Our diet is quite literally killing us.
The vast majority of those of us living in industrialized nations have outsourced our nutritional health to people we will never meet: people whose boardroom decisions carry 'life and death' consequences for us, while their agricultural, factory and laboratory practices - if we could see them with our own eyes just once - would forever change what we choose to eat and how we view our food supply for the better.
As is widely discussed in books, newsrooms and living rooms, our rate of obesity has more than tripled in just half a century - to 36% - and is projected to hit 50% by 2030. Those whose BMI qualifies them as overweight is almost double that amount: 69%. As one would expect, our rate of calorie consumption has also increased, to 2,700 per day - up 20% since 1970 - which is cause for alarm. This is due in large part to the widespread proliferation of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods that leave us less satiated. They often trick our brains' reward centers into craving - and eating - more than we should, thus making us more likely to purchase yet more of the same food-products in order to fill our ever-hungry bellies.
Yet in spite of consumers' dogged focus on counting and reducing calories, I will argue that the number of calories we ingest is not dietary disease's primary cause - not by a long shot. Astoundingly, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), the vast majority of our dietary calories - two thirds of it - comes from just four sources: Dairy (10.6%), Refined Grains (20.4%), Refined Sugars (18.6%), and Refined Oils (17.6%). It is far and beyond what we eat - not how much - that determines overall health and the prevalence of so-called modern illnesses, from cancer to cardiovascular disease to diabetes to hypertension to osteoporosis and beyond. Consider the following statement from AJCN: "In the United States and most Western countries, diet-related chronic diseases represent the single largest cause of morbidity and mortality. These diseases are epidemic in contemporary Westernized populations and typically afflict 50-65% of the adult population, yet they are rare or nonexistent in hunter-gatherers and other less Westernized people."
In other words, it is not human to die of cardiovascular disease and many cancers. It is largely industrial - and results from our food choices.
None of the food categories listed above - not one of them - was available to our pre-agricultural ancestors. That said, we are in no way advocating a return to Paleolithic dietary habits which, beyond being impossible, is inadvisable from the standpoint of health. A great article in Scientific American highlights the fallacies of the Paleo-diet fad here. It's incontestable that great gains in human health - and hence longevity - have been made on the back of Agriculture, such as the introduction of high-nutrient foods like whole grains and legumes, both of which must be cultivated; or the increase in yield and reliability of most foods whose presence and volume are otherwise variable. Further, the still-nascent field of nutritional science has begun to help us understand how our choices in food preparation greatly affect a food's value to our bodies. Take tomatoes, for instance. Touted for the presence of the anti-oxidant lycopene, which helps to eliminate free radicals that damage our cells, many people readily include them as part of a so-called healthy, balanced diet. However, we now know that cooking tomatoes increases the content of lycopene significantly - by up to 164% after a half-hour of cooking according to a 2002 study by Cornell University - over its raw state. Moreover, the bio-availability of the lycopene in a tomato - that is, our body's ability to use it - is influenced by the presence of other foods, as is its activity level once it is absorbed into our bloodstream, which increased by 20% in the presence of olive oil, says a 2000 study at the Northern Ireland Centre for Diet and Health.
What we are advocating is a return to eating whole, high-nutrient foods that have been minimally - or knowledgeably - processed, and eating them in the proportion and combination that are of greatest value to our bodies' overall health. Generally, the more processed a food is, the more stripped it is of its nutrients. Paradoxically, the more a food has been engineered, the less nutritious it often is. Week 7's blog covers this subject in depth, with startling facts about GM corn - the US's biggest crop. A great New York Times article on the subject, called 'Breeding the Nutrition of of of Food', can be found here. Beyond science, the longer it's been since a food was 'living' (i.e: when harvested), the more its nutrient profile declines. Ditto various methods of storage, preparation and consumption. A good blog entry by fellow New Yorker 'Sweet Beet' here offers good rules of thumb.
In short, the less healthy our diet is, the less our bodies are able to carry out their key functions: feeding our brains, organs and tissue; digesting the good and expelling the bad; and repairing itself so that you live longer, in better health - which is what this site is about to begin with.
