Diet – don’t buy it! Part 1

Ever since I started as a coach I have asked myself: how important is diet (or nutrition and supplementation) for the performance of the athlete. After 40 years of hard work I just don’t get any closer than…… it depends. Disappointing, isn’t it?
And believe me it’s not for lack of reading, studying and experimenting that I have to say this.
Let’s have a look the most popular diet: the weight loss diet.

But you may say: I was on a diet and it worked!  Well, congratulations, since there isn’t a diet that doesn’t work. All diets work for a certain percentage of the population anyhow.
And it only works as long as you follow it, but no longer. When you stop the diet, in almost all cases e.g. you bodyweight will return to its pre-diet level.  Or higher. This is the feared “yo-yo phenomenon”.

And here the interesting thing starts: isn’t it a miracle that when you are 20 years old you weigh let’s say 80 kgs, and when you are 60 years old you still weight 80 kgs, despite the fact than in 40 years, more than 40 tons of food and nutrients have passed through your body. In other words, the body does a great job maintaining its internal balances and composition.
We all know  the wonderful stories about certain tribes or countries  where people live very long because of what they eat: the Hunzas, the Cretans, the people from  Vilcabamba, Okinawa, etc.
Because of that the logical thing was to eat what those people ate and eat, and this would lead to a longer life span or at least a better health.
But when you study a bit more you will find there is a surprising lack of difference in lifespan of human beings around the world. Yes there is, but this is mainly due to infant mortality, violent deaths, unhygienic circumstances, lack of essential needs like food, clean water, medication, etc.
Even more surprising is that this is despite the tremendous differences in food composition. In some countries a lot of meat is eaten (US, Australia, Argentina) while in other countries a almost vegetarian diet is followed.  It seems there is some balance: in countries some diseases are much less frequent than in others but then this fact is compensated by an increase in other chronic diseases, e.g. less cases of cancer, but more of cardiovascular diseases or diabetes.

From the Inuit, who eat (ate) a diet extremely high in fat and proteins, to strict vegetarians, from Masai, living on beef, cow milk and cow blood to the Africans and Asians who cannot digest milk properly, because they miss the enzyme lactase responsible for the breakdown of milk sugar or lactose.
We should question if the unquestionable longer lifespan of the Okinawans is only due to their diet or to the fact that they are fisherman, living a physically active life, while living on a relatively unpolluted island, and know a strong social cohesion, and have a rather old- fashioned lifestyle without the progress of the modern life like Internet, mobile phones , increase in anxiety and social isolation (despite our new means of communication),  etc.

An often used example is the longer lifespan of the Seventh-days Adventists, who are vegetarians. This would suggest a relationship between their low meat consumption and their lifespan, but that is little bit too quick. These people also don’t smoke and don’t drink and probably have other health promoting habits or they do not have habits that contribute negatively to health.

The research in the city of Roseta also proves this to be the case. It’s wasn’t the Mediterranean diet of the Italian community of Roseto being the reason of cardiovascular diseases being far below the US average (at least in the 1950’s and 60’s), it was the social coherence.
You always find that rather isolated places where people live longer, will change when modern accomplishments find their way there. Wait for the highways, the cars, the airports, the Internet, the supermarkets,  the mobile phone, the McDonalds, etc.  And it won’t take long until obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc. will set in.
No I am certainly not a Quaker shunning away from modern technologies, but I am old enough to see that everything comes at a certain prize. It all depends whether you are willing to pay that prize.
Does all of this mean that I have become indifferent to the quality of the diet and the impact of nutrition? By no means!
Diet, nutrition and supplementation can make a difference, a huge one, but on an individual basis, not based on epidemiology or statistical averages. Personalized nutrition  is the answer here. Nutrition based on the individual requirements and limitations of the person or athlete.  You can see this gives way to a lot of new questions like: how do we know the individual needs? I will try to answer that question in posts to come.
Since 1988 I studied the nutritional biochemistry of my athletes, having them tested for minerals, trace elements, vitamins, vitaminoids, essential fatty acids, amino acids, organic acids, neurotransmitters and hormones, beside the classical testing of clinical chemistry and haematology.
At least this gives you some insight in the complexity of the (nutritional) biochemistry of the individual.
In Holland we have a saying called “meten is weten “ translated into “to measure is to know”, also applied to all other field of measurements, but after 30 years of collecting data, I think it is not true. I believe it should be:  “to know is to measure” or back into Dutch: “weten is meten”. Measuring or collecting data is only interesting if you know what you are searching for, what you are looking at and more important what to do with it!

