Book May Remain No. 1 Among Readers, but Nutritionists Don't Agree : Diamonds' 'Fit for Life' Theory Refuted by Experts

Times Staff Writer

As a professional university extension nutritionist statewide, my primary program and responsibility is to combat misinformation and provide sound nutritional information. It's on that basis that I especially say that this book is not recommended except as a prime example of extreme food faddism.

--Helene Swenerton Ph.D., nutrition specialist, Cooperative Extension University of California.

The book in question: "Fit for Life" by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond (Warner: $16.50).

The "Not Recommended" stamp was on a hot line book review dispatched to members of the California Dietetic Assn. by Swenerton.

Still, with 1 million copies in print, "Fit for Life" has remained No. 1 on some of the most prestigious best-seller lists longer than is the fate of most health/diet books--31 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and remains at the top of The Los Angeles Times list. Co-author Harvey Diamond largely credits television personality Merv Griffin for helping to rocket sales nationwide. "We really owe a lot to Merv Griffin. He's constantly talking about our book on his show."

Diamond and his wife, Marilyn, who operate the International Health Systems nutrition counseling service in Santa Monica, make no bones about having received their nutritional training from the American College of Health Science, a non-accredited college in Austin, Tex. According to Harvey Diamond, all the information upon which their theories are based comes from the field of natural hygiene. "Maybe we're not in agreement with the medical profession, but we know our program works."

Emphasis on Carbohydrates

Actually, the Diamonds' push for complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables and grains) over meats is not far off from the U.S. dietary guidelines for Americans, which emphasize complex carbohydrates and de-emphasize fatty meats. And the recipes in the book developed by Marilyn, who is director of the Institute for Nutritious Home Cooking in Santa Monica and does cooking demonstrations on television, are excellent and can apply to, if not enhance, any diet. The vegetable dishes are particularly appealing (stir-fried lo mein with shredded vegetables, curried vegetables and cabbage strudel).

However, it's the principal theory of the book, which had been refuted by the scientific community decades ago, that seems to grate at the craw of established nutritionists. Like "The Beverly Hills Diet," a best-selling predecessor by Judy Mazel, "Fit for Life" is based on the principles of so-called "food combining, a turn-of-the-century notion that when combined inappropriately foods will become rotten, cannot be assimilated, toxify the body and make people fat."

The proper approach, say the Diamonds, is never to mix alkaline foods (fruits, vegetables and grains) with acidic foods (protein). For example, one never eats either starch or protein with vegetables and fruits. Sandwiches are made with vegetables since bread is a starch.

Nor does one thwart the elimination process taking place from 4 a.m. to noon each day by eating anything but fruit or juice for breakfast.

Food combining, according to the theory, cuts the digestive process by two-thirds, preventing food from remaining in the system longer than five hours, compared with up to 16 hours for some hard-to-digest foods, such as protein. For instance, the theory suggests, fruit should never be eaten with or immediately following anything. A grace period of three hours after meals is usually advised.

Furthermore, according to the theory, because protein digestion is done by enzymes that are more acidic in nature than enzymes that carry out carbohydrate digestion, these enzymes nullify one another.

"These archaic turn-of-the-century notions are totally invalid and were thoroughly refuted long ago," Swenerton said. "The mucousless diet of the turn-of-the-century suggesting that certain combinations of foods caused toxins and mucous was at a time when people knew very little about the chemistry of food and little of the basic physiology and biology of the body. These notions are in complete conflict with reliable research-based information on basic physiology and nutrition. And there is no scientific evidence to support such claims.

"What is surprising is that in these modern days with so much accurate information available in public school, or even at elementary levels, that the public would succumb to these grossly wild ideas."

However, the Diamonds, who seem sincere and full of conviction about their program, pooh-pooh the critics. "I don't care whether scientific evidence exists or not. I ask people to combine their foods for one week, then tell me how you feel. One million people are interested in it despite what the scientists think," Harvey Diamond said.

Diamond, a former wood carver at the Renaissance Faire in Agoura, who devoted his extra time to the study of natural hygiene, claims that his father's health problems seemed to have transferred themselves to the son, until Diamond stumbled on the food-combining theory. "Once I started on the program, I felt reborn. I lost my stomach aches and had a strong desire to spread the word." He began his practice as a nutrition counselor in 1973 working out of a health food store.

Although much of the nutritional information in the book has scientific basis in fact, there is, according to Swenerton, enough nonsense mingled with it to render it "nonsensical." Said Swenerton: "He has intermingled good information with bad information. He has taken sense and mixed it with nonsense, making it difficult for the reader to distinguish what is accurate and what is not."

Diamond also claims that energy is conserved by eating fruit because fruit does not digest in the stomach. "(The fruits) pass through the stomach in 20 to 30 minutes, as if they were going through a tunnel . . . this energy is automatically redirected to cleanse the body of toxic waste, thereby reducing weight," states Diamond.

Swenerton: "That's just nonsense. All foods that are ingested are broken down, whether it is fruit or any complex carbohydrate. There is no difference in energy from complex carbohydrates. The rate of digestion may be different. Simple sugars are digested more quickly than complex sugars, but neither would remove toxic wastes from within body tissues."

Some other points of departure:

"Most fruits contain ample calcium," claims Diamond, believing that the milk-drinking population has been led down the garden path. "Dietitians are dependent on the cow for calcium. If the cows get their calcium from the plant kingdom, certainly humans can, too."

According to Diamond, the body doesn't have the mechanism to break down milk and utilize it. "In nature, we don't see animals taking milk from other animals. Only human mammals insist on drinking milk of another mammal."

