What is the ideal diet for humans? You will be surprised that, in the face of this question, a man of science has affirmed "The answer is written in the Bible"1. We are not talking about a person on the fringes of the medical-scientific world, looking for media visibility with a catch phrase, but about a great epidemiologist who has spent years studying the relationships between nutrition and diseases, especially tumors. I am referring to Dr. Franco Berrino, an internationally renowned epidemiologist, former director of the Department of Preventive and Predictive Medicine, National Cancer Institute of Milan—where he began his activity in the seventies—called to exercise that role by the well-known oncologist Umberto Veronesi. However, let us move on to the issue at hand.
What did Berrino mean with that statement? The surprises continue; the ideal diet is mentioned in the Bible verse: “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.’ Gen. 1:29 (ESV). Today's scientists and doctors, however, dazzled by the new dogmas of biology,” continues Berrino, “do not give much importance to the words of the Bible.”2
This is a harsh attack on the diffidence of secular and scientific thought towards a thousand-year-old wisdom that, if taken seriously, could or can still inspire people's orientations, starting with scientists. An ancient knowledge that revealed, in the predominantly vegetarian food choice, an idea of health for humankind.
It was ideal
To better understand these claims and not fall into the opposite temptation to discredit scientific work in general, we just have to consider some of the food science studies carried out in recent decades.
But first, it is worth pointing out that various peoples of the earth, since ancient history, had in common the experience of growing cereals together with legumes and occasionally other seeds. Whole grains, associated with legumes and a handful of oil seeds - such as almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts - and vegetables, and occasionally with animal food, actually provide, says Berrino:
“a perfect food combination, with the right amount of carbohydrates, which guarantee us a constant availability of energy for daily life, of proteins complete with all the amino acids essential for the replacement of cellular structures, of good quality fats, which ensure the functioning of complex biophysical and biochemical systems that control the balance of the organism, of indigestible fibers that feed thousands of billions of microbes that coexist in our intestine contributing to our nutrition and our health, vitamins, minerals and an infinity of other factors which on the one hand are indispensable for the proper conduct of chemical reactions vital and, on the other hand, protect us from toxic substances foreign or produced by our own metabolism.3”
All this represented an ideal diet, which, compatibly with water, sanitation, hygiene and living conditions, would give more health and longevity to people in the world history.
The success of the meat and meat products diet
One of the factors that have changed the dietary scenario is the massive introduction of meat into the daily diet; a rising trend facilitated by various socio-economic factors. The great demand for meat and milk began after the First World War. To be more precise, after the discovery of pasteurization, milk began to be distributed in cities. Until that time, in the first decades of the century, of great concern was the phenomenon of undernourishment of social classes in the countryside and working-class neighborhoods of the cities.
These phenomena gave a strong impulse for the consumption of animal product, which, together with the improvement of the hygienic conditions of the houses, probably contributed to increase the level of nutrition of people and to defend us from infectious diseases. Furthermore, meat has always been a symbol of wealth, of a privilege that only the wealthier classes, aristocracy and bourgeoisie, could afford.
Therefore, benefiting from this food was also a way to demonstrate an emancipation from poverty. Unfortunately, the radicalization of this trend has gone hand in hand with the increase in the profits of food companies, inducing further imbalances in the dietary habits of the population.
This does not mean that “one was better off when one was worse off”, that is, when hunger and poverty were widespread, but rather that there was enormous potential in the centuries-old food tradition, made up of richness and variety of foods which, even today, could satisfy the physiological and nutritional needs of people. These traditions, together with the love for taste and aromas, so rooted in popular culture, would have avoided the serious health and environmental problems we are currently experiencing.
The degradation of food
During the twentieth century, in the rich Western world, we witnessed a slow but inexorable departure from food traditions in favor of foods that were once eaten only exceptionally.
Not only meat and dairy products, but also new foods, such as refined flours (non-existent until the last century) 0 and 00, which are kept for a long time in silos, while wholemeal flours are not suitable for large storages and long preservation by large-scale producers. Not to mention the rapid invasion of simple sugar, almost unknown until the early twentieth century. In the meantime, oils, used for seasoning have increasingly started to be replaced with refined products obtained by chemical extraction from seeds or oily fruits; other fats do not even exist in nature, such as those used in margarines.
The massive spread of these foods has produced repercussions in not only the Western countries but, in recent decades, also in those of the Far East, such as China and India. These repercussions are the development of diseases typical of rich countries: obesity, hypertension, myocardial infarction, diabetes, constipation, atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, prostatic hypertrophy, senile dementia, and many cancers, especially of the intestine, breast, and prostate.
Three trap ingredients
It is the development of the food industry that produces the most profound changes in our eating habits. The profit motive and economic growth at all costs, competition, and advertising have created the conditions for directing our choices towards food products that are increasingly distant from their nutritional and organoleptic origin.
There are three key ingredients used by the food industry: fats, sweets, and salt. An American journalist, Michael Moss, Pulitzer Prize, made an investigation published in a book: Salt, Sugar, Fat (in Italy, published by Mondadori, 2014). According to the author, these three ingredients make consumer choices more unaware and susceptible to marketing manipulation.
In practice, producers want those who taste a product to reach the so-called “bliss point”, when food turns into a real drug.
