The Perils of Belief-Based Nutrition

My unique life trajectory—which we will get into in this article—has led me to develop ‘healthy scepticism’ towards media sound bytes and popular dietary fads. 

As an engineer, I believe in data. 

For me, good data analysis = truth. 

Over the past few decades, I have spent a ton of time creating quantitative systems to cut through the noise and dogma to help my family and my community optimise their nutrition. 

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 more of my backstory to help you understand my perspective, motivation, and passion for quantitative Nutritional Optimisation

Hopefully, it’s not too indulgent, but I felt that sharing some of my story may help you understand why this information is so important to me and why it could also be critical for you, too. 

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) home and attended an SDA primary school.  I went to church every Saturday.   My dad spent hours each week preparing to teach Sabbath School.

That’s little Marty between my mum and nanna.

Most of my relatives worked for the SDA-owned Sanitarium Health Food Company or in one of the many SDA-run hospitals.  Some served as missionaries and brought medicine, nutrition, and religion (i.e., medical evangelism) to Vanuatu and the Soloman Islands.

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 kid, I ate fake ‘meat’ like Nutmeat and Nuttlex for protein way before it was as popular or controversial as it is now. 

Growing up, I pounded Sanitarium’s Weet Bix drowned in skim milk and honey before and after school every day. 

But my family left the SDA church when I was in late primary school.  After years of research and soul searching, my parents realised that the church was a cult based on the revelations and writings of their prophet, Ellen G White.   

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. 

I also know first-hand that everything is not as it seems.  Most SDAs aren’t the picture of glowing health you might hear about when people talk about the Blue Zones.  One of the most well-known ‘Blue Zones’ is the SDA-dominated Loma Linda community in California.  

Interestingly, Adventist Health acquired the Blue Zones® brand in 2020.

The SDAs are often held up as a picture-perfect example of how people should eat and live for a long and healthy life.  But unfortunately, I’ve seen many of my SDA relatives suffer from and even die of chronic health conditions like Type-2 Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and obesity that stem from metabolic syndrome. 

I now understand that these conditions are more than likely driven by nutritional deficiencies from their processed plant-based diet.

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 the SDAs have influenced our current thinking and international guidelines with their 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.

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 come back to earth, the SDA church is now hyper-focused on doing everything possible to ‘hurry Christ’s return’.  A significant part of this is their strict adherence to a plant-based way of eating, not just for them but for everyone across the planet. 

While this group may mean well, I can now see their massive influence on the international nutritional landscape. 

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes… Designed to Stop Masturbation

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.  

Kellogg claimed that this highly processed ‘pre-digested’ breakfast would improve digestion and decrease sexual desire. 

Today, it seems ridiculous in a world where fertility rates, low testosterone in men and hormonal dysregulation in women are significant issues. I sometimes wonder how much influence a dietary approach designed to dampen sexuality has had.

Leena Cooper and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Continuing the legacy, nurse Lenna Frances Cooper, a protégé of Kellogg, would go on to found the American Dietetic Association (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) in 1917

Today, the association that Cooper founded on the principles of John Harvey Kellogg and Ellen White is the largest and most influential association of dieticians in the United States.

For a deeper dive into the global influence of the SDA church on the way we eat today, check out this 2018 paper from Loma Linda University.

The Birth of the US Dietary Guidelines

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, and they already had many studies prepared to ‘prove’ their beliefs. 

While scientific studies are valuable, it’s also 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. 

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 Kellogs—who profit from the industrial agricultural system—may have influenced the researchers. 

In light of this, it shouldn’t be surprising that the negative 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. 

After half a century, we can see how this large-scale experiment worked out!  When we focus on avoiding ‘bad things’ in food, we end up with a nutrient-poor, hyper-palatable food system that fattens us up efficiently and effectively!

Healthy Scepticism

In summary, 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. 

While you may not have heard much about them, I hope you can see that the SDAs and their many associated organisations have a lasting influence on 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 complexly aligns with my experience growing up in the SDA church. 

