3 Crucial Questions to Ask When Assessing a Health Fad

by Sarah TheHealthyHomeEconomist February 9, 2013

A confused reader posted on my Facebook Wall yesterday about an article she had read by a certified nutritionist (CN) about the dangers of eating nuts and that nuts are not a healthy human food.

What?  Nuts not healthy?

Her question got me thinking about what is the best approach for sorting through all the contradictory health information available today.

It’s piled high and deep out there, isn’t it?

If I had seen that article, I would have immediately rolled my eyes and clicked away no matter if the writer was a certified nutritionist, medical doctor, or a Nobel Prize winner.

Why?

Because it’s such a ridiculous claim and completely counter to historical evidence.

If someone with a PhD in Physics writes an article claiming the sun doesn’t rise in the morning, would you believe it?

Degrees are a dime a dozen these days, but common sense is very much in short supply – particularly when it comes to anything health related.

Plenty of healthy, degenerative disease free traditional cultures ate nuts so for someone with a nutritional degree to claim that nuts aren’t healthy is quite simply NUTS.

While I don’t mean to invalidate this individual’s personal experience with not doing well on nuts, it doesn’t change the fact that her view is a personal opinion and not worth paying any attention to on a broader scale when it comes to assessing healthy dietary choices.

If she doesn’t want to eat nuts because she doesn’t do well on them, that’s fine. But to claim that others should avoid nuts too because she can’t eat them is completely misguided.

Another example of personal belief masquerading as health truth is the myth that the milk protein casein causes cancer.  Once again, here is an example of a personal belief that eating animal foods is morally wrong trying to justify itself and pass itself off as a health truth.  Dairy has been consumed by healthy, degenerative disease free cultures for millenia – even before the advent of agriculture, so claiming that casein is dangerous to health is ludicrous.

Now, I understand some folks are allergic to casein and need to avoid it.  Sure, that’s fine. I get that.  I don’t mean to be insensitive to those with dairy allergies.

But to generalize the issue by saying that casein is cancer causing and that all dairy is unhealthy to consume?

Not so my vegan friends.  Time to bone up on your history.

So how to sort through all the conflicting information quickly and easily so you don’t get waylaid by those seeking to influence your behavior due to some personal or political agenda?

The next time a health fad or new food comes along and you are wondering whether it is healthy or not, try asking yourself these 3 questions to help sort it all out in your mind.

Question #1:   Was this food consumed by Traditional Cultures?

If the answer to this question is no, then you can immediately toss it aside.  As an example, what about this new “natural” sweetener like this fancy one called Swerve I’ve been hearing about that is made with the fibers of fruits and vegetables?

Don’t go near it with a ten foot pole.  If it required a lab of scientists to develop, it’s nothing you want in your body.  They can market it as natural all they want, but the truth is that it is a manufactured food.  Let other people be the guinea pigs.

If the answer to the question is yes, as it would be for nuts or dairy, then you are in the green zone.  Proceed to the next question.

Question #2:  How was this food prepared by Traditional Cultures?

This question is very important because it will help you discern what preparation methods are optimal for the food in question.

In the case of dairy, healthy ancestral cultures did not heat or boil the milk before drinking it.  They consumed it raw or in a fermented state, such as yogurt or kefir.  Boiling or pasteurizing milk only became commonplace when cows were confined eating unnatural feed and milking of the cows took place in an unclean environment such as what occurred in crowded cities after the advent of the Industrial Revolution.  As a result, dairy is most healthy when consumed raw as practiced historically, from cows grazing on green pasture, not when pasteurized.

Let’s look at nuts.  Yes, nuts are a traditional food but preparation is again key.  In the case of nuts, they were carefully soaked first which greatly improves digestibility.  Healthy cultures knew this through observation and passed this wisdom along to each generation.

So eating nuts is definitely healthy as they were eaten historically, however, care must be taken to prepare them traditionally as well.

Question #3:  How much of this food did Traditional Cultures typically consume?

