Thursday, February 2, 2012

My frustrations with

I had never seen the MyPlate website in all of its propaganda before having to answer a question for an online nutrition and fitness class I'm enrolled in. Below is a modified (w/additional links) version of an answer I posted on a forum in response to the following:

What is the MyPlate food guidance system? In what ways does it apply to sports nutrition? Please report to the class on how the materials can be used in athlete education or consultation/presentation. Use the following website
The MyPlate food guidance system is part of a government initiative program that encourages Americans to eat more healthfully in accordance with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The program is spearheaded by the USDA, which lends to the existence of "grains" and "dairy" as two prominent constituents of a "balanced meal." Objections to grains and dairy aside (I can elaborate if you suggest), MyPlate represents nutritional ideals that ought to be supported by the latest in the science of nutrition, but aren't. It is my assertion that MyPlate and similar government health initiatives are rather unfounded and biased towards the promotion of dominating, salable commodities like dairy, grains, and vegetable oils.  Notwithstanding conspiracy theories, MyPlate is a friendly interface that allows otherwise oblivious consumers to construct a "healthy" meal that is perhaps a cut above fast-food fare.
The website is awash with misinformation. Some of the recommendations throughout the site are: 
Per "solid" fat phobia:
-"one egg a day, on average, doesn't increase risk for heart disease, so make eggs part of your weekly choices. Only the egg yolk contains cholesterol and saturated fat, so have as many egg whites as you want."
-"…cut back on foods high in ‘solid fats'…"
-stick to cooking methods that "don't add extra fat."
-"switch to fat-free or low-fat milk"
-"'solid fats' are empty calories"
Per "gluttony and sloth" nonsense:
-"enjoy your food, but eat less"  
- avoid "adding calories"
-"avoid oversized portions"
  The site also makes uncorroborated claims like "whole grains lower the risk of heart disease*," or "whole grains help with weight management**," etc. Finally, as if matters could be worse, the USDA boils all of this information into a cute little infographic that lets you know how many calories/food items you are "partitioned." It is a wonder how we ever survived famine without a "daily food plan!"
*this review [free full text PDF] demonstrates extrapolation and the lack of conclusion as it pertains to grain consumption per se in the reduction of heart disease risk. Notice the words "associated," "probably," "may," and "linked" are used exhaustively. The key quotes: "Health-promoting eating patterns are usually accompanied by other health-promoting fellow travelers," "...consumption of generous amounts of whole grains, cereal fiber, total fiber, fruit, or vegetables decreases the risk of CHD." It is totally indiscriminate.

