Isn't it important to eat a balanced diet?
Well, maybe. The big question is, "What the heck is a 'balanced diet', really?" The phrase doesn't seem to have any concrete meaning.
For instance, is the government food pyramid a "balanced diet"? It certainly suggests far more of some kinds of foods -- in particular, grains -- than of others. Is it "balanced" to eat 6-11 servings of grains a day, but only 2-3 servings of protein foods? (We'll overlook here that the food pyramid classes beans with the protein foods when they contain at least as much carbohydrate as protein.)
Is it "balanced" to reduce fats to 10% of calories, as Dean Ornish insists we should do? Ornish also cuts protein way back. Why don't the critics go after Ornish for his "unbalanced" diet, especially in light of emerging evidence that a very low fat/high carbohydrate diet increases one's risk of breast cancer, and may worsen HDL and triglycerides?
Low carb critics also will sometimes contest that leaving sugary stuff out of the diet is "unbalanced", as if there were some sort of actual, dietary need for refined sugar. The notion that it is part of a "healthy, balanced diet" to deliberately include a "foodstuff" (and I use the term very loosely) that has absolutely no nutritional value whatsoever is nonsensical in the extreme, and can only be seen as a sop either to people's addictions, or to the food processing industry, depending on who is suggesting it.
Indeed, one of the recent programs that is closest to a truly balanced diet is the Zone, which advocates that you get 30% of your calories from protein, 30% from fats, and 40% from carbohydrates -- only way it could get more balanced would be to eat a 33.3%/33.3%/33.3% ratio. Yet Barry Sears has been taken to task over his "low carbohydrate diet." For that matter, my own Careful Carb Diet, one of the three main approaches to controlling insulin described in my book _How I Gave Up My Low Fat Diet and Lost Forty Pounds!_, is far closer to being a truly "balanced" diet than anything either the government or Dr. Ornish have recommended.
The notion of the "balanced diet" has no actual scientific definition, it is simply a reflection of how people have generally eaten over the past few hundred years. (I have in front of me a mainstream nutrition text that asserts "...as currently consumed, sugars pose no major health threat..." I find it incredible that we could increase our intake of any highly concentrated substance by over 2000% in 200 years time -- the increase in American sugar consumption between 1800 and 2000 -- and not have it be a health threat. Heck, if we drank that much more water it might be a danger.) Two better questions would be: What diet comes closest to that on which the human race evolved? What diet makes my own personal body work best?
We aren't entirely sure what diet the human race evolved on, but there are some things that are quite clear. First of all, it didn't contain any refined sugar, since refined sugar has only existed for the past several hundred years, and has only become inexpensive enough for the masses to consume within the past 200 years or so. Sugar is not a part of the evolutionary diet of humankind.
Secondly, it did not contain grains or beans in any great quantity. How do we know this? First of all, in order to get any great quantity of grains and beans, one has to farm them, and farming was only invented about 10,000 years ago. Sounds like a long time, but the history of humankind is estimated to be somewhere around 2 million years.
Secondly, grains and beans are largely inedible without some sort of technology. Grains have to be "threshed" -- that is, removed from their inedible seed coats -- and cooked, at the very least, the other possibility being that they might be ground into flour or meal, which takes even more technology. Beans, too, have to be removed from their pods -- easier to do by hand than with grains, since beans tend to be larger -- and they, too, must be cooked. Further, unlike grains which can be cooked by the relatively low tech methods of either simply parching the individual seeds, or by making flat breads on a hot rock (note, though, that this would require some sort of milling into flour), beans require a vessel to cook them in -- again, some sort of technology was required, if only that of making a simple, heat resistant pot.
So you can scratch large quantities of grains and beans from the pre-agricultural, pre-civilization diet. Oh, no doubt cave folks chewed on a handful of grass seeds now and then, and pulled up and ate the bean when they went after a sprout, but they surely weren't eating 6-11 servings of grains a day.
We do know that prehistoric humans were hunter-gatherers, and we suspect that gathering supplied more of their diet than hunting. After all, leaves, roots, shoots, berries, and nuts don't run away or fight back. So figure that the bulk of the diet was made up of what we now refer to as vegetables, along with nuts (easy to gather, they store well with no preserving, and they have a lot of calories, which is very good in a pre-industrial world), and fruits in seasons. Also keep in mind that those vegetables and fruits would have been considerably lower in sugars than the ones we buy in the store today; modern plant breeding has made virtually all fruits and vegetables sweeter. They also would have eaten a far wider variety of vegetable matter than the average American does today (can't speak for other nations; my experience is somewhat provincial here), since it's likely that they ate anything they could eat. Too many of us eat a little iceberg lettuce and tomato on a sandwich, and the occasional green pepper and onion in a fajita, and that's it.
