Back to the future
May 3rd 2017, 18:16
To eat or not to eat—that is the question. Or, to put it another way, what is the perfect diet for health, perfect weight and longevity?
In the close to three decades since we've been publishing, WDDTY has seen (and, in many cases, seen off) the Cambridge Diet (a very low-calorie diet), the F-Plan Diet (F is for fibre), the Atkins Diet (one of the first low-carb diets), the Hip and Thigh Diet (more very low-cal), the Zone and Montignac (two variations on a low-carb theme), the 5:2 Diet (intermittent fasting, or eating less food two days a week) and now the Paleo Diet (a grain-free, dairy-free, refined sugar- and carb-free diet of 'traditional' whole foods our ancestors presumably would have eaten).
Over the years, nutritionists have done a volte-face numerous times, first extolling the wonders of low-fat and complex carbs, then ditching that when new evidence emerged showing that high-fat and protein-based diets led to greater weight loss. They've swung from the importance of constant grazing and snacking to recommending that we leave at least five hours between meals.
Dr Robert Atkins, the first to recognize that a diet high in carbs led to weight gain, sparked off a diet revolution in the 1970s with his revolutionary Atkins Diet. However, at the time, Atkins didn't fuss overly much about the quality of food, allowing highly processed oils, and poor-quality meat and seafood. Atkins-labelled highly processed 'diet bars' and shakes containing artificial sweeteners and other fake foods were another feature of his diet.
Atkins also focused so much on eating high-protein, low-carb that Americans trying to shed the pounds looked upon it as a licence to tuck into a plateful of bacon, butter and steak, but pitifully little veg.
A year after the turn of the new millennium, the Paleo, or Stone Age, diet entered the public's imagination, and many nutritionists and functional medicine practitioners (including our own Dr Sarah Myhill) have extolled its virtues for helping ill people regain their health.
Like WDDTY, American nutrition pioneer Dr Joseph Mercola is always on the lookout for the perfect diet. Now age 62, during his many decades as a physician treating some 25,000 patients, he says he has been continuously refining what exactly constitutes the healthiest fare. And rather than looking for a weight-loss aid, he's looking for a diet for a long and healthy life.
After a good deal of research for his latest book—Fat for Fuel (Hay House, May 2017)—Mercola has come up with what he terms Mitrochondrial Metabolic Therapy, or MMT, which is essentially a Paleo diet, but with a number of important refinements.
One of his important concerns is that the current Paleo diet may be placing too much emphasis on protein—up to 38 per cent of the diet—and allowing too many natural sugars in the form of sweet potato and fruit. Mercola's research suggests that such an amount of protein may be too much for optimal health and that too much natural sugar could inhibit the real point of his MMT diet—burning fuel for fat.
For this reason, the MMT diet limits protein even more and adds more fat, which his evidence suggests is the optimal balance to convert the body from a sugar-burning machine to a fat-burning one.
Dr Mercola has amassed an impressive amount of evidence showing that burning fat as fuel reconstitutes the body's mitochondria—the 'energy packs' of cells—and creates far fewer free radicals. He also claims that it provides far less sugar to feed cancer cells, and inhibits certain metabolic pathways that are usually overactive in many degenerative conditions.
Mercola makes big claims for this diet—as a preventative against cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and more—but one fascinating aspect of the diet is its ability to turn off pain (see Special Report, page 28).
A decent amount of evidence shows that a high-fat, low-carb diet mitigates against all the processes that lead to inflammation and, in turn, result in migraines, arthritis and other states of muscle or joint pain.
This is not a diet for the faint-hearted. To carry it out properly, you need to monitor your protein and fat intakes, and Dr Mercola even recommends monitoring blood glucose levels to ensure they are low enough for you to make the conversion from sugar-burning to fat-burning. But as our ancestors couldn't always bring home the Stone Age equivalent of a steak for every meal, this diet of the future may more closely resemble the one from our past.