My unique life trajectory—which we will get into in this article—has led me to develop ‘healthy scepticism’ towards mainstream nutrition advice and popular dietary fads.
As an engineer, I believe in data.
For me, good data analysis = truth.
I have spent a lot of time creating quantitative systems to cut through the noise and dogma to help my family and the Optimising Nutrition community.
Considering two of the most important people in the world to me have Type-1 Diabetes (my wife and my son), accurate nutritional advice matters.
In this article, I wanted to share the evolution of my understanding of nutrition to help you understand why I believe quantitative Nutritional Optimisation is so important.
As we can see in the chart below showing our rapid growth in energy intake and obesity:
- current system, and
- something unique happened in the 1960s that changed our trajectory.
This article will dig into the misguided beliefs that I believe have significantly contributed to the current diabesity epidemic—that I happened to grow up in the middle of—and what I believe to be the forward from here.
- My Seventh-Day Adventist Background
- The Influence of the SDA Church on Nutrition
- Kellogg and His Corn Flakes
- The Birth of the US Dietary Guidelines
- The 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans
- Healthy Scepticism
- Why Belief-Based Nutrition Has Led Us Down the Wrong Nutritional Path
- Monica and Type-1 Diabetes
- Is Nutrition Just a Numbers Game?
- Enter Nutrient Density
- Bruce Ames’ Triage Theory
- Protein Leverage
- Bringing It All Together
- The Way Forward
My Seventh-Day Adventist Background
While it’s not something I usually make a big deal of, I grew up in a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) family until I was ten.
The SDAs believe in a plant-based way of eating that negates or minimises most animal foods and emphasises vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
As a growing teenager, I pounded Sanitarium’s Weet Bix before and after school every day.
But my family left the SDA church when I was in late primary school. I have no hard feelings towards the Seventh-Day Adventist church; I was too young to be affected by it all. However, the experience has given me a unique insight into the power of belief-based nutrition.
Recently, Belinda Fettke has been digging into the role of the SDA church on modern nutrition, which has blown my mind. At the time, I didn’t realise their impact on our modern nutritional landscape. But everything she found aligns 100% with my experience inside the SDA church.
The SDAs are held up as the picture of glowing health. The SDA-dominated Loma Linda community in California is one of the seven famous Blue Zones. While they are typically a clean living, conservative, conscientious community, everything is not as rosy as it seems, especially for those who have lived on heavily processed plant-based foods all their lives. Interestingly, Adventist Health acquired the Blue Zones® brand in 2020.
The Influence of the SDA Church on Nutrition
While my experiences may seem far from yours, it may surprise you to learn that the SDA church likely influences what and how you eat.
Nutrition is still a very young science, but, as you will see, the SDAs have influenced our current thinking with their predominantly plant-based approach.
‘God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you, it shall be for meat.’ Genesis 1:29
The SDA Church’s founding prophet, Ellen White, interpreted this to mean we all should consume a grain-based diet, which fuelled the ‘nutrition and health’ movement of the SDA church.
According to the SDA website, “Meat can be eaten if a follower really chooses to”. However, any meat is categorised as ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ per the Jewish Kosher laws. Hence, meats like pork and shellfish are expressly forbidden. So, if you consider yourself a good Seventh Day Adventist, you won’t eat any meat.
The SDA church believes everyone should eat as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden before the fall. Until more people eat that way, Jesus won’t come back—and the Second Coming of Christ won’t occur.
After The Great Disappointment in 1844, when they believed Jesus would return to earth, the SDA church is now hyper-focused on doing everything possible to ‘hurry Christ’s return’. A major part of this is their strict adherence to their way of eating, not just for them but everyone.
While this group may mean well, I can now see their massive influence on the international nutritional landscape.
Kellogg and His Corn Flakes
When he was 12 years old, John Harvey Kellogg worked for Ellen White and typeset her book, A Solemn Appeal to Mothers, an anti-masturbation book pleading with mothers not to feed their children meat. It was believed that ‘flesh eaters’ developed ‘animal propensities’ and ‘stirring of baser passions’ that led to masturbation, the most heinous sin.
