Blue Zones – it’s not the diet

Sweet Jesus, I ran across more ideology that has such an obvious blind spot I can’t believe it was published.

An article in The Atlantic from  Blue Zones Solution gives the example of a town in Finland that went from low incidence to the highest rate of cardiovascular disease in the world. The excerpt below explains the situation before and after this change, but from this broad description, how is it that saturated fat emerges as culprit and how is it that vegetables and fruits emerge as the heroes?

To Puska and the researchers, the roots of the disease were clear. Before World War II, North Karelian men were largely lumberjacks whose diets revolved around hunting game, picking berries, and fishing. Besides the occasional bear mauling, their main health concerns were tuberculosis, infectious diseases, and death at childbirth. After the war, veterans, as part of their compensation, were given small plots of land. Lacking agriculture skills, they cleared the land to raise pigs and cows. Predictably, pork and diary consumption skyrocketed. Butter soon made its way into almost every meal: butter-fried potatoes, buttered bread. Even traditional fish stew was half butter. They had fried pork or meat stew for dinner, chased with buttered bread and milk. Vegetables were considered food for the animals. Adding to the problem, GIs had returned home with a new habit: By 1972, more than half of all men smoked.

First of all, SMOKING. Smoking is not “adding to the problem”. It is the MAIN problem and affects not only the smokers but those around them.

Secondly, “butter-fried potatoes” and “buttered bread” means butter is the bad guy? Let’s consider how much more empty carbohydrates these people ate at this point. Where is the logic behind pointing at the butter?

Thirdly, these people stopped moving. No more hunting and gathering food. Now they picked and bought. No mention of weight here. But later in this article the author talks about how the Blue Zones Project helps:

Four the past five years, my colleagues with the Blue Zones Project and I have taken a similar system-wide approach to health in 23 American cities. We’ve seen decreases in smoking, obesity, and healthcare costs for city workers by combing influence in a city: The mayor, city manager, chamber of commerce, local CEOs, health department, restaurant association, and school superintendent all need to understand—and endorse—approaches to improving the health of a community. We help city planners envision streets design for people­–not just cars. We introduce tax-neutral polices and show communities how to make their streets safer, more walkable, and more bikeable. The average American burns fewer than 100 calories a day engaged in exercise, yet according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, you can raise the activity level of an entire city by up to 30 percent with designs that favor the pedestrian and bicyclist.

Smoking cessation and activity are the winners here, as they show above.

The shotgun approach taken with this Finnish town to turn their health around was not necessary. If they had focused on smoking cessation and regaining traditional foods along with he movement that entailed, they would have seen the same results.

Now the town lives with a new paradigm:

…rows of healthy butter substitutes and candies sweetened with xylitol, a sweetener made from birch sap. In an open market we saw row after row of berry and wild-mushroom vendors [to make sausage fillers]. There were only two holdouts from the old dietary regime: One vendor sold butter-fried smelt; another offered pocket pastries filled with rice porridge and about a half stick of butter each. After that we breezed through a restaurant and saw the prominent salad bar. Soft drinks were served in small glasses and customers paid for refills.

This is better? Manufactured food? Imports? Focus on nutrient-poor food over nutrient-dense food?

No mention of weight in this town, either. You can bet it’s looking as grim as the rest of the western world by now.