**in this review, authors state themselves that "...these results [from epidemiological studies] do not clarify whether whole grain consumption is simply a marker of a healthier lifestyle or a factor favoring "per se" lower body weight." Once again, inconclusive.
 Allow me to address these issues systematically:
First of all, we are built for feast and famine. When food was available to our ancestors, they ate it. Lots of it. They didn't "avoid oversized portions" or "eat less." When food is not available, resources are reserved; muscle and fat are catabolized to maintain homeostasis. There is no need to eat 6x or more a day. There was no point in history where calories were of any use for determining food intake; we are not calorimeters. Indeed, there is not a pilot light in our tummy that is just waiting to incinerate calories. That is a stupid and arbitrary notion. Of  course, in a society where food is readily available, all the time, feast-famine genes are not necessarily conducive to fitness, but that is an issue in it's own. 
Starvation diets, i.e., limiting of calories, never work in the long run. In fact, despite a decrease in fat intake, total calories, and an increase in low-calorie food intake after a government campaign nearly identical to this in 1977, obesity rates increased 31%. Calorie-limiting does little more than trigger epigenetic switches that will cause people to store fat more stubbornly.The yo-yo diet phenomenon is a perfect testament to this. Starve, starve, starve, then gain back more weight than you lost. 
 Second, what is a "solid fat?" The MyPlate web interface indicates that "solid fats" are those that are solid at room temperature, like butter and tallow, and that they should be avoided due to "empty calories." Conveniently, they've managed to lump hydrogenated oils that contain trans fats into the same "bad" group as saturated fats. Hydrogenated oils are indeed bad, but saturated fats are not. There is insufficient data linking saturated fat to heart disease, and current research says exactly that. Indeed, eating saturated fat will increase LDL in the same way that eating potatoes will increase blood glucose; OUR BODIES WERE MADE TO HANDLE THE FOOD WE EAT. But increased LDL is not indicative of heart disease, it is one of multiple risk factors. In fact, higher LDL has been shown to be protective against mortality, especially in older age. Another silly arbitrary notion: that LDL and HDL are two endogenous agents "competing" each other to either destroy or protect the host.
Very clever work on behalf of these dogmatists, though, lumping hydrogenated trans fats, which have documented detrimental effects* (probably because they were unheard of in human evolutionary history before ~100yrs ago) with falsely incriminated saturated fats. My second issue with the "solid fats" propaganda is the empty calories bit. Have we heard of fat-soluble vitamins? ‘You know, A, D, E, K… (and sometimes "Y!" haha). Well, you might be surprised that you'll only find A (retinol) and K2** (menaquinone) in…. Drum roll please… those "empty" fats! Although vegetables contain Vitamin A as beta-carotene, we are not ruminants, and we don't convert beta-carotene to (bioactive) retinol as well as those tasty cows do. Onward…
*here is an interesting review of dietary trans fats and cardiovascular disease mortality. The authors review studies that investigate trans fats from natural (read: harmless) ruminant sources as compared to those from hydrogenated plant oils or hydrogenated fish oils. 
"Only a few studies have examined the association between ruminant trans fatty acid intake and CVD risk, and the results are conflicting. Inverse associations, significant and non-significant, have been reported. Others have found no association. Significant positive correlations have not yet been found"..."[although] ruminant trans fatty acids seem to have adverse effects on blood lipids...trans fatty acids [in general] may be related to [CVD] death beyond the effect on plasma cholesterol."
 This study did find a correlation between ruminant trans fats and CVD in women, but not men, and the correlation was non-significant after adjusting for additional factors.
**K2 is also found in natto, a fermented soybean product
The notion that saturated fats are bad for you is absurd. If it were so, then the very adipose tissue that your ancestors evolved to survive famine would be insidiously trying to kill you. Not to mention, mother's milk is more than 40% saturated fats . Looks like mommy is trying to kill you too. Mother's milk also includes medium chain triglycerides, a family of saturated fatty acids found primarily in coconut oil. Gee, it's too bad that coconut oil is "bad for you" because the USDA says its too high in saturated fat, especially considering that it can aid in weight loss by increasing metabolic rate!  Also, medium chain fats like lauric acid demonstrate antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. Who would have thought that empty calories were so useful?
  The take home? In the context of REAL FOODS, i.e., it doesn't come out of a box, your food reward systems (or taste preferences) evolved to favor fat because it is energy dense. Another "bad thing that must be limited:" salt. Salt is a micronutrient that can drive an individual to eat more of it. Why? It is vital to our health. Same with cholesterol. Although it is produced endogenously, its production is highly complex, and easing the burden of your cells by eating some in your diet will not kill you. Rather, your body will do what it does best: maintain homeostasis. So don't limit your egg yolks or butter consumption, limit foods that you can't shoot or grow in your backyard. For example, eat less grains, beans, and canola oil and eat more untrimmed, fatty meat, organ meats, starchy tubers, and cruciferous vegetables. It is more satisfying, far more nutrient dense, and you can do that without counting calories.
Before I go on, I just want to mention that cholesterol is the backbone of steroid hormones (i.e. testosterone) and that your brain, which is ~2% of your body mass, contains 25% of your body's cholesterol. Also, your body needs fat for more than just surviving famine. Who knows what the plasma membrane is made of? Lipid bilayer. ‘Nuff said. If anything, you should increase the consumption of foods like these. In the context of eliminating grains and sugars, of course. Moving on…
  I could be infinitely more descriptive, but the point is this: the demonization of animal foods/fats and the concurrent replacement with non-foods that lack nutriment has undoubtedly contributed to the decline in health of our society. Accordingly, purposely excluding these foods could be detrimental to an athlete.
 So, to answer the original question: I wouldn't use MyPlate at all in assessing an athlete or conducting sports nutrition consultation, unless I wanted that athlete to lose. Instead, I would search for recommendations that are actually supported by contemporary scientific literature, or just formulate my own guidelines based on research. I will concede that there are some noteworthy suggestions that the MyPlate initiative makes, and those would be to avoid excess sugar, and to drink water instead of soda. Otherwise, it's useless.
            Accordingly, my advice to a non-elite athlete would be to eat a whole foods diet that excludes stuff like grains that promote chronic low-grade inflammation, and maybe do some carbo-loading before an endurance event that's more than an hour long. Extra measures would be taken to ensure that all vitamin and mineral requirements are satisfied for anyone, competitor or Joe Shmoe. If it were a powerlifter, I'd say eat more protein and get plenty of sleep. In terms of training, I'd say do less volume, more intensity. Of course, context its fundamental here before drawing any extraneous conclusions, so I will let my argument rest.

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