Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food
Catherine Shanahan, MD and Luke Shanahan
Big Box Books
A favorite book among the paleodiet crowd, Deep Nutrition, takes the WAPF principles and presents them in new and interesting ways. Shanahan argues passionately for traditional food, embodied in her Four Pillars of traditional cuisine. She is equally passionate about the dangers of vegetable oils and sugar, presenting enough evidence to keep her readers off them forever. The book’s main asset is its graceful writing style, rare in books on nutrition and health. Like Michael Pollan’s books, Deep Nutrition is highly readable. Consider this beautiful sentence: “Every year, growing battalions of familiar diseases are cutting a wider and wider swath of destruction through the normal experiences of childhood.” Or this passage: “Natural fat consumption: down. Processed fat consumption: up. Heart disease up—way up. Forget for a moment what the experts are saying and ask yourself what these trends suggest to your inner statistician.” In a sense Shanahan’s writing skills contribute to the book’s many problems. Words flow easily off her pen, often too easily, resulting in writing that is rushed and scattered, often lacking in thorough explanation, often inaccurate and at times completely wrong.
Shanahan begins with the work of Weston Price, but doesn’t slow down enough to explain his great emphasis on the fat-soluble activators. Yes, they are mentioned—she says that the fat-soluble activators are “Price’s term for vitamins”― but only in passing, and not as the focus of his work. This omission is puzzling because the fat-soluble activators are key to building the beautiful facial structure she extols. In particular, vitamin A acts as the concertmaster for fetal development, providing the instructions that tell undifferentiated stem cells how to become differentiated cells for the heart, liver, bones, brain and other tissues. Shanahan provides interesting information on this process without giving us the key—vitamin A found in organ meats, fish liver oils, and egg yolks and butterfat from grass-fed animals—almost like publishing a recipe but leaving out the main ingredient. Vitamin K2, again mentioned only in passing, plays a critical role in the development of the middle third of the face, ensuring the beautiful high cheekbones that are the hallmark of traditional peoples.
Shanahan writes eloquently about how the symmetry of the face equates with beauty, but with no mention of the fact that it is vitamin A, available in utero, that ensures this symmetry. She does not advise pregnant women to take cod liver oil, only folic acid. She recommends cod liver oil as a good source of “long chain essential fatty acids”—they are not essential in the strict sense of the word—and does mention in an appendix that cod liver oil is a good source of vitamins A and D. She then warns about impurities and toxins in cod liver oil, advising consumers to purchase only the cleanest fish liver oils, but without providing any information on finding a high quality product (this information is available at westonaprice.org).
Shanahan makes fantastic claims about what food can do to your genes. “. . . Every bite you eat changes your genes a little bit,” she writes. “Your genes are always changing,” is the main theme of Deep Nutrition. But in fact, the genes are not always changing. Our genotype is very stable. What changes is the expression of the genetic blueprint, which indeed is very much tied in with nutrition. Sometimes Shanahan gets it right: “. . . diet changes how your genes work.” But right from the start, Shanahan implies that you can change your genes to be like Tiger Woods or Halle Berry.
If one or more genes do change or mutate, the effects occur in the womb and are completed during the period of growth. Once that period is over, eating a healthier diet may improve our health, may help us lose weight, may help us have better hair and skin, but it won’t change our genes. “Genes change in reaction to what we eat, think and do,” says Shanahan and “Exercise, rest and eating right all work together to give you the kind of body you want,” but these won’t give you long legs, high cheekbones and broad shoulders if your diet did not program you for them almost from the very beginning.
Deep Nutrition contains much excellent discussion on the role of collagen in keeping us young looking, but the claim that bone broths can rejuvenate aging collagen is contradicted by the statement that elastin, a key component of collagen, “can be made only while your body is swimming in the hormones and growth factors that orchestrate its manufacture—during embryologic life, early childhood growth spurts, and adolescence.”
Even when not talking about genes, Shanahan makes exaggerated claims for a traditional diet. “Getting healthy, really healthy. . . can be easy. . . everything you eat will help keep you young, slim, smart and beautiful.” According to Shanahan, eating according to the Four Pillars will make better health and weight loss automatic, will even change the hormonally directed distribution of your weight. Sometimes we do hear about dramatic weight loss and health recoveries simply by switching to a traditional diet, but for those who have been on the Standard American Diet for most of their lives, the achievement of better health and weight loss is a difficult journey. In fact, as Price pointed out, it often takes several generations of nutrient-dense food, with special emphasis on the fat-soluble activators, to return to unobstructed expression of the genetic potential and perfect health. Shanahan’s Four Pillars are confusing. The first one is called “Meat on the Bone,” but why eating a steak with a bone in it would be any more nutritious than eating a steak without the bone is not explained. This pillar includes the admonition to avoid overcooking meat, to eat meat with the fat and to make bone stock. The pillar should really be called “The Whole Animal” and include the second pillar, which is to eat organ meats. The Third Pillar is about fermented foods, including the fermentation and sprouting of grains. She recommends sprouted grain breads without any warning about the added gluten so many of these breads contain. Genuine sourdough breads are actually more nutritious and digestible than sprouted breads, but Shanahan claims that our ancestors didn’t grind flour. In fact, even some of the most “primitive” peoples did grind flour, often with a pestle on a grinding rock. Grains were also soaked, wet ground and fermented. The Fourth Pillar “Fresh, the Benefits of Raw” confuses raw with fresh. This section does contain an excellent discourse on the problems with pasteurization and homogenization of milk, but it is marred by the suggestion to consume organic pasteurized milk if you can’t find raw. “Organic” milk is usually ultra-pasteurized and often from confinement cows―it’s probably the greatest deception in today’s food supply. Conspicuously absent from the Four Pillars are seafoods, surely a key factor in most traditional diets, even of those living inland. Eggs are missing also. A pillar called “Sacred Foods” could include these important items.
