With the advent of all the nutrition wisdom being dropped here in there by otherwise well-meaning relatives (mothers and grandmothers in particular), other friends, your favorite magazine and the Internet health portal of your choice, the term nutrition may have become rather mystified. Believe it or not, there are as many definitions of the word nutrition as there are diet fads:Define Nutrition.
In some quarters, nutrition has even become “the secret war waged by parents using direct commands, camouflage, and constant guard duty.”
In a nutshell, nutrition is the process of nourishing, by which organisms obtain energy (in the form of food) for growth, maintenance, and repair–still a mouthful, isn’t it? But the bottom line of the word nutrition is this: We are what we eat! Nutrition is 50 percent what we eat, and 50 percent what happens to what we eat. And that is why it becomes very important that we watch it!
Indeed, half of nutrition is all about eating! The history of nutrition began with the French book Physiologie du Guot, written by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a lawyer in the year 1826. The book has been loosely translated in English as “Gastronomy as a Fine Art” or “Transcendental Gastronomy.”’
From the Vanderbilt Medical Center
Another landmark book in the annals of nutrition takes us to yet another vital aspect of the science. In 1926, Owen H. Wilson wrote “The Care and Feeding of Southern Babies,” stressing of course, the importance of starting good nutrition early.
So this is where the great divide between good nutrition and bad nutrition came from. Any adult can figure out the difference between the two. Even what Grandma said an eon ago about eating green leafy vegetables because “these are good for you,” still rings true today. Ironically, however, there is a dizzying variety of diets to choose from nowadays. So many that one website has only to devote itself exclusively to just reviewing all the diets which come and go at Diet Reviews.
Obviously good nutrition is synonymous to healthy eating. But the great irony with eating healthy is that the benefits are obvious, yet it’s easier said than done. For example, it is common knowledge that excessive sweets are bad for one’s health, but who gives this a thought when confronted by the ice cream challenge one sizzling hot summer day?
Most of us know about (or have at least heard) of the CICO dictum (Calories In, Calories Out), yet how many people really walk the talk? To illustrate, you may feel immediately nauseous upon consuming a known toxic substance, but the impact of eating a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts daily may take days or even weeks to show up! And when it does, it’s but human nature to blame it on something else!
This explains why the fattening of America took several generations, although experts only discovered it to be an epidemic in the last 5 to 10 years. We will go into this matter in much detail later, for now let’s content ourselves with trying to really understand why it’s so important to eat healthy foods. To accomplish this feat though, we will need to begin from the basics.
Let us ask ourselves the question of all questions, what did your mother tell you about what’s healthy eating? Not trying to be Freudian here or anything like that! If your mother were like mine, she would have fed you the whole gamut of the following diatribe.
She would characteristically begin by telling you that recommendations and guidelines for healthy eating vary from time to time (often reflecting new research or a new line of thinking), but the basic rules have not changed. And they are?
Cutting down on all fats from fatty and fried foods, butter, cream, margarine and oils is agreed on by nutritionists the world over as a way of making the modern diet healthier.
Lots of starchy carbohydrate
Rice, pasta, potatoes, bread and cereals play a crucial role in our health.
Not just bran! Fiber, that largely indigestible part of our food and often the part that really gets us chewing, is responsible for so much good. It not only keeps our insides moving smoothly but it helps to lower cholesterol, prevent gallstones and bowel cancer, and keeps our weight in check.
Whole meal and grain breads are full of it, as are brown rice, barley, lentils, beans and vegetables. To start your day, there is a wonderful array of wholegrain and bran breakfast cereals.
Vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants
Vegetables, fruit and grains carry an abundance of vitamins, minerals and numerous other natural substances (called phytochemicals) which scientists are only just beginning to discover.
Phytochemicals function as anti-oxidants, which fight off free radicals that could otherwise damage our cells, membranes and DNA. Numerous studies show that people who eat lots of veggies and fruit have lower rates of heart disease and cancer.
Variety doesn’t mean 10 different cereal packs in your cupboard, but rather a variety of botanically different foods. Pasta, bread, puffed wheat and couscous all look and taste different but are all derived from the one basic (but versatile) grain (wheat). So they all provide similar nutrients.
Substituting other grains like oats, barley, corn or rye for some wheat adds diversity to your diet and ensures a wider range of nutrients. The nutrients you miss from one food, you can make up from another.
Moderate sugar and sweets
Babies are born with a liking for sweetness, a trait that probably helped the human race survive by signaling when things were safe to eat (bitter-tasting plants are often poisonous). Sugar in modest amounts adds to the flavor of cooking and is a useful fuel for athletes and other active people.
