IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT DIET Part 2
Toward A More Perfect Diet
By Bart Brodsky & Janet Geis
Janet Geis and Bart Brodsky have been in search of the perfect diet for several years. Where their own diet is concerned, there's always room for improvement. Janet and Bart are the publishers of OPEN EXCHANGE MAGAZINE and invite you to help them on their search! Email your suggestions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our main goal "In Search Of The Perfect Diet" is to live longer, healthier lives. Although we both could afford to lose a few pounds, we're not looking for a temporary "weight loss" program; we take it on faith that if we eat a more perfect diet the weight will take care of itself. We love to eat and cook, but we're not nutrition experts, so we tend to pay close attention to what the experts themselves recommend.
Where The Experts Agree
The Standard American Diet, appropriately called "SAD," is one of the worst ways to eat. SAD is a major contributor to obesity, premature heart disease and diabetes, and also increases the risk of various cancers. Americans tend to eat too much red meat and processed foods, too much sugar, too many bad fats, too many chemicals and preservatives, and not enough fresh whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Our portions are too large, as well. Eating less is correlated with longer lifespans and less risk of a variety of diseases. Weighing less is generally healthier, although media stereotypes are unrealistically skinny. People come in all shapes and sizes. Hard bodies are nice, but curves are sexy, too!
A Healthier Diet
A newly svelte President Bill Clinton told late night host David Letterman that he has adopted a "plant-based diet" to save his life. Both Letterman and Clinton have had coronary bypass surgery and angioplasty to unclog blocked arteries.
In a Huffington Post interview, Clinton said that he is eating a near-vegan menu because he wants to be here to enjoy his future grandchildren. After reading several books on plantbased diets and healthand following daughter Chelsea's leadthe former president has recognized that lifestyle change based on diet and exercise is the only way to truly reverse and prevent heart disease.
Clinton was most likely influenced by Bay Area's own Dean Ornish, MD, who conducted the world's first clinical trials showing that dietary changes could reverse arterial plaque buildup and reduce angina in patients with heart disease. Dr. Ornish has been a physician consultant to President Clinton since 1993 and to several members of the U.S. Congress.
Dr. Ornish told OPEN EXCHANGE that his plaque reversal diet is 10% fat, which is very low. People who are not at risk for heart disease can tolerate and may in fact thrive on a higher fat diet, perhaps 15 - 20%. Dr. Ornish's own studies highlight the fact that people are different, so there may be no one ideal diet. We'll return to this idea later.
Most of us learned what to eat from our parents. So, it makes sense that if we're going to adopt new eating habits we might look to other teachers. Doing just that, Dan Buettner and staff took a map of the world and colored "blue zones" showing areas with a high percentage of centenarians. What do the world's most long-lived people have in common? Limited meat and sugar, lots of fresh veggies, staying physically active, and having a large social network. They identified familiar "blue zones" such as Okinawa and Sardinia, but also some surprises, such as smoggy Loma Linda, California, home to long-lived Seventh Day Adventists. It's all in their book, "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest."
Yes, there are many happy alternatives to the SAD diet around the globe. In "The Jungle Effect" Dr. Daphne Miller discovers the healthiest diets from around the world and shows how to adapt them to familiar recipes.
Pizza, pasta, hamburgers, sushi, tacos, and french fries... how did we turn healthy cuisine into not-so-healthy junk food? How is it possible that relatively poor native populations in Mexico and Africa have such low levels of the chronic diseases that plague the United States? What is the secret behind the extremely low rate of clinical depression in Iceland, where dreary weather is the norm?
Dr. Miller traveled around the world to find authentic indigenous recipes and traditions that can help preserve health and prevent the many modern diseases caused by a Western lifestyle. Dr. Miller says that food, well-prepared, may be your very best medicine.
Meat Under Fire
If you're the type of person who weighs facts as well as portions, check out "The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health" by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II. With a Foreword by John Robbins, author of "Diet for a New America," and a cover endorsement by Dean Ornish, MD, it's easy to guess that the authors' findings support a plant-based diet rich in complex carbohydrates and low in animal products.
What's new here is the range and depth of epidemiological evidence supporting a vegan lifestyle. Multiple graphs provide visual confirmation: almost no level of meat consumption is safe, and the more you eat, the more likely you are to die prematurely of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.
While epidemiological studies are compelling, they are not necessarily conclusive. Meat eaters are quick to counter that most centenarians are not vegetarian but omnivore, although all eat in moderation and are never overweight. The role of genetics in determining health and longevity may possibly trump diet.
