Is Conventional Wisdom Catching Up?

For a decade, from roughly 1997 to 2007, I read all the magazines I thought would help me with the whole diet and exercise rigmarole: Shape, Self, Cooking Light. I wanted tips, tricks, and recipes. Thinking back now from the vantage point of Primal, it occurs to me that during that time there was a slight evolution in the kind of advice they sold, from low-fat/high-carb to low-fat/high-carb with modifications. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still deeply entangled with CW, but some of their advice is beginning to sound familiar.

I was more than happy to snack between meals, as they advised, mostly because I was starving already at 10am despite having eaten a “good” breakfast. So I started by having a banana. That ought to hold me over until lunch, right? That’s when I discovered how it was possible to be hungrier after eating something than before. I consulted the glossy experts and began eating yogurt during my morning break instead so the protein could help me feel more satisfied.

But wait a minute. If the experts suggest eating something with more protein to help you feel satisfied, then why can’t they take the next logical step?

First, let’s step back in history. Some of the biggest changes can be seen in Cooking Light‘s recipes. I remember the days when they prioritized low-fat, low-calorie, and outright fake food products. Here’s an example from 1995, Creamy Chicken-and-Rice Casserole. The ingredient list includes “chicken-flavored rice-and-vermicelli mix” (You know! Rice-a-Roni!), chicken breasts, margarine (Yowza!), nonfat sour cream, and reduced-fat cream of mushroom soup. Compare that to 2008’s Parmesan Chicken and Rice Casserole with chicken thighs, whipping cream, and (obviously) Parmesan cheese. I remember a feature about grilled burgers from the recent past that had a disclaimer about the 15% fat ground beef they were using in the recipes, justifying the higher fat to prevent Hockey Puck Syndrome (HPS).

It’s everywhere lately. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (no, I’m not making that up) has been running a Are You Pouring On the Pounds? campaign since 2009 about the dangers of sugary beverages. Check out Self‘s 20 Best Foods for Weight Loss list, (Didn’t you know the Omega-3s in wild salmon “improve insulin sensitivity—which helps build muscle and decrease belly fat”?) which include almonds, eggs, and olive oil. Men’s Health touts grass-fed beef for its favorable Omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) profile. The NYTimes in particular has been on the beneficial-fat wagon recently, here in an article about full fat salad dressings unlocking the vitamins in leafy greens.

The problem, however, is that they’re half-assing it.


I get it. CW is backed into a corner. There are multi-billions of dollars building up the exercise and weight loss industries. You can’t just put out a press release saying, “Oh, sorry about the last 40 years of poorly researched and clearly biased exercise and nutrition information.” You can’t undo all the corn and grain farm subsidies. You can’t just accuse that cute little Quaker on the oatmeal container of killing everybody.

But you can quietly begin to shift your message. And they’ll do it using the language of Paleo/Primal, words like “insulin sensitivity” and “anti-inflammatory” and “metabolic syndrome.” Only they won’t understand why it’s still not working. And when cave-style eating gets its time in the limelight—and it’s coming, mark my words—we will be undermined by all that’s come before, how they’ve pilfered from what works and added it to what has failed. Why?

Yeah, that ain't gonna cut it.

Because even though the new advice is seemingly well-meaning, it will backfire for many people. If you are someone who is becoming insulin resistant and you eat fat with your carbs, your fat cells will greedily pack it all in. As long as there are carbs involved, the fat will stay locked up, because the body will know it has a more readily available energy supply. Until the body is retrained to pull from its fat warehouses, those fat cells will stay plump and they will ask for more in the form of insistent hunger cues.

Researching this post was one of the most frustrating and heart-breaking tasks I’ve undertaken in a while. We’re surrounded by CW in our lives, and we get used to shaking our heads and moving on. But having to look at page after page of wrong information specifically targeted at the very people who need Paleo/Primal most? It begins to seem criminal. Especially when media feigns interest in low-carb Diets just long enough to shoot them down with CW-based fallacies.

I found one particularly depressing story about a woman, the articles director at Self, who’s struggled with her weight her entire life, yo-yoing and trying every Diet only to predictably fail:

I was tired of being chubby, tired of having a tough time finding cute clothes in my size (14) and, most of all, tired of feeling guilty about food. I needed a weight loss plan for pleasure junkies, one that not only allowed but encouraged desserts and dinners out. I needed a plan that was all about what I could eat, not what I couldn’t.

So she consults a trainer, a dietician, and a psychology professor who is a self-claimed expert in “mindful eating” and doles out advice like “Ultimately, you want to eat less but experience more satisfaction.” (I would love to know how that’s possible on a regular diet.) She reaches the conclusion that to lose weight, she must start restricting calories. So her mindfulness guru suggests figuring out a way to shave 500 calories a day, and thus, through the faulty logic of calories in/calories out, a pound a week. Her story is peppered with defeats (“I slipped back into my old behavior.” Ya think?!). Her results? She lost 10 pounds in 5 months. Five months of torture and trying to rewire her brain to develop more willpower. When I saw her results, I thought, “Huh. I lost that in one month with no torture and all the bacon I could eat.”

You know what she calls her plan? The Pleasure Diet.


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