Seeing potential and enthusiasm in the young Kellogg, White later funded his medical training. He would later start the first Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, and later develop the first palatable, sugar-coated grain cereals, including the ubiquitous Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, in 1894. Kellogg claimed that this highly processed ‘pre-digested’ breakfast would improve digestion and decrease sexual desire.
Motivated by his strong religious conviction, Kellogg also created other ‘innovative’ ways to prevent teenagers from partaking in ‘self-vice’ that I won’t go into here. However, in a modern world where infertility, erectile dysfunction, and many other hormonal issues are growing, I sometimes wonder how much influence Kellogg’s dietary system designed to suppress sexuality has had on our modern world.
The Birth of the US Dietary Guidelines
Continuing the proud SDA legacy, nurse Leena Frances Cooper, a protégé of Kellogg, went on to establish the American Dietetic Association in 1917.
Later, when the heart disease epidemic hit in the 1960s and the US government started searching for solutions to address it, the SDAs were ready and waiting with their nutrition ‘research’. Because it’s marinated into their religion, they were the only group thinking and writing about it. They already had many studies prepared to ‘prove’ their beliefs.
While scientific studies are valuable, it’s also unfortunately impossible to remove the bias of the researchers and funding organisations from the ‘scientific findings’ or go against ‘established truths’. Today, we still struggle to establish clear dietary principles from large epidemiological studies that often leave us more confused. As a result, modern nutrition ‘science’ is still clouded with ambiguity and no clear central messaging around what we should eat but only what we should avoid.
Hence, in nutrition science research over the past century, it’s likely that the belief-based nutrition paradigm of the SDA church and the financial interests of companies like Sanitarium and Kellogg’s—who profit from the industrial agricultural system—may have influenced the researchers.
The 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans
In light of this, it shouldn’t be surprising that the beliefs around saturated fat, salt, cholesterol, and the perils of eating animal flesh were baked into the original 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans, written by Senator George McGovern’s aide, Nick Mottern, who was an SDA vegetarian.
Ironically, a dietary formula that shuns cholesterol, salt, saturated fat and animal products is the perfect formula to promote industrialised agriculture and products like grains, seed oils, starch, and sugar that it creates.
Not only does this align with the ‘common knowledge’ in the ‘nutrition science’ community, but it also aligns with the financial incentives of companies like Kellogg’s, Sanitarium and Post Cereals spawned from the strong SDA movement in Battle Creek, Michigan. Interestingly, Sanitarium still operates in Australia as a tax-free entity under the umbrella of the SDA church while strongly advocating grain-based dietary guidelines.
After half a century, we can see how this large-scale experiment worked out! When we focus on avoiding ‘bad things’ in food based on misguided beliefs, we end up with a nutrient-poor, hyper-palatable, hyper-profitable food system that we love to buy and eat!
As you can see, I have ‘healthy’ scepticism around nutritional guidelines rooted in avoidance of ‘bad’ things that stem from religious beliefs and misguided motivations, like suppressing ‘carnal desires’.
These days, it makes more sense to me to think in terms of our longer-term evolutionary context and what our bodies need from our food.
Our body’s cravings are not ‘bad’, nor are they something to be suppressed or fought against; instead, they likely drive us to get the nutrients we require from food. Food tastes good, and gives us a dopamine reward because it contains the nutrients and energy our bodies require!
While you may not have heard much about them, I hope you can see that the SDAs and their many associated organisations significantly influence our modern nutritional guidelines and beliefs surrounding nutrition.
For more detail on the involvement of the SDA church, check out my chat with Belinda Fettke and her website. She has done a ton of fantastic research that aligns 100% with my experience growing up in the SDA church.
For an even deeper dive, check out the 2018 paper, The Global Influence of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church on Diet, by Joan Sabate et al. from Loma Linda University.
