6 different points of view on the “healthiest diet”

‘Group think’ is a phenomenon where a group of people resist and ignore external knowledge and views whilst reinforcing their own way of thinking.  This leads to ‘in-thinking’ where basically, we stop challenging others in the same group and ourselves.

In my own research, I’ve been looking at group think in a corporate setting, however I frequently see the same principles occur when it comes to how we decide what to eat.  It’s easy to troll the internet using search terms that bring up websites and blogs where everyone else agrees with our already held view.   Reading only one side of the story (or worse, stopping at what we already believe true) is a slow way of learning.

To understand a topic well, especially in a field that still has so much to learn, a continued quest for knowledge is critical.  It is also important to understand various sides to the research.  Upon consideration of opposing views, we may still believe what we already believe.  And that’s fine too, but our reasons will be all that more stronger for the process.

To help with this challenge, here I have summarized the views of six respected leaders contributing to the field of nutrition.  Three are physicians, two are journalists and one is a scientist.  Whilst they all have different opinions on what we should be eating and why I think they’re all contributing to the field in someway.

Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan

Who is he?  An author who focuses on the American food system as well as healthy eating.  He is a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley’s Grad School of Journalism  and was named in TIME magazines world’s 100 most influential people in 2010.

His nutritional philosophy: Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  It shouldn’t be complicated.  He is also interested in a healthy planet as much as healthy people.

So in his view, what should we eat?  Eat mostly plants including vegetables, fruits, whole grains.  He thinks that the most important foods missing from the standard American diet are leafy greens and fermented foods with live cultures.  He believes in a mostly vegetarian diet but eating meat once or twice a week is fine (think of meat as a side dish, not a main) and also thinks eggs and fish are good.  Brown rice over white.  Organic over conventional.  He’s also makes comment on how we should eat: small portions, don’t eat until “full”, no seconds or snacking, share communal meals, and take pleasure in your food.  Eat home cooked meals, try new spices and foods, and if you can, eat food from your own garden.

And what not to eat:  Processed food (anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food, anything with more than 5 ingredients listed on the packet or an ingredient you can’t pronounce), high fructose corn syrup, GMO food, probably soy, feedlot meat (and limit total meat consumption).

Best known book:  ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’, ‘The Botany of Desire’ and ‘In Defense of Food’

My comments:  Pollan’s research on the American food system brings another dimension to the food debate.  He writes about animal welfare, sustainable farming, the environment, organic farming, food safety and farm policy as well as health.  I like his simple and common sense approach to healthy eating which he doesn’t over prescribe but lets us be our own guides.

Dr Joel Fuhrman.

Dr Joel Fuhrman.

Dr Joel Fuhrman

Who is he?  A Physician who specializes in nutritional research.  He’s best known for his ANDI scoring system (micronutrients / calories), his position on Whole Foods Market Scientific Advisory Board and his appearances on the Dr OZ show.

His nutritional philosophy:  We should be “nutritarians” and eat foods that are high in micronutrients for their calories.

So in his view, what should we eat?  Lots and lots of vegetables (especially leafy greens) as well as beans, fruits, nuts and seeds.  He says we should particularly focus on “G-BOMBS” which are greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries and seeds.

And what not to eat:  Fish is not recommended due to methylmercury, meats and eggs are also not recommended.  Fat free dairy rates higher than full fat dairy, but neither are recommended.  Cheese has it’s own category and is right down the bottom of Fuhrman’s scoring system with olive oil and butter (because they are high in fat for their nutritional value), refined grains, refined sugar, sodium and caffeine are all at the low scoring end.

Best known book: ‘East to Live’ and ‘Disease Proof Your Child’

My comments:  I’m not sure how you’d get enough vitamin D, B and omega 3 on this diet.  Whether it’s high enough in protein as well is the classic vegan / omnivore debate.  However I like Fuhrman’s views on eating foods that give us the best nutritional punch for its calories.  I think Fuhrman is also a great source of advice for those who chose to be vegans (not only in terms of getting the right nutrients for a vegan diet but also eliminating high processed vegan foods).

Dr Dean Ornish.

Dr Dean Ornish.

