The Diet Conundrum

Posted on February 1st, 2012 by Alex | Posted in Newsletter Articles, Notes & News

The question of what is healthy to eat is the bread and butter of our business, or should I say the quinoa and collard greens of our business. We carefully evaluate every new product and decide if it is worthy to be placed on our shelves. We do this because we want the foods we sell to be healthy for you to eat. That being said, if you ask us what diet you should follow, you may expect us to give you a specific answer. Unfortunately, this is difficult to do. Why? Let’s start by looking at what the average person eats . . .

The US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with insuring food security and helping our population be healthy. As children we were taught about the food pyramid as a visual guide to a balanced healthy diet. In recent years, the food pyramid has been replaced with “My Pyramid and My Plate” that are other graphic ways to teach people about a balanced diet. Comparing the data for per capita food consumption and the “My Pyramid” guidelines shows that as a whole population we are eating too much meat and grains and not enough fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy.

American diets are out of balance with dietary recommendations

The average person is 25 pounds heavier now than 40 years ago. Recent data shows 72% of men and 64% of women are overweight with 33% of the adult population being obese. There is a growing epidemic of obesity that is of huge concern to our society. The average person consumes 2600 calories per day. Based on the “My Pyramid” recommendations, for some people that amount of calories is just right and for many people it is too many.

Starting in the 1950s and 1960s there was a growing concern about fat consumption, particularly around meat products. It was believed that the increasing risk of heart attacks was because many people had a high fat diet that contributed to high cholesterol and subsequently heart disease. The USDA encouraged people to eat less fatty foods, especially meat and dairy.

During the next forty years our American diet slowly evolved, going to more lean cuts and types of meat. Between 1970 and 2004 the fat contributed by meats and fish dropped 37%. There was also a major shift from drinking whole milk to drinking low-fat and non-fat milk. We were able to change our diet based on advice given by our government and medical professionals. Unfortunately, during this same time span the fats in our diet contributed from salad and cooking oils, shortening and similar products increased 63%. After forty years, heart disease is still the number one cause of death in our country.

The USDA has been encouraging us to eat less fat and control our calorie intake for many years, yet excessive weight gain has gotten worse rather than better. The increase in obesity— and metabolic syndrome—in our country correlates closely to the increase in our use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Over the last 40 years Amcerican consumption of HCFS has increased 380%. The soft drink industry is the largest user. The volume of soft drinks consumed in our country equals, on average, 35 to 51 gallons per person per year.

There is research being done on the sociology and psychology of why we continue to choose an unhealthy diet that will damage our bodies when we know better. There are many factors that affect what we eat that are hard to see on a day to day basis— the successful marketing of unhealthy foods to us and our kids, increased eating out, two wage earners in a family with less cooking and home meal time, convenience foods, snack foods and soda pop are just a few of these.

Factors affecting our food and exercise choices

There are competing points of view about diet that are getting a lot of attention and are challenging some of the major concepts of the USDA’s healthy diet recommendations. In his book Good Calories, Bad Calories Gary Taubes says that certain carbohydrates in our diet are responsible for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and other maladies. He claims white flour, sugar and easily digested starches, via their dramatic and long term effects on insulin, need to be greatly reduced in our diets. He feels meats, fats and eggs have been unfairly blamed for our health problems. Taubes also challenges the quality of the science and conclusions arrived at that have been used as the basis for our government’s interpretation of what a healthy diet should be.

In a book by Marion Nestle called Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, she points out that the USDA has a major internal conflict based on what the agency is tasked to do. It is supposed to promote agriculture and also to promote a healthy diet. Promoting agriculture translates into “Eat More” and promoting a healthy diet translates into “Eat Less.”

She gives an example from 1977, when the first Dietary Goals for the United States were drafted and released. There was immediate backlash from the cattle, dairy and egg industries, because the guidelines recommended that we avoid excessive intakes of fat, saturated fats, cholesterol and salt to help prevent chronic diseases such as heart disease and strokes. By the end of 1977, a revised version was released containing diluted language that was more acceptable for the cattle, dairy and egg industries.

The book goes on to cite numerous examples of politics compromising our dietary guidelines over the years. I find it frightening that the dietary advice my children and I are given by our government is a compromise between science and the lobbying efforts of large corporations.

Michael Pollan, a well known author on food issues, expresses a point of view that I keep thinking about as I write this article. He feels that our understanding of the science of nutrition has come a long way, but we still have a lot to learn and it is premature to put ourselves wholly into the hands of nutritional scientists.

In his recent book, Food Rules, he lays out a set of simple rules to follow when choosing what to eat. These are two that I appreciate: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” and “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I have been selling natural foods for twenty-nine years. Over that time I have seen numerous diets come and go. I believe that if any of these diets really worked for most people, that diet would be around today and people would be following it. All the factors that guide each of us to make our food choices are so diverse that it is hard to standardize one approach that will work for many people. There is no “one size fits all” diet.

So, how do you choose the right diet for yourself? First, decide what goals you want your diet to help support and then read and study. Consult with professionals who are knowledgeable about healthy diets. Talk with our LifeSource nutrition department staff. Experiment and try new things—LifeSource is full of foods that are good for you and taste great, too. Most importantly, find out what works for you and don’t give up.

 

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