In excess, however, sugar adds unwanted kilojoules and can displace other more important foods – particularly for children and teenagers. In chewy and sticky form, sugar also can cause dental caries (or tooth decay).
Light on salt
Our modern diet is laden with salt. It’s not until you avoid salt for a few weeks that you notice how it masks the true flavor of foods. As 75 per cent of our total salt intake comes from everyday commercial foods (including bread, biscuits, cereals, butter, deli meats and snack foods), it is imperative to buy salt-reduced or no-added-salt products.
Drink plenty of fluid
Two liters (8 glasses) of fluid a day is needed to keep the body hydrated and the kidneys working efficiently. In hot weather, even more fluid is required. Alcohol and strong coffee do not count, as these act as diuretics and force the kidney to excrete more fluid than normal.
Stress, tension, rushing and eating on the run all take their toll on your digestion and health. Try to relax and take the time to really appreciate the food in front of you.
Not only will it increase your enjoyment and satisfaction by having a “comfortably full” stomach, this technique is often recommended as a strategy to help people lose weight.
So that was easy. We just went through the basics of nutrition in a snap– sort of like a short high school quiz. And talk about ancient wisdom! But that really came from Catherine Saxelby at Foodwatch.
If you’re a diehard Atkins fan, though, the blurb on “Lots of starchy carbohydrates” probably ticked you off. Under the plan, starchy carbohydrates are taboo. That is why we are going into this subject immediately. Newer research shows that carbohydrates are still good, provided they come from whole wheat, not white! Translation: You can still stand by your idol’s focus on proteins, but when it comes to carbs, you just have to limit your intake to 40-45 percent less. While doing this, ensure, however, that the carbs you ingest are from whole wheat. Is that alright?
Now let’s look into your protein intake. You can take two to three times more than the usual intake (we will go into actual serving samples later). And when it comes to fats, you can reach for healthy fats (meaning omega-3 and monounsaturated). That said; let’s go into a little more detail on this.
What is omega-3? Studies show that omega-3 supplements, combined with good sleep, can help melt away abdominal fat that bedevils otherwise thin people. This is good news for men, especially office-working men, whose chief malady is that unsightly over belly. But it works for women, too. Abundant in salmon, omega-3 fatty acids help improve the skin’s firmness and elasticity!
That taken care of, we need to backtrack on proteins a little. We need to be careful of the aftershocks so-to-speak, or the backlash of eating too much protein. Low- carb opponents argue that the dietary focus on proteins has the flipside of consuming bad fats – saturated fats. This can be avoided, however, by being extra zealous of the kind of fats you are willing to take for health’s sake. There are three varieties, so it’s not enough to just go low fat – though it helps. Saturated fat raises your cholesterol levels, and, just like your doctor would say makes you a prime candidate for heart disease. Saturated fats come mainly from meats, dairy products and in some vegetable fats like coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils. Monounsaturated fats come mainly from olive, peanut and canola oils. Lastly, polyunsaturated fats are derived from safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, cottonseed oils and some fish. When in doubt? Take the last two varieties and you can never go wrong with these two!
The Mediterranean pyramid below, has contributed two magical foods to the health fray. Nut butter, found in walnut, almond, cashew, macadamia or hazelnut spreads has gained ground as a heart disease fighter. It turns out to be rich not only in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. It is also a rich source of protein, fiber and folic acid. So not all kinds of butter are bad, after all! Thanks to this new finding! And lest we forget, the US government has recently taken the cudgels for good old olive oil. Apparently, aside from adding flavor and burning fat, it may also reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Always Be Validating Half of What You Know on Healthy Eating with New Research!
The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
The information alone on the three kinds of fats (kinda like separating the good witches from the bad) is relatively recent. Proof: My mom was caught unawares when the three different varieties were explained to her once over dinner. She kind of like went into a trance. We couldn’t communicate with her for a while.
The Glycemic Paradox as Told by Dr. Al Sears, Health Confidential for Men.
Instead of counting carbs, what you really should be looking at is how high each carb spikes your blood sugar and insulin. Here’s why: High insulin causes your body to convert any food you eat into fat. If you ignore this, you’ll put on fat instead of losing it!
So what’s the biggest blood-sugar offender? Most people think sweets are the trouble. But they’re wrong. Sweets aren’t the problem if you eat them in moderation. The real problem is starches. They cause a much more prolonged elevation of sugar and insulin than simple sugars do.
