These days, it's tough to keep current health recommendations straight. One minute, coconut oil is the cure for most everything; the next, it’s going to give you a heart attack. Some claim vociferously that paleo is the way to go; others say that if you're not eating a plant-based diet, you're setting yourself up for a lifetime of poor health and illness.
It’s enough to make your head spin, which is why “Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?” the new book from Dr. Mark Hyman, Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine (and already number two on the New York Times Best Sellers List in the Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous category), is such a welcome addition to the landscape. Hyman has a talent for cutting through the noise to present a clear, concise, scientifically-backed guide to the foods that are good for you (and the foods that should be relegated to the trash bin forever).
Why Is Food So Confusing?
The premise of Hyman's approach relies on an unfortunate truth: health policies and guidelines these days rely on a good deal of misinformation.
“Assumptions must be tested and proven in studies before we accept them as fact,” Hyman writes. “But historically that hasn’t always happened in nutrition science.”
Not only is it impossible to test the effects of dietary changes in a vacuum (a person who starts eating kale, for example, might also start exercising, stop smoking, or begin meditating, thus making it hard to prove causality between the kale-eating and improved health), but, Hyman notes, policies don't always follow the science, even when it is definitive. This, he says, is in large part due to agribusiness lobbying, which can lead to corruption and dissemination of misinformation or – even worse – policy-making based on these "facts."
“The National Academy of Sciences was commissioned by Congress to review the guidelines process and found that they were highly influenced by industry, that they ignored huge amounts of data,” he says. “It's unfortunate that we really don't have a lot of high integrity there.”
He cites the example of coconut oil, which was demonized in 2017 based on a review by the American Heart Association. This review, Hyman explains, was built on outdated ideas that saturated fat is linked to heart disease.
"We really have a system that doesn't foster the truth,” he says.
This book seeks to change that.
So, What the Heck Should We Eat?
Mark Hyman's book sets out to distill mountains of food science and information – an impressive goal that he accomplishes with aplomb thanks to the rigorous organization of his new book.
Each chapter is dedicated to a different food – fruit, meat, dairy, poultry, beverages, etc. – and starts with a “Nutrition IQ Quiz" designed to bust myths right off the bat: things like "oatmeal and orange juice are healthy breakfast foods" or "eggs lead to high cholesterol and heart disease."
Hyman then proceeds to explore “What (scientists and policymakers) got right” and “What they got wrong,” citing facts and studies that confirm certain theories and disprove others. This leads to a major reality-check when it comes to beliefs held by even the most informed of foodies. In the chicken chapter, for example, he highlights the uselessness of the "hormone-free" label on chicken, seeing as feeding hormones to poultry is illegal in the United States; in the dairy chapter, he writes that adding fat-soluble vitamins A and D back to fat-free milk is “pointless,” as fat is necessary to digest these vitamins.
He is adept at exploring grey areas that clickbait headlines ignore: fruit, for example, has recently been targeted by the media as being overly sugary and therefore bad for you, while others claim that given its fiber and antioxidant profile, fruit a veritable superfood. Hyman's reality-based approach reveals where pseudo-science has steered us wrong; in the case of fruit, he looks into over-hyped antioxidant claims, the importance of fiber when consuming fructose, and the reason why "fruits-and-vegetables" need to be separated into two food categories once and for all.
Each chapter ends with an easy-to-reference list of which elements of a given category are good to eat, which should be eaten in moderation, and which should be avoided, making it easy to follow the new rules of food he explores in the chapter itself, which include gems like avoiding any foods with nutritional claims on the package, choosing fish that can fit entirely in one pan (like anchovies, sardines, and herring) and choose “weird” vegetables like purslane and kohlrabi, which are less likely to be genetically altered.
These tips and tricks are, above all, tools offered to the reader to combat the misinformation-driven industry that Hyman says is taking away our most basic human right: our health.
The 'Pegan' Diet, A Mark Hyman Invention
Hyman condenses his conclusions into an actionable solution: a diet that marries the best aspects of healthy vegan and paleo diets that Hyman calls the "pegan" diet.
The ideal vegan diet, he explains, tends to incorporate plenty of whole, plant-based foods, rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and healthy fats. The diet is more humane and more eco-conscious than a diet relying on animal products. However, he notes, “even a perfect vegan diet won’t provide enough DHA and EPA, which are important omega-3 fatty acids. Neither will it provide enough iron, zinc, copper, or vitamin D.”
The ideal paleo diet, meanwhile, eschews added sugars, grains, dairy, legumes, and beans, and incorporates nonindustrial meat, fish, whole nonstarchy vegetables, nuts, and seeds, making it a low-glycemic, fat-rich diet that fuels you.
“However,” he notes, “Some use the paleo philosophy as an excuse to eat too much meat and too few plant-based foods.”
“The best versions of both diets are built on the same foundation," he concludes. "Eat real, whole food. Vegan and Paleo diets focus on foods that don’t raise our blood sugar, plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, healthy protein and fats, and no crap.”
Hyman's philosophy is reflected in his own diet. He often starts his day with a bulletproof coffee, a vitamin-rich smoothie, or a protein-rich combo of pasture-raised eggs with avocado and tomato. For lunch, he tends to enjoy a "fat salad" with avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, and sustainable, fatty fish, and at dinner, he'll eat a smaller piece of protein with three or four different vegetables.
Recipes allowing the reader to do the same at home are provided, with the understanding that cooking, while time-consuming, is the key to a truly healthful lifestyle.
“As a busy doctor, I can understand how eating healthy might feel like a herculean demand and become short shift among the numerous demands in your life. While eating healthy on a time budget does require a little planning, it’s easier than you might imagine,” he says.
“I find when I invest that time, it pays off by keeping me healthy.”