I recently listened to a great webinar on one of my favorite health experts, Dr. Robert Lustig, a neuro-endocrinologist and New York Times best-selling author (Fat Chance, The Hacking of the American Mind, and Metabolical). He has been active in promoting health policy to reverse the obesity and diabetes pandemic that is engulfing our society.
In this blog, I’ll share some highlights from this 70-minute webinar (hosted by the Commonwealth Club of California) and the two key tenets from his new book, Metabolical – the Lures and Lies of Processed Food, Nutrition and Modern Medicine.
Dr. Lustig’s standard mantra used to be “you are what you eat” but now stands corrected with the revised statement that “you are what y’all (food industry) did with what you eat”. He is referring to food processing and the food industry that tricks you into thinking you’re eating healthily when in fact, you’re eating all the foods that are basically designed to destroy your health.
So, he has two essential rules to live by when it comes to judging ‘healthy food’. Eat foods that:
- Protect the liver
- Feed the gut
Any food that does both is healthy and any food that does neither is poison.
Protect the Liver
- Ged rid of sugar in the diet. Sugar is like alcohol as liver metabolizes it the same way and over time, leads to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Although virtually non-existent in the 1980s, 45% of us have NAFLD today. In particular, children are what he calls the “canaries in the coal mine” as they are getting these diseases of aging. Type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease used to be diseases of alcoholics and aging and now children are getting them. Dr. Lustig estimates that 20% of normal weight children and 40% of obese children have a fatty liver today and blames this on the sugary, processed foods that kids consume.
- Eat organic and stay away from pesticide-ridden foods (eg: Round-up), excess iron and heavy metals.
- Avoid eating too much BCAA (branched chain amino acids) – unless you are a body builder, you don’t need to consume excess BCAA as this gets converted to liver fat and results in insulin resistance.
- Dr. Lustig advocated two lab tests to get a baseline on your liver condition:
- ALT – 25 is optimal , NOT 40 (which is the new reference range). In 1976, the ALT upper limit was 25 but now it’s 40 because so much of the population has fatty liver disease. These reference ranges reflect the population so as the country gets fatter, the ranges are also moving up.
- Uric acid level – upper limit is 7.0 but it should be no higher than 5.5 as this marker is a proxy for sugar consumption.
Feed the Gut
- You need to feed the bacteria in your gut with insoluble and soluble fiber to keep it happy and avoid conditions like leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome and systemic inflammation.
- Dr. Lustig is known as the “anti-sugar crusader” in the industry and his lecture has over 100,000 views (I watched it three times as it was that good) – here’s a condensed version. However, he claims that fruit is healthy even though it has sugar because the amount of sugar in fruit is dwarfed by the amount of both soluble and insoluble fiber which prevents sugar absorption in the gut. Insoluble fiber forms a latticework and soluble fiber forms a gel and they both act as secondary barriers to prevent early absorption of sugar getting to the liver. If your gut doesn’t absorb it early, it goes further down to the intestine where the bacteria will chew it up for consumption to feed the gut. So even if you consumed the fruit, some of that sugar was spent to feed the microbiome.
- Processed food has no fiber and there’s a reason why the industry doesn’t like fiber. For example, an orange does NOT freeze well as the ice crystals macerate the cell walls and when thawed, becomes mushy. But if you squeeze the orange and freeze it, it’s highly storable making it easier to sell. However, in processing the orange, you’ve deprived your microbiome of all the important fiber in the fruit.
- Dr. Lustig explains that it’s what’s been done to the food that matters. There are four classifications of processed foods known as the NOVA system, and he uses an apple to describe what each class means:
- Nova Class 1: An apple is unprocessed and doesn’t need a food label
- Nova Class 2: Apple slices have been minimally processed as it’s been sliced, destemmed and placed in packaging
- Nova Class 3: Apple sauce has been crushed/cooked and may or may not have added sugar
- Nova Class 4: Apple drink which is the juice plus preservatives and added sugar with all the fiber removed. Nova Class 4 is considered ultra-processed and the predictor of disease. He claims that if it has a logo (those juices in the boxes with a cool name on it), it’s ultra-processed.
- Meat is another example. You would think that meat should be Nova Class 1 if you are buying from the refrigerated meat aisle in the supermarket. However, if the animal comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), that animal had to be pumped with antibiotics in order to survive. This permanently changed the cow’s microbiome which pervades in the meat. And when we eat it, we are causing gut dysfunction by eating the ‘sick’ meat. Hence, this meat is considered “processed” because of what the food industry did to it. But it’s not on the label as the food industry does not have to disclose any of this.
It’s the Insulin, Not Just the Glucose
- Dr. Lustig says that people think glucose is the problem but it’s insulin that drives chronic metabolic disease. Rising glucose levels are a proxy for a rise in insulin so it’s important to keep both down. Giving insulin to Type 2 diabetics to control blood sugar is not the answer and it’s important to note that insulin has two functions:
- The first is metabolic – insulin takes up blood glucose and lowers blood sugar
- The second is cell growth – Insulin also drives cell division and can promote coronary artery muscle division to drive heart attacks and promote breast glandular cell division to develop cancer.
- Dr. Lustig states that it’s not just glucose but fructose (like high fructose corn syrup) that accelerates metabolic disease and insulin resistance. Fructose goes to the brain and negatively affects cognitive and behavioral health. There’s a wealth of research and evidence on how food affects the brain and the use of sugar-free diets (ketogenic) to treat conditions like bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia.
So, what did I learn from this? First, get some baseline data on liver, fasting glucose and insulin levels as Dr. Lustig recommends so you know where you stand today. Second, eat a whole-foods, non-processed diet with plenty of pesticide-free vegetables and fruits and clean, grass-fed meat. Dr. Lustig follows his own advice – he and his family used to go out twice a week for meals but given that you really don’t know what you are being served at most restaurants, he has cut back his meal outings to just once a month.
Want to learn more? Check out Metabolical – this book has over a 1,000 references which could not be printed as it would add 70 more printed pages so he made all the references available on the book’s website.