So while is wholly unrealistic to expect any of us to pick up a farm implement on a daily basis, let alone a spear or a blow dart, there are others whose business it is to do exactly that in our stead, whose food product supports our health, and which is readily available in every supermarket - or better yet farmer's market - in the United States. Here is just one of countless resources for finding a market near you.
In its research, the AJCN goes on to list 7 characteristics of our ancestral diet, and how our shift to industrial agriculture has thrown every one of them off its evolutionary equilibrium: glycemic load, fatty acid composition, macro-nutrient composition, micro-nutrient density, acid-base balance, sodium-potassium ratio and fiber content. As we outlined in Week 1, the body needs all nutrients listed in our graphic in balance, in order to function optimally. Let's explore one important characteristic - fatty acid composition - in which the 'modern' diet has paved the way for chronic illness to proliferate.
To do so, we need to understand the differences between fats and why they're important. No food topic has been the subject of more ink over the past 30 years than fat, and no nutrient more vilified. An entire, highly profitable sub-market has opened up in which foods are re-engineered or processed to reduce the amount of fat they contain. Low-fat and fat-free are just two monikers you hear regularly. [Week 4's blog entry covers these terms in detail, here] In reality, however, fat is an extremely complex and varied set of nutrients. Some fats do in fact harm us. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils - aka trans-fats - are in overwhelming numbers of highly processed foods in stores and restaurants alike, from cookies and chips to baked goods and french fries. These fats raise levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides, while lowering levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. A caloric intake containing just 2% trans-fats increases our risk of heart disease by 23%, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Most alarmingly, trans-fats - as well as an imbalance of dietary fatty acid composition (more on that below) - create an environment friendly to inflammation, which is at the root of the diseases that claim the most dollars and lives in industrialized nations today: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and many cancers. As is broadly known in the scientific community, chronic inflammation can 'lead to environments that foster genomic lesions and tumor initiation' - i.e.: cancer, as summarized in a highly detailed 2006 entry in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine here. Put in plain English: cancer cells feed on inflamed tissue, while the reverse - a reduction in inflammation - starves the cancer cells of the nutrients that allow for their proliferation in our bodies. A key source of inflammation reduction is... other fats.
To wit: without certain types of fats, we would not just get sick; we would likely die, as did the rats in Burr & Burr's seminal 1929 study, when they were deprived of essential dietary fats - so-called because the body cannot produce these and must find them in the foods we eat. Burr & Burr's subsequent experiments were key to the recognition of both linolenic and linoleic acids as essential fatty acids, outlined here. These unsaturated fats, which are mainly found in plant-based foods and oils, nuts and fatty fish - are absolutely central to the basic health of our cells. Their introduction into our diets has the opposite biological effect of saturated fats: they lower our levels of bad LDL and triglycerides while raising levels of good HDL. A sub-group of these - polyunsaturated fats, comprised of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids - is used by the body to tremendous and varied benefit: building cell membranes; coating nerve endings, promoting blood clotting and the formation of muscular tissue; reducing blood pressure; and reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Moreover, paradoxically and in direct contravention to popular dogma about fats, regular ingestion of unsaturated fats helps the body shed excess (stored) body fat by boosting its basal metabolic rate. In short, eating foods high in unsaturated fats helps you lose weight.
Of special interest to us, however, is the fact that Omega-3 fatty acids in particular are Nature's best form of inflammation control.
With regard to inflammation, it's worth revisiting our Paleolithic ancestors. While all unsaturated fats are important for maintaining good health, the hormones derived from the two types of polyunsaturated fats - the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids - provoke opposite responses in the body. Those from omega-6 fatty acids tend to increase inflammation (an important component of the immune response), blood clotting, and cell proliferation, according to health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, while those from omega-3 fatty acids decrease those functions.
In pre-agricultural societies, it is widely accepted that the levels of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods in our diets were roughly in balance - a 1:1 ratio. In modern Western diets, however, overwhelmingly comprised of dairy, refined sugars, refined grains and refined oils - all inflammatory foods - that ratio has become disproportionate in favor of omega-6s. The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health lists that ratio as between 15:1 and 16.7:1. The result, in brief: a rampant increase in incidents of cardiovascular disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases... the hallmarks of an industrialized diet, and the very things that are killing scores of Americans each year.