But why eat meat anyway? Do we even need meat? Not necessarily. Dr. Marion Nestle, professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, offered her take. "All proteins are made up of the same amino acids. ALL. No exceptions," she reasons. "The difference between animal and vegetable proteins is in the content of certain amino acids. If vegetable proteins are mixed, the differences get made up. Even if they aren't mixed, all you need to do to get the right amount of low amino acids is to eat more of that food. There is no 'need' for animal proteins at all."
The more steak, burgers, and bacon you eat, the sooner you'll die, says yet another major study of more than 500,000 people. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland compiled data on the intake of red and processed meats over a 10-year period, then cross-referenced data on deaths over the same decade. They found that both men and women who ate a lot of red meat and processed meats such as hot dogs and bacon were more than 30 percent more likely to die than people who rarely consumed these foods.
"You eat a hot dog a week you're going to up... your risk of death in a 10-year period," epidemiologist Barry Popkin tells The Washington Post. Most of the premature deaths were the result of heart disease and cancer. Red meat contains high levels of saturated fat, which pushes up levels of bad cholesterol, and cooking red meat is known to produce carcinogenic compounds. Hot dogs, salami, and other processed meats contain enormous doses of salt and are preserved with nitrites, a known carcinogen.
Based on this study you should eat no more than four ounces (one small serving) of red meat per week and eliminate processed meats from your diet completely. Simply put, the less red meat you eat, the longer you're likely to live. ( THE WEEK, April 10, 2009.)
As a rule of thumb, nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, proponent of the light-on-meat flexitarian diet, recommends thinking of meat as "condiment instead of a large-meal focal point." Beyond limiting meat consumption, Imogen Rogers, a lead author on the UK study, notes that the World Cancer Research Fund recommends avoiding processed meat such as ham and bacon, which has been linked to increased cancer risks. (http://motherjones.com/ blue-marble/2010/06/how-much-meat-should-you-eat)
Dr. Atkins Redux
The original Atkins Diet created by Robert C. Atkins, MD, heavy on the bacon and eggs, fell out of favor after Dr. Atkins reportedly died of heart disease with complications from being severely overweight. Yet a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that both weight loss and risk factors for heart disease can be improved following a vegan version of the low-carb, high-protein Atkins diet.
A newly retooled "Eco-Atkins" diet focuses primarily on soy, nuts and wheat proteins (gluten) to increase the amount of vegetarian protein in the diet. Carbohydrates are restricted to 130 g/day, which is on the higher end of most lowcarb diets. All starchy foods such as bread, baked goods, potatoes, and rice are eliminated. Carbohydrates are provided in the form of whole, intact grains (barley and oats) and low-starch vegetables.
Many people question how much soy can be safely consumed, and also if there are alternatives to gluten for those who are sensitive. (http://www.thebestofrawfood.com/)
Dean Ornish, MD, has been particularly harsh criticizing Atkins-style diets, particularly the original formula that emphasizes animal protein. However, he gives cautionary approval to the Eco-Atkins approach: "All-cause mortality rates as well as cardiovascular mortality rates were decreased in those eating a plant-based diet low in animal protein and low in refined carbohydrates. Although this plant-based diet was called an 'Eco-Atkins' diet, it's essentially the same diet that I have been recommending and studying for more than 30 years....
"It's not all or nothing. You have a spectrum of choices. What matters most is your overall way of eating and living. If you indulge yourself one day, eat healthier the next. To the degree that you move in a whole foods, plant-based direction, the better you're likely to feel and the healthier you're likely to become.(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/drdean-ornish/an-atkins-diet-increases-_b_707005.html?ref=email_share)
Besides not smoking, probably the best thing you can do for your health is to eat less meat. Good newsmore and more people are getting the message! A "Vegetarianism in America" study published by Vegetarian Times in 2008 showed that 3.2 percent of U.S. adults, or 7.3 million people, follow a vegetarian-based diet. Of these about 0.5 percent, or 1 million, are vegans, who consume no animal products at all. About 10 percent, or 22.8 million people, say they largely follow a vegetarian-inclined diet. Another 5.2 percent, or 11.9 million people, are "definitely interested" in following a vegetarian-based diet in the future. (OPEN EXCHANGE, "Healthy Living News," July-Sept. 2008.)
A lacto-ovovegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients required for optimal health. Anecdotal reports suggest that many successful endurance athletes are vegetarians whereas few reports suggest that elite strength athletes follow a vegetarian diet. Strength and power athletes almost invariably include meat in their diets, although it is unclear whether the benefits of meat consumption for strength and power are real or imagined.