Sugar—in particular, refined sugar or white sugar—could have worse effects than cocaine. At least on the level of addiction. The alarm was launched not long ago by the British Journal of Sports Medicine4, publishing a review where it was highlighted that refined sugar would induce psychoactive effects - abuse, impulsive desires - superimposable, if not superior, to those of other substances that cause addictive.
The three key components indicated in Moss's book, in addition to having physiological effects on the taste buds, have others: ideal consistency, low perishability (so the products keep for a long time), irresistible aroma, an inviting appearance, and ability to “hide” any unpleasant flavors. But the addictive effects don't affect just the palate. There is also the release of emotions and well-being, thanks to the direct connections to the nerve centers of gratification.
In fact, as in all consumer goods productions, the emotional sphere is leveraged to make a product more salable. Nothing is left to chance. The pressure that the jaws must exert to break a potato chip is also studied. The reason is easy to say: if the product is swallowed quickly, one has the perception of eating something that will not make you fat.
Finally, many important companies in the sector use magnetic resonances of the brain to study the neurological reaction to certain foods, especially sugar. Thus, discovering that the brain lights up for sugar just as it does for cocaine.
Another element to keep an eye on is the sodium content, the common cooking salt, whose average daily intake in Europe is about double - 10 g - compared to 5 g, with a recommendation indicated by the WHO to lower further. It is good to know that the consumption of refined salt favors the increase in blood pressure and, consequently, the risk of diseases of the blood vessels, heart, and kidneys, tumors of the stomach and, probably, of osteoporosis, especially in people with risk.
But a 10% reduction in salt consumption would be enough to produce encouraging results for public health. This finding was reached, in 2017, by experts from Tufts University, in Boston, coordinated by Dariush Moffazarian, who published the results in the British Medical Journal5. Researchers have taken data on health expenditure from 183 countries since 2010, combined it with those associated with the incidence and deaths of many of the conditions caused by the rise in pressure, for which excess salt has a top-notch responsibility. The result? The 10% decrease in salt consumption would lead to a reduction in thousands of deaths and disabilities, and to a considerable saving compared to any other measure.
What about fats? The excess of saturated ones (foods of animal origin such as meats, milk and cheeses, sweet or savory snacks) are bad and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. A danger that can be prevented by consuming, in a balanced way, the unsaturated fats present, for example, in extra virgin olive oil: they lower cholesterol and cardiovascular risk.
The reason why so many unhealthy foods are produced is easy to guess now: they cost little and sell a lot. Low quality ingredients that do not have a particular flavor are used, so those three ingredients - sugars, salt and fats - intervene to make up and hide reality with a pleasant and appetizing taste.
The end result is dramatic, however: obesity alone affects 672 million worldwide (about 1 in 8 inhabitants)6 with all the related diseases mentioned above.
Return to the origins, but with wisdom
Let us now return to the initial statement: were the indications for the ideal diet for humanity already known from the origins of the world?
Is the ideal diet mainly based on vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables?
The WCRF periodically analyzes the research carried out in the oncology and food sector, reporting the conclusions in a series of useful recommendations to prevent tumors (and not only), starting from nutrition and physical activity. Among the numerous scientific researches which confirm the protective role of predominantly vegetarian diets, the decalogue of the WCRF certainly represents an authoritative reference point.
In the most recent report, that of 20187, in point 4 there is a recommendation to:
“Eat at least 30g of fibre and at least 400g of fruit and veg each day.”
One of our Cancer Prevention Recommendations is to make wholegrains, vegetables, fruit, and pulses (legumes), such as beans and lentils, a major part of your usual daily diet. There is evidence that eating wholegrains, fibre, vegetables, and fruit can help protect against certain cancers, as well as against weight gain, overweight and obesity.
There is strong evidence that eating wholegrains protects against colorectal cancer, and that eating foods containing dietary fibre protects against colorectal cancer and against weight gain, overweight and obesity.
Although the evidence for links between individual cancers and consumption of non-starchy vegetables or fruit is limited, the pattern of association and the direction of effect are both consistent. Overall, the evidence is more persuasive of a protective effect and that greater consumption of non-starchy vegetables and/or fruit helps protects against a number of aerodigestive cancers and some other cancers.
Dietary patterns that are linked to a lower risk of cancer consistently feature high consumption of these foods.
Recently, too, another study clarified the doubts about vegan diets, i.e. free of meat derivatives, for children. The article, published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics8, demonstrates how, by consuming plant foods of all groups (cereals, legumes and derivatives, dried fruit and oilseeds, vegetables, fruit, oils), in the quantities suggested for the different age groups, it is possible to meet the daily needs of all nutrients, with the exception of vitamin B12 which must be taken in the form of a supplement.
The dietary advice of Eden was certainly placed in a context of environmental and spiritual perfection. The foods of millennia ago were certainly not qualitatively the same as those of today. Eating healthily must not be the result of improvisation, fanaticism, or extremism. We need preparation and intelligence related to scientific knowledge. But it is a valid and possible path.
In addition, a healthy vegetarian diet is also one of the solutions to improve the quality of our environment.
Finally, it is the prerequisite for a new awareness: we often feed on junk food accompanied by other psychological and moral toxins that make our soul “obese”. The rediscovery of a more natural diet can be accompanied by a spiritual "diet", for a clear mind and aware conscience, abandoning negative feelings and emotions, resentment and anger, so harmful to our psychological health.
1F. Berrino, Il cibo dell’uomo, F. Angeli editore, 1999, p. 5.
3 Ib., p. 7,8.