By Rebecca Sananes
For healthy eating fans, it was the All-Star Game. Pick your preferred diet -- vegan, paleo, Mediterranean, you name it -- and the scientist, clinician or academic behind it was at the table in Boston this week. Think Dean Ornish, S. Boyd Eaton and T. Colin Campbell.
They all gathered at the Finding Common Ground Conference, convened by the nonprofit Oldways, to hammer out a consensus on healthy eating — an antidote to what can seem like endless flip-flops on dietary research. And amazingly enough, they did.
What they found was that despite all the food fights, the prevailing theories of nutrition and healthy eating actually have more in common than you’d think. (Though it's a bit more complex than Michael Pollan's classic, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.")
After two days of presentations on the latest research, debates over ethics and attempts to differentiate between nit-picky nuance and important distinctions, Harvard's Walter Willett sums up the consensus like this in a press release: "The foods that define a healthy diet include abundant fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, legumes and minimal amounts of refined starch, sugar and red meat, especially keeping processed red meat intake low."
So there you have it. But for a more granular look, here's my take on the 11 principles these top scientists and nutritionists agreed should be the guiding principles when thinking about what and how we eat:
1. Yes to the federal guidelines
From the consensus statement:
The Scientists of Oldways Common Ground lend strong, collective support to the food-based recommendations of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, and to the DGAC’s endorsement of healthy food patterns such as the Mediterranean Diet, Vegetarian Diet and Healthy American Diet.
The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.
Additional strong evidence shows that it is not necessary to eliminate food groups or conform to a single dietary pattern to achieve healthy dietary patterns. Rather, individuals can combine foods in a variety of flexible ways to achieve healthy dietary patterns, and these strategies should be tailored to meet the individual’s health needs, dietary preferences and cultural traditions. Current research also strongly demonstrates that regular physical activity promotes health and reduces chronic disease risk.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is a group of scientists handpicked by the government to create a report detailing nutritional and dietary guidelines. Every five years, their report is reviewed by the USDA and the Department of Human Health Services before being voted on by Congress and implemented as the American Dietary guideline — the public policy informing public school lunches, military food and food industry regulations. The official vetted guidelines are due out by the end of the year.
Along with endorsing that committee's report, the Oldways Common Ground Committee also backed Mediterranean and vegetarian diets.
2. We have to think about the planet when we eat
Form the consensus:
We emphatically support the inclusion of sustainability in the 2015 DGAC report, and affirm the appropriateness and importance of this imperative in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans because food insecurity cannot be solved without sustainable food systems. Inattention to sustainability is willful disregard for the quality and quantity of food available to the next generation, i.e., our own children.
Background: The DGAC recommended to Congress, for the first time, that nutritional policy should take into account environmental impact.
Harvard professor Frank Hu, who sits on the DGAC and attended the conference, says: “I believe this issue will not go away, so even though those recommendations were not included in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, hopefully, our work will plant seeds for future recommendations.”
“We can’t completely separate human health from the health of our planet," he said.
3. Keep politics out of our food policy
The Scientists of Oldways Common Ground lend strong, collective support to the overall process, as well as the overall product, of the 2015 DGAC. We express confidence in their approach to the weight of evidence. We support a transparent process where the evidence-based report of the scientists is translated directly into policy without political manipulation.
One thing the scientists could agree on is that politics should not trump good food policy. When the DGAC’s nutrition report is vetted and voted on by Congress, science sometimes takes a backseat to lobbyists from particular food sectors.
4. The yum factor
Food can and should be:
• Good for human health
• Good for the planet (sustainability; ecosystem conservation; biodiversity)
• And simply…good – unapologetically delicious.
This is good news for food lovers and health nuts alike. Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California of San Francisco who researches vegan and vegetarian diets, wants to change the trope that plant-based food is rabbit food.
“What Steve Jobs did to make Apple aspirational — he wasn’t showing how much RAM was in his computer," Ornish said. "He’d have John Lennon or Gandhi saying ‘Think Different.’ I’d love to see an ‘Eat Different’ type campaign.”