Now that we have ascertained that nuts and dairy are healthy and how they should be prepared before consuming, the next question is how much is healthy to eat?

In the case of dairy, for many cultures, dairy was a staple and a large part of the diet.  So eating a lot of dairy is fine unless there is an allergy or other health issue to consider.

Nuts are a different story.  While nuts were part of some traditonal diets, they were not a primary staple.  As a result, it is important to make sure not to overdo it on the nuts even if properly prepared.  My personal rule of thumb is no more than a handful of nuts per day.

While I’m sure there are some exceptions to this 3 question rule, they can serve as an easy way to quickly assess whether a piece of health information coming your way should draw your attention and be investigated further or ignored as background noise.

We are all far to busy to be distracted with every health fad or opinion that comes along pretending to be a wellness silver bullet.

Is the concept of Traditional Diets new to you?  If so, I would highly recommend digging in and reading the very detailed book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration which describes the superlative health and diets of 14 isolated, nonindustrialized cultures. With this information under your belt, you will be much better armed to withstand the onslaught of health fads that come your way.

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

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Comments (60)

  1. Yes, Sarah. Once again — THANKS! I was reading an article this morning about the dangers of tanning beds and the “expert” author suggested a safer alternative — spray-on tan or tanning lotion. HA! And people will follow that awful advice and prepare for their tropical vacation by rubbing or spraying toxic chemicals onto their skin.

    Reply
  2. Hello!
    I just want to ask you: in that case cheese made from raw milk, it’s ok? I try to avoid dairy, but I like cheese and, living in France, almost every cheese it’s made from raw milk…
    Thank you for your instructive post!

    Reply
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  5. Sarah, love this article! I, too, find that these heuristic questions quite often have more value than looking up some random studies for evidence. Those will always find some statistical significance one direction or the other, quite often without an explanation (or one that’s been written afterwards).
    Nothing against science, but for everyday decisions I rather stick to these heuristics and also find that the paleo-question “is this what we have evolved to eat?” makes chosing food easier. This of course requires a little knowledge in traditional foods. But there’s your blog, so that’s easy :-)

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  6. Jill Bryant Mitchell via Facebook February 11, 2013 at 1:45 am

    Marie, don’t get me started on McDougall. My grandparents have followed that diet for most of my life. I think it is crazy, but whatever floats their boat! :)

    Reply
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  8. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks so much for further unpacking this for me. There’s so much info out there, sometimes it’s really hard to know what to take on board and what to dismiss. I love your tips. Another argument I came across re traditional eating is ‘whose ancestors are they anyway?’ I guess the counter would be I’m not sure but they were damn healthy!
    Trinity\’s last post: Planning for the week ahead

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    • Trinity, I love that comment. I have a grandfather who was adopted and don’t know much about his ancestors, but knowing him (still had a bicycle paper route and a huge garden in his 80′s) I’d say they were awesome. So without knowing details, I like to ask myself if a food was POSSIBLE for my great-grandparents (or theirs) to produce or import. Would they have WANTED to prepare it by hand to be that way?–cheetos, twinkies, etc… if so, how much, how often? I do love my blender and things like that, but it really puts foods into perspective to check them against the pre-processing era of anyone’s ancestry, and decide whether an improvement has been made, or dropped.
      I love biochemistry, but these questions do go a long way in simplifying the ever-changing and ever-varying opinions of science.

      Reply
  9. Roseann Ligenza-Fisher via Facebook February 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    Type 2 diabetes runs in my family and I was prediabetic, so I need to limit my carbs and sugars. In following traditional recipes I leave out grains and use coconut and/or almond flour and use pure stevia as a sweetener. I do use pure maple syrup and raw honey, but only sparingly. I do what I need to do to maintain my own health, but would never dictate that others should follow my diet. Everyone needs to eat according to what’s good for THEM.

