16 FEBRUARY 2022

Food and eating are both major parts of everyday life. It’s linked not only to receiving an essential intake of calories but is also heavily connected with social interaction. It is therefore not surprising that we spend a lot of time thinking about what we eat, or sometimes more specifically, how we should eat! Flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, LCHF, keto, paleo, 5:2, gluten-free, lactose-free, raw-food and clean eating, are some trendy words often heard today in connection with people’s diets. They cover a broad range of different eating patterns, ranging from the LCHF diet, which consists of a high intake of fat and protein, often from meat, while avoiding carbohydrates, to raw-food eaters which concerns staying away from cooked foods, or vegans avoiding any products derived from animals. In some way, most of these diets claim to have some benefits to our health. But how is that possible when they are all so different? Is there a right solution to what we should eat to stay healthy?

In order to answer this question, some suggest that we should take a look at our historical eating behavior. Until agriculture was developed, around 10 000 years ago, most people lived as gatherers and hunters. This has fuelled the theory that our bodies are adapted to eat as we did in the Palaeolithic era, the period from around 2.6 million years ago up to the start of the agricultural revolution. Supposedly, this is what our genes specialised in and they have not yet had the time to adapt to farmed foods. This idea is the reason behind the popularity of for example the paleo or “stone-age” diet, made popular in the early 2000s by Loren Codain among others. These early theories about the stone age diet focused on a high intake of lean meat, vegetables, and fruit but urged to avoid things like dairy products, grains, sugar, legumes, processed foods, salt, alcohol, and coffee. Paleo advocates, like Cordain, suggested that by eating like our ancestors, we could stay away from modern-day health issues like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and more.

In more recent years, however, the suggested paleo diets have received a fair amount of criticism. The sequencing of the human genome and developments in DNA technology, which make it possible to study the remains of early humans, have found evidence that humans have throughout history evolved rapidly in response to changing diets. This discovery undermines the theory that our digestion system should have stayed almost unchanged over time. It was also discovered that the excessive intake of meat our ancestors, claimed to be about 50 % of their calorie intake, was largely overestimated. It was found that our ancestors sometimes lived long stretches of time without any intake of meat, and probably no more than an average of 20-30 % of their calorie intake came from meat. Furthermore, remains of starch granules were found on tools and teeth of humans living more than 100 000 years ago, suggesting that these types of foods were known to us long before we became farmers. Allowing our genes plenty of time to adapt to eating grains and starchy food.

Now we know a little bit more about how our ancestors lived, and how our genes have evolved to adapt to various diets in the past. But what do the nutritional recommendations of today tell us?

If we look at the recommendations from the Swedish Food Agency we can learn that if we are a person who is considered as healthy and does a normal amount of exercise, we can think of our food intake in the shape of a plate. On this plate, there should be two equal parts and one smaller. The two equal parts contain; on one side vegetables and on the other food rich in carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice or potatoes. The smaller part represents the protein intake.

Tallrik för den som rör sig enligt rekommendationerna, illustrerade bilder Eps-fil 

But what is really meant by protein? Does it mean that we have to get our protein from eating meat? The answer is no, not at all. On the contrary, it is encouraged that most of the protein comes from other sources. It’s even advisable to stay away from red meat and processed meat like sausage and ham if one wants to minimize the risk for certain types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. But these days an emerging number of research shows that it’s not only red meat that is the villain. An Italian study found that an intake of 4 eggs, per week, could be linked to a 75 % increased mortality risk by cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, milk consumption has been linked to increased risk of breast and prostate cancer, osteoporosis, insulin resistance and even acne.

Despite this, many people are very fond of eating meat, egg and dairy products and even believe that it’s healthy for them. Think about all the diets mentioned before, telling people to eat almost exclusively meat and fat! In Sweden alone, meat consumption increased by a frightening 45 % between 1990-2016. Swedes also eat almost double the amount of meat compared to the global average.

