Troubles with healthy food: Looking at kale, plus the Paleo Diet

juiced kale

There were a couple of interesting news items recently that once again drove home the point that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

The first article, in the New York Times, Kale? Juicing? Trouble Ahead was written by Jennifer Berman. As she writes, “I was into health food before it was cool. There were only two other people I knew who frequented my neighborhood health food store in the late ’80s: an emaciated man with a gray ponytail and a woman with a surprising amount of underarm hair, who smelled of B.O. and patchouli.”

So she was feeling pretty good about herself when the rest of the world caught up with her – until she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism at the age of 40, and then her teeth became highly problematic (5 cavities in one trip). The first diagnosis related back to the quantity of cruciferous vegetables she’s eaten – e.g. kale, Brussels sprouts, etc. and the second to a combination of too much fruit juice (especially lemon in water) compounded by using a natural toothpaste with no flouride.

And the second article, from Michael Pollan, tells us what’s wrong with the Paleo Diet. For those who may not be aware of it, the Paleo Diet tries  “to mimic our ancient ancestors – minus the animal-skin fashions and the total lack of technology, of course. The adherents eschew what they believe comes from modern agriculture (wheat, dairy, legumes, for instance) and rely instead on meals full of meat, nuts, and vegetables – foods they claim are closer to what hunter-gatherers ate.”

In a comprehensive interview, Pollan explains what the problem with this approach is – not the least of which is that “Most people who tell you with great confidence that this is what our ancestors ate – I think they’re kind of blowing smoke.”

He goes into further detail in five areas, offering some common sense advice along the way. Here are some highpoints:

Meat: As Pollan explains, “the animals bred by modern agriculture – which are fed artificial diets of corn and grains, and beefed up with hormones and antibiotics – have nutritional profiles far from wild game.  Pastured animals, raised on diets of grass and grubs, are closer to their wild relatives; even these, however, are nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate.  So, basically, enjoy meat in moderation, and choose pastured meat if possible.”

Don’t Shun Bread: “Paleo obsessives might shun bread, but bread, as it has been traditionally made, is a healthy way to access a wide array of nutrients from grains.”

Eat More Microbes: “Microbes, such as those in our gut, play a key role  in our health” – so eat more fermented foods like  beer, cheese, yogurt, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, pickles. 

Don’t go even more extreme, and follow a raw diet  “We cook to get our hands on more nutrients, not fewer.”

And cook for yourself: “The food industry has done a great job of convincing eaters that corporations can cook better than we can. The problem is, it’s not true. And the food that others cook is nearly always less healthful than that which we cook ourselves.”

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  • ellabee  on  January 20, 2014

    A wide variety of whole foods (cooked and raw), in moderation. Everything else is nutrition-ism.

  • debkellie  on  January 20, 2014

    The first one about kale ought be HYPOthyroidism.. not hyperthyroidism ๐Ÿ˜‰ Two very different disorders

  • Lindsay  on  January 20, 2014

    Thanks for the correction!

  • boardingace  on  January 20, 2014

    I loved the first article, more for the author's personality than anything else, but also because of the lesson in moderation and our imperfect striving towards perfection. And it was really educational – a good reminder to rinse with water after eating and wait to brush our teeth, for example ๐Ÿ™‚ The second article was also really interesting. I find all of these niche diets to be rather silly, but since half of my friends seem to be on one or the other, I can't say much. So here, I'll confess what I really think ๐Ÿ˜‰ They are so scientifically unproven and mostly rely on the placebo effect. Their founders are often not nearly as educated as you'd think, and/or their own personal health issues don't work out as well for them as they claim. And finally, they just seem too trendy, too obviously the diet of the moment that will pass with the rest of them. I'm rambling now, but I guess would just like to say that I really enjoyed this article, as well as the two linked ones. Thanks!

  • wester  on  January 21, 2014

    I don't see why Michael Pollan thinks it's necessary to attack the Paleo diet. He would definitely agree there is something very wrong with the normal Western diet, and his remedy is also to look to the past. Is there any intrinsic difference between "don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" and "don't eat anything a caveman wouldn't think of as food"? There is a large difference in time scale, sure, and the practical implications are quite different, but I would think there's room for discussion here.

  • ellabee  on  January 22, 2014

    :: Is there any intrinsic difference between "don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" and "don't eat anything a caveman wouldn't think of as food"? ::

    Yes, a lot of evolution and some civilization. Enormous amounts of human cultural wisdom are embodied in foods that have been time-tested over centuries, sometimes millenia, of use, but which were unknown to early humans. Tossing that aside is IMO an over-reaction to the ills of the industrialized food system.

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