It's worth sharing the statistics: 64 million Americans suffer from cardiovascular disease; 50 million are hypertensive; 11 million have type 2 diabetes; and 37 million have an at-risk cholesterol level of over 240 mg/dL. Finally, an estimated 1/3 of all cancer deaths are due to nutritional factors, including obesity.
So what can you do - right now - to begin reducing your intake of inflammatory, nutrient-poor, disease-promoting foods? The answers - in great detail - will begin to fill this website over the next 49 weeks. In the meantime, a few rules of thumb:
- Stop eating snack foods, immediately. Instead, snack on nuts - especially walnuts, one of nature's greatest sources of omega-3s - as well as seeds, crunchy vegetables and fruit.
- Stop drinking soda. Drink water, copiously. And green or herbal tea. For that matter, replace juice with blended smoothies. Stripped of its fiber, juice is a sugar bomb and sends the liver into overdrive producing fat cells to store the oversupply of sugars.
- Replace squishy breads in plastic bags with breads made with sprouted (whole/live) grains and legumes whose germ is intact. Stripped of key nutrients, refined flour breads are quickly converted into glucose once digested, raising risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Sprouted/whole grains have the opposite effect.
- Eat varied salads, often, that include wild grains and small servings of protein, and skip nutrient-poor, high-calorie dressings. Opt for a balsamic vinaigrette, which is low in calories and contains monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil, or skip the mustard and vinegar and substitute fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
- Avoid low-fat, lite or non-fat anything. Period. We've demonstrated the need for fats. Avoid the bad ones; embrace the good ones. Don't be fooled by jargon; it's there to get you to spend money.
- Unless you live in a state that allows access to raw milk products, cut back on the dairy products. They are good sources of calcium but are high in saturated fat, and pasteurization likely increases the risk of some cancers, like ovarian and prostate. Further, stripped of its digestive enzymes due to pasteurization's high heat, some 65% of us exhibit degrees of lactose intolerance. Dark, leafy greens like spinach can provide almost as much of calcium as yogurt; tofu almost 2.5 times that amount.
- Stock your pantry and refrigerator with easy-to-store-and-snack omega-3 rich foods, like walnuts and canned sardines. Consume cold-water, fatty fish like Pacific Sardines, Atlantic Mackerel and Alaskan Salmon. Either Sockeye or Coho, wild Alaskan salmon's populations are extremely well-managed, contain the species' lowest levels of mercury and other contaminants; is abundant thus easy to find; and is extremely high in omega-3s.
- To wit: cook more. Take the time. Restaurants are businesses and there to make money, or they go under. Unless you spend a fortune on fine dining at health-focused, farm-to-table establishments, your kitchen is your friend, and allows you to control what goes into your belly.
- Proportion size: reduce it. A serving of meat is 3-4 ounces - the size of a deck of playing cards - whereas the smallest restaurant steaks are typically 8 oz.
- Skip the seconds. To feel satiated longer, opt for foods with a low glycemic index, like oatmeal, lentils, fresh fruit, barley, and sweet potatoes, to name a few.
- Eating vegetables means more than salad. Pasta recipes offer countless source of vegetable intake; likewise, roasting vegetables in the oven, drizzled in olive oil and exotic spices are both simple and delicious. Whomever says vegetables are boring is either lacking in imagination or simply lacking in recipes. Books like 1,000 Vegetarian Recipes prove the point.
- Skip the supplements. Get your nutrients from their source - not a drug company. Fish oil? Eat salmon. D3? Eat pastured eggs or get 20 minutes of sunlight. Vitamin C? Eat an orange, or squeeze a lemon into some water for a curative, thirst-quenching drink.
- Take everything in moderation, including moderation. The occasional (which means occasional) departure from the straight-and-narrow may not be good for you, but it's good for your sanity, is practical when you're dining out, and underscores the point that eating healthfully is about small choices over the long term - not one meal or immediate results. Make good choices, often, and your body and loved ones will be thankful.
For more rules of thumb, visit our Food Rules web tab here.