We know that prehistoric humans ate meat; indeed there is some speculation that some species -- the North American mammoth for instance -- were actually hunted to extinction, which is pretty impressive for a bunch of guys with homemade stone spears, don't you think? What sorts of animals they ate no doubt varied with where they lived -- I have a hunch that if you lived near the ocean, you might find it a whole lot easier to dig for clams than to chase a deer! We also know that surviving hunter-gatherer peoples eat bugs, and I'm guessing that bugs were a pretty goodly part of our historical diet there's a lot of them, and they're pretty easy to catch. And just about every omnivorous mammal finds eggs to be a delicacy, and they don't run, either, so I'm betting that our ancient ancestors ate just about any kind of eggs they could get their hands on -- bird, turtle, whatever.
(One of the things we don't know, by the way, is how high or low in fat this diet was. We do know that game is much lower in fat than grain fed, farm raised meat -- but then, we primarily eat only the muscle meats anymore, while we're pretty certain that our ancestors ate the whole thing -- liver, kidneys, spleen, thymus, brain, you name it, and many of those organ meats are higher in fat and cholesterol than the muscle meats. Also, those bugs they probably ate -- many bugs are rich in fats, as well, and of course nuts are high fat. We do strongly suspect that the fatty acid profile of the meat they ate was considerably different than what we get today, since we know that game, and even grass-fed beef, is lower in cholesterol and saturated fats than farm-raised meats. What impact this shift in fatty acid profile is having on our health is unclear.
We also don't really know how much game and other animals foods people ate, in comparison to vegetables and such. Pretty hard to tell from this remove.)
So, we're looking a a diet of meat, fish, birds, eggs, bugs, nuts, seeds, lots and lots of vegetables, and fruits in season, with all the fruits and vegetables being somewhat lower in sugar than what we can get today at the grocery. Add to this the occasional lucky discovery of honey, and that's about it. Were they eating an "unbalanced" diet? Well, if you consider grains, beans, and sweets all to be an essential part of a "balanced diet", they sure were. Yet somehow we survived and thrived.
Then there's the question of what diet your own personal body runs best on, and that's a question only you can answer. Those of you who have read my book know that I do not advocate one specific low carb program for everyone, nor can I assert "You should eat X number of grams of carbs per day, no more, no less." I can't tell you whether you should eat dairy, or if you're one of the people who will lose weight and feel better without it, although I can tell you that, at least from what I've been reading, herding started earlier than plowing and planting, so dairy products seem to have an older history in the human diet than grains and beans.
I can't tell you if you're one of the many, many people whose cholesterol will drop on a low carb diet, regardless of the amount of saturated fat you may consume, or if you're one of the smaller group who will need to not only cut carbs, but also to concentrate on fish and poultry instead of beef and pork for your protein, and olive oil, avocados, and nuts instead of butter for your fats. I can't tell you if you're one of the people who will do best on a Basic Low Carb diet, such as Atkins or Protein Power, or if you're one of the few people I've communicated with who find that they simply never adjust to such a diet, feeling tired and mentally foggy all the time, and will do far better on a -- dare I say it? -- more balanced program like the Careful Carb Diet.
I can tell you that I suspect that it is possible to damage one's ability to metabolize carbohydrate foods safely by abusing the mechanism for years and years with vast quantities of sugar and other high impact carbs. I suspect this is the case with my own body. If this is, indeed, true, then perhaps there are many of us who could have eaten a diet somewhat richer in carbohydrate if we hadn't abused ourselves for many years, but who now need an "unbalanced", low carbohydrate diet to compensate for those years of abuse.
I can tell you that your body has no inherent need whatsoever for separated, concentrated sugars, for white flour, for highly processed cereals, and that you will do yourself no harm at all by eliminating them from your diet entirely, no matter what epithet the world may throw at you and your way of eating.
And I can tell you that if you feel dramatically better when you restrict your carbohydrate intake, if you lose weight, if your energy level is higher and more constant, if your moods are better, if your bloodwork improves -- if, by any reasonable measurement, a low carb diet makes you healthier -- than you are approaching a balance that is right for your body, and adding back foods that make you tired, fat and unwell to be "nutritionally correct" would be a sad and foolish thing to do.
If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck. Balance your diet for your body, not for some abstract notion fabricated by the government, influenced by the lobbying of the agricultural industry.
Find your balance.