Who is Madhvi Chanrai? This is a question that I have frequently asked myself. Unfortunately I still haven’t found the answer.
The answer that most are expecting would probably be something along these lines: I have a medical degree from the University of Cambridge (1986) where I also studied ‘Food and Human Nutrition’ as one of my undergraduate options. I later went on to become a practising GP. More recently, I completed a Masters degree in Human Nutrition in 2018.
CV aside, I have been obsessed with diets, food and cooking for nigh on 40 years, (being a chubby child makes you never want to become overweight again!). I have been reading cook books, diet books and books on nutrition since the age of 11. All this, combined with my love of writing led to me starting a nutrition blog.
The aim of this blog is to try and make sense out of the long-running nutrition wars that are currently being waged. For example, a century ago butter wasn’t bad for you; and then from the 70s onwards it was the devil incarnate; and now some say butter may not be so bad after all. I remember margarines being touted as heart-healthy alternatives to butter in the 70s. What’s more, the idea that tallow or lard might be healthier than a hydrogenated margarine or oil was beaten out of us.
Eventually the view that industrially produced vegetable oils and margarines might not clog up our arteries as much as animal fats do became engrained in our thinking. This was despite there being evidence as far back as the 1950s that trans fats, which are created during the production of vegetable fats, might be detrimental to health. However, it wasn’t until the 90s that trans fats were outed as villains. It will probably take many decades to revert our thinking back to the idea that animal fats might be healthier than unnaturally processed vegetable oils. The fact that the word “vegetable” is present in “vegetable oils” makes them sound healthy. However, there is much evidence that vegetable oils are in fact far from healthy.
And a generation have grown up thinking that red meat and eggs are associated with adverse effects on health; but is that correct? One day a study says coffee is good for you, and the next day another says coffee may be detrimental to health. What to believe? Moreover, sensational newspaper headlines and major U-turns in dietary recommendations compound the confusion around diets and nutrition.
So with my medical and scientific hats sitting firmly on my head I have sifted through some of the latest research, and distilled the profusion of information into easy-to-read summaries in the ‘Health and Nutrition’ section, with more in-depth reviews in the ‘Science’ section.
Another reason for starting this blog was that I got drawn into looking up the latest research on diets and disease after a close friend who had a near-death-illness started asking me for dietary advice. Looking up dietary studies made me acutely aware that many dietary studies are badly designed and also that much of the research conflicts with the current dietary recommendations. A recurring theme in dietary studies appears to be that an association between certain foods and the risk of developing a specific disease is extrapolated to the food being the cause of the condition. I am not alone in my skepticism of nutrition studies; a renowned statistician at Stanford has published many papers on the need for reform in the nutrition world.
A book called ‘The Diet Delusion’ was seminal in my nutrition transformation. I read it in 2006 after a patient gave it to me when I attempted to put her on a statin to lower her cholesterol level. This book clearly sets out why the current dietary guidelines are incorrect and it made me conscious of how doctors follow recommended guidelines without ever questioning them. It also made me wonder whether billions of people are being put at an increased risk of Western diseases by the dietary advice given by well-meaning doctors and nutritionists.
However, the book that cemented the importance of diet in my mind was ‘Food and Western Disease’ by Staffan Lindeberg, (a professor of Family Medicine at the University of Lund in Sweden). My bible, and a must read for anyone interested in diet and health.
Other important factors in my nutrition journey have been the discovery that it is possible to treat certain severe medical conditions with diet, and that too when drug treatment fails. For example, the ketogenic diet is a well-established treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy in children. More recently I have come across evidence of the Paleolithic ketogenic diet being used to treat autoimmune diseases and Crohn’s disease.
In case you don’t feel like reading any further, here is a summary of my research: a healthy way of eating is to follow a Palaeolithic-type diet (i.e. what Cave man had to do out of necessity for many millennia). Better still would be a Paleolithic-ketogenic diet (which is similar to the diet of the Inuit).
Several factors lie behind this thinking. Firstly, it is the consumption of animal fat, meat and fish that led to the expansion of the brain in the genus Homo over the last two million years. Secondly, agriculture has been around for approximately 10,000 years, i.e. roughly 5% of the time since the existence of Homo sapiens. A relatively short time-span in evolutionary terms. (Homo sapiens has been in existence for 200,000 years). More importantly, people consuming diets similar to those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors do not suffer from cardiovascular disease, dementia, Western cancers or autoimmune diseases. Further, paleopathology confirms the reduction in height and the deterioration of the health of Man after the onset of agriculture.
You may now be thinking that these peoples probably do not live long enough to get the chronic diseases that we in the West do. In fact, some of these cultures have been studied intensively and they don’t all die young. For example in the famous Kitava Study, 6% of the population were between the ages of 60 and 95. The next logical thought is most likely, “what then do these people die of?”. Childbirth, infections, accidents, homicide and ‘old age’ are the commonest causes of death in these people. In fact, some of them live to the age of 100. More noteworthy is that they live independently and disease free until the very end.
Thus, it makes sense that we should eat as our predecessors have done for the 95% of time that Homo sapiens has been in existence and to follow a diet that we are genetically adapted to. Even though the diets of hunter-gatherers in different parts of the globe vary considerably, what they share is an absence of the newcomers in our diet: grains, legumes, alcohol, dairy products or refined sugar in large quantities.
There is a wealth of evidence to show that nutrition has profound effects on our health; interestingly there is now proof that particular foods affect gene expression in us, our children and our grandchildren (via epigenetic mechanisms). So what we eat when we are young has effects not only on ourselves, but also on the generations to follow. Understanding the mechanisms behind the effects of food on gene regulation are the remit and challenge of ‘Nutrigenomics’. I find it fascinating that food has such far-reaching effects.
In my quest for the nutritional answer to life, I have discovered that there are literally millions of diet related studies that have been conducted in all corners of the earth. From this minefield of gazillions of studies that are out there, how should one know whom to believe – especially when they frequently have conflicting results.
So I have compiled a few easy-to-read summaries of some of the latest research on nutrition to help you make informed decisions, take control of your own health, and hopefully prevent diseases through dietary and lifestyle changes.
Read on for the latest evidence on how to live a long, healthy and happy life.
And sometimes when you are eating be mindful of this well-known quote from the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky:
“Nothing in biology makes sense except for in the light of evolution”.