10 of my key learnings from nutrition and environmental science

This is an excerpt from a recent media interview:

10 of Simon Hill’s (Author of The Proof is in the Plants) key learnings from nutrition and environmental science

1 – Diet wars focus on macronutrient ratios but this is a distraction from what matters most – diet quality. Macronutrient ratio (high carb vs low carb) doesn’t define a healthy diet, nor does it predict weight loss. Both can be done well. Both can be done poorly. It’s possible personalised nutrition will help people better identify which one their physiology is best suited to in the future. Although, while this looms as exciting on a personal level, such personalisation is unlikely to be the key to solving the obesity and chronic disease pandemic we are currently faced with. Addressing health at a population level will largely come down to changing our food environment in a way that naturally shifts people towards a diet of higher quality.

2 – The biggest lever that can be pulled which will improve public health is changing the food environment in a way that reduces the number of calories from ultra-processed foods in the average person’s diet (42-60% currently). Yet most of the online debate is not focussed on this. Why aren’t we focussing on what will help people most? Is it because our ego depends on being able to prove people wrong?

3Animal products can be included in an optimal diet but in a more modest manner than the average diet. Currently 70-85% of protein in the average American’s diet is from animal protein.  Substitution analyses, and RCT’s (e.g this 2020 RCT), suggest one can reduce the risk of disease by swapping animal protein for plant protein (e.g red meat for legumes). 

4 – If one is eating animal products it would seem beneficial to where possible eat lean animal foods sourced from animals that eat their native diet. Wild fish and low-fat yogurt seem to be the best of the bunch.

5 – A healthy diet can completely exclude animal products but like all diets it needs to be well planned. In this instance, ‘well-planned’ means ensuring you get adequate amounts of ‘nutrients of focus’ – B12, DHA/EPA, D3, Calcium, Iodine, Iron and Selenium, Zinc.

6 – The best diet for the planet is a plant-based one. Plant foods, regardless of how far they are shipped around the world, have a much lower ecological footprint than animal foods. This, along with the obvious animal welfare issues, is the strongest reason for shifting to a diet that’s as plant-exclusive as possible.

7 – Holistic grazing is not the silver bullet many would like it to be.  On face value holistic grazing (regenerative beef) seems like a step in the right direction. But unless we are prepared to clear more land (a disaster for carbon emissions) we need to realise shifting from factory farms (good at producing lots of meat quickly) to holistic grazing means a reduction in total meat supply. This is a good thing but rarely mentioned by regenerative beef enthusiasts as it runs counter to their message about doubling down on meat to ‘help the planet heal’. The message should be ‘reduce meat consumption and if you continue eating small amounts, choose regenerative where possible’.  Furthermore, claims about carbon sequestration from holistic grazing practices are based on limited evidence. Peer-reviewed evidence suggests that as a practice holistic grazing is still a net carbon emitting practice. And over time as soil becomes saturated in carbon, the net emissions increase. It may be beneficial, it may not be.  What we do know is eating more whole plant foods will absolutely work to lower carbon emissions.

8All plants contain all 9 essential amino acids. Differences in bioavailability between plant and animal protein have been overstated thanks mostly to studies that fed rats/pigs improperly prepared plant protein (raw not cooked).  Not only are our digestive systems different to these animals, but we know preparing foods like legumes changes nutrient bioavailability. More recent human studies looking at a small selection of properly prepared plant proteins suggest there is actually only a few percent difference. Irrespective of this – if we look at health outcome data, people eating more plant protein and less animal protein do better. That should be what we care about most.

9 – There is no magic weight loss advantage to a keto diet.  The carbohydrate-insulin model is interesting but has been falsified.  Many of the healthiest, and longest living populations, eat a high carbohydrate diet.  Carbohydrates are an umbrella term.  We have to stop blaming black beans for problems caused by jelly beans.

10 – The American college of Cardiology, American College of Endocrinology and American Cancer Society guidelines are evidence-based and great places for people to refer to who are confused by all of the polarity on social media. (Health Canada’s food guidelines are arguably the best country recommendations across the world). Be skeptical when someone’s advice runs counter to these. 

If you are interested in learning more about these various topics I encourage you to get a copy of my new book, connect with me on Twitter and Instagram, and tune into my podcast.

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