To be clear, neither Belinda nor I are anti-religion or anti-plant-based diets.  I’ve actually gone to great lengths to create a range of NutriBooster recipe books for people who prefer plant-based or vegetarian diets for ethical or religious reasons. 

However, our beliefs don’t change our intrinsic requirements for nutrients to survive and thrive! 

I do 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 making us fat and sick!

Why Belief-Based Nutrition Has Led Us Down the Wrong Nutritional Path

The SDA church was born out of the Temperance Movement.  Temperance is “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 to the body.

According to the temperate views of the SDA church, we need to suppress our natural appetites and passions.  However, unfortunately, while well-meaning, building global nutritionalguidance around avoiding ‘bad things’ that we desire in food may have led us 180 degrees in the wrong direction! 

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!

BeliefWhat the data shows
Sodium should be minimisedWe require some sodium, and we have intense cravings for it.  While modern ultra-processed foods exploit this to make us eat more, we still require some sodium.  People who actively minimise sodium tend to eat more to get the sodium they require. 
Saturated fat is badSaturated fat is simply a source of energy that is found in higher quantities in animal-based foods.  It’s not inherently good or bad in the context of a nutrient-dense, minimally processed diet.  
‘Heart healthy’ monounsaturated fat, sugar, and starch also provide energy. All of them will lead to obesity and all related diseases when they contribute to a low-satiety, nutrient-poor diet!
If there’s a single ‘smoking gun’ of the obesity epidemic, it’s the extra eight hundred calories per day per person of extra fat that has been added to our food system over the past century, mainly from industrial seed oils as ingredients to ultra-processed foods.
Cholesterol should be avoidedWhile 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 avoidedAnimal-based foods are a valuable source of bioavailable protein.  Plant-based foods tend to contain less protein per calorie.  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. 

I hope 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.    

Monica and Type-1 Diabetes

I was always a bit chubby—which may have been thanks to my heavily grain-based diet as a kid—but 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!  You could say this was my first serious step into the world of nutrition.  

During pre-pregnancy, we learned a lot about how to dose more insulin to manage blood sugars.  In other words, we were more focused on diet management.  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! 

While I had thought 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. 

Paleo

I came across Robb Wolf and the Paleo Diet about ten years ago.  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!

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!  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 as a place to share my analysis, findings, and learnings. 

Many people in the low-carb and emerging keto space were excited about my observations around the food insulin index.  Many used it to stabilise their glucose and increase their ketones. 

For some time, much of my research and thinking revolved around blood sugar stability.  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. 

While fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6 are essential for life, our bodies also require substantial amounts of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that aren’t as plentiful in ultra-high-fat foods. 

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. 

Satiety

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 the pursuit of higher ketones rather than just lowering their carb intake. 

After seeing so many gain weight and worsen their blood sugars 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.  In fact, I was not only not losing weight, but 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 based on what the keto gurus were feeding me.

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. 

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

Another significant moment in my nutrition journey was when I found Bruce Ames’ Triage Theory, which puts micronutrients at the centre of the nutritional universe. 

Ames’ research showed that our bodies only function optimally if we give them the required nutrients.

If we only get the minimum amount of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and amino acids our bodies require, they will ‘triage’ them to functions related to short-term survival and reproduction.  Prevention of the long-term diseases of ageing and optimal health gets put on hold until we get the necessary 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. 

Protein Leverage      

I’ve also been enamoured by Professors David Raubenheimer and Stephen Simpson of the University of Sydney’s Protein Leverage Hypothesis.  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 need to prioritise to get the nutrients we need to be satiated and thrive! 

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:

  • cholesterol,
  • sugar,
  • salt,
  • fat,
  • carbs,
  • saturated fat,
  • plants, or 
  • animals.

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 that is 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!

Today, we have the data that allows us to understand precisely what our bodies need. 

Don’t you think it’s time to move beyond belief-based nutrition and into the future of data-driven nutrition science?   