Dr Dean Ornish

Who is he?  A physician who is a clinical professor of Medicine at the University of California and the founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute.  Steve Jobs was rumored to have followed Ornish’s diet.

His nutritional philosophy:  Eating a high-fiber, low fat vegetarian diet will help you stay healthy and lose weight.

So in his view, what should we eat?  Veggies and fruits, grains, beans and legumes in whatever quantities you like.  Non-fat dairy and egg whites in moderation.  He also advocates 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day and stress management.

And what not to eat:  Meat of all kind, oils and oil containing products such as margarine and most salad dressings, avocadoes, olives, nuts and seeds, dairy products, sugar and sugar derivatives, alcohol, anything commercially prepared.  Ornish thinks that no more than 10% of our diet should be made up of fat.

Best known book: ‘Eat More, Weigh Less’

My comments:  Dean Ornish is the extreme end of low fat, high carb representative in this post which is quite against the grain of where most nutritionists now believe we should be eating.  But, the point of this post was to share a variety of views!  I also wanted to summarize his views because they are so often publically attacked by the next guy who is on the other end of the fat / carb extreme.  Where Ornish is a bit more aligned with other thinking of today is a high consumption of vegetables and fiber and rejection of processed foods.

Gary Taubes.

Gary Taubes.

Gary Taubes

Who is he?  A scientific research journalist.  He initially wrote about cold fusion theory in physics before turning to health.  He’s notorious for controversial articles and his public criticisms of Dean Ornish (the guy above).

His nutritional philosophy:  Carbohydrates generate insulin and insulin generates fat.

So in his view, what should we eat?  Fat and protein.  Meat (including bacon, steak, sausage and burger – just hold the bun), cheese and other dairy (make it full fat), eggs, butter, oil, nuts and salad veggies.  Lots of fat (including saturated fat) is encouraged for satiety. 

And what not to eat:  Carbohydrate.  Not just refined carbs such as bread, cookies and pasta but also a large number of vegetables, especially high carb veggies such as potatoes, corn and carrots and fruit.  Taubes also thinks you shouldn’t exercise if you are trying to lose weight.

Best known books:  ‘Why We Get Fat’ and ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’

My opinion:  Taubes believes the high fat, low carb diet (a.k.a the Atkins diet) is the “healthiest” diet.  Whilst countless people have undoubtedly lost weight on such a diet, to me, Taubes’ focus is more on weight loss than health.  Taubes aims to be controversial and quite often I find his writing a bit sensationalist, but what I do like is that he is always challenging the status quo.

Dr Loren Cordain.

Dr Loren Cordain.

Dr Loren Cordain

Who is he?  A scientist who is the founder of the Paleo Movement.  He has a PhD in Health from the University of Utah and is currently a professor in the department of health and exercise science at Colorado State Uni.

His nutritional philosophy:  We should be eating foods that mimic our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors.  According to Cordain to replicate the diets of our ancestors we should be eating a lot of protein, fiber, fat and potassium and only a little carbohydrate and sodium.

So in his view, what should we eat?  Lots of grass fed meat, seafood and eggs, low starch vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds, healthful oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado and coconut).

And what not to eat:  Cereal grains, legumes (all beans including peanuts), dairy, starchy fruits and vegetables (especially potatoes), salt, refined sugar and refined vegetable oils.

Best known book: ‘The Paleo Diet’.

My comments:  The Paleo diet is another backlash against the low fat, high carb craze.  I like its ideology of going back to basics and eating real food.  The biggest difference between this and some of the other whole food diets above is the amount of animal protein consumed and the elimination of grains and beans.  I’ve also found that Cordain’s guidelines of what the Paleo diet entails and what some other Paleo advocates promote varies in the detail.

Dr Mark Hyman.

Dr Mark Hyman.

Dr Mark Hyman

Who is he?  Another American physician. a four-time New York Times bestselling author (which is also endorsed by Bill Clinton) and, of course, you will have also have seen him on Dr Oz

His nutritional philosophy:  Mother Nature is the best pharmacist and food is the most powerful drug on the plant (ie, nutrition can prevent and heal).  He promotes foods that are low-allergy, whole, anti-inflammatory, organic and fresh.  He’s also big on other lifestyle factors such as cutting down on screen time and stress and increasing physical activity and getting adequate sleep.

