think about the fact that there are political realities that are relevant to these nutritional studies. 
  • Third, the authors don’t consider the fact that some people may be switching to vegetarian vegan diets for health reasons — that is, because they have some health issue they are trying to address via dietary change, which suggests that they may well be less healthy than the average member of the population to begin with.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, the authors of the study lump together strict vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians. Given that many vegetarians and pescatarians eat diets that are still fairly heavy in animal products, it wouldn’t be surprising if any health benefits of a strict vegan diet were invisible in the data.
All of us immediately thought that this was an underpowered study whose results were questionable in large part because of the odd (to us) was the researchers chose to divide up the study groups:  vegetarians; sometime meat-eaters who eat lots of fruits/veggies; regular meat-eaters whose fruit/veggie intake we don’t know about; meat eaters who (probably, but who knows) eat lots of meat.
And as for the results, all of us know that there are lots of confounders here— that is, there are lots of explanations for the data that involve known factors that have nothing directly to do with meat/veg intake.
You may still be wondering:  what’s the most healthy way for me to eat?  Hmmm.  That’s a hard one, in fact too hard for any one study or even group of studies to answer.  We’re all working on eating in ways that seem healthy-to-us based on the best scientific evidence available, taking into account our constraints of taste, cooking abilities, time, money, culture, physical activity needs, ethical principles, etc.  No one has all the answers.  But I do have an answer to this question:  do we now have good reason to think that  vegetarian diets now associated with poorer health?
One word: NO.
One word: NO.

 

 

 

 

diets · fitness · food · health · nutrition

Why I’m glad I stopped worrying about sugar and other weird food obsessions

I had a funny exchange the other day on Facebook. There was a link about the dangers of the cheese powder in boxed mac and cheese. I commented on my friend’s post that when we can, we should rely on whole foods to make mac and cheese. Being an American, my friend thought I meant the food chain Whole Foods, which is not so cheekily known as Whole PayCheque for the high cost of it items.

Image: White bowl with pasta noodles, red tomatoes, and green basil.
Not macaroni and cheese, but my favourite feta, basil and tomato pasta supper.

Nonetheless we had a good chat about how expensive it can be to eat whole, unprocessed foods, and that led us to a whole other thread about clean eating, healthy eating, good foods, bad foods, cheat meals, etc. We weren’t actually talking about our approach to nutrition but the way the words we use to talk about food get co-opted by all kinds of agendas. It’s quite easy to have all sorts of “isms” and attitudes creep in, altering our meaning and twisting our understanding of food as fuel in our lives and how we relate to it in different contexts.

That same day SamB brought my attention to this article about Anthony Warner, described by the Guardian as “(the Angry Chef) who is on a mission to confront the ‘alternative facts’ surrounding nutritional fads and myths.”  Warner writes a blog on food fads, and he doesn’t hold back. He’s now written a book called The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating, and I ‘m adding it to my reading list.

That’s because when you start a fitness program, there’s all manner of advice on how to eat, what to eat, and why the one true way (insert your favourite fad — howsoever you define it —  diet here) will be all that you need. Even if your goal is not weight loss, there’s all kinds of recommendations (cough, cough, rules!) on how to eat to train.

Heck, you don’t even have to be training to get food advice. I’m convinced all you have to be is female and not meet someone’s pre-conceived notion of how female should look, for the advice to come pouring in, accompanied by a generous helping of side eye finished with a soupcon of shade, if the advisor deems your food choices not to meet their definition of “healthy” eating.

What appealed to me about Warner is his evidence-based approach. In the article he says: “A lot of the clean-eating people, I just think they have a broken relationship with the truth. (…) They’re selling something that is impossible to justify in the context of evidence-based medicine.” I like science and research and critical thinking. Sadly, there’s too little of it when it comes to talking about food and part of it goes back to the agendas behind the particular terms used.

Warner says our fascination with fads or trends in food and eating is connected with our innate need for certainty. He explains it this way: “We really want to be able to say: ‘Is coffee good or bad for us?’ Well, it’s not good or bad for you, it just is. And we have to accept that; that’s what science says. So your brain goes, ‘I don’t like that level of uncertainty.’ Certainty is really appealing for a lot of people and that’s what a lot of these people are selling – certainly at the darker end.”

