If you’re concerned about nutrition, you know the good guys from the bad guys: oat bran, beta-carotene and antioxidant vitamins versus red meat, fats and sugar. Read the reports of research, though, and you’ll often be disappointed.
Several studies of antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamin E failed to find the cancer-preventing effects that were expected. And results of the Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial were equally disappointing. In this study, nearly 20,000 women were randomly assigned to follow a low-fat diet, reducing their total fat intake from 38 percent to 29 percent of daily calories. Eight years later, results showed none of the expected benefits. The women following the low-fat diet had no reduced risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer or cardiovascular disease. And their weights were generally the same as those of women in the control group who continued their regular diets.
What does it all mean? Are you better off going back to burgers and fries? Actually, no. If you’re over 40, one look at your high school yearbook will tell you that there are more overweight Americans today than there were 20 years ago. Children and adolescents are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, once found primarily in adults in their 50s and 60s. Of the top 10 killers of Americans, at least 4 are diet related.
Food writer Michael Pollan is not surprised by the disappointing results of nutrition studies, because the focus of such research is invariably on nutritional substances rather than whole foods. Pollan prefers to keep it simple: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
GOOD FOOD, according to Pollan’s definition, is simply real food as opposed to the food-like substances that line the shelves of supermarkets. That means food that is fresh, unprocessed, preferably grown in your own garden or produced by farmers near your home rather than manufacturers. Corn on the cob or corn tortillas are foods that your grandparents would recognize and eat. Corn curls and high fructose corn syrup are another category altogether.
Hippocrates said, “Let food be your medicine,” but that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying yourself at the table. The French, Italians and Greeks have food-loving cultures. And even though they may eat more saturated fat and drink more alcohol than Americans do, they are generally thinner and healthier.
Fresh whole foods bought at the Farmers Market may be a bit more expensive; they have been grown with more care and less attention to high yield and long shelf life. But they taste better. Try a real egg from a chicken that has been allowed to roam freely, and you’ll never go back to the kind that comes from egg laying factories.
NOT SO MUCH: People in traditional cultures, where obtaining enough food is sometimes a challenge, generally have no problem with obesity. They eat less meat and more rice, beans and vegetables — because that is what they can afford. And they are healthier as a result.
In American culture, unfortunately, those at the bottom of the socioeconomic chain are less able to afford fresh, whole foods. As a result, they are at the mercy of the food producers who offer inexpensive food products that are high in calories as well as sodium, trans fats and saturated foods. Corn curls will fill the stomach fast at a low cost.
But it’s not just poor Americans who are getting fat. According to one theory, Americans started gaining weight when they started following the low-fat, high-starch regimen that became popular during the 1980s and 1990s. Calories count, and many Americans who tried to follow an overly austere approach to fats compensated by adding high-calorie carbohydrates.
MOSTLY PLANTS: If you’ve ever followed a Weight Watchers’ plan, you know that most fruits and vegetables cost you virtually nothing in terms of points or calories. They are also the good guys in terms of nutrition.
The American diet that has led to weight and health problems is based on meat and potatoes with a token vegetable or two (such as lettuce and tomato on a burger). A more sensible diet starts with the vegetables and fills in with smaller quantities of meat and starches.
Vegetarianism is often cited as a heart-healthy habit, but a better choice for many is “flexitarian” — plant centered but with modest amounts of meat, fish and poultry.
Whole grains, dairy products and nuts round out the good foods that should be part of any healthy diet.
Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.