To be clear, neither Belinda nor I are anti-religion or anti-plant-based diets. I’ve gone to great lengths to create NutriBooster Recipes books for people who prefer plant-based or vegetarian diets for ethical or religious reasons.
But our beliefs don’t change our intrinsic requirements for the nutrients to survive and thrive!
I do, however, feel strongly about people inflicting their beliefs about what people should be eating—due to their religious beliefs or financial conflicts of interest—on the rest of the world, especially when it is now clear that it is having such a diabolical impact on our metabolic health!
Why Belief-Based Nutrition Has Led Us Down the Wrong Nutritional Path
The SDA church was born out of the Temperance Movement. Temperance is defined as “habitual moderation in the indulgence of a natural appetite or passion.”
Ellen White and the SDA church see temperance as moderate use of things that are good and complete abstinence from that which is harmful for the body.
According to the temperate views of the SDA church, we need to suppress our natural appetites and passions. However, unfortunately, building nutritional guidance around ‘bad things’ that we desire in food may have led us 180 degrees in the wrong direction!
Again, the SDA church is a well-meaning group of people trying really hard to do what they believe is right. But I now believe that suppressing cravings for natural foods we enjoy without considering evolutionary biology is perhaps the worst way to set up a nutritional system.
Through my data analysis, I have now come to understand that we have innate natural cravings for things in food because we need them. Therefore, actively suppressing those cravings will lead us to eat more!
The table below shows how the SDA temperate view that has found its way into the ‘common knowledge’ of modern nutrition aligns with my current understanding based on years of data analysis from thousands of people.
|Temperate View||What the data shows|
|Sodium should be minimised.||We require some sodium, and we have intense cravings for it. While modern ultra-processed foods exploit this fact to make us eat more, we still require some sodium. People who minimise sodium eat more to get the sodium they require.|
|Saturated fat is bad.||Saturated fat is just another source of energy that tends to come with animal-based foods. It’s not inherently good or bad in an otherwise nutrient-dense whole foods diet. ‘Heart healthy’ monounsaturated fat, sugar, and starch also provide energy in our diet and will lead to obesity and all related diseases when they contribute to a low-satiety, nutrient-poor diet! So, while avoiding saturated fat, we have blessed monounsaturated fat as ‘good’. Meanwhile, we all seem to be turning a blind eye to the eight hundred additional calories per day per person from industrial seed oils added to ultra-processed foods.|
|Cholesterol should be minimised.||While cholesterol is not deemed an essential nutrient, our body requires it for many critical functions. If we don’t get enough of it in our diet, our livers will make it. People who consume foods with less cholesterol eat more (and vice versa).|
|Animal foods should be minimised.||Animal-based foods are a valuable source of bioavailable protein. Plant-based foods tend to contain less protein per calorie, and they tend to be less bioavailable. Hence, we need to eat more plant-based foods to get adequate protein. Because we need enough protein, the percentage of protein in your diet impacts how much you will eat.|
My sincere hope is that in the not-too-distant future that ‘nutrition science’ will move beyond the temperate, belief-based mentality and start to focus on giving our bodies what they need from the food they eat. The reality is that when we focus on giving our bodies everything they require, all the ‘bad things’ are moderated and fall into balance.
For more details on my analysis, see:
- The Cheat Codes for Nutrition for Optimal Satiety and Health,
- Is Tufts University’s Food Compass Nutrient Profiling System ‘Broken’?,
- Protein – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR),
- Does Eating Fat Make You Fat? The Surprising Truth About Cholesterol and Saturated Fat!,
- Monounsaturated Fat: Is It So “Good” After All?, and
- Sodium in Food: A Practical Guide.
Monica and Type-1 Diabetes
I didn’t give much thought to nutrition until I married my wife Monica twenty years ago, and we started to think about having kids.
Monica happens to have Type-1 Diabetes.
Nothing can make you more neurotic about the interaction of how the food we eat affects insulin and blood glucose than the long list of complications that can accompany a diabetic pregnancy!
