This website is now published on my mobileme account. Any opinions expressed, however, are totally my responsibility.
The original website was published through the courtesy of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Jim Andris, Sept. 17, 2003.
Counting calories and proper activity level will get you a long way towards a healthy eating pattern, but without a knowledge of good nutrition, you can easily consume calories that are not good for you. In other words, your body not only needs the right amount of fuel, it needs the right kind of fuel. Unfortunately, in today's nutritional community, especially in the diet community, there is strong disagreement on what constitutes the right kind of fuel. For example, there is currently a huge argument going on between the folks that say carbohydrates should be restricted and the folks that say fat should be restricted. There is another school of thought that has people eating different diets depending on their blood type, or at least categories related to blood type. There are the various kinds of vegetarians. There are those who emphasize eating natural, organic foods. There are those who warn against certain food combinations. There are trick diets, like eating all the cabbage soup you want. There are those who claim that the food supply is so damaged that only by taking food supplements, such as neutraceuticals, can you be properly nourished. The list really could go on and on. How to sort through this bewildering array of claims and still maintain your health is a tough problem.
What follows here is just one man's attempt to make sense of nutrition. If it helps you to make sense of your proper diet, so much the better.
What is a natural diet and do we get one?
I'm inclined to think that eating whole, natural, organic foods is a good starting place for building a diet. I base this on the idea that we got here by natural selection, and natural selection takes tens of thousands of years to operate. Manufactured goods, and especially the highly refined and processed foods that we have in today's world, haven't been around long enough for us to adapt well to them as foodstuffs. So, I look back at what people 100, 500 and even 1000 years ago probably ate. And what was that? Whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole animals and animal products, such as eggs and milk. And clear, fresh water.
Whole grains and whole legumes are good for people because they contain a whole, tiny plant within them, as well as the nutrition to get that plant started. Generally speaking, whole grains have a lot more nutrition than processed grains. A good case in point is the difference between whole wheat (made from the whole wheat berry) and white flour (made from only a part of the wheat berry). Whole wheat contains much more bran or fiber, more vitamins and minerals, ounce for ounce than does white flour, which is almost pure carbohydrate. Even when the white flour is enriched (has added vitamins and minerals), we are no longer dealing with a living food, but with a synthesized food. It is highly doubtful that we are able to put back into white flour everything that was taken from the whole wheat flour, and in a form that can be useful to our bodies. The story is almost the same with brown and white rice.
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, if you look in a typical supermarket produce section, you might conclude that there is a good supply for healthy eating. However, that would not be correct. Many of these fruits and vegetables are not fresh, or have been waxed or otherwise coated to preserve freshness, or sprayed with preservatives or other chemicals. Another problem is picking fruits and vegetables before they are ripe and refrigerating them, so they will last longer while they are shipped long distances. Unfortunately, such a process almost guarantees that these products will contain very few phytochemicals, which have anti-oxidant properties and are essential to good health.
The liquids we tend to drink are by and large not healthy for us. Many people are hooked on caffeinated beverages. Experts go back and forth on the supposed benefits and harmful effects of coffee and tea, but, especially with coffee, people drink it for the jolt it gives to their system. It is now an acknowledged fact that the large amount of sweetened soda drinks being consumed—marketed by large firms like Pepsi and Coke—are a major factor in the creation of obesity as a nationwide problem, not to mention dental cavities and diabetes. The same can be said of drinking too much fruit juice. Moreover, there are other problems associated with the use of artificial sweeteners.
Most of the time, what we need is just a good drink of water. Some experts say that we need 8-10 glasses of water a day. And yet even here this commodity is hard to come by. The water we drink out of the tap is chlorinated and does contain a certain "acceptable" level of impurities. I have distilled my drinking water for 20 years now (this itself is a controversial practice). I can tell you that you would be shocked to see some of the sludge that comes out of "ordinarly drinking water."
Much has been written about the harm that can come from the uncritical consumption of meat. Animals may have been given growth hormones or antibiotics and raised under stressful conditions, which means that they have contributed their own stress hormones to their flesh, which we then can consume. Experts generally agree that the best meat is from animals that are allowed to range free and that have a good and safe food and water supply themselves. And, generally speaking, it is not good to overconsume meat, especially the fatty parts, because these can contribute to increased cholesterol levels. Some meats are better than others for our health. And, I might add, no matter what you have been told, meat is not essential to human health.
