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What a Balanced Diet Really Means

I often hear the term "balanced diet" used to attack low-carb eating. "You're cutting out entire food groups!" some people cry, as if their own recommendations didn't curtail or cut out other entire groups like red meat and fat. "Good health = balanced diet, and that means some carbs," said Paul Nuki of the NHS Choices web site after he called low-carb proponents "quacks."

To be clear, a low-carb diet isn't a no-carb diet. Even Atkins induction call for two small green salads a day; it's just starchy foods such as potatoes, sugary fruit and grains that are limited so much that many of us don't bother with them.

It might also clarify things to know where the idea of a balanced diet came from. Early in the 20th century, the disease pellagra was the scourge of the American South. Poor Asians from India to Japan suffered from beriberi. Rickets was rampant in parts of the United States. What do pellagra, beriberi, and rickets have in common? Nutrient deficiency. Around 1920, that fact wasn't known, but it was known that cod liver oil and sunlight prevented rickets and that a varied diet, or "balanced diet," not one based on corn or polished rice, cured pellagra and beriberi. It was also known that certain fruits and vegetables prevented scurvy. Efforts got underway to get people to eat a variety of foods to fend off illness: milk, meat, fruit, vegetables, eggs, and grains.
Govt. poster from the 1940s. 

Balanced diets were intended to prevent illness from nutrient deficiency by eating a variety of foods. What kinds of diets had people gotten sick on? Beriberi: the staple was polished rice. Pellagra: the staple was corn. Scurvy among sailors: hard tack, a kind of biscuit. See the irony? Many members of the gotta-have-carbs crowd want to make grains a part, or even the basis, of a nutritionally sound diet. In all fairness, properly prepared grains have been staples for generations without causing serious diseases for large groups of people. But that isn't saying much. The question is, can you have a nutritionally sound diet without grains or other starchy, sugary foods?

Dr. Loren Cordain, a researcher at Colorado State University and foremost expert on paleo diets (one of those quacks editor Paul Nuki was talking about) compiled a list of the 13 vitamins and minerals most lacking in the U.S. diet. (It includes vitamins C, B1 and B3, the vitamins lacking in scurvy, beriberi and pellagra, respectively.) The highest sources of the 13 nutrients are fresh vegetables, seafood, lean meats, fresh fruits, whole milk, whole grains, and nuts and seeds, in order from highest to lowest. He's also calculated tables of food groups by nutrient (zinc, iron, B vitamins, etc.) and whole grains come in, at best, in the middle of the pack. (As for potatoes, Cordain says they should stay underground.) Cordain isn't quite a low-carb advocate, but when you take away grains and potatoes and eat mostly meat, eggs, seafood, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, carb consumption doesn't approach what many nutritionists recommend. This doesn't even take into consideration phytates, a substance in whole grains that prevents absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. Technically, a balanced diet (meaning nutritionally sound) includes carbohydrates--but these are mostly in the form of fibrous vegetables, not starchy, sugary foods low-carbers avoid.

Another irony here is that the so-called balanced diets today remove nutrients. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble and aren't absorbed well in the absence of fat, which we're constantly told to reduce. Red meat, rich in protein and many of the vitamins and minerals Americans are most deficient in, is also supposed to be a no-no. We'd do better to turn the clock back to the 1940s than follow current mainstream advice. (In fact, some of the ladies on a vintage interest chat site I used to visit did just that and lost weight. They were hopping mad about all the bad advice they'd been given and tried to follow.)

If you're eating a variety of meat, fish, fats and vegetables on your low-carb diet and supplementing with anything that's lacking, you can truthfully tell anyone who asks that your diet is balanced: it has all the nutrients needed for your health. Or you could use Dr. Atkins' line: people with an unbalanced metabolism need an unbalanced diet.


tess said…
outstanding, Lori!
Lori Miller said…
Thanks, Tess.
horfilmania said…
Great article. Oh, how I wish I could send this anonymously to some ex-co-workers.
Lori Miller said…
What's funny about such coworkers is that they usually have health problems you've solved, but they're trying to give YOU advice.
I've just got to agree ....

Brilliant article, great read .... thanks

All the best Jan
Lori Miller said…
Thanks, Jan.
Galina L. said…
I just read a comment made by a pregnant women in the Melissa's blog an explanation why some people were glad to have a paleo-movement being part of a social picture " For many women I know, paleo is the only way they can eat animal protein and serve it to their families regularly without being picked on socially by other women. Maybe there could be some other pro-meat, less industrial-food approach that was supportive towards women eating animal products without losing social status, but there isn't. "Just Eat Real Food" means in practice "eat home-baked bread", which is perfectly delicious, but doesn't cut to the core issues."
I was stunned by the comment.I had no idea that some people are actually bullied into a vegetarian diets by their social circle. Maybe being a newcomer isolated me from experiencing such things. When somebody was telling me about trying to avoid buying any meat other than chicken breast because it was the only meat which didn't look like an animal part, I reacted in it as they were lunatics. I observed since an early childhood how chicken's head, feet, carcass and organs were swimming in a boiling water while being cooked for a soup without any discomfort.
In US it is often considered to be a good tone to feel guilty because somebody lives worse than them, many people actually do feel guilty eating meat every day. It is just ridiculous.
Lori Miller said…
I'm not from that socioeconomic class. Dad was a welder, both grandmas killed their own chickens, and I left home at 18 with $25 and a job. I'm grateful for everything I have, including the opportunity to eat meat in front of my semi-vegetarian boss. To feel guilty over living a pretty normal life, especially if you've earned it? I just don't get it.

Even though my all ancestors came to the US over 150 years ago, I find I prefer immigrants and their children to most other Americans.
Galina L. said…
It is just that I never realized that a vegetarianism was a high-class thing, may be with other self-mutilating things like being treated for anxiety, taking statines, going to shrinks and being unable to clean own dirt without paying for a hired help. May be the people who don't feel they earned their good life feel guilty? Anyway, I wish they would just feel lucky.
Lori Miller said…
You won't see many Joe Six-Packs adopting a vegetarian diet. If they do, it's for health reasons. And you're right--things like seeing a shrink, hiring help for things you could pretty easily do yourself, certain types of volunteer work, etc. are part of an aspirational lifestyle. See also a blog called "Stuff White People Like."

It's hard to say where all the white guilt comes from. A lot of adults who are supported by their parents or the taxpayers feel totally entitled to it. Maybe the guilties feel that way because of their vegetarian diet or because they have a world view that life is a zero-sum game: if they're winning, someone else must be losing. But in many cases, a rising tide lifts all boats.
Lori Miller said…
Another thing--it's a myth that all the working poor just show up at emergency rooms whenever they're sick, and then don't pay their bills. IME, they work if they possibly can because they don't get paid if they don't work. I'm sure that means they end up in the emergency room sometimes.

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