While I think I was aware that nutrition was important back then from the SDA background, I didn’t know more than the average person.
During pre-pregnancy, we learned a lot about how to dose more insulin to manage blood sugars. While we became a bit more conscious about the food environment around us, we still didn’t understand much about nutrition.
More recently, I’ve come to understand that the advice given to people with diabetes—just follow the recommendations given to everyone else—is pretty much the worst advice you could give them! The issues with our modern food system are accelerated and exacerbated when you add injected insulin!
While I had hoped things may have changed in the 35 years since Monica was first diagnosed with T1D at age 10, I recently learned that the horror stories she told me were still common practice.
In December of 2021, just after I quit my day job as an engineer to focus on my nutritional analysis, our 16-year-old son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. When we went to see the dieticians in the hospital, I found many of the guidelines were still the same! That is, make sure you eat ALL the carbs and take industrial doses of insulin.
About ten years ago, I came across Robb Wolf and the Paleo Diet. After decades of trying not to be so fat—and failing—what Robb had to say made a ton of sense.
Robb’s book and podcast opened my mind to a new way of seeing the world, including nutrition. I realised that evolution and optimal foraging theory were a much better fit than the belief-based views I had held up until that point.
Rather than being ‘evil’, our cravings were healthy. Our innate survival instincts are just trying to keep us alive so we can procreate!
More recently, Robb has delved more into the impact of our food system on the planet and regenerative agriculture. This is an important topic we discussed in this interview.
Is Nutrition Just a Numbers Game?
Around that time, the online nutrition space started to blow up, and I became enamoured with everything nutrition.
I found the Food Insulin Index. In an eager attempt to help Monica manage her diabetes, I downloaded the insulin index data from a University of Sydney thesis. I soon found I could estimate any food’s insulin and glucose response through regression analysis based on its macros.
The culmination of these findings helped Monica to get off the blood sugar-insulin rollercoaster that she had been on since she was ten! As a result, her life, health, mood and energy levels changed radically.
As they say… happy wife, happy life! I was hooked on the power of data-driven nutrition for my family and myself.
Enter Nutrient Density
Seven years ago, I started the Optimising Nutrition blog to share my analysis, findings, and learnings.
Many people in the low-carb and then-emerging keto space were excited about my observations around the food insulin index. Many used it to stabilise their glucose and increase their ketones.
Much of my research and thinking revolved around blood sugar stability for some time. However, I saw a 2012 lecture by Matt Lalonde on quantifying nutrient density that impacted me. I realised that the problem with the lowest insulin index foods was that they were also primarily fat and deficient in nutrients.
To help Monica and other people managing diabetes get enough of ALL the essential nutrients they require while keeping their blood glucose stable, I used my engineering experience to create a multi-criteria analysis that combined nutrient density and the insulin index.
I used the same process to determine the optimal motorway alignment and infrastructure investment decisions at work as I did to make better food choices tailored for an individual’s goals, context, and preferences.
Low carb seemed to help many people stabilise their blood glucose levels, and some found they could lose weight by simply reducing their carbs.
But as keto was taking hold, many people started prioritising fat in pursuing higher ketones rather than just lowering their carb intake. After seeing many gain weight and worsen their metabolic health on a very low-carb, high-fat diet, I wanted to understand why some people ate more than they needed even though they wanted to lose weight.
Based on the teaching of the keto gurus at the time, I had thought that lowering my post-meal glucose and insulin levels by reducing carbs would turn off my pancreas, similar to someone with uncontrolled Type 1 Diabetes.
However, my efforts were futile. I was getting fatter as I added more fat and ‘keto’d harder’ in pursuit of higher ketones! So, there was obviously something amiss in my understanding.
While in my keto craze, I came across the 1997 satiety index study from the University of Sydney showing a food’s satiety effects based on its macronutrient content. However, because it only had 38 data points, it was hard to make sense of. Ironically, the study was sponsored by Kellogg’s.