The best way to monitor for insulin-releasing foods is with the Glycemic Index, which ranks foods on how much they boost blood sugar and, subsequently, insulin. For instance, a food with a glycemic index of 50% will cause half of the rise in blood sugar that glucose (pure natural sugar) would. What this means is that the higher a food’s glycemic index, the more fat you’ll make from it – even if it has the same number of calories as a lower glycemic index food.
The idea is to reduce the amount of foods that score high and substitute lower-scoring foods.
Take a look at the following list of common foods and their glycemic indexes (adapted from “Dynamic Nutrition for Maximum Performance,” by D. Gastelu and F. Hatfield). You’ll find some surprises:
HIGH GLYCEMIC INDEX FOODS
100% — glucose
80-90% — corn flakes, carrots, maltose, honey, white potatoes
70-79% — whole-grain bread, millet, white rice, new potatoes
MODERATE GLYCEMIC INDEX FOODS 60-69% — white bread, shredded wheat, bananas, raisins, Mars
50-59% — spaghetti, corn, whole cereals, peas, yams, potato chips
40-49% — oatmeal, sweet potatoes, navy beans, oranges, orange juice
LOW GLYCEMIC INDEX FOODS
30-39% — peaches, cherries, blueberries, apples, ice cream, milk
20-29% — kidney beans, lentils, fructose
10-19% — soybeans, peanuts
0-10% — most green vegetables
Whole wheat bread raises blood sugar just as much as white bread.
Corn flakes raise blood sugar twice as much as orange juice.
Spaghetti boosts blood sugar higher than ice cream.
Here’s another reason why you should constantly validate nutrition wisdom against the light of new findings. With massive advances in food technology, you’ll never know just how reformed some bad foods can become later on! Like eggs, for example, are no longer the bad guys, writes Ken MacQueen in Maclean’s January 17 issue. “Seems much of the stuff clogging your bloodstream comes from dietary fat, not the dietary cholesterol in eggs. Why ignore a fine source of muscle-building protein and fat-burning vitamin B12?”
In the same article, Lianne George hails bread’s successful comeback, stressing there are “new reasons to love the ultimate carb.” Why is that? Well, it turns out that “bread makers, forced to innovate in order to entice leery consumers, have introduced a slew of healthier, higher-quality varieties, which also happen to taste better.”
George thanks the low-carb movement for pointing out “good carbs” such as whole wheat and organic breads. Apparently, kudos to the movement, consumers have become better educated about the health benefits of bread “as a source of complex carbs, fiber, protein, B vitamins and iron.”
Hence, not every ounce of conventional wisdom is true. Time to cultivate the habit of reading the fine print.
You can start practicing the skill with USRDA tables. USRDAs were devised by the Food and Drug Administration for nutritional labeling. These are the lists on processed foods and vitamin products that tell what percentage of each of 19 essential nutrients you get per serving or dose. Make sure you use them only as a rough guide (i.e., they don’t factor in sex or age differences in their calculations.)
RDAs are developed by a prestigious group of nutritional scientists who advise the Food and Nutrition Board, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council. Every five years or so, the board reviews and revises its recommendations. In the board’s own words, RDAs are “the levels of intake of essential nutrients considered, in our judgment and on the basis of available scientific knowledge, to be adequate to meet the known nutritional needs of practically all healthy persons.”
Here’s one important thing to remember. Except for vitamins A and D, it’s not harmful to consume two to three times the recommended levels of vitamins. Many people regularly do through the foods they eat and especially if they take a multivitamin supplement.
An ad for beef from BeefitsWhatsForDinner.com appeared in the October 2004 issue of Men’s Fitness.
Headline (in LARGE PRINT):
One more gram of saturated fat than a chicken breast. But a steak knife is heavy.
So it evens out.
Visual: A Mouth-watering Plate of Steak
Compared to a skinless chicken breast, lean beef has only one more gram of saturated fat and six times more zinc, three times more iron and eight times more Vitamin B12. Just something to think about.
Based on USDA data using the average 3 oz. cooked servings of eye round roast, top round steak, top sirloin steak, boneless shoulder pot roast, round tip roast and shoulder steak compared to 3 oz. cooked servings of boneless, skinless chicken breast. Funded by America’s beef producers.
Without skimming through the fine print, you wouldn’t know whether this ad is comparing apples to apples, or apples to oranges. You would have likely missed the fact that this is a paid advertisement by the U.S. association of beef producers.
So there, you just learned in actual practice how important it is to read the fine print. As it turns out, a 3 oz. steak is being compared to the same amount of boneless, skinless chicken breast. This is pretty good. This means that you’re better off eating steak than skin-on chicken in terms of fat content. In more specific terms, it’s far healthier to visit your favorite steakhouse than to head off to Popeye Chicken.