The book includes a discussion of Marquardt’s mask, a geometric format said to “crystalize” the ideal face according to the phi proportion. But no explanation is provided as to how the mask incorporates the golden mean, and when laid over the faces that Shanahan provides, seems like an arbitrary collection of lines. Shanahan is fond of illustrating classic facial structure with photos of models, actors and actresses—a poor choice given the widespread use of plastic surgery, including jaw and cheek implants. Some of her examples of beauty are actually thin-faced or even weird-looking. Much better to tell us more about a study she did on changing facial structure using old school photos, but that is just mentioned and she passes on.
Her otherwise excellent discussion of industrial fats and oils is marred by the introduction of a new term, “megatrans,” to describe the toxic brew of byproducts in modern cooking oils. The term is not used by biochemists and is inappropriate because these oils, however dangerous, contain very little trans fats. Those they do contain are created by the deodorizing process, not by heating as she claims.
Shanahan jumps on sugar with a mighty hammer, providing several interesting examples of patients whose health improved after eliminating sugar, but again with little heed to accuracy. For example, just reducing sugar consumption in pregnancy will not guarantee a perfect face in offspring, as she claims. She says that eating sugar coats our cells in sugar, but our cells are supposed to have a coating of sugar molecules. The key problem with this chapter is the insistence that sugar and starch have the same effect on the body. Sugar breaks down into glucose and fructose while starch breaks down into glucose alone (she mistakenly says that grain is a source of fructose); studies carried out by Meira Field at the USDA found that at 30 percent of calories, only fructose had deleterious effects in rats. In fact, many traditional diets were somewhat high in starches, in the form of grains and tubers. Starch does not raise the blood sugar as precipitously as sugar, as Shanahan shows on the very same page as her claim that starch is as bad as sugar. In the context of a healthy diet containing plenty of fat-soluble activators, the adrenal gland can easily handle the gradual influx of glucose into the bloodstream from starchy foods. Along with sugar, Shanahan should inform her readers that coffee can also raise blood sugar and stress the adrenal gland; but Shanahan thinks coffee is fine.
The book contains numerous factual errors: B deficiencies lead to weak bones, diabetes and more, she says, but the reference for that statement is about vitamin D; Shanahan calls retinoids (not carotenes) vitamin A precursors, but later in the book she gets it right; she claims that whole soy can be part of a healthy diet; that the only source of CLA is milk fat (all the fat of grass-fed animals contains CLA); that liver is the best source of vitamin D (ruminant liver contains very little vitamin D); that Gaelic Islanders built their houses of grass.
Most seriously, she misinterprets the work of Francis Pottenger, who she says “gives us valuable insights into the potential long-term consequences of overcooking.” What Pottenger’s research showed was that any cooking is bad for cats, and by implication, humans need some raw animal foods in their diets. But raw meats are not included in any of her four pillars
Many statements in the book require references, such as the claim that gut bacteria can produce all the vitamins we need except for vitamin D, or that first-born girls get “blunted uterine estrogen signals.” Shanahan believes that the rich are eating healthy traditional foods denied to the poor. In fact, the diet of the rich in America is equally as bad as that of the poor. George Bush may have enjoyed a sumptuous White House inaugural dinner but his favorite food was Butterfingers candy bars crushed up on his cold breakfast cereal. The privileged do not “eat the way we all used to” as she claims; in fact most wealthy women suffer under the self-imposed agony of permanent lowfat diets.
The real breakdown in Deep Nutrition comes at the end, with dietary suggestions that go against large portions of her text. Dinner suggestions include starchy foods like spaghetti, pizza (homemade, but with the crust), rice and potatoes. Nut butters are high on her list, but they are never mentioned in the main text. Drinking a lot of pasteurized, homogenized “organic” milk is fine if you can’t get raw milk, she says. And then there are the sweets that she warns against so passionately—sweet wine, homemade cookies and chocolate. One breakfast suggestion is crepes with whipped cream and fresh fruit.
Only two recipes are provided, one for broth and one for liver. Where are the recipes for Filipino dishes like pigs knuckle soup she describes so eloquently? Or the Filipino-style salmon head soup? or paté? or the beef heart strips topped with bone marrow medallions that she and her husband enjoy? This book needs much more attention to the practical aspects of traditional diets and the recommendations need to be consistent with Shanahan’s text.
It’s a shame we have to give this book a Thumbs Down. Shanahan has the potential for becoming an important voice in the traditional diet movement. But she needs to spend some real time and thought on a second edition, working with a knowledgeable editor who has a sharp eye for inconsistencies, hyperbole, conjecture and mistakes. Many of the illustrations need reworking as well. Shanahan’s rich text and cornucopia of ideas deserve a long life, but it won’t happen unless she makes major revisions.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2012.