    Reply
  10. Dee Ellen via Facebook February 10, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    I would agree. In our family, we try to implement foods from a traditional diet, which for us has meant avoiding GMOs and eating fresh whole organic foods. Unfortunately we don’t have access to a raw milk source, which is illegal to sell in our state. I avoid dairy, but wonder if raw might be ok for me. One child has a peanut allergy, but he eats other nuts. They need to be gluten free, so we order them online. The other child doesn’t like any nuts, but is not allergic. So even in my family, it’s not a one size fits all approach.

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  11. This is why I dont’ want to post what my family eats on my blog as people would assume this is the way to eat when it is simply the implementation of traditional diet that is optimal for my family given our health situation and genetic background. This would be problematic because there are many ways to implement traditional diet successfully.

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  12. Yes, this has what has started the grain free trend. While there is nothing wrong with avoiding grains, to say they are a bad food that humans shouldn’t eat is misguided considering that there is plenty of evidence archaeologically and via Dr. Price’s work that healthy cultures consumed grains with no problem for millenia.

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    • Thank you for reminding us! I’m about Paleo-ed out! ;-) I was getting worried that WAPF was going a little to overboard on the GAPS and Paleo diets. I know some people have to do these with severe issues to deal with, but for the norm, am glad WAPF is so balanced. I gotta have some rice, white basmati of course ;-), and some corn tortillas, GMO free at least!

      Reply
  13. Roseann Ligenza-Fisher via Facebook February 10, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    I love nuts, especially almonds, pecans and walnuts. I used to eat a couple of handfuls of nuts throughout the day as a snack. That combined with sweet potatoes, spinach, etc caused me to suffer with kidney stones now. I will now exercise moderation and will increase my fluid intake, but will certainly NOT give them up.

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  14. Over the years, I have often observed the tendency among those with “food issues” like I have whether allergies or sensitivities… There will always be some who will decide that no one should eat this food that we can’t eat at our house.

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  15. Kate @ Modern Alternative Mama February 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    It’s not that nuts are unhealthy, but when they are relied upon as a staple of the diet (as in some paleo homes), that’s unhealthy. It’s the “too much” issue that you mention.

    It’s funny that some have not caught onto these rules and still struggle with aspartame vs. sugar (cane sugar’s not nearly the poison aspartame is!), butter vs. margarine, eggs vs. egg subs. And I mean for health reasons, not allergies. Natural foods are always better.
    Kate @ Modern Alternative Mama\’s last post: Handmade Conversation Heart Valentines

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  16. Jill Bryant Mitchell via Facebook February 10, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    It isn’t that nuts are unhealthy, of course. But MANY people are having new health issues that didn’t exist even a generation ago. My son (autism) can’t tolerate nuts right now because of the high level of oxalates. I would NEVER suggest to someone to eliminate nuts because they are unhealthy, but with so many compromised immune systems, even healthy food can be bad for some.

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  17. ^organic is typically always better but not as big a difference depending on item. Nuts are shelled so I would think that protects them a lot. The nuts should be raw then soaked to increase digestibility. You want to avoid sugar and salty nut mixes, which beyond that crap often have vegetable oil on them. Trader Joe’s has best prices on nuts I’ve found but ideally a local grower would be best. I got some fresh pecans last month from a local goat farmer here that were divine!

    Reply
    • Remember that life expectancy is “AVERAGE” life expectancy, and while we hear that the A.L.E. for traditional people groups is low (as low as 30 years in some cases), keep in mind that this will include the higher infant mortality rates, deaths due to injury and illness and deaths due to attack by predator animals. In reality, most traditional people groups had plenty of healthy folks who lived to ripe old age – in much better shape than our older generation today!
      Amy Love @ Real Food Whole Health\’s last post: Fresh Bites Friday February 8, 2013

      Reply
  18. Not to mention, traditionally prepared nuts taste waaay better than raw or roasted without soaking first. I don’t even have to explain why they are better for people, just give them some and they all want the recipe. One husband of a friend when he first tasted walnuts done this way said, “Who would have thought walnuts could taste so good?” I’m so glad they are healthier this way, but am even happier they taste so much better!