Some of us who have experimented with extreme diets have settled into a "flexitarian" pattern, plantbased meals with occasional splurges or meaty feasts. "I eat grass fed beef once a week," one almost-vegetarian told us. Instead of meatless Mondays, for some people it's meatless weekdays, reserving the right to party hearty on the weekend. This feast-and-famine approach may slightly resemble the natural eating pattern of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
You VS. The Environment?
You've no doubt heard the familiar mantra: Eating less meat is good for you and good for the planet, too. Livestock consumption causes more global warming than all forms of transportation combined. It takes 10 times more energy to produce animal-based protein than plant-based protein.
In Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappe asserted that substituting grains for meat could feed a hungry world. In her daughter's recent Diet for a Hot Planet, Anna Lappe proclaimed that eating less meat could lessen "the climate crisis at the end of your fork."
Yet it may not be quite so simple. Your morning banana, so delicately sweet and loaded with healthful potassium, was flown thousands of miles from South America. Even assuming it was locally grown, petro-miles involved in its transportation should be an embarrassment to any locavore. What about your Colombian coffee? Or OUR China green tea? Shouldn't we all feel just a wee bit guilty because we don't eat 100% local?
Lierre Keith is a proud omnivore, a lapsed vegan who is now on a crusade to dismantle modern farming. According to Keith, factory farming is ruinous whether the bounty is cattle or corn. Commercial agriculture is waging a relentless assault against the planet, and more of the same won't save us. Agriculture has laid waste forests, driven countless species extinct, altered the climate, and destroyed the topsoil.
Arguing from biology, Keith notes that gorillas can digest cullulose, whereas we humans, she says, need meat to build our muscles and big brains. Predictably Keith has her detractors, saying she's got her biology wrong and is ethically challenged as well.
Many permaculture farmers agree with Keith that farm animals help keep the topsoil fertile for growing veggies, that family farms need animals as well as plants to thrive. Predictably, many of these expert farmers are also confirmed omnivores. Isn't eating meat natural? How could something that feels so right possibly be so wrong?
Ethical Vegetarians and Vegans
Veganism has gone mainstream. Celebrities tout benefits of a vegan lifestyle, from Paul McCartney to Alicia Silverstone. As McCartney has been quoted widely:
"If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian."
Ginnifer Goodwin, star of Big Love, says, "Because of veganism I find myself embracing all living things. I've found I have more energy, I sleep better, and my skin has cleared up. My taste buds awoke! I appreciate food in a whole new way. As for my soul, I quickly began feeling a lightness I'd never known before. I am aware. And it's easy." (Oprah Magazine, February 2010.)
Actress Alicia Silverstone went one step further, now the author her own vegan opus, "The Kind Diet."
Veganism, eating no animal sources whatsoever, is a relatively new phenomena.
Donald Watson (1910 2005) was founder of the Vegan Society and inventor of the word "vegan." Watson was born in Mexborough, Yorkshire, into a omnivorous family. His journey to veganism began when he was very young, at the farm of his Uncle George. There, he says:
"I was surrounded by interesting animals. They all "gave" something: the farm horse pulled the plough, the lighter horse pulled the trap, the cows "gave" milk, the hens "gave" eggs and the cockerel was a useful "alarm clock" - I didn't realize at that time that he had another function too. The sheep "gave" wool. I could never understand what the pigs "gave", but they seemed such friendly creatures - always glad to see me."
He realized what purpose the pigs served when he saw one slaughtered, and his life was changed. At the age of 14, he became a vegetarian as a New Year's resolution, and in the 1940s, after learning about milk production, he became a vegan.
In 1944 he and some friends founded the Vegan Society. Someone in the group would have come up with a word to describe their diets, he believes, but he suggested "vegan," using the first three and last two letters of "vegetarian." It was "the beginning and end of vegetarian", and it stuck. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veganism)
Are vegetarians and vegans neurologically different from the rest of us? A scientific study has discovered that as compared to omnivores, vegans and vegetarians show higher activation of empathy related brain areas (e.g., anterior cingular cortex and left inferior frontal gyrus) when observing scenes of suffering, whether it be animal or human suffering.
Bottom line is, if you became vegan for ethical reasons, it may be because you were born that way. According to this report, choice had little or nothing to do with it. (Psychology today article posted by veggiedude on: http:// sfvegreport.blogspot.com/)
No doubt vegans would find such behaviorist reductionism offensive. Firsthand testimony from vegans show the degree of compassion and concern that went with their dietary decision. Umapati Collins writes for OPEN EXCHANGE (April-June 2010):
"One of the reasons for my shame was because I considered myself to be an environmentalist. Eating meat has a direct effect on two major environmental issues. The first is that it requires the killing of sentient beings for my welfare.
