There is so much in the news about food that it is hard to know what to eat. But there is reason to believe that food can play an important role in health. I’ve written about the connection between food and inflammation, the effect of food on the bacteria in the gut, how food can influence the course of a disease and the importance of telling stories about food.
Recent scientific papers in medical journals have suggested that spicy food is associated with a lower risk of death and that a Southern diet is associated with a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.
However, scientific studies about diet are difficult to interpret because they often depend on people keeping track of what they eat. It is also hard to know if other factors are influencing the results, which is why both of these studies can only conclude an “association” between the particular diet and the outcome and not a “cause”.
In addition, diet studies are often communicated in misleading ways. This week, a comprehensive systematic review (where researchers use statistics to pool the results of several published studies) concluded that eating trans fats, the type of fat found in “processed” foods, is associated with an increased risk of death, heart disease and diabetes but did not find the same association with eating saturated fats (the type of fat found in butter, cows’ milk, meat, etc). Some news headlines concluded that it is fine to eat saturated fats, which is not what the review shows.
Similarly, celebrities and writers often promote a particular diet or lifestyle that may or may not be based on scientific evidence. In a recent article in the New York Times entitled “My Dinner with Longevity Expert, Dan Buettner (No Kale Required)” the author, a self-described “food-obsessed writer in New York…whose occupational hazards happen to include chicken wings, cheeseburgers, martinis and marathon tasting menus” shops for ingredients and and then cooks dinner with Dan Buettner, who wrote a book called “The Blue Zones” about how to lead a long life. Buettner researched the 5 areas of the world where people live to be 100 at a much higher rate than other places – Icaria, Greece; Loma LInda, California; Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan and Nicoya, Costa Rica – and found that they:
- had strong social circles that valued healthy behaviors
- put family first
- moved around a lot during the day
- developed routines to avoid stress
- ate mostly plants, especially beans
- stopped eating when their stomachs were 80% full
We can’t say for sure that these eating habits and behaviors are the cause of the longer life. But it is easy to see why we find approaches like this appealing – even I prepared Dan Buettner’s “longevity” stew…which, by the way, I do not recommend.
For now, I’m inclined to stick with food writer Michael Pollan’s advice, which is consistent with the research evidence (and the Blue Zone approach) and unlikely to cause harm:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
I would just add that it can’t hurt to eat that food while enjoying the company of friends and family.