And he’s right. The people who have preached to me about gluten free diets when they aren’t celiac are utterly convinced of the rightness of their belief that going gluten-free cured their ills. Equally certain are the people who now look upon sugar with the same fear and revulsion we bring to edible oil masquerading as coffee creamer.

As I survey the speciality food shelves in my local shops, I’m enchanted by all of the interesting food stuffs and yet, truthfully, I am also challenged by how these same items are elevated in social media, on Instagram, and by celebrities to miracle food status. Warner, who lives in the UK and works for a food manufacturer is clear about the limitations food makers face when it comes to making claims about food: “If I made a food product and I wanted to say ‘it detoxes you’, I absolutely couldn’t. There are really clear laws: I can’t say it in the advertising, I can’t say it on the pack, I can’t make any sort of claim that isn’t hugely backed in evidence. But if I wrote a recipe book, I can say what I want.”

If you have been wondering how Gwyneth Paltrow can make pots of money selling her fans coconut oil as a mouthwash and wasp’s nests as a vaginal cleanser, there’s your answer. The trick is to stop engaging in magical thinking when it comes to food and applying some common sense. Warner’s advice: “eat a sensible and varied diet, not too much nor too little. If you have junk food every so often, don’t feel guilty; if you’re going full Morgan Spurlock, you’re probably overdoing it. Eat fish, especially oily ones such as salmon and mackerel, when you can. Don’t consume too much sugar, but equally don’t believe people who tell you it’s “toxic” and has “no nutritional value.”

Or you can go the Reader’s Digest version and follow Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Excuse me now, as I forage in the fridge for the leftover maple syrup glazed salmon.

— Martha is a writer and powerlifter in training exploring a whole new world of food as fuel.

 

 

 

aging · fitness · injury · nutrition

Embracing my growing strength

Red and white printed blanket covering a personBy MarthaFitat55

I’m not a big fan of our winter season. The weather is often horrible, spring seems like it will never arrive, and the multiple layers required to survive the cold make going to the gym a chore.

When the sky is blue, and the snow is soft and fluffy, I can work up the enthusiasm to enjoy a walk or a snowshoe. When it is wet and miserable with sleety snow, I want to curl up under my quilt and not surface until May.

Part of my resistance to winter exercise comes from my fear of falling. I have actually fallen several times, with my first reliable memory being a fall at 14 that resulted in a wicked headache.

I have tumbled over icy stairs (that one within earshot of my mother who heard me use language suitable for blistering paint) and I have skidded across parking lots.

I have also fallen indoors, and while I have been fortunate enough not to experience lasting ill effects, as I grow older, my fear of falling has grown exponentially.

I often ask people if they remember the rubber boots many of us wore as kids, and if they specifically recall how stiff and unyielding the rubber would get as we walked to and from school in January and February. Over time the rubber would crack and the wet would seep in.

That’s how I feel my muscles go in the winter cold: hard, inflexible, and yet ready to shatter at the slightest pressure.

Last year, three of my friends and one of my relatives were laid up with broken bones, all women. Two experienced the breaks as a result of slips and falls on icy sidewalks, thus adding to my fear and resistance.

I shouldn’t be surprised: after all, women are four times more likely to have osteoporosis, and one in five is likely to experience a fracture after age 40. The fact is my fear of falling need not be limited to the winter season, given the data.

Since hiding under a quilt is not really an option I can indulge in, I have looked for ways to reduce my risk of falls. I make sure I have good shoes, grippy sneakers, and sturdy boots. I have learned to walk like a penguin, with my feet pointed out, when going up or down hills and across icy surfaces.

I found some really useful tips here on the BC’s government’s health website. One tip which really stood out for me was eating foods high in calcium and Vitamin D. I had found increasing my fish intake was helping with my arthritis, so I wasn’t too surprised that nutrition could help. I had also long known about the calcium connection for bone health, but was not aware of the importance Vitamin D brings to muscle strength.

Last month, I had reason to be grateful for working on my fitness and nutrition. I had noticed increasing tightness and soreness around the hip joint post training and my trainer had noticed some oddities in my form during a subsequent squat session.

