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editorial

The ideal diet


May 12, 2011

In Woody Allen’s classic film “Sleeper,” released in 1973, a health food store owner from the 1970s is frozen and wakens decades later to a new world. In the following exchange, his doctors discuss his dietary needs:

“Has he asked for anything special?”

“Yes, something for breakfast. He requested something called wheat germ, organic honey and Tiger’s Milk.”

“Ah, yes; those are the charmed substances that some years ago were assumed to have health-giving properties.”

“You mean there was no deep fat? No steak, or cream pies or hot fudge?”

“Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”

The bit was funny at the time, and has become even funnier in succeeding years as one dietary Holy Grail after another has been grasped and cast aside by an American public obsessed with novel diet regimes.

One day, for instance, coconut and palm oils were a staple in fast-food frying because they do not burn and decompose into toxic substances, as most oils do, when extreme heat is applied. The next day, their high saturated fat levels were decried and refined oils from other plant sources or hydrogenated oils like Crisco were substituted. Then it turned out that this refining and hydrogenation makes the substitutes even more unhealthy then the tropical oils. Most recently, coconut oil is back, now with claims that its medium-chain fat molecules are actually so healthy for you that it’s being marketed as a nutritional supplement. What will they think next week? Stay tuned.

The question of diet has become controversial on our own pages recently with regard to the issue of dairy products, especially the claim that eating animal products of any kind is unhealthy for everybody, supported in one letter by a reference to a book by T. Colin Campbell called “The China Study.” The book, based on an extensive set of statistics collected by Cornell and Oxford universities in 65 provinces in China in 1983/84 and 1989/90, concludes that the consumption of animal protein is highly correlated with various kinds of disease, including cancer and heart disease, and that therefore everyone should avoid eating it entirely.