Looking back for better health

What if everything we thought we knew about leading a longer, healthier life was wrong?

Stressed-out execs have traditionally been told to exercise more, eat less fat, use blood-pressure medication and take a family holiday. But Dr Grant Schofield has a different message and it’s one they’ll be happy to hear.

Schofield is Professor of Public Health at AUT University and Director of the Human Potential Centre (HPD). His focus is on how we can live longer, disease-free lives by improving our diet, lifestyle and movement, rather than taking medication.

He advocates returning to a low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) diet that more closely resembles the whole, natural foods our ancestors ate before the advent of agricultural farming. Naturally, sugar-laden, grain-based and processed foods are off the menu. 

Instead, we should be eating meat (including the fat), dairy, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, berries and limited amounts of fruit. 

Which means the food pyramid promoted by dieticians and health bodies the world over is no longer valid.

“If you were to use evolutionary biology as a clue to peak human performance, you wouldn’t send someone off to eat the conventional food pyramid,” says Schofield. “It doesn’t resemble anything humans have ever eaten. Using evolutionary biology as a guide to getting the best out of ourselves is a no-brainer to me, and when you start thinking in that context everything else changes.”

Unsurprisingly, Schofield’s views rankle many scientists in public health nutrition.

“Their argument is that humans in previous generations lived short, nasty brutish lives; but that’s not what the evidence shows. While child mortality was high – half of children didn’t make it to adulthood – the median life expectancy was probably in the 70s. 

Our prehistoric ancestors often lived long and then dropped dead after a disease-free life. That’s the opposite of modern humans who live a long time, but have a decade or two of chronic disease and disability before they die.”

There are now more obese than undernourished people on the planet, and diabetes is reaching epidemic proportions. Schofield blames the multinationals who lace our food with increasing amounts of sugar, which causes inflammation and creates the ideal conditions for cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and diabetes.

“Our brains and bodies run on a dual-fuel system,” he explains. “When we eat carbs, we burn carbs and store carbs and fat; when we eat fat, we burn fat and don’t provoke the fat-storage hormone, insulin."

There's a reason farmers fatten cows and pigs using grain not fat, he says. 

“I like to switch people who have had lifelong weight problems and get them eating more fat and fewer carbs. I want to turn them into a fat-burning machine.”

Schofield proposes a system called the HI (human interference) factor. While big food companies won’t benefit from a return to whole foods, New Zealand’s primary producers will.

“The closer it looks to being alive and the faster it will rot, the more you should eat it,” he says. “If it’s in a packet and needs a label to identify what it is, just step away from it. 

“When you talk about foods with a low HI factor, that’s what New Zealand’s primary and developing industries are about. They’re animals raised in a way that they’ve always lived – cows eating grass, not grain.”

Schofield conducts peak-performance coaching with senior executives. When reporting on the benefits of reducing carbohydrates, many emphasise the sustained and better concentration, and improved sleep they experience. 

“Eight of every 10 male execs I meet have sleep issues,” he says. “Half are overweight and many experience sleep apnoea; the rest are night-time problem solvers. Cutting out processed carbs and eating healthy whole foods definitely improves their sleep quality.”

Short bouts of high-intensity exercise also yield excellent metabolic benefits, says Schofield, who’s ditched long runs in favour of sprints, which more closely mimic our ancestral movement patterns.

Schofield is about to conduct another annual Sovereign Wellbeing Index survey of a representative sample of 10,000 New Zealanders. This year he’ll be asking them to identify and describe the type of diet they eat to see how our attitudes to food are changing.

The Human Potential Centre also recently received Health Research Council funding for a study on how a LCHF diet might affect pre-teens with lifelong weight issues.

Schofield’s views are still considered fringe by a global health and nutrition industry that’s largely sponsored by big food companies. But it’s a lifestyle that’s gaining traction, thanks to the internet and social media.

“There’s evidence from Australia that 30% of people are actively avoiding grains. I think the world’s changing very quickly. For the last 40 years, medical academics alone have had access to the research and journals. Now everyone can get them and you have intelligent laypeople without an agenda discussing the issues. I feel the position I’ve taken is the right thing to do because that’s where the evidence is, but I know what it means careerwise.”

Dr Schofield doesn’t claim to have all the answers and says we should stop pretending we know everything about nutrition. 

“We don’t, and we shouldn’t trust anyone who says they do. It’s a science in its infancy, with a good deal of poor research behind it, and an industry that has infiltrated research and public policy for its own benefit and not ours. I hope I do change my mind on some things because that’s what happens with science.” ⋅

Get off your butt

Office furniture manufacturers have spent decades designing ergonomic chairs that let us sit at our desks for increasingly longer periods of time. Grant Schofield believes that’s just crazy. 

“The idea of an ergonomic chair where you can stay stationary for a long time is fundamentally stupid,” he says. “I’m not anti-sitting, but it’s only recently in human history that sitting has become a normal all-day activity.” 

Clearly, this sedentary behaviour is not helping in the fight against obesity, so Schofield wants to transform the traditional office environment to encourage more movement. Research by AUT’s Human Potential Centre at several New Zealand workplaces shows we can burn 60 more calories a day simply by standing, rather than sitting, at our desks.

HPC staff have been using standing desks for several years. With the Centre’s move to the AUT Millennium Campus 18 months ago, Schofield collaborated with the AUT School of Art and Design to create customised furniture for the new offices. Supervised by Steve Reay, deputy head of product design, AUT students Daniel Ravlich and Nancy Wang designed height-adjustable office furniture for HPC staff. The "un-ergonomic" stool lets you sit for short periods before standing becomes a more comfortable option. All the units are fully mobile to allow for a flexible office space.

“Our office gets quite a bit of attention and I think it’s an idea that’s growing,” says Schofield.