New research, however, confirms that eating red meat along with processed meats such as salami or pastrami over a long period of time can increase your susceptibility to colon cancer. This was reported by HealthDay reporter Ed Edelson, who based his report on the findings of a 20-year study of more than 148,000 meat-eating adults aged 50 to 74.
Dr. Michael J. Thun, head of epidemiological research at the American Cancer Society stressed though, that this is not a groundbreaking finding. “There have been 20 such studies looking at the relationship between consumption of red or processed meat and colorectal cancer.”
What makes the finding truly significant, according to Dr. Thun, is that “this is the largest study that I’m aware of so far…it adds substantially to the available evidence about the relationship.”
This finding doesn’t mean, though, that you have to quit altogether the trip to your favorite steakhouse every once in a while! For rewards or treats, say the psychologists, are so intrinsic to a successful weight control program. William James, father of modern Psychology stresses in his opus entitled Habit the importance of rewarding oneself for a job well done in order to reinforce a new habit learned.
This said, it’s time we delved briefly into the psychology behind healthy eating. An article by Joanna Lavoie (5 Weight Loss Mistakes) which appeared at Sympatico/MSN Lifestyle underscores the importance of minding the psychological aspect of nutrition such as making adequate mental preparation. Lavoie highlighted the importance of seriously considering the following stages, rather than jumping head on into a strict diet regimen which more often than not, ends in failure.
• Preparation: developing both short- and long-term goals and strategies.
• Action: following through with your plans.
• Maintenance: keeping up with your goal in the future.
“Is your goal to shape up, lose weight or both? The plans of action and end results for these objectives may be quite different,” the author emphasized. While trying to lose weight too quickly is setting oneself up for failure, skipping meals, says Lavoie, is sealing precisely that kind of outcome.
The news that half of the total population of the United Sates is obese, trumpeted by no less than CNN, hit the ground like a tsunami. Craig Lambert in his article The Way We Eat Now in Harvard magazine seconds the motion: “Many foreigners already view Americans as rich, greedy over-consumers, stuffing themselves with far more than their share of the planet’s resources, and obese American travelers waddling through international airports and hotel lobbies only reinforce that image.”
Sundance Film Festival’s winning “Supersize Me”
Lambert qualifies the term obese. “Two-thirds of American adults are overweight, and half of these are obese. (Overweight means having a body mass index, or BMI, of 25 or greater, obese, 30 or greater.” To calculate BMI, take the square of your height in inches and then divide your weight, in pounds, by that number; then multiply the result by 703. You can do the calculations on-line at the CDC BMI site.
Evidently, the sequel to this obesity phenomenon is the astronomical rise in gym memberships, as well as a confusing strain of diet fads mutating like bacteria. Ironically, despite the Abs and the Carbs images portrayed ever so repetitively on our television sets during sitcoms and soap operas, the obesity phenomenon persists. It is a truly stubborn virus, immune even to the Baywatch culture!
Prior year’s Obesity Summit of the Institute of Food Technologists hoped to identify key research areas solving the problem of obesity–“arguably the most pressing public health problem in this country.”
From Science For Kids
Indeed, the epidemic of obesity is a vast and ever growing public health problem. “Weight sits like a spider at the center of an intricate, tangled web of health and disease,” writes Willett in Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating, arguably the best and most scientifically sound book on nutrition for the general public. He notes that three aspects of weight—BMI, waist size, and weight gained after one’s early twenties—are linked to chances of having or dying from heart disease, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and several types of cancer, plus suffering from arthritis, infertility, gallstones, asthma, and even snoring. While this epidemic took several decades to develop, the tsunami of obesity is sweeping through the younger populace.
Age-Specific Trends in Child and Adolescent Obesity From Ogden, et al., 2002a; CDC, 2003.
The term childhood obesity encompasses children and youth between the ages of two and 18 years of age who have BMIs of equal to or greater than the 95th percentile of the age and gender specific BMI charts developed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Let’s try to explain this in the simplest terms.
Emily Sohn in Science News for Kids, writes, “If someone is seriously overweight, doctors use a mathematical formula that takes a person’s height and weight and spits out a number called the BMI,” the same measure of adult obesity we saw earlier. They then compare the person’s BMI to those on a special chart.
Son continues: “In adults, a BMI between 18.5 and 25 is normal, greater than 25 are overweight, and greater than 30 is obese. An adult who is 5 feet, 5 inches tall, for instance, would have to weigh 150 pounds to be overweight and 180 pounds to be obese.”