Most livestock live in terrible conditions, are pumped full of hormones and antibiotics and experience horrific deaths. The second is that compared to vegetarian foods, producing meat is an extremely inefficient and destructive use of the earth's resources.
"I don't view non-vegetarians as unconscious, insensitive or wasteful. Nonetheless, based on my personal morals, 'I' would be unconscious, insensitive and wasteful if I continued to eat meat."
Vegans, Vegetarians & Omnivores Agree
A wide range of food writers, including John Robbins, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Frances Moore Lappe, Anna Lappe, and even Lierre Keith, all agree that the commercial food supply is seriously degraded and that some version of family farming is ideal. Pollan and Anna Lappe are "plant-based" and probably sometime flexitarians, whereas Frances Moore Lappe and John Robbins have embraced veganism. Schlosser has admitted enjoying hamburgers, and Keith is a proud omnivore who voraciously devours organ meats. Yet all condemn processed foods, simple sugars, and additives. All agree that monocultures sprayed by herbicides or fattened with hormones and shipped around the world by oil are ultimately unsustainable.
There may be other points of agreement, if one could only get them to all sit down together over dinner.
What About Supplements?
In a recent New York Times story, "Vitamin Pills: A False Hope?" the author cited a number of broad studies debunking the value of nutritional supplements. "In the past few years, several high-quality studies have failed to show that extra vitamins, at least in pill form, help prevent chronic disease or prolong life."
The following week Epoch Times headlined "Chondroitin Sulphate Found to Help Osteoarthritis," citing a two year study which found "significant" improvement in the condition of joints as well as relief from pain. Another Epoch Times story, "The Red Wine Pill," documented how megadoses of resveratrol, a key ingredient in red wine, can reduce the effects of aging, decrease the chance of getting cancer, help weight loss, and "make you look like a trained athlete without the training."
What are we to make of the conflicting data? The emerging science of diet supplements is still in its infancy, and despite the hype there are no magic bullets. Vitamins and supplements tend to work in combination, and megadoses can cause imbalances which sometimes do more harm than good. For example, two studies of beta carotene, a form of Vitamin A, correlated its use with a higher rate of lung cancer. And a study of folic acid suggested that its use could increase the formation of cancerous colon polyps.
To insure against vitamin deficiencies it's best to eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. A daily multivitamin probably falls into the "can't hurt, might help" category. Beyond that, don't expect miracles. A medical professional can test for specific deficiencies and recommend targeted supplements in the right dosages. Niacin, for example, can lower "bad" cholesterol; Vitamin D may over time lower the incidence of Multiple Sclerosis; calcium appears to lower the recurrence of precancerous polyps.
Life extension in a pill is tantalizing nonetheless. Life extension physicians and naturopaths claim clinical success using a wide array of nutritional and hormonal therapies. Since many supplements come from natural sources and not subject to patent, however, pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to test these claims. SOURCES: New York Times, February 16, 2009; Epoch Times, February 26, 2009.
Beyond good eating and daily exercise, some physicians recommend an individualized program of targeted vitamin, mineral, and hormone replacement therapy.
Discuss any supplement therapy with a trusted MD. "Most active, productive men [and women] need a good supplement program to protect them from illness and deficiency symptoms and increase their longevity by reducing chronic degenerative disease patterns," says Elson M. Haas, MD. Dr. Haas is the author of several books on diet and health and founder of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin.
No Perfect Diet?
Longevity specialist Joel Lopez, MD, recommends an individualized approach to dieting. In an article for OPEN EXCHANGE he notes, "I believe that we're all unique and the onesize- fits-all approach doesn't work and will never work." Some of us thrive on foods that others react to with allergies.
So how do you decide what diet might work for you? Diet expert John Robbins recently told us to experiment and see what works best:
"Try going 100% vegan for a while, and then try adding small amounts of, say, wild fish, and then go back to purely vegan, and watch how your body responds. Whether you thrive best on an exclusively vegan diet or an essentially vegan diet is not a cause for pride or shame. It's a question of tuning into what fuels your spirit, your joy, and your deepest connection and respect for life. You have a right to feed yourself what you need to thrive. Healthy food, good food, produced in a sustainable way with respect for the workers, for the soil, and for any animals that may be involved, is a blessing."
There may be no one perfect diet, but there may well be a near-perfect diet that works for you. Considering that the Standard American Diet is one of the worst diets around, it's pretty easy to make meaningful improvements. Eat more veggies, less processed foods, and less meats. Go organic and local. Eat smaller meals in moderation; eat more slowly and in the company of friends. You'll be happier, healthier, and enjoy your mealtime all the more!
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IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT DIET
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