Super foods
Another interesting development is the marketing of so-called “superfoods”, a range of mostly exotic foods like grasses, berries, nuts, etc. Again food of exotic tribes with almost magical health promoting properties, Chia seeds, Goji berries, etc. A table spoon a day keeps the doctor away?? Forget it. These so-called super foods are decent constituents of your food, but in no way are they any healthier than most of the other foods that you eat right now. Or at least they shouldn’t be unless your nutrition is very bad. And most of the time the dosage of those super foods is way too low to have any extra health promoting properties at all.
A tablespoon of Goji berries or chai seeds, sprinkled over you breakfast won’t have any advantages over other more common berries, seeds or nuts. They are just much more expensive, but when you have money to spent, go ahead, buy them.

Paleo diet
The Paleo diet is the supposed to be the healthy diet of our ancestors, who only  had a lifespan of  30-40 years at most.  The fact that they did not get some of the diseases of civilization like osteoporosis or type 2 diabetes is because they did not get old enough to get these.
Already many books have been written about the advantages of a low carbohydrate, low fat, high protein diet. Nothing new here, just the marketing. Think about this, what did our ancestors eat? Basically the food that they could scramble together from their near surroundings at that time. That is to say anything that grew naturally within a day’s walk and they could find or kill.  No potatoes, no rice, no pasta, tomatoes, no avocado’s, or any exotic foods imported from overseas or grown in glasshouses. Hardly any grain, the hunter-gatherer lived before the agricultural revolution, so no wheat fields, no gardens, no livestock at all. No alcohol, no refined sugar, hardly any salt, no refined oils. Their biggest treat probably was finding some honey. And there were no supermarkets full of choices for the paleo diet believers. By the way: they did not have a microwave, or any of our modern cooking utensils at all.

Mineral water
There is no doubt that dehydration can be a dangerous thing, just like hyper hydration or in other words water poisoning. But how many people in daily life that you know suffered from dehydration? Yes, I know about some American football players in the past. But there is no need to go jogging in Holland for an hour and carry six mini-bottles of water with you in a belt.
But we have to say the mineral water industry did a great job convincing millions of people that mineral water is absolutely necessary to hydrate yourself at any time of the day. The mineral water at least in Holland is what other people 100 kilometres from there get from their tap. But you can imagine it is just more profitable to put in bottles, and sell exactly the same water for a few Euros.

Water has become an emerging billion dollar business, ask Nestle, the company that tries to privatize water all over the world and to sell it back to the very people they got it from. It sounds like the ultimate perversion of greed. But then, this is modern day capitalism so everything is for sale or at least has a price tag to it. The waiting is for oxygen to become a commodity and you have to pay for breathing it.
Does mineral water have health promoting properties?  Again, it depends, on the water (its composition) and on your needs. Some mineral waters contain an lot of sodium, hardly any need for that, considering the modern diet. Others contain a lot of calcium, magnesium, or bicarbonate, it depends on your needs for these minerals.

About Henk Kraaijenhof

My name is Henk Kraaijenhof and I started this blog as a random collection of concepts, ideas, stories and events that are important or interesting to me in my work as an international performance consultant in a wide range of fields, and sometimes outside of my work. I will try to post a new entry every 3-4 days. Feel free to comment if you like.
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