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7 thoughts on “The Perils of Belief-Based Nutrition”

  1. Brilliant article Marty!
    Thank you for sharing your story. It helps me understand your ‘why’ with your wife and your son.
    Understanding the history of religious ideology and vested interests, shaping our ‘plant-biased’ dietary and health guidelines is imperative to make informed choices going forward.
    Thank you for your incredible work ‘optimising nutrition’ to help us regain control of our health.

    Reply
    • Thanks Belinda. It’s been mind-blowing to see you dig into the implications of belief-based nutrition. It all aligns with my experience from inside the SDA church. They’re a wonderfully well meaning and wholesome group. But their beliefs about nutrition have very much led us down the wrong path.

      Reply
  2. Hi,

    thank you for this article! While I agree with you on nutrient density and processed foods, I strongly disagree with your stance on animal based nutrition.

    If you would reflect on the amount of meat, diary etc being consumed in the US and the steep rise of that consumption, maybe you‘d arrive on a different conclusion.

    You say your wife and kid are the most important persons in your life and rightly so! But you should also consider the environmental effect of your promoted way of eating – animal farming is a huge climate factor, it destroys rain forest, our water supply, it uses too much land per calorie produced and causes all sorts of health issues (a plate is a zero sum game). This way of eating and producing food, e.g factory farming, will destroy our planet and leave it in no good shape for generations to come.

    Of course this also applies to the way we produce vegetables and grains as well, but you simply get more calories (and I don’t mean sugar) out of the land by consuming the plants directly as you would feeding them fist to animals and eating them. It’s a matter of efficiency factor.

    We need some protein to keep our body’s structure in good condition but the amount we consume far exceeds that requirements. You could easily get the required amount on essential amino acids from legumes like beans, lentils and locally grown soy. These types of food have a good ratio of protein to calories as well, but without the excess of saturated fats, trans fats etc.

    I think you are wrong on cholesterol, too. Our boss produces enough cholesterol for hormone production and other functions. We don’t need an endogenous source and everything we consume atop will cause issues.

    Where we can agree on:

    – we need protein rich foods for health and saturation
    – we need good fatty acids like omega-3 and 6
    – we need enough vitamins and minerals
    – highly processed foods a detrimental to our health and well-being
    – the food industry is broken
    – our sources of information on nutrition are biased and/or simply wrong
    – a nutrient deficient diet causes over-eating and hence all kinds of health issues

    I think the question is: what defines a nutrient rich diet and where do we find those nutrients. I believe we should listen to our bodies’ cravings as well: but they are easily mislead considering our cravings for fatty, salty, protein-rich or very sweet foods. Whenever I, for example, crave (mock-)meats, it’s usually that I didn’t take my b12 supplements. (Please don’t tell me, we cannot take b12 – farmed animals only contain b12 because they are supplemented with it.)

    A dient rich of vitamins, minerals, protein with some complex carbohydrates, like unprocessed plants, and some fatty acids is a completely adequate diet for humans. A small amount of animal based foods may be tolerable but considering the environmental damage it causes and the added damage it will cause if we try to scale it so everyone on this planet can eat as much meat and diary as we do, I strongly suggest we start looking for better alternatives.

    We don’t necessarily need animal foods to thrive but we need an intact environment and we also need the feeling of not hurting other beings and destroying our own livelihood.

    As a German I believe I am not that affected by the SDA. Or maybe I am. What affects me more is how we treat living, feeling beings and our planet.

    I urge you to consider those other aspects in your quest for better nutrition (read: better life) as well.

    I omitted sources for my claims for brevity.

    All the best

    Jens

    Reply
  3. Right along with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes come Graham crackers to fight masturbation–eat enough of either one, and you’ll spend more time in the bathroom than anyplace else!

    Reply
  4. I personally think that the apparent health effects of the mediteranean diet is actually based on simmering foods in oils.

    i think this traps vitamins and nutrients inside lipids, which the microbes in the gut can then harvest, without them being filtered out by the liver.

    Reply

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