How bamboozled are we by conflicting health information? Figuring out what to eat isn't getting easier, so one expert worth checking in with is Dr. Andrew Weil. He's researched nutrition worldwide and he tracks the latest science. To boot, he likes to eat and is a serious cook. His new book is True Food: Seasonal, Sustainable, Simple, Pure.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Every week, we hear different information about what's good for us and what's not. How do you evaluate all of this?
Andrew Weil: I organize an annual conference on nutrition and health for clinicians. We bring the leading nutrition researchers together to present their findings. What I have seen is that, in the group of nutrition researchers, there's a very high degree of consensus on all the big questions. For example: topics such as what defines an optimum diet, what are good fats, what are bad fats, what are good carbs, what are bad carbs.
Somehow, that consensus information is not making it into the training of health professionals, and it certainly isn't making it into the media and to the general public.
People think it's totally confusing out there and throw up their hands and say, "You may as well just eat anything." That's not the way it is. We really know a great deal about what is good for you, what is not good for you and how diet correlates with health.
LRK: You know what the next question is: What are they?
AW: If you look around the world, the two traditional diets that have the best correlation with health and longevity are the traditional Japanese diet and the Mediterranean diet. The traditional Japanese diet is not very exportable, except to Japanese restaurants. It's very labor intensive and has a lot of strange ingredients in it.
But the Mediterranean diet is easily adaptable. People like it, and I've used that as a template for my anti-inflammatory diet. The essence of the Mediterranean diet is lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, little meat (except on feast occasions), but plenty of fish, which are sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Olive oil is a main fat, whole grain products, sugar in moderation, red wine if you like that. That's a diet that's easily appealing to many people.
I'd say there are two areas of great misunderstanding in the public. One is not knowing the difference between a whole grain and a pulverized grain. Products made from powdered grains from flour really disturb blood sugar, and they're a major factor in obesity, in Type 2 diabetes. When you eat a whole grain that's where you actually can see a grain or a big piece of the grain. Digestion of the starch is slow and conversion to blood sugar is slow. If I ask most people in this country to name a whole grain food, they'll say whole wheat bread. Whole wheat bread is not a whole grain food. It's made from flour, and that's very different.
The other big misunderstanding I see is not knowing the difference between fruit and fruit juice. Fruit has fiber in it, which blunts the effect of the sugar. Fruit juice is a concentrated sugar source. In California and other states, when there's the grassroots movements to get soda vending machines out of schools, they've been replaced with fruit juice vending machines. There's not really much difference.
LRK: You are saying that a can of Coke, in terms of sugar, is the same thing as orange juice.
AW: Yes, exactly. The new research coming out on sugar is very concerning. One of the main components of sugars is a compound called fructose. It's often called fruit sugar, which sounds innocuous, but the human body can't digest fructose. It disrupts liver metabolism. Table sugar is half fructose. Some sweeteners like agave syrup are much higher, like 80 percent fructose. You want to really minimize consumption of that, and that means trying to cut down on all sweets. If there was one thing that I'd focus on in our culture, it would be sugary drinks. If we could really focus on that and make those go away, that would be a huge advance.
Dr. Weil's recipe for Tofu Curry with Cauliflower, Rice Noodles and Cashews
LRK: Fats. These are another puzzle. We hear we shouldn't; then we hear we should. Then we hear that ones that were supposedly not good for us, like coconut fat, are now OK.
AW: Coconut fat is not something I'm going to take on, because it's an area of huge controversy and I don't know the answer to it. I'll wait and see. At the moment, I'm wary about it.
In general, we are still under the spell of the low-fat era that was really dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, when people saw fat as the main culprit in their diet. All the new research suggests that fat is not what makes you fat. We need fat -- we need the right kinds of fat -- and you can have enough fat in the diet to make food tasty, if you're eating the right kinds of it.
The right kind: Olive oil is the best. You want to avoid margarine and artificially hardened fats, and things that might have trans fats in them. There are a whole lot of rules about that, but we should not look at fat as a bad thing.
On the other hand, I think the new research suggests that carbohydrates have a huge influence on our weight and metabolism. The trick here is to eat slower-digesting carbohydrates that don't rapidly turn into blood sugar. That mostly means trying to minimize consumption of products made with flour and sugar.
LRK: What are the clues that can tell us what's right for each of us as individuals?
AW: Very good question, because we are all individual and we are biochemically unique. I think one of the interesting frontiers of nutritional research is nutrigenomics, correlating individual genetics with what we need. It is very possible that foods that are good for some people are not good for others. Some people can metabolize soy in ways that really give them strong protection against breast and prostate cancer. Other people can't. Some people may do better on lower-fat diets, whereas others do better on lower-carbohydrate diets. Soon, I think, we're going to be able to map our genes in ways that will guide us towards individual prescription of foods and diets.