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  19. One suggestion before you all make up your mind on CASEIN:

    The China Study (or The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted) by Dr. T. Colin Campbell

    A very interesting read! :)
    **En français: Le Rapport Campbell

    Reply
  20. Thank you for your helpful information. It is a blessing. What do you think of stevia. I had always thought it was only good for us in the dried green leaf version but I am not sure. What do you think of the liquid drops such as Sweetleaf’s Sweet Drops? Thank you very much. My whole family remembers you in our prayers. Holly

    Reply
  21. I think a fourth question might be “is it basically the same product that was used in traditional cultures?”. Take wheat. Unless you’re buying einkorn wheat, today’s frankenwheat bears no resemblence to the wheat of traditional cultures. Dr. Price would certainly hate today’s wheat! I hear so many people ignorantly say that people have been eating wheat since biblical times so they are certain it’s healthy. They are ignorant to the fact that the wheat (even sprouted, soaked or soured) of today has been hybridized and radiated to the point of gene mutation and contains mutated proteins (hence the increase in celiac disease).

    Reply
  22. Sarah, Thanks for this post. My gut instinct has thought those same questions for years. The soaking of nuts, grains, beans and seeds is the only new idea I’d never thought of before, till reading blogs like yours and reading Nourishing Traditions. But just like slightly fermented veggies or cooking, rather than eating everything raw, the body definitely responds happily to these changes!

    We don’t have any allergies, but been trying using almond flour in exchange for grain based baked goods. Bought almond flour is not soaked and people are using this everyday for everything. Wouldn’t that then fit in the too much nuts category?
    Karey Swan\’s last post: Sausage Cheese Pie With Potato Crust

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  23. I’ve been wondering about the preparation of nuts in America during the last couple hundred years. I just can’t picture them soaking their nuts like healthy traditional cultures did. Is that one of the wisdoms lost when Europeans came to settle this part of the country? I am of course assuming the early settlers weren’t nearly as healthy as the healthy cultures Dr. Price studied.

    Reply
      • At the very least, the early settlers gathered nuts and seeds from where they were growing (rather than a grocery shelf after who-knows-how-long in a warehouse somewhere), where they possibly even had the chance to get rained or dewed on enough to begin the enzyme process (rather than shelled and dried ASAP at who knows what temperatures).
        Sarah… Indian tribes DID soak them?? I’m fascinated to look more into that history, but the more I learn, the less it surprises me to stumble on these things.
        I started to research the traditional process for corn one day. The first relevant search result directed me to the healthy home economist. :)
        Thank you for pointing out these “three questions to ask”. I “attended” the HealThy Mouth Summit, dragging my heels for the first three days because I was familiar enough with some bold statements of yours (and Dr. Price’s, among others) that didn’t make sense to me at the time (mostly the whole phytic acid thing), and figured I would have to agree to disagree with half the summit. I do disagree with a few things, but studying natural yeast around the same time turned on a bright light for me! If whole grains were created anti-nutritious, BUT the way people nearly ALWAYS used them took care of the problem, usually without their even being aware that there WAS a problem (!)… that’s actually making a LOT of sense. In everything else, you and I have been on a similar learning curve, except where you’ve been having teeth heal, I’ve been having them pulled :( …but no more, I hope.
        Thank you for your time and experience which is allowing me to catch up so quickly where my knowledge was lagging.

        Reply
  24. Soaking and dehydrating nuts makes such a big difference in digestibility. We do that, then freeze and pull out whenever we want to use–which is often. Our favorite snack anymore is to gently saute them in butter and then season. We keep then in the fridge ready for snacking! So tasty!

    Reply
  25. There was a blog post going around this week about nuts and the fact that they are high in oxalates and that is why it is bad to consume them the way we do. Both in handfuls and in nut flours.

    If I recall, there was a post awhile back about green smoothies and how bad they are because of the oxalates.

    Are these oxalates one and the same? If so, then why would nuts be ok and green smoothies not?

    BTW, love all your posts and information.