Questioning Established Views

The question raised about calcium in relation to milk sent abrasive sparks to established views about the role of dairy products, which provide 75% of the calcium in the American diet. Dairy products are one of the major groups of foods recommended since the outset of the Recommended Dietary Allowances in 1945 when U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritionists created the concept of the Four Food Group system of eating for a nutritionally well-balanced diet.

Appropriate servings of vegetables and fruit, grains, meat and meat alternates and dairy products would provide all the nutrients needed by Americans for optimal health. The Diamonds claim that there are only two food groups--fruits and vegetables are one group and everything else the second group.

The Dairy Council of California, an educational arm of the dairy industry in California, had this to say about Diamond's calcium claims:

"As a nutrition education organization we're very concerned about a book like 'Fit for Life.' Scientifically, most of the information is not valid. But our real concern is that it encourages people to eliminate major groups of foods, not the least of which is dairy products, which provide nearly 75% of the calcium in the American diet," said Beverly McKee, communications coordinator of the Dairy Council of California.

Swenerton has added yet another concern about relying solely on fruits and vegetables for calcium.

"Saying that calcium in milk cannot be broken down and is unavailable to the body is scientifically incorrect," she said. "But our primary concern is that they (Diamonds) claim that a diet of fruits and vegetables with a few seeds and nuts would be adequate for a growing child and pregnant woman. We're concerned that such a restricted diet without adequate protein source and other nutrients--including calcium--would do serious harm to a developing fetus during pregnancy, and serious harm to a growing child. There simply isn't enough calcium in fruits and vegetables to provide adequate calcium to a growing body or pregnant woman and her fetus."

There is no indication in the book for any modifications in the diet for children. Pregnant women are informed that the food-combining program "fulfills all the dietary requirements for both mother and child during gestation."

"Actually, the most beneficial diet during pregnancy (and at any other time) is a diet that has a preponderance of raw fruit and vegetables, and some raw nuts and seeds. This will supply all the fuel, amino acids, minerals, fatty acids and vitamins needed to perpetuate a high level of health," says Marilyn Diamond in the book.

Dairy products provide about 300 milligrams calcium per serving, compared with 100 to 200 milligrams calcium from green leafy vegetables. Fruits and other vegetables contain less calcium, providing only 10% of the calcium in the American food supply, but can be called upon to increase total calcium intake. Only three servings from the dairy group can provide calcium requirements for adults. It would take eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables to provide calcium needs.

Growing teen-agers, pregnant nursing women and pregnant and nursing teen-agers require 1,200 to 1,600 milligrams calcium per day. Most adults require 800 milligrams calcium per day. However, calcium recommendations for pre-menopausal women has increased to 1,000 milligrams as a measure to prevent osteoporosis, a crippling old-age disease. (See story on latest calcium research findings on Page 2.)

Diamond claims that when food is not digested, the food then putrifies or ferments, forming toxic substances that accumulate in the body and translates into overweight problems.

"Wrong," Swenerton said. Those foods that are not digested simply are not digested and are passed out in the fecal material. They are not accumulated in the body. Non-assimilated foods are assimilated by definition. They are excreted in fecal material and can't turn into fat, as the author claims.

The primary concern, according to Swenerton, is that bits and pieces of information are erroneous, making it virtually impossible for the reader to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Diamond correctly states that the human brain burns fuel (glucose), which is readily assimilated from carbohydrates, not proteins, and that the body can transform protein to glucose through an emergency process utilized by the body when there are insufficient carbohydrates in the body.

But Diamond goes on to explain (and here the reader might have difficulty with the drift): "Flesh foods supply no fuel, no energy. Fuel is built from carbohydrates. Meat has virtually no carbohydrates. In other words, no fuel value. Fats may supply energy, but they must undergo a longer and less efficient digestive process and fats may be converted into fuel only when the body's carbohydrate reserves are depleted. . . ."

According to Swenerton, proteins are digested in a completely different part of the gastrointestinal tract than carbohydrates, so there is no physiological basis for Diamond's claim.

"Most foods naturally come with carbohydrates and proteins together. Diamond claims that those that occur separately can be digested while those that do not cannot be digested. There is a lack of understanding of the basic physiology process," she said.

Diamond also claims that flesh eaters are more apt to develop Vitamin B-12 deficiency because a substance secreted out of the stomach into another part of the body is destroyed when meat remains in the stomach, thus causing vitamin deficiency. "Most people who eat meat have Vitamin B-12 deficiency. It's not a problem for vegetarians. A million and a half Hindus don't have a problem."

Swenerton says that there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that flesh eaters develop Vitamin B-12 deficiency.

Nutritionists such as Susan Magrann, representing the California Dietetic Assn. on various subjects, thinks the deluge of diet books on the market can be confusing and difficult for consumers to assess. There are, however, certain guidelines that should help the buyer make knowledgeable decisions.

A Cautionary Note

Magrann cautions to beware of diets that promise fast and easy weight loss or that cite nutrition information that is unsound or biased by financial gain.

On the other hand, according to Magrann, a sensible diet will:

--Teach good habits for permanent weight loss.

--Stress the importance of exercise.

--Be nutritionally balanced and will not eliminate any of the basic four food groups.

--Emphasize foods low in fat and high in nutritious carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and grain products.

--Recommend foods that are practical and economical.

--Recommend foods that the entire family can eat to avoid cooking separate meals.

Magrann also advises that the reader check the credentials of a person or persons giving the advice. "If the person is a registered dietitian, that means they have had a four-year degree from an accredited university and did additional training as an internship," she said. "They have also passed a registration test and have continuing education hours to their credit."

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