Childhood obesity is a little different. For one thing, age makes a difference. So does whether the child is a boy or a girl. To be considered obese, a kid has to be in the top 5 percent of the BMI chart for his or her age.
Overweight and Obesity by Age in the United States, 1960-2000 Source: CDC, 2003
Based on such formula, some 9 million children in the United States over the age of 6 now qualify as obese. Over the last 10 years, obesity has become more than twice as common in children between the ages of 2 and 5 and in young people between the ages of 12 and 19. In the 6-to-11-year-old set, the rate has more than tripled
The chart above shows how the percentage of children who are overweight has increased since 1963. The chart gives information about children in two different age groups (6 to 11 and 12 to 19) in the United States.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Thus, while the US adult obesity’s incubation spanned some 50 years, child obesity took root only in the past three decades! But there is where the dissimilarity ends. The Childhood Obesity Fact Sheet issued by the Institute of Medicine in September last year mirrors the parallels between the two problems. Like father like son (or, like mother like daughter).
Thus says the IOM: “The rise in childhood obesity is due to complex interactions across a number of relevant social, environmental, and policy contexts that influence eating and physical activity. Over decades, these have collectively created an adverse environment for maintaining a healthy weight.”
Environmental, behavioral, and biological hypotheses for obesity From the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Third Research Summit February 2004.
Such environment is characterized by urban and suburban designs that discourages physical activities such as walking or biking; pressures on families to minimize food cost by minimizing food preparation time; inability to afford fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods; cancellation of Physical Education in the education curriculum due to budgetary constraints; and finally, television watching and computer gaming replacing wholesome outdoor sports activities. The table above summarizes in visual terms the correlation of all the mentioned factors in jointly causing the obesity epidemic in the United States.
Note how the U.S. government’s increased subsidies over the years to non-fruit and non-vegetable staples of the farming industry exacerbated the burgeoning obesity situation in America. This is discussed in more detail later under the USDA pyramid.
But from a purely dietary point of view, the average North American diet is to blame for at least half of the overweight syndrome:
• 60–70% of calories derived from refined carbohydrates such as white flours and sugars
• 20–25% of calories derived from saturated fats and trans fatty acids
• 10–15% of calories derived from protein
Research clearly shows that eating in this ratio leads to weight gain which can result in diseases such as heart disease and high cholesterol.
Notice that we said half of the overweight syndrome? Here’s the other half!
Jonny Bowden, M.A., C.N.S. recently unveiled the ten “worst dressed” snacks. Avoid these at all costs, short of running for your life. If you can’t totally abstain from these, at least be responsible enough to tell yourself that you are committing suicide every time you eat these!
1. French fries (the worst snack food on the planet)
2. Donuts (pretty obvious)
3. Potato or corn chips (French fries in chips clothing!)
4. Soda (nothing of value, a whole lot of chemicals)
5. Cup cakes and snack cakes (fake whipped cream, the rest sugar, flour and flavoring)
6. Candy bars (sugar orgy and nutrition nightmare in one)
7. Pork rinds (saturated fats galore)
8. Fat-free cookies (the most pretentious of all cookies)
9. Crackers (trans-fats, anyone?)
10. Pretzels (nothing but white flour, water and sugar
On the bright side, there are foods you can eat to your satisfaction even while you’re so ever carefully watching that weight. Below are essentially healthy foods for anyone who wants to lose weight.
1. Yams and potatoes (great diet foods because they are especially low on the glycemic index)
2. Oranges, apples and grapefruit (contains high levels of the soluble fiber pectin which slows digestion)
3. Killer sandwiches (to lose 40 pounds in 21 weeks, Kristina relied heavily on sandwiches stacked with vegetables as well as deli meats “but always oven-roasted turkey over anything vacuum-packed”)
4. Cereals (it’s true, the good ones are hard to find, i.e., kind of like men; the Kashi brand is the best. Check it out!)
5. Salad (mind the dressing though, key is to stuff it with green leafy vegetables)
6. Quiche made with egg whites and just a couple of yolks
7. Yoghurt (make sure it’s low-fat)
8. Almonds (omega-3 fatty acids galore)
9. Peanut butter (monounsaturated fats magnate, but this one is still eat-in-moderation)
10. Hummus (AKA pureed chickpeas, garlic and a little lemon juice, great with whole-wheat pita bread or organic corn chips)
11. Salsa (now what can possibly be unhealthy about tomato, onion, jalapeno and cilantro?)
Now let’s lay away from the foods for the time being and take a look at little practical things you can do to eat away at those excess pounds. In the film Point of No Return, Bridget Fonda looks herself in the mirror and says “I never really did mind about the little things!”