I decided to get checked as I was worried that something new was about to be added to the injury roster. I was somewhat startled to learn that it was the same hip problem. When I asked why the symptoms were different, my physiotherapist said my muscle strength had improved significantly over the past year to compensate for my hip moving out of alignment.

When I thought about the other times my hip joint has shifted, I realized several things. First, the time between injury and the onset of discomfort and pain was usually quite short. This time, it was a little over three weeks before things got really sore. Second, the recovery time post alignment was often quite long, with the pain and stiffness taking as much as three to five weeks to disappear. This time, I was really only uncomfortable for about 48 to 72 hours.

So what has this got to do with my fear of falling? I’m still cautious, but now I have developed my core strength so I am strong enough to reduce the impact. I also know my improved nutrition has helped my muscles recover faster from training, and this is also helpful in dealing with stress and injury.

What this means long term, I am not sure yet. For now, I am happy to continue with the work I am doing with the knowledge that I have made a difference in reducing the effects of injury and speeding up recovery.

— Martha is a writer living in St. John’s documenting a continuing journey of making fitness and work-life balance part of her everyday lifestyle.

body image · fitness · health · interview · motivation · nutrition · weight lifting

The Flu and My Friend’s Fitness Journey (Guest Post)

Last week I got unexpectedly hit with the flu. (Come to think of it, is it ever really expected?) Anyway, it knocked me out hard and I was upset by the rough start to my 2017. (Needless to say I haven’t worked out but proudly made it to a Yin yoga class which my post-flu body could barely handle.)

While I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, I do appreciate a New Year’s reflection on my overall life trajectory. What have I accomplished? What haven’t I? Where would I like to see things going over the next year?

new years ecard.png

New Year’s resolutions for me, like lots of people, tend to fall flat by Week 2. Sam wrote about December 1st as the new January 1st. I actually like the idea of getting a jump on a new year the months leading up to it.

In the fall, I was excited to recommit to my health and fitness. I’ve written here about how I am learning to see myself as an active person who is takes her wellbeing seriously. One of the people who inspired me to make the change in my own life also recommitted to her health and wellbeing exactly one year before I did (she in November 2015, and I in November 2016).

I thought that I would speak more formally with her about her experience, as there are things I recognize as similar about both of our stories: we both started out as relatively active children and young women but became discouraged and anxious about fitness as we got older. We both had multiple false starts over the years, and we both decided to integrate fitness and wellness in our lives around the same time.

 

Tracy: What does being “fit” mean to you?

Jaclyn: Being fit means loving, embracing and accepting my body for all the amazing things that I can do. This is not to say that now I love my body because it is leaner and has more muscle mass, and that I could not love my body before because I had a much higher body fat percentage. Getting stronger, lifting heavier, and getting my cardio up to a level I didn’t know was possible has led to an appreciation for myself and my body that I never had when I spent most of my days drinking, partying, and subsequently binge eating my hangover away the next day.

Tracy: Since you mention it, regarding your drinking/partying in the past, do you feel like you simply “replaced” those old habits with new ones or is it more complex? (Do you feel like a different person now than you were back then?)

Jaclyn: I think it’s more complex than that. I’m the same person, yet a different person. I think a part of the drinking was me trying to cover over parts of me that I didn’t like (or that I thought I needed to change to be liked). When I began my fitness journey, my new habits (nutrition, fitness, sleep, water intake, etc.) replaced old habits (binge drinking, binge eating, partying).  As my new habits began to slowly weed out and replace my old ones, there was a moment that I realized I was truly and genuinely happy. In that moment, I realized that this new lifestyle fuels me and allows me to be my most authentic and genuine self.

Tracy: That’s so wonderful and it’s been amazing to see your progress. What was your previous experience with fitness? Were you an active child?

Jaclyn: I grew up an active kid; I was on the swim and synchronized swimming teams, played soccer, and did ballet. My family loves to camp, so I’d frequently go canoeing, hiking, swimming and kayaking with them. But gym class was a nightmare for me. As a shy and introverted child, cliques in gym classes (which often involved choosing partners and teams) intimidated me. My intuition was to skip the classes to avoid this.

In undergrad, I joined a couple gyms but never stuck with them because I had no knowledge about what I should be doing, how to use the machines and free weights, or how to bring variety into my workouts and how to eat in accordance with my goals.

