Friday, October 7, 2011

What's Wrong With the American Diet?

The FDA's New Food Pyramid.  Though it has its problems, it is still an excellent guide to a healthy diet.
What's wrong with the American diet?  Looking in the news or on the internet a huge number problems with confusing, even contradictory solutions are offered.  Weird fix-all solutions are frequently offered from what would seem as reliable sources.  Even reliable sources seem to be at least somewhat confused.  No one really definitively is able to pinpoint a problem, and no one seems to even come remotely close to a solution.  Generally, health problems are easier to identify than the solutions.  Overall, I will say there is no one single solution such as exercise or eating spinach everyday.  Often these things do help, but overall fall short of really offering a full solution.  There are also a lot of extreme solutions being offered such as stapling of stomachs or hormonal treatments such as HCG.  The problem with these is that they are simply quick-fixes that don't really change a persons overall habits and they come with their own set of problems.  Come to think of it, obsession over finding quick fixes might be one of the problems with the American diet today.  But really, Type-Two Diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, depression, and many others are obvious health problems in our culture today.  We need to quit looking to solve all of these problems by treating symptoms, instead we need to look to treat root causes.  And in order to treat the cause, we must change our lifestyle.  Diets don't work because people think by changing their behavior for several weeks they will have a permanent change.  Well, beginning the minute the diet ends the weight starts coming back and the person is just as bad off as they were in the first place (yes, even the HCG diet has this exact same track record).  So changes need to be permanent, but not 100 percent elimination 100 percent of the time.  Yes, you can "cheat" here and their, but overall there needs to be a change, and "cheating" needs to be rare and controlled.   

While I don't claim to be an expert in this area, I have done a significant amount of reading and talking to "experts", as well as made general observations about the American diet.  Over the past several years I have compiled a mental list of problems and solutions that I have seen as common threads throughout these health discussions.  Most of these I see as very obvious problems with scientific research to back them up.  Here is the list:

1. Less sugar.  The average American today eats about 100 pounds of refined sugar (table sugar or high fructose corn syrup) every year.  100 years ago the average American ate less than 1 pound annually.  Today we put sugar in absolutely everything.  This is a serious problem causing both directly and indirectly obesity, heart disease, cancer, decreased immune function, and Type 2 Diabetes.  By significantly decreasing sugar in-takes you can significantly increase quality of life and prevent chronic disease.  

2. Fewer carbs.  In American culture today we eat huge numbers of carbohydrates compared to fat and protein.  While carbs are not evil in themselves they do quickly pack the pounds on making people more at risk of heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, and all the associated problems.  Carbs could in-fact be placed with sugar above being carbohydrates are simply longer molecular chains of sugar.  Carbs are however, better than sugar in that they do not cause blood sugar and insulin spikes.

3. Just add sunlight.  The lack of vitamin D in American's today has been called epidemic.  Most Americans are cooped up in offices five days a week and rarely receive direct sunlight, the easiest and most effective means of receiving vitamin D.  Yes, the body produces its own vitamin D simply through exposure to sunlight.  In-fact, a person can receive 100% of their daily intake with only about 5-10 minutes of noon-day sunlight.  Of course, sitting out in the sun for extended periods can have negative effects on health but limited exposure is extremely beneficial.  Just don't let yourself burn.   Vitamin D has been found to have positive overall effects on immune function, cancer prevention, preventing depression, among other things.  Vitamin D pills can be taken but they are not as effective as sunlight.

4. More fruits and veggies.  Simply by eating more fruits and veggies we can increase our nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and other healthful nutrients, all of which have positive effects on our health.  Fruits and veggies are simply jam-packed with these things and often naturally cleanse our body from toxins.  Studies show, eating these, even in modest amounts, do have many positive health effects.

5. More omega-3 fatty acids.  Omega-3 fatty acids are found in coldwater fish such as salmon, grass-fed or free-range meats, and some plants such as walnuts, avocados, and flax seed.  Unfortunately, we eat very little fruits or veggies in our diet today, very little fish, and grass-fed beef is a rarity.  The more common omega-6 fatty acid causes inflammation and decreased immune function when eaten in excess.  Omega-3's and 6's need to be eaten in approximately a 1 to 4 ratio.  The American diet typically has a 1 to 10 ratio of omega-3's to 6's.  When eaten in the proper ratio, these fatty acids average themselves out, giving us all kinds of health benefits, including decreasing cholesterol and preventing or even healing heart disease.  Notice I am not saying fat is the problem here, but I am saying the wrong types of fat are the problem.  What we need are unsaturated plant based fats in approximately the correct ratio, and to limit but not eliminate saturated animal fats.  

6. Increased activity.  You have heard it a million times, we need to exerciser more!  We all know the benefits so I won't go over them for you to hear for the millionth time.  And yes, the benefits are truly remarkable.  The good news is that exercise does not need to involve nearly killing yourself or even going to the gym.  I really hate going to the gym, but I love hiking, walking, and gardening.  All of which are excellent forms of activity that aren't traditionally always thought of as exercise.  Even modest amounts of activity, especially when coupled with a healthy diet, can go a long ways in improving health.  Studies have even found that only 15 minutes of moderate activity a day has positive health effects.  And if 15 minutes still sounds like too much, break it down into three, five minute intervals of exercise (intervals may have even more positive health effects than one longer period of exercise).

Again, the above simply are common threads I have come across over the years.  This is not a comprehensive list at all.  It is also not an all or nothing list.  Improving health can be done one step at a time, do what you can now.  Just because you don't do everything on the list doesn't mean you can't do at least one of them.  And even doing one thing will improve health.
Dr. Weil's food pyramid.  A research based pyramid which is another excellent dietary guide.

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