But not long after, I found a dataset of half a million days of MyFitnessPal logs and analysed it for the most critical factors influencing satiety. It showed that protein %, or the per cent of total calories from protein, was the most vital factor affecting how much we ate.
While the argument usually revolves around fat vs carbs, this finding pushed me to see that it was not fat OR carbs, but rather fat AND carbs, along with the resulting protein dilution, that drive us to eat more.
Bruce Ames’ Triage Theory
Ames’ research showed that our bodies only function optimally if we give them the required nutrients.
Although nutritional deficiencies don’t cause immediate issues for most people in developed countries where food is plentiful, a lack of nutrients over time from our nutrient-deficient food system could still lie behind most chronic modern health conditions.
I’ve also been enamoured by Professors David Raubenheimer and Stephen Simpson’s Protein Leverage Hypothesis. Their numerous studies have shown that all organisms—including humans—eat until they get the protein their bodies need. This understanding aligns with our data analysis from various sources.
Getting enough protein without too much energy from fat and carbs is THE most potent factor in nutrition!
But what if it’s not just protein?
What if it’s not just the amino acids that make up protein?
What if we have innate cravings for ALL of the essential nutrients, and what if we keep eating until we get enough of them?
Hence, rather than avoiding bad things in food, the ultimate quest in the nutrition space should be to understand what foods we should prioritise to get the nutrients we need to be satiated and thrive without having to consume excess energy!
For my latest deep dive into nutrient leverage and the key nutrients that influence our satiety the most, see The Cheat Codes for Nutrition for Optimal Satiety and Health.
Bringing It All Together
Nutrition is a young science. As you can see from the first part of this article, it has been heavily influenced by religious and ethical beliefs and financial conflicts of interest.
All too often, nutrition advice revolves around avoiding bad things in food. You know, like:
- saturated fat,
- plants, or
While we’ve been arguing over what’s bad and what we should avoid, our modern food industry has been feeding us more and more processed slop, a combination of ultra-cheap ‘plant-based’ ingredients like refined grains, refined sugars, and ‘heart-healthy’ industrial seed oils.
These ultra-processed foods utilise the ultra-palatable fat and carb combination sure to leave us wanting, craving and buying more, making us fatter and Big Food richer. Have you ever been able to eat just one Oreo?
But what if we could listen to what our bodies want and work out how to satisfy our cravings without excess energy?
Enter: Nutritional Optimisation, nutrient density, and nutrient leverage!
The Way Forward
Hopefully, you’ve seen from this article why a healthy scepticism for modern nutrition science is warranted.
So much of the ‘common knowledge’ that is still central to modern nutritional guidance can be traced back to Ellen White’s interpretation of Genesis and the motivation of the SDA church to hurry Christ’s return by getting us all to eat a more plant-based diet. This has been passed down through Kellogg and Cooper and is now baked into our mainstream guidelines.
I believe nutrition should be more than avoiding ‘bad things’ in food.
Yes, eating anything in excess is problematic. But once we put nutrients back into the centre of nutrition, all the ‘bad things’ fall into place.
All the ‘bad stuff’ gets pushed out when we focus on the nutrients our bodies need to feel satiated.
Only once we replace dogma and data will we be able to move beyond belief-based nutrition to prioritise food that contains all the nutrients we require without excess energy.
I’m not holding my breath for the modern nutrition establishment and ultra-processed food manufacturers to embrace a nutrient-focussed approach to nutrition overnight.
But I hope that if more people learn to see the food they eat through the lens of nutrients, more people will be able to thrive. In time, smart food producers will respond by prioritising food that naturally contains more nutrition and is good for humans and the planet.
- The Data-Driven Cheat Codes for Nutrition for Optimal Satiety and Health Revealed
- Manifesto for Agnostic Nutrition – Beyond Belief-Based Named Diets.
- Dietary Cholesterol and Blood Cholesterol: Are They Related?
- What is Nutritional Optimisation?
- The Origins of Our Nutritional Guidelines | Belinda Fettke
- Macros Masterclass
- Micros Masterclass