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Real Food, Part 2: Industrial food viewed as dietary demon

June 20th, 2007 · 2 Comments · Food selection, Healthy eating

In Real Food by Nina Planck, Nina Planck asserts that the best diet for humans is one that excludes food products invented since the start of the 20th century.

The argument goes something like this: Humans survived for thousands of years without serious diet-related ailments on the strength of whole foods—fresh, fermented, dried, raw, or cooked, perhaps, but not refined or otherwise processed. The first heart attack, she says, wasn’t recorded until 1912. Now, heart disease is the number one killer in the United States.

The main culprit, she says, is the proliferation of industrial foods, especially certain fats and refined grains, with the end results being increased heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Planck makes her point by comparing the incidence of diet-related illnesses in various preindustrial peoples with the incidence in the United States and other industrialized nations.

The argument makes sense on an intuitive level. Read the ingredients of almost any packaged food these days, and you’re likely to think, “What is this stuff?” Consider, also, the unnatural lives of today’s livestock—not in the farmyard but in the feedlot or industrial barn—and it’s no surprise that today’s meat, poultry and dairy products differ from the old farm variety.

Meanwhile, there’s no question that the rates of heart diseases, stroke and diabetes have soared in the United States. According to government statistics, the leading causes of death in 1900 were pneumonia and tuberculosis. Heart disease came in fourth. (Ignoring a previous vow to avoid tables, I’m using two here and hoping for the best:)

Leading causes of death, 1900

Rank Cause of death Number of deaths % of total Rate per 100,000 population
All causes 343,217 100% 1,719.1
1 Pneumonia (all forms) and influenza 40,362 11.8% 202.2
2 Tuberculosis (all forms) 38,820 11.3% 194.4
3 Diarrhea, enteritis, and ulceration of the intestines 28,491 8.3% 142.7
4 Diseases of the heart 27,427 8.0% 137.4
5 Intracranial lesions of vascular origin 21,353 6.2% 106.9
6 Nephritis (all forms) 17,699 5.2% 88.6
7 All accidents 14,429 4.2% 72.3
8 Cancer and other malignant tumors 12,769 3.7% 64.0
9 Senility 10,015 2.9% 50.2
10 Diphtheria 8,056 2.3% 40.3

Source: 1900-1940 tables ranked in National Office of Vital Statistics, December 1947

A mere 14.2% of deaths in 1900 (from heart disease and stroke, or “intracranial lesions of vascular origin”) had clear diet implications. By comparison, 27.2% of deaths in 2004 (see below) were attributed to heart disease alone, and 36.6% of deaths were potentially diet-related if you include stroke and diabetes. We won’t even get into the question of whether cancer is diet-related.

Leading causes of death, 2004

Rank Cause of death Number of deaths % of total Rate per 100,000 population
… All causes 2,397,615 100.0 816.5
1 Diseases of heart 652,486 27.2% 222.2
2 Malignant neoplasms 553,888 23.1% 188.6
3 Cerebrovascular diseases 150,074 6.3% 51.1
4 Chronic lower respiratory diseases 121,987 5.1% 41.5
5 Accidents (unintentional injuries) 112,012 4.7% 38.1
6 Diabetes mellitus 73,138 3.1% 24.9
7 Alzheimer’s disease 65,965 2.8% 22.5
8 Influenza and pneumonia 59,664 2.5% 20.3
9 Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis 42,480 1.8% 14.5
10 Septicemia 33,373 1.4% 11.4

2004 Source: CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System

Planck, perhaps due to enthusiasm for her thesis, fails to note that “diseases of the heart” became the number one cause of death in 1910 (two years before the purported first heart attack), though at 10.8 percent of the deaths in 1910, heart diseases didn’t dominate the charts as they did in 2004, when they accounted for 27.2 percent of deaths.

Diet as cause and solution

Is diet the cause of the shift, or is it something else?

Planck comes down squarely on the diet side of the equation. I have no doubt that diet is a key factor, but her failure to seriously address the physical inactivity aspect of living in the late 20th century (and later) weakens her argument. Nevertheless, Planck provides lots of additional argument and evidence for the diet explanation of our national diseases.

Her solution is to eat lots and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains—an argument that essentially every nutrition expert would endorse—and to partake of everything else on God’s green earth, including saturated fats, as long as it wasn’t produced with industrial methods introduced in the 20th century or later. Trouble is, for most people, that’s easier said than done, which we’ll talk about in Part 5. In the next installment, we’ll look at Planck’s main points on fats.

The series

This post is the second in a series. Yes, I’m posting from the series two days in a row, but I promise something else tomorrow before moving on to Part 3. The series:

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