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 50 years (being a chubby child instigated my obsession with food). 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 eventually led to me starting a blog.
The aim of this blog is partly to try and make sense of the long-running nutrition wars that are currently being waged. For example, a century ago butter was thought to be good for you; and then from the 70s onwards it was the devil incarnate; and now some say that butter may not be so bad after all. I remember trans-fat laden margarines being touted as heart-healthy alternatives to butter in the 70s; the idea that butter, beef fat or lard might be healthier than margarine or vegetable oil was well and truly beaten out of us. Furthermore, the fact that the word “vegetable” is present in “vegetable oils” gave the false impression of them being healthy foods.
Eventually the idea that vegetable oils and margarines were healthier than animal fats became engrained in our thinking. This, despite evidence from the 1950s that trans fats were detrimental to health. However, it wasn’t until the 90s that trans fats were well and truly outed as the villains that they are. Even without the trans fats in them, there is a wealth of evidence that vegetable oils are harmful to health.
A generation has grown up thinking that butter, red meat and eggs are associated with adverse effects on health; but is that correct? And one day a study says coffee is good for you; the next day another study says that 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.
The other impetus for starting this blog took place after a close friend who had a near-death-illness asked me for dietary advice. In the process of looking up dietary studies I became acutely aware that most of these studies are badly designed and that much of the evidence directly conflicts with the current dietary recommendations. A recurring theme in dietary studies appears to be that an association between consuming a certain food and the risk of developing a disease is wrongly extrapolated to the food being the cause of the disease. After all, an association is just an association; it may turn out to be a cause, but until proven, it is clearly not a cause.
For example, an observational study might show that firemen are frequently present at fires, so you could, quite rightly, say that firemen are associated with fires. But it would be incorrect to say that firemen cause fires. Similarly, if a dietary observational study were to show that people who eat red meat appear to have a high risk of having a heart attack, you cannot go on to say that red meat consumption causes heart attacks. It may be be the case that red meat consumption causes heart attacks, but a very different type of study would have to be carried out to actually prove it. 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.
Another factor that heavily influenced my nutrition transformation was a book called ‘The Diet Delusion’. I read this book in 2006 after a patient gave it to me following my attempts 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 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 seminal 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.
A further influence in my nutrition journey was the discovery that it is possible to treat severe medical conditions with diet, and that too when drug treatment has failed. For example, the ketogenic diet is a well-established treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy in children. And most recently I came across the Paleolithic ketogenic diet, which, surprisingly, completely cures many serious medical conditions; it has been used to treat and reverse autoimmune diseases, epilepsy, certain cancers and diabetes.
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 ate for many millennia). Better still would be a Paleolithic-ketogenic diet (which is similar to the diet of the Inuit).
The reasoning behind my thinking is as follows: firstly, it was the consumption of animal fat and meat that initiated our divergence from chimpanzees six million years ago and which led to the subsequent birth of Homo sapiens. (Not all are aware of the fact that the evolution of the human brain could not have taken place without the consumption of animal foods). Furthermore, agriculture has been around for approximately 10,000 years, i.e. only 5% of the time since the existence of Homo sapiens, which is a relatively short time-span in evolutionary terms. (Paleopathological evidence confirms the deterioration of the health of Man after the onset of agriculture; for example, Palaeolithic Man had perfect dentition, was significantly taller than Mediaeval Man and had no evidence of arthritis). Finally, people consuming diets similar to those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors do not suffer from cardiovascular disease, dementia, Western cancers or autoimmune diseases.
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. But, in fact, they don’t all die young, as evidenced by some intensively studied groups in recent times. For example in the Kitava Study, 6% of the population were between the ages of 60 and 95, and some of them lived well beyond the age of 100. The next logical question is, “what then do they die of?”. Childbirth, infections, accidents, homicide and ‘old age’ are the commonest causes of death in these people. 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 to which we are genetically adapted. Even though the diets of hunter-gatherers in different parts of the globe appear to be very different, they do have several features in common: an absence of grains, legumes, alcohol, dairy products and refined carbohydrates; these are all the newcomers to our diet since the onset of agriculture 10,000 years ago.
And besides the direct effects of food on our own health, there is also evidence to show that what we eat has effects on our children and grandchildren via epigenetic mechanisms; i.e. what we eat when we are young may have profound effects on gene expression in subsequent generations. 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 contradictory 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 when you are eating be mindful sometimes of this well-known quote from the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky:
“Nothing in biology makes sense except for in the light of evolution”.