So in his view, what should we eat?  Lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats (olive, fish and coconut oils, avocado) spiced up with chia, hemp, parsley and cilantro.  A small amount of whole grains, beans and lean animal protein (small wild fish, grass fed meat and farm eggs).  He’s also big on taking supplements such as probiotics, vitamins and minerals and omega 3 fats.

And what not to eat:  high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated (trans) fats, pesticides, artificial sweeteners and basically anything man made.  He writes a lot about food allergens (dairy and gluten, he believes, are the main culprit but suggests some people may need to eliminate corn, eggs, soy, nuts, nightshades, citrus and yeast) but says we only need to be cutting these things out if we are sensitive to them.

Best known book:  ‘The Blood Sugar Solution’.

My comments:  Mark Hyman acknowledges that we have individual needs, that some of us are sensitive to things like gluten and dairy, but for those of us that aren’t sensitive to those foods there is no need to cut it out.  I also like his approach to lifestyle.  The only times he looses me is in some of the smaller details.  As an example, he is a raw milk advocate.  I think it’s too risky to be feeding my family unpasturized milk.  I’m also not convinced that all disease is preventable through nutrition – that’s another post.

There are so many other guys  (and gals) that I could put on this list, Mark Sisson (Primal Living), Barry Sears (Zone), Joy Bauer, Dr David Katz, Dr Andrew Weil, Robb Wolf (The Paleo Solution), Robert Lustig, Dallas and Melissa Hartwig (The Whole 30), the list could go on and on. I had to stop somewhere, so I stopped at the six above.

I find it really interesting to see where these views converge and diverge.

There’s (mostly) agreement that:

  • We should be eating whole foods and not processed foods.
  • Vegetables are good for us, especially leafy greens.   (Some debate about moderate and high carb veggies).
  • Fruits are good for us.  (some debate about how much due to carbohydrate content again).
  • We should be considering lifestyle factors such as sleep, stress levels and exercise in our overall health plan

Foods that get more yes votes than no (but are debated):

  • Nuts and seeds and other “good fats” such as avocado
  • Coconut oil (a MCT saturated fat)
  • Beans and legumes
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Whole grains

Foods that get more no votes than yes (but are also hotly debated):

  • Dairy
  • Gluten
  • Refined oils
  • Sodium
  • Artificial sweeteners

Where there is total disagreement:

  • Meat.  Two think we should eat a lot.  Two think we should eat a little.  Two think we shouldn’t eat animal protein at all.
  • Soy.  I’ve put this here because whilst Ornish espouses the benefits of soy, Cordain the dangers of soy, the others tend to sit on the fence a bit acknowledging the confusion around both the benefits and problems.  Most agree that if you are going to eat soy products eat it only occasionally, go for unprocessed (edamame and soy beans), or at most, lightly processed (tofu and milk) but stay clear of the heavily processed soy (such as soy cheeses and vegan meat substitutes made from soy).
  • And probably most importantly, the biggest disagreement is about how we should be combining our food into meals.  From high fat and protein with little or no carb (Taubes); to reasonably high fat,  20%-35% protein with moderate carb (Cordain); a more moderate mix of carb, fat and protein (Hyman and Pollan); to lower fat 100% plant based diet (Fuhrman); to high carb plant based diet with only 10% of calories coming from fat (Ornish).  It’s for this reason many of these guys would probably hate to see a list of foods like the one above because one of the biggest disagreements isn’t so much the type food, but in what proportions we eat them.

The point of this post wasn’t to try to extrapolate a “healthiest diet” out of piecing together six different views anyway.  And it’s hardly a scientific way to come up with a single “best diet”.  Furthermore, I don’t believe there is a singular healthiest diet.  Whilst we are discovering new things about how we react to different nutritional regimes, saying there is a singular best diet is assuming that our bodies all behave in the same way.  Clearly, all these diets have worked for a large number of people.  All these guys have best selling books and are highly regarded in their field.  Why?  Because they all have a lot of people who believe in what they are saying based on their own experiences.