Even given what I have said above, an intelligent consumers who care about their health can plot a path through the commercial mine field that faces them, and make healthy selections. Good, nutritious foods are available at the grocery store. To take breakfast cereal as one example, if you eliminate the cereals that have sugar or corn syrup as their principal ingredient (you can add that, if you just have to have it), you have narrowed the choice down to just a few. Shredded wheat, grape nuts, and oats (need to be cooked) are what I largely buy from the supermarket and fix. I also try to buy healther cereals from the local natural food stores. No matter what you say, Captain Crunch and Froot Loops contain too much sugar.
What science has taught us
Also, for the last 150 years, science has been establishing a long list of chemical compounds, known as vitamins and minerals, which when absent from foods, cause various illnesses. We have learned to synthesize many of thse compounds and insert them back into our diet. In addition, science has been establishing that environmental pollution produces toxic substances that we find more and more in our food and water supply. DDT, once used as an insecticide, and extremely toxic and long-lived, has now been almost removed from the environment. Finally, soil science has learned to measure the depletion from the soil of essential nutritional substances due to constant over-use, and methods for restoring the soil.
Even granting these victories of science, it is important to be humble about what we think we know. Every generation tends to think that its scientific advances have taught it all it needs to know, and every succeding generation makes new important discoveries or replaces old, inaccurate theories with new, more precise ones. It is in fact arrogant and audacious to assume that we have identified ALL of the important nutritional substances or pollutants. Prudence in dealing with our food supply would still seem to be the best course.
It is also well to remind ourselves that we have been treated to a string of theories about what causes nutrition-related disease. We were told that animal fat was bad (for example butter), and that synthesized margerine, and later polyunsaturated fat was better, until we arrived at the current theory, which states that monosaturated fats (olive oil and peanut oil, e.g.) are best for us. We were told to go on an extremely low fat diet to fight heart disease, only to be later told that some fat is necessary for health. We were told that cholesterol was bad, but then were told that there was good cholesterol and bad choleserol, and that it was bad to remove the good cholesterol. I could go on and on with examples such as this. Again, HUMILITY about the current accepted "scientific" theory is wise. Which is different from saying that science is crap, which it is not.
Other problems with nutritional theories are the "one size fits all" theories and their supposed improvements: "You have to be one of these three types. For example, the theory that people with hypertension should avoid salt is a one size fits all theory. Actually, some people with hypetension are not helped by salt reduction. Another problematic theory, that your blood type determines the diet you should eat, allegedly because all people with one blood type were living in a certain kind of environment 10,000 years ago. This theory is good as a guidline for individuals who want to test it out to see if it applies to them, but it is not going to be true for every individual. Blood types and ancestries are way too complex for this to work in every case.
Family farm to industrialized society
When people lived on the farm and raised their own animals and produce, and when the soil was fairly not over-farmed, people were eating pretty much what their ancestors were eating. Now this doesn't necessarily prove that modern society can't come up with better food than in the past. However, what has actually happened is this. For better or worse, most people now make their living at highly specialized jobs and do not raise their own food. At the same time the food in today's market isn't under the control of well-meaning nutritionists to a great extent, although they do have their input. Rather, food is also under the control of marketing forces that are aimed at making money at least as much as providing good nutrition.
This is no place for a lecture on the evils of capitalism. Every political system that was ever invented had its strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that food production has tended to be more and more under the control of large agricultural corporations. I wouldn't claim that these corporations are totally greedy and inattentive to the nutritional needs of our citizens. However, I would claim that there has been a tendency to focus on efficiency at the expense of quality in food production. To be sure, various governments regulate the food production industry, but there are quite a few limits on this kind of regulation. Many times it doesn't become apparent that an agricultural practice is harmful to the food supply until much damage has already been done. Some political administrations tend to favor business over the consumer, and remove or block regulations that would be helpful.
How marketing sells bad food
It is really quite heartbreaking when we look back at the history of food production in the Twentieth Century and see all the death and misery that was created by marketing campaigns that convinced people to use bad products. Just look at this list of diseases that have killed millions of people: alcoholism, lung cancer, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, obesity, emphysema, to make an incomplete list. Every one of these diseases is related to consuming products that were marketed to the public as beneficial, when in fact they were harmful.