5. Let's be clear
We express strong concern for the high level of apparent confusion prevailing, and propagated among the public about what constitutes a healthy eating pattern. Despite uncertainty about some details, much of this confusion is unnecessary, and at odds with the understanding of experts and the weight of evidence. We affirm that experts with diverse perspectives and priorities can find common ground.
Translation: We might bicker about whether to drink wine, cut out eggs, or whether bacon is the devil – but we agree on some basic tenets: more fruits and vegetables and less processed food.
6. The fundamental things apply
Fundamentals and current understanding do NOT change every time a new study makes headlines. The Oldways Common Ground Scientists emphasize the importance of basing understanding of diet and health on the weight of evidence, including ALL relevant research methods. Biology (adaptation, evolution, plausibility) is a relevant source of evidence. Heritage (cultural traditions) are an additional, relevant source of real-world information on long-term feasibility and health effects of diet.
The newest fad diet… is the oldest one. For the first time, paleos and vegans agreed at the conference that nutrition should come from the paradigm of human diets that have existed for millennia. Anecdotal evidence — albeit long term — is an acceptable measure of what works, as well as lab experiments, attendees said. This was the basis of the Mediterranean diet, which originally looked at good mortality rates in Greece during the 1960s and prompted experiments to test this diet. Trust your elders, was the message; what they ate is probably what nutritionists think you should keep eating. (Or as Michael Pollan puts it: "Don’t eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.")
7. If it bleeds (or involves butter or bacon), it leads
Representations of new diet studies to the public should be made in the context of the prevailing consensus. New evidence should be added to what was known before, not substitute for it sequentially. Accurate reporting is the responsibility of both scientists and the media.
In other words, just because a new study comes out every week, doesn’t mean it’s turning the whole world on its head. Studies come out all the time, that doesn’t mean the basic pillars of eating well change with it. Scientists are asking everyone to remain calm when a new study tells you butter is killing you and remember that it’s more about the big picture.
8. Bring in the subs
To make recommendations for dietary changes meaningful, we strongly endorse the general principal of specifying practical dietary substitutions – a “compared to what” approach. e.g, Instead of simply saying, “Drink less soda,” for instance, say “Drink water instead of soda.” What we consume and what we don’t consume instead, both contribute to health outcomes.
My reaction: "Finally!" Who is sick of being told what you can't do? (Me!) These scientists are saying they will work to put more emphasis on what works than what doesn’t. More emphasis should be put on the importance of the nutrients you are putting in your body versus what you should cut out.
9. Food stamps, too
Oldways Common Ground Scientists recommend that education programming, policy, and legislation in support of these goals be implemented widely and in a timely manner, with regular monitoring and evaluation. For example, in the U.S., we urge compliance with 7 USC Sec. 5341, which calls for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to “be promoted by each Federal agency in carrying out any Federal food, nutrition, or health program” – including food assistance programs.
10. Knowledge is power
We support the cultivation of widespread “food literacy” and believe that individuals benefit from becoming knowledgeable about the origins of their food, the conditions under which it is produced, and its impact on their health and the health of the planet. A knowledge of and respect for food traditions and the cultural context of food – health through heritage – is also beneficial, and can be a powerful motivator for better eating, as well as a means of imparting crucial life skills (e.g., cooking).
11. Locavores and composters
Oldways Common Ground Scientists agree that food systems (production, manufacture, food waste, etc.) should align with priorities for human and planetary health while supporting social responsibility/justice and animal welfare. Diverse, localized/regionalized solutions, that reflect site-specific priorities and capabilities are more resilient and democratic. Each of us has a role to play in ensuring a healthy and sustainable global food supply.
Scientists are agreeing that they are friends to the regional farms and ecosystems in the places people live. If you can find food that’s been grown in your area and represents what grows naturally – you’ve done something right, they say.
Overall – the scientists did seem to agree on more than you’d think. My own takeaways: One size does not fit all for healthy diets, and people should not experience whiplash every time a new study comes out. A few basic tenets cover the bases: eat whole foods, preferably grown locally and — my favorite — enjoy it.