I would never even dream of asking someone to show me how to do something, and I was too afraid of being judged using free weighs since I had never used them before.  So, I would go over to the one machine I knew – the treadmill – walk for 40 minutes and leave as quickly as I could.  After a couple weeks, I would get bored of the same old routine and frustrated by the lack of any tangible kind of progress, I would quit the gym.  Looking back, my social anxiety, shyness and introversion were the biggest obstacles for getting into fitness.

Tracy: I think that can be quite common—sometimes people see “gym culture” as macho or unfriendly, especially for someone who is new to working out or not that knowledgeable when it comes to fitness. How did you find this and what strategies did you find helpful in overcoming that?

Jaclyn: As someone with little knowledge about fitness and exercise, and as an introvert with social anxiety, breaking into the gym and developing a consistent routine was a huge obstacle. This time, however, I didn’t want to run; I wanted to face this challenge and move myself into a space where I could walk into a gym and do my routine comfortably.

As I’ve grown with my anxiety, I have learned things that I can do to help reduce attacks.  For example, in a conference setting, the more research I have done on my topic, the more comfortable I felt.  So, this was my first strategy in wanting to become more comfortable at the gym, to gain knowledge.

I’m fortunate that I could afford a starter package with a personal trainer.  My thought process was that if I was willing to spend the money I previously did on booze, then I could certainly take that money and invest in myself and buy some training sessions.  I thought that if I had an expert take me through the gym, show me how to use the machines and show me some free weight exercises, I would feel more confident walking in and doing it on my own.

Further, I thought that if I could learn the basics of form, that when I went on my own I would be less likely to injure myself.  Another alternative to training packages is to take full advantage of the growing fitness industry via social media platforms (such as YouTube). I used this to watch how certain exercises are done, would mimic the motions in the privacy of my own house, and then try them at the gym. Utilizing the knowledge from the training sessions and from my research online helped me feel more confident in the gym.

Tracy: You’ve mentioned your social anxieties, which I think are common for many people, especially when it comes to trying new things. How has fitness allowed you to grow in this area, and allowed you to become less fearful of being judged, etc.?

Jaclyn: In addition to gaining the knowledge necessary to make me more comfortable at the gym, I made sure to go during quieter periods (i.e., not during peak times), especially at the beginning. I would also wear a baseball hat, which almost acted like blinders—it helped me feel more “in the zone” and focus more on myself and less on others around me.

Over time, I became more and more confident in myself and in my place at the gym. The better I became at lifting, the less I worried about being judged.  Moreover, the more I fell in love with lifting, the less I cared about being judged; in fact, I don’t worry at all about this because I know that weight lifting involves stalling on reps, or failing a certain move.  I know saw failure as opportunity to grow and learn – understood that this was part and parcel of the process itself – and so I no longer feared being judged.  This process of working on my anxieties in the gym was by no means a speedy one, but I can now happily say that about one year later, I do not need to wear a hat, and I can walk into any gym, at any time, and get to the grind with no fear and no anxieties.

I found that this newfound confidence in the gym spilled into other aspects of my life.  Looking back at where I started and where I am now made me realize how strong and resilient I am.  It helped me realize what I want out of life, and what I wasn’t willing to compromise.

IMG_20161004_112239.jpg

Tracy: What surprised you most about the new lifestyle that you wouldn’t have expected?

Jaclyn: I never expected to fall in love with fitness and weightlifting like I did, but perhaps more surprising was the humbling self-love and acceptance that arose naturally out of the process.  I have cellulite and big thighs, but this no longer bothers me like it used to.  Instead, I am amazed by how strong and resilient I have become since I started.  I have become humbled by fitness and developed a love for myself that was absent from the larger part of my life.

Jaclyn is an aspiring fitness blogger, living in London completing her PhD in philosophy of neuroscience at the University of Western Ontario.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Speaking with Jaclyn over the last few months have helped to keep me both motivated and patient with myself. It’s especially helpful when I have my own hang-ups or things that slow me down—like the flu, or like fainting (which I wrote about in last month’s post). I’m grateful to have her as a friend and role model and thank her for letting me write about this so openly in this month’s post!

party-lift-weights-ecards

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fitness · nutrition

The latest news on the nutritional merry-go-round: it’s complicated

I’m making egg salad sandwiches for a reception for my friend Lyn’s book reading today. Her book, a memoir, is called “God is not a boy’s name: becoming woman, becoming priest”.  Check it out.

