Sorry food fascists, nutrition is not the key to health

Pretty Woman makes a choice between bad food

There are seemingly a million different dietary prescriptions for health and they’re all based on a fundamental misapprehension. In contrast to popular belief, nutrition is NOT the key to health.

You’d never know that to look at the food fascists among us. They insist that they can control their health through diet, though the specific diet differs dramatically from faddist to faddist, conjuring ideal values of protein, carbohydrate, fat and supplement intake essentially from thin air.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The rise of heart disease and cancer as major causes of death is the inevitable result of being healthier than ever. [/pullquote]

Pretending that nutrition is the key to health makes about as much sense as pretending that the reason your car eventually stops working is because you didn’t use the right gas. Fuel can’t prevent the effects of wear and tear or accidents.

Similarly, food is fuel and it can’t prevent the effects of wear and tear on our bodies, either. It is only magical thinking that leads some people to believe that it can.

Why would anyone think that nutrition was the key to health?

Most people are ignorant of what life in general and diet in particular was like in prehistoric times. As I explained in the recent post Paleo-suckered, many imagine that the Paleolithic Era was a time of human flourishing, a literal Garden of Eden. That’s certainly the central premise of the Paleo-diet: in contrast to Americans, our Paleolithic ancestors were purportedly healthy and if we copy their diet we could be healthy, too.

It’s hard to imagine anything further from the truth. We are the ones who are healthy; they were scraping along and barely surviving. Had human beings not developed technology, they might have become extinct just like every other hominid species that has ever existed. There is not a single health parameter that was better in Paleolithic times than today. In every possible way that you can measure health, we are exponentially healthier than at any other time in human history.

So why do we think that we are not healthy now?

Let’s look at causes of death in the Paleolithic:

Heart Disease

Cancer and heart disease killed relatively few people because they’re diseases of wear and tear, far more common in old age than in youth or early adulthood. Very few people lived long enough to get them.

Let’s look at common causes of disease in our country today:

Childhood Infections
Heart Disease

Starvation, childhood infection and deaths in childbirth have dramatically decreased to the point that they represent only a small fraction of deaths. Not surprisingly, accidents/violence and the diseases of old age kill a larger proportion of the population than ever before.

This chart illustrates the 10 leading causes of death by age group in the US:


Cancer and heart disease are primarily diseases of old age. As the average lifespan approaches 80 years, the majority of deaths are obviously going to be diseases of old age.

A key point that many people forget is that everyone dies. It didn’t have to be this way. Bacteria are essentially immortal. Unless they’re eaten, they will continue to split into daughter cells forever. As higher organisms evolved, finite life expectancy evolved with it. Although we often say that people die of “old age,” they die of wear and tear on critical organs like the brain and heart.

You can’t prevent wear and tear in a car, but if you treat it poorly you can make it worse. However, there is no way that you can prevent wear and tear by changing the formulation of the gas that you put in the car. Similarly, you can’t prevent wear and tear in the human body (yet), but you can make it worse. Obesity increases the wear and tear on the heart. Certain behaviors (tanning, smoking) dramatically increases the wear and tear on the skin and lungs respectively, leading to skin cancer and lung cancer. But there is no reason to believe that changing what you eat will prevent natural wear and tear.

Human beings have never been healthier than we are today. That heart disease and cancer (diseases of wear and tear) are the major causes of death is the inevitable result of being HEALTHIER. Unless we find a way to live forever, cancer and heart disease will continue to represent a growing proportion of deaths.

Could we be healthier still?

It’s possible, but we will die nonetheless; the only difference is that we might be older at the time of death. There is NO WAY to completely prevent wear and tear, and it is wear and tear that kills us.

Avoiding obesity can reduce wear and tear on the heart and avoiding certain behaviors can reduce the wear and tear that leads to cancer, but there’s no reason to think that food has a greater impact on health beyond reducing obesity.

Nutrition is not the key to health and never has been; it is only wishful thinking that makes people believe otherwise.