Well Bridget, it’s time you did! Here’s why: The little things are the real ones that you can really do. If you keep adding to the list, pretty soon you’ll accumulate so much to seriously challenge those excess pounds (not talking to Bridget now, she has no weight problems, obviously). Think of them this way – they work like coupons and Air miles!
Improve your treadmill routine. When walking on a treadmill, don’t grip the rails – at least not all the time. Try increasing the incline as well. Your body exerts more effort when you’re going uphill.
Shop ’til you drop…pounds! What do you think? You get to shop a lot when you walk a lot.
Walk an extra 100 steps at work by taking the stairs in lieu of the elevator, or parking farther from the office building.
Be creative! Create your own Little Things List. This invaluable tip is courtesy of WeightWatchers.
And, while many are struggling to lose weight…
Unknown to many, is the less- advertised flip side of the coin: America is also suffering from chronic malnutrition! 1stHolistic.com cites a recent research which reveals that few Americans really eat very well, and that nutritional deficiencies are more rampant than meets the eye. Even many supposedly normal people have been found to be nutritionally deficient. A 30-month study of 800 patients in two U.S. hospitals, who were admitted for conditions not having anything to do with malnutrition (pneumonia, hip fracture, etc.) were found in blood tests to be 55% malnourished.
A poster at FNB.org reports “over 20 percent of Americans are both malnourished and obese. Food insecurity, meaning lack of regular access to healthy foods–is a large contributor to malnutrition in poor communities, affecting some 33 million Americans nationwide.”
All these findings certainly make the health situation in the United States a living paradox. From the health point-of- view, America is a country of contrasts where the abundance of nutritious foods has caused both widespread obesity as well as chronic malnutrition! This leads me to conclude that the mere presence or availability of nutritious foods does not guarantee a healthy populace. While the United Nations trains its policing powers on the underdeveloped countries to combat malnutrition around the world, the richest country in the world is struggling from undisclosed malnutrition from within.
This irony becomes even more glaring when we consider that the typical American consumer is supposedly getting more than his or her fair share of healthy-eating tips through books, videos and television advertisements in any given day. The slim, sexy characters in televised fashion shows, 1-800 ads, soap operas and sitcoms are apparently a lofty dream to aspire for, rather than a reflection of modern day reality or the mainstream.
Of course, no president wants a population of obese citizens. It’s hardly a cause for patriotic pride. “We’re leading a race we shouldn’t want to win,” says Harvard associate professor of pediatrics David Ludwig. This explains why there has been a flurry of health pyramids in recent years.
The U.S. Food Guide pyramid
Behold our first pyramid, developed jointly by the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Using a pyramid shape to show what foods you should eat began when the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Food Guide Pyramid in 1992. Since then several pyramids have been added to the gallery to reflect the eating habits of different ages (kids and seniors), ethnicities (Latin and Asian) and points of view about what makes a diet healthy (the Mediterranean diet).
But first, the USDA pyramid, which can only echo the slant of the stronger players in the spectrum of the farming industry. Although developed in tandem with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the pyramid has been widely criticized for politicizing nutritional matters. Here’s why.
Apparently, the law of the lobby has influenced the government in ways that keep the prices of certain foods artificially low. This came in the form of decades of farm subsidies amounting to billions of dollars for the grains the likes of corn (“for corn sweeteners and animal feed to make Big Macs”) and wheat (“refined carbohydrates.” as opposed to “whole wheat”) This, to the detriment of other industries, the far healthier items such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. It’s a perverse situation, as this causes foods that are less healthy to have an artificially low price, while the healthier foods cost more.
Somewhere Over the Pyramid Lies a Rainbow
Canada’s Food Guide
In 1997, Canada released its food guide in the shape of a rainbow. Not to be confused with the Wizard of Oz, the underlying concept behind this presentation is variety; hence the four colors of the rainbow. Understandably, the most important tenet of this guide is enjoying a variety of foods instead of focusing one’s attention on one or two groups. Second, it emphasizes cereals, breads, other grain products, vegetables and fruits. Third, it prescribes choosing lower- fat dairy products, leaner meats and foods prepared with little or no fat. Fourth, it throws exercise into the equation, stressing its importance in maintaining a healthy body weight. Fifth, it advises that we limit salt, alcohol and caffeine.