    Reply
    • Sarah, TheHealthyHomeEconomist

      Yes, oxalates are another reason to eat nuts in moderation. Nothing wrong with eating nuts in moderation though. No need to not eat them at all because of oxalates.

      I wrote the green smoothie post .. yes leafy greens like spinach are problematic in large amounts as well because of the oxalates … again, traditional cultures never consumed greens in the quantities that green smoothie afficionados do. A salad is fine though of course! It’s not just about the food …it’s about how it’s prepared and how much of it to eat as well. All 3 of these things need to be considered.
      Sarah, TheHealthyHomeEconomist\’s last post: 3 Crucial Questions to Ask When Assessing a Health Fad

      Reply
  26. Perhaps another thing to consider is how much of that particular food was consumed by the traditional cultures in your ancestry.

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  27. In traditional cultures, soy is fermented before consumption. There were also no GMOs. So things like organic miso and fermented soy sauce are totally acceptable.

    Reply
    • In my traditional Chinese family, we would eat a 10-course meal in which one dish would be a stir fry with tofu and meat. Included in such a meal would be seafood, organ meats, gristly foods. Nobody I knew ever ate “tofu burgers” or a diet primarily soy. The value of tofu in small portion of the diet is probably in detoxifying the body (because of high phytic acid maybe?) – but was not viewed as something to build the body up (ie. nutrient dense).

      Great post, Sarah. Good common sense rules to follow.

      Reply
    • When my family opened our Thai restaurant, my mom was perplexed about the constant requests for tofu. As she and the rest of the kitchen staff say (all born and raised in various Asian countries), “What’s with the tofu? We never ate that stuff growing up!” They still don’t. I chuckle when I hear people insist that’s what is eaten there. Then I get bummed when people look at me like I’m insane when I offer to have their food cooked in lard or duck fat or coconut oil, and they tell me they want canola because it’s “healthier.” :(

      Reply
  28. My sons eat a “grain-light” diet….they are gluten free and lactose free-ish ( we eat pastured butter and raw aged cheese) soy free GMO-corn free diet. No dyes, no weird sweeteners. It is all fine except managing nut intake. We don’t soak our nuts for nut flour…my oldest is allergic to molds so soaking things like nuts freaks me out. I make gf muffins once in a while but they are junk food…xanthan gum, super processed flours. I also make cashew muffins but one equals a handful of nuts! My five foot tall ten year old typically swipes three minimum. Balancing all of this when you can’t eat certain traditional foods gets complicated quickly.

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  29. Sarah, I am new to reading your blog, and very grateful to have discovered it. Thank you. I find myself conflicted by the post on 170 Scientific Reasons to Lose the Soy, and this post. Soy, in my mind fits all the criterial you suggest one go through to determine if a food is “good” to eat. Soy has been a staple of the Asian diet, for ages. Health benefits touted, for ages. It is plant based not manmade. No words in the ingredients that come from a science lab. It seems just as odd to me to label soy problematic as it is to label raw milk or nuts problematic. I will so appreciate your further thoughts on this.

    Reply
    • Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

      The post you are referring to covers this perhaps you missed this paragraph:

      “Please note that fermented soy in small, condimental amounts as practiced in traditional Asian cultures is fine for those who have healthy thyroid function. Only miso, tempeh, natto and soy sauce (IF traditionally brewed) fall under this category. In addition, if you want to sprinkle a few edamame on your salad or have a few small cubes of tofu in your miso soup from time to time, that is fine too. Just don’t make it a regular part of your diet!”

      Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist\’s last post: 3 Crucial Questions to Ask When Assessing a Health Fad

      Reply
    • Thanks for the helpful response and clarification. I am new to the concept of fermented foods, and have been reading on it a bit so will continue in the vein. It is interesting to note that it once again comes down to the problem of overconsumption of what was good when it was consumed in moderation. thx!

      Reply
    • Just watch a video on the commercial tofu making process and other crazy things that are done to soy and you’ll never want to touch the stuff again.

      Reply

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