Some real examples from around here on the importance of individual needs: after several experimental gluten free weeks in our house, my husband found that the acid reflux which he had been complaining for years had disappeared, he had a lot more energy and lost weight (although he didn’t need to lose any).  In contrast, I had no noticeable changes in any aspect eating the same gluten free diet.  Another thing my husband and my bodies must process quite differently is meat.  I eat some meat because I think it balances out my diet (and the rest of the family loves it), but too much protein makes me feel heavy and blocked up.

Ethics and personal values are also a big part of this picture.  Morally, if your values on the environment or animal welfare extend to how you eat then that’s your right.  Embrace a diet that fits with you personal code.

Gary Hamel, one of the world's top business thinkers.

Gary Hamel, one of the world’s top business thinkers.

What’s Gary Hamel doing in a post about healthiest diets?  Hamel says that we need to be humble to learn.  I agree!  We need to ask questions.  We need to keep reading new research and ideas and accept that at some stage, we are probably going to be wrong about something and should be prepared to change our minds.

If you are really interested in nutrition, I encourage you to read a variety of views with an open mind.  Others’ views may make you even more sure of where you stand now, but they may just open up another piece of the puzzle for you particularly in a science that still has so much to learn.

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15 Responses to 6 different points of view on the “healthiest diet”

  1. Robyn Booth says:

    Fantastic read! So much information online and elsewhere, that it is easy to get overload. It is helpful to get a summary of some of the points of view about nutrition from a few sources and experts. Nutrition tends to be one of those subjects where people get quite adament that their way is the only way, so it’s nice to hear from someone who is open to different points of view and acknowledge that there is relevant information and advice even from people you may not agree wholeheartedly with.

  2. VJ says:

    Great post – nice to see them all side by side. I agree with you that playing around with what works for you personally is a good one too. Out of curiosity, what kind of foods is Michale Pollan talking about with his fermented foods?

  3. Kiwicommunicator says:

    It’s kind of comforting to know that we don’t have to subscribe to one size fits all! Over the years, it has been interesting to watch food fads and fears come and go – often with limited factual information to back them up. Keep up the good work.

    • Sarah says:

      There will be many more food fads that will come and go for sure with varying degrees of scientific back up. The research will also expand with time. There is still so much that we don’t know in this area – it’s one of the reasons why I find it such an exciting area of science.

  4. Joe San Martin says:

    Anyone supporting pizza? Just kidding, this post is brilliant.

    • Sarah says:

      Ha! I’m sure someone does! I think Weight Watchers might have an “approved” pizza?!

      • Kiwicommunicator says:

        They do! They also have approved cake! They make profit out of selling ghastly stuff full of artificial sweeteners. Pity – it undermines all their other good health messages.

      • runningmelon says:

        I totally agree with you. I think you are better to have a good, proper piece of real cake on special occasions and ENJOY it than ‘fake’ cake after dinner every night that’s full of crap and doesn’t ever quite taste like the ‘real’ thing.

  5. Kiwicommunicator says:

    I have just revisited this blog and notice that all the experts are men. And yet, I suspect that the majority of household food is bought and prepared by women and those who are most anxious about nutrition for weight loss are women. Do we have any experts who are faced with the daily decision making around producing three meals a day for the varying tastes of family members?

    • Sarah says:

      I wondered if anyone was going to comment on that! It did cross my mind when I was writing the post that they were six men. Joy Bauer (www.joybauer.com) almost made the list but the selection came down to who came up in a number of searches I did which included articles reposted through Facebook, a series of google searches on the topic and data on the best selling authors in the field. The methodology could be pulled to pieces but there was at least a method in the selection. As for if any of them do the day to day shopping and cooking for their families? I have no idea. It’s a good question.

  6. Rayca says:

    Dr. Fuhrman is not “100%” plant. He believes in moderate amounts of animal protein, i.e., fish twice a week. He is basically Michael Pollan.

    • Ana says:

      I agree Dr Furhman doesn’t promote 100% plant but on his food nutrient density scale, where raw leafy greens are at the top (at 100), and non-green, non starchy veggies are 50 he rates fish at 15 and red meat at 8.

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