It’s been awhile since I’ve hard-boiled a dozen eggs, so I decided to google the best way to do this—put eggs in before boiling water, boil water first, what?

And what do I find out? Sources don’t agree about this—some say do this, some say do that. They all claim that their way is the best method for getting the perfect hard-boiled egg.

Since all I need here is fully cooked eggs for mashing and making egg salad (with pickle, of course), it does matter very much HOW I cook them; as long as they’re fully cooked at the end, everything will be fine.

However, when it comes to nutritional advice, the stakes seem considerably higher. What we really want is some clarity about how to eat in ways that are healthy (to us) and reduce risks for conditions like diabetes and heart disease.. In the blog we’ve tackled this issue a lot—check it out here and here and here, for instance.

Still, shouldn’t SOMETHING be clear by now? Well, to paraphrase Oprah, it seems like one thing we know for sure is this: diets high in unsaturated fats (like vegetable oils and some fish) are much healthier for your heart than diets high in saturated fats (like animal fats in meats, butter, cheeses). Why? Because a diet emphasizing unsaturated fats lowers your serum cholesterol and reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease. Right?

 

maybe not

 

The latest episode in the “what in the world should I eat to be healthy?” saga has an interesting, sort of mysterious twist (relative to nutrition research, which has a low bar for what counts as mysterious). The Minnesota Coronary Experiment, done from 1968 to 1973, controlled and studied the diets of more than 9500 people living in nursing homes and mental hospitals. But—and here’s the twist—the data were not analyzed. Until now…

You can read the interesting backstory here, but the upshot is that the data were just recently found, analyzed and published here. And the results are surprising; here’s an excerpt from the Well blog story:

The results were a surprise. Participants who ate a diet low in saturated fat and enriched with corn oil reduced their cholesterol by an average of 14 percent, compared with a change of just 1 percent in the control group. But the low-saturated fat diet did not reduce mortality. In fact, the study found that the greater the drop in cholesterol, the higher the risk of death during the trial.

The findings run counter to conventional dietary recommendations that advise a diet low in saturated fat to decrease heart risk. Current dietary guidelines call for Americans to replace saturated fat, which tends to raise cholesterol, with vegetable oils and other polyunsaturated fats, which lower cholesterol.

Now that’s a surprise. It turns out that the low-saturated fat diets lowered serum cholesterol but didn’t lower mortality risks—rather the greater drop in cholesterol was associated with a higher mortality risk. How could this be? The researchers have a hypothesis:

One explanation for the surprise finding may be omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in high levels in corn, soybean, cottonseed and sunflower oils. While leading nutrition experts point to ample evidence that cooking with these vegetable oils instead of butter improves cholesterol and prevents heart disease, others argue that high levels of omega-6 can simultaneously promote inflammation. This inflammation could outweigh the benefits of cholesterol reduction, they say.

And there’s more data from other studies to support this unexpected result.

In 2013, Dr. Ramsden and his colleagues published a controversial paper about a large clinical trial that had been carried out in Australia in the 1960s but had never been fully analyzed. The trial found that men who replaced saturated fat with omega-6-rich polyunsaturated fats lowered their cholesterol. But they were also more likely to die from a heart attack than a control group of men who ate more saturated fat.

If you look at the original paper, published in the British Medical Journal, it has an extended explanation and some hypothesizing about the role of lineolic acid (vegetable oils are rich in this, unlike animal fats) in biochemical processes that contribute to heart disease.

But at the very end of the article, it uses a word I’ve never read in a medical journal:

Given the limitations of current evidence, the best approach might be one of humility, highlighting limitations of current knowledge and setting a high bar for advising intakes beyond what can be provided by natural diets.

Humility is the word.

 

humility

 

The researchers are acknowledging the complex nature of human metabolic interactions in our current industrial food system, suggesting ways to proceed scientifically with more rigor than we previously have, and offering up humility and modesty as appropriate attitudes for any approach to dietary advice.

In the current maelstrom of competing theories for how to fill my plate, this is advice I can take to heart.