The main motif takes the cudgels for a population that does not want to restrict its culinary freedoms. Choice is emphasized, but so is taking things in moderation. As a whole, it sends a strong back-to-the-basics message.
The latest addition to the pyramid health scheme is called the Healthy Eating Pyramid, which its proponents (the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School) argue, reflects the most current nutrition research available. Just how current, we’ll find out soon enough!
Time to compare pyramid to pyramid, instead of comparing apples to oranges! The major difference between the new pyramid and that of the USDA centers on the balance of carbohydrates and fats. For a decade, doctors and food experts told people to eat more carbohydrates and avoid fats. Yet as we know only too well, the obesity epidemic still continued unhampered like a tsunami, leading researchers to question the wisdom of this nutritional advice. The Healthy Eating Pyramid breaks carbs and fats into good and bad, rather than lumping them together. The new pyramid suggests other major changes as well, which includes:
• Sharply restricting red meat, potatoes and refined grains, such as white bread
• Limiting dairy products to one or two servings a day
• Replacing unhealthy saturated fat with healthier unsaturated vegetable oils
• Consuming large amounts of whole grains, fruits and vegetables
• Taking a daily multivitamin
• Drinking limited amounts of alcohol
Pyramids of Old
The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid was developed after researchers noticed that people who live in the Mediterranean area (Italy, Greece, Spain) had lower rates of obesity, heart disease and cancer than do most Americans. Researchers caution that diet is only part of the story, since people in the Mediterranean generally eat less than Americans and are also more active.
The typical Mediterranean diet, in contrast to its American counterpart, is lower in saturated fat (animal fats from meat, whole milk and cheese); higher in monounsaturated fat (from olive oil); and places greater emphasis on vegetables, fruits and legumes.
Highlights of the Mediterranean pyramid:
You will find that specific portions are not given. Instead, foods are to be eaten “daily,” “a few times per week” or “a few times per month.”
The foundation layer includes potatoes, polenta, couscous, bulgur and other grains. (The USDA Pyramid lists only “bread, cereal, rice and pasta.”)
Beans, legumes and nuts have a greater prominence, reflecting their status as a basic dietary staple.
Olive oil is emphasized by having its own layer in the middle of the pyramid.
Fish, poultry, eggs and sweets are to be eaten just a few times per week.
Red meat, at the top of the pyramid, is to be eaten just a few times per month.
Wine is recommended, but in moderation.
Both the Healthy Eating Pyramid and the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid provide most Americans with a framework for choosing the proper balance of nutritious foods. If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll need to adapt your pyramid to be certain that you get enough protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals.
Young children ages 2 to 6 have their own pyramid, similar to the USDA pyramid, but with pictures of foods that kids commonly eat. Serving sizes have also been altered to reflect the true eating habits of kids. Illustrations surrounding the pyramid show kids engaged in a variety of activities, stressing the importance of exercise — or in this case, play — in the lives of healthy children.
People older than age 70 also have their own pyramid. Scientists at Tufts University’s USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging published a modified pyramid that addresses the special needs of older Americans.
The base of the 70+ pyramid recommends eight or more glasses of water per day. Although everyone should drink at least eight glasses of water daily, this needs to be emphasized for older adults because of their bodies’ dwindling sensitivity to the need for water. Also, drinking plenty of water can help ease constipation, a common complaint among this age group.
The flag at the tip of the 70+ pyramid recommends supplements of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12, vitamins many older adults find difficult to get in adequate amounts from food alone.
The senior pyramid is a thinner one, suggesting that older people need to eat “slimmer,” to cut down on calories by eating more nutrient-dense foods instead of higher-calorie items.
(Question: Shouldn’t the pyramid for seniors have stairs so it’s easier to follow? The Aztecs of ancient Mayan civilization had those. Just joking!)
Now How Are Obese Individuals Supposed to Use the Great Pyramids?
One might ask, if there are as many pyramids as there are different folks, then what is the Healthy Eating Pyramid for? Well, it’s definitely not for pharaohs; it’s for you and me! Undoubtedly, however, this raises the question of who are you and me, or even more pointedly: “Shouldn’t there be a separate pyramid for obese individuals as opposed to the healthy ones?”
Surprisingly, the pyramids are dead silent on that! But let me guess. The Healthy Eating Pyramid (AKA the Harvard pyramid) should still be “the One.” Surely, there are no signs all over it saying “Hey, I’m the one for those with serious weight problems!” But by incorporating exercise into the pyramid scheme and by so carefully adding “weight control” in the pyramid’s base, this is the pyramid I would recommend to individuals battling serious weight problems. Now let me see a show of hands!