If once again we take a short look back in time, it’s not difficult to see why this belief that meat and dairy is healthy for us prevails. From 1950 to 2010, global meat production increased five-fold, from less than 50 million tons to over 275 million tons.  At the same time as the industrial meat industry emerging, it has been increasingly easier to reach private customers with commercials. Even in Sweden, the dairy lobby made every school cafeteria serve milk to children, claiming it was signed for healthy bone growth.

American Meat Institute 1950 Protein-Family Style | Mad Men Art | Vintage  Ad Art Collection 

It’s tempting to think that this is something from the past, but the fact is that the attempts to make us eat more meat- and dairy products have never been stronger. Just take a look at the vast number of products containing whey or skimmed milk sugar, even though there is absolutely no reason for the product to contain any milk.

Getting back to the general dietary advice of today. Most scientific literature on nutrition agrees that it’s recommended to have a high intake of fruit, vegetables, fiber, healthy fats such as unsaturated fats from plants, nuts, seeds, whole grains and some protein. There is even strong scientific evidence that natural fiber-rich foods contribute to decreased risk of diseases such as hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, type-2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

So, is there a final answer to whether our diets are healthy enough? Considering that the most likely cause of death in large parts of the world today is associated with obesity, cardiovascular diseases and cancer, the answer is most likely no. Does this mean we all have to become vegans to live healthy lives? Most definitely not, but a change to a less animal-based menu seems to be beneficial according to what we know today. One suggestion is to start by switching at least some of your meals every week to plant or fungi-based products. Of course, we are biased for fungi, but that doesn’t make it any less true that fungi contain almost 60 % protein, fiber and small amounts of healthy fat as well as no sugars.  

Did you know that mycoprotein from fungi was also found in a study to be about twice as powerful as milk protein for muscle building purposes? Pretty cool, right?

 

Sources

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loren_Cordain
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/
  3. https://www.livsmedelsverket.se/matvanor-halsa--miljo/kostrad/tallriksmodellen/illustrationer-tallriksmodellen
  4. https://www.cancerfonden.se/nyhet/tydlig-koppling-mellan-rott-kott-och-cancer
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  6. Buehring GC, Shen HM, Jensen HM, Jin DL, Hudes M, Block G. (2015) Exposure to Bovine Leukemia Virus Is Associated with Breast Cancer: A Case-Control Study. PLOS ONE 10(9). doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0134304
  7. Mikami K, Ozasa K, Miki T, Watanabe Y, Mori M, Kubo T, Suzuki K, Wakai K, Nakao M, Tamakoshi A. (2021) Dairy products and the risk of developing prostate cancer: A large-scale cohort study (JACC Study) in Japan. Cancer Med 10(20) p. 7298-7307. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/cam4.4233
  8. Michaëlsson K, Wolk A, Langenskiöld S, Basu S, Warensjö Lemming E, Melhus H, Byberg L. (2014) Milk intake and risk of mortality and fractures in women and men: cohort studies. BMJ Oct 349. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g6015
  9. Schmidt K, Cromer G, Burhans M, Kuzma J, Hagman D, Fernando I, Utzschneider K, Holte S, Kratz M. (2018) Impact of Dairy Food Intake on Glucose Homeostasis: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Current Developments in Nutrition 6(3). doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzz044.P08-039-19
  10. Aghasi M, Golzarand M, Shab-Bidar S, Aminianfar A, Omidian M, Taheri F. (2018) Dairy intake and acne development: A meta-analysis of observational studies. Clinical nutrition. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2018.04.015
  11. https://www.naturskyddsforeningen.se/artiklar/fragor-och-svar-om-kott-och-miljo/
  12. https://endindustrialmeat.org/cruelty-secrecy-and-chemical-dependency/
  13. https://www.madmenart.com/vintage-advertisement/american-meat-institute-1950-protein-family-style/
  14. Nordic Nutrition Recommendations 2012: Integrating nutrition and physical activity. ISBN 978-92-893-2670-4. http://dx.doi.org/10.6027/Nord2014-00
  15. https://mycorena.com/promyc
  16. https://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/featurednews/title_723771_en.html
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