If you’re not sold on my proposal yet, allow me to stress that this is the pyramid that recommends sharply restricting red meat, potatoes and refined grains, such as white bread. And may I further suggest to our brethren currently having a serious bout with obesity to give up thinking there’s a curse in the pyramids and to begin harnessing their powers for good! I believe that by simply following the basic guidelines articulated in the Healthy Eating Pyramid, one can already realize substantial weight loss than any of those fad diets. Besides, those basic guidelines are less confusing than any of those dizzying fad diet admonitions the likes of “flood your body with the vitamins, minerals and essential oils found in this so-called amazing juice!”
All these pyramid schemes, of course, were a sporadic reaction to the United Nations’ health initiatives which for decades have been sounding the alarm bell for the growing underbelly of developed, and then the developing nations. Through its health arm, the World Health Organization (WHO), the world body has been equally concerned about the burgeoning malnutrition in underdeveloped countries. In a January 2005 report, WHO emphasized that “one billion people–one sixth of the world’s population – live in extreme poverty, lacking the safe water, proper nutrition, basic health care and social services needed to survive. Almost 11 million children die each year, six million of them under five from preventable diseases.”
In January 18, 2005, WHO highlighted health in its year 2015 development blueprint (aka the Millennium Project). It likewise underscored the need for the world to “immediately and massively increase the investment in health programs.”
As if talking to America, the recent WHO report admonished that proven solutions are likely to turn the tide towards achieving health goals. It also added: “We have the means to achieve those goals. We have the technology. What we need are the resources and the political will. We cannot wait any longer to do what we have promised to achieve in the coming decade.”
It is interesting to note that such admonition of the world body rings a bell in the solutions recommended by both the American Institute of Food Technologists and the American Institute of Medicine towards combating the obesity epidemic in North America. Both organizations chorus on the need for the government to intervene and look or change its infrastructure policies towards food distribution and production. One quick way that the U.S. can get moving along these lines is to balance its subsidies towards farm products in a way that vegetables, fruits, and whole wheat production are given their due importance in the food chain. This will have the powerful impact of making these staples more affordable for the working masses. The government can also mandate schools to bring back Physical Education in the curriculum, ensure that bike routes and parks are properly integrated into housing plans, and that national advertising focus on healthy eating instead of fad snacking. This is probably what the UN means about proven solutions!
On a micro level, how can an ordinary citizen like you and me contribute towards curbing the tide of epidemic obesity in North America? A most obvious strategy and one that makes the most sense, is to really look after oneself, but then again, this is easier said than done! So let’s truly get down to the basics. By all indications a back-to-the-basics approach, coupled with A Sharp Eye for the New Tech is what will work best in the long run.
1. Let’s begin by following the rainbow (i.e., what the Canadian Food Guide says such as the need for variety as well as limiting but not completely abstaining from those foodstuffs that are harmful to our bodies).
2. Follow what mom or granny said, but always validate it consciously in the light of new research. Always remember: the price of health is eternal vigilance!
3. Resolve to permanently ban the ten worst snacks from your diet.
4. When in agony over losing weight, look towards the top eleven favorite foods for losing weight. You can never go wrong with them!
5. Little things mean a lot in the long run.
6. Mind the whole psychology of what you’re doing. In other words, don’t take more than you can chew!
7. Follow the “ancient” wisdom of the pyramids. We’ve painstakingly laid out their “secrets” for you!
8. Know your RDAs, but also understand that RDAs are not everything. For one thing, these are only for healthy people.
Nonetheless, cultivate the habit of always reading the labels.
9. When in doubt, take things in moderation.
10. Following the Healthy Eating Pyramid’s guidelines, here are
three meals you can take. After all, isn’t it great to end a healthy
eatingarticle with a meal or two?
2 slices of Whole Wheat bread; 1 ounce of Kashi cereal; 1 medium banana or orange;
1 cup of skim milk or yogurt
1 cup of your favorite fruit juice; 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables; 1 cup of other vegetables, cooked
1 cup of brown rice; 2-3 ounces of lean meat or chicken
1 cup vegetable juice; 1 cup brown rice; 1 medium apple; 2-3 ounces of your favorite fish
I hope that you find this article useful in your goals for losing weight and determining your healthy food choices. Please let me know what you think in the comments.
Craig is the founder of LifeGuider, he is dedicated to improving not only himself but also others in being more physically fit and mentally capable of handling life’s challenges. He is not your regular life coach, no fancy clothes or fast cars, just a regular “Ole Joe” who has experienced the ups and downs of life like everyone else.
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