Do you remember when Bill Clinton summed up his presidential campaign by stating: “It’s the economy, stupid”? Well, the economy, the climate and safety are still big issues, but there is a really serious problem that does not get much attention.
Everywhere in the world that the modern Western diet is introduced, chronic diseases follow right behind. Eat our food and your chances of becoming obese, getting diabetes, having heart disease, cancer and/or a slew of other diseases skyrockets. There is a saying further out in the Pacific, “Eat white man’s food and end up in white man’s hospital.”
The definition of a poison is: “A substance which is capable of causing illness or death in a living organism which ingests or absorbs it.”
I have no doubt that we are going to look back at the last 40 years of our diet and be amazed that we ate such unhealthy food. Unfortunately, I think we will realize that the word “poison” is actually an accurate description for our typical Western diet.
So, what is it about our diet that is making us so sick?
The famous food writer Michael Pollan summed up his years of writing about foods by saying the proper way to eat is to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
The first two words of the above are probably the most important. “Eat food” means to eat real food — vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and meat — and to avoid what Pollan calls “edible food-like substances.”
This is excellent advice but we are still left with the important question: What is in our food that sickens us?
Here is what we now know:
1. Fat is not a food villain; added sugar is. It turns out that healthy fats are good for our brain (our brain is mostly fat) and fat helps to decrease hunger. On the other hand, every teaspoon of added sugar starts a cascade towards ill health. Added sugar causes insulin secretion which tells the body to deposit fat, it creates unhealthy fats inside us, it turns off hormones which should tell us we are full and it teaches cancer cells how to absorb more sugar (many cancers thrive on sugar and starve without it). To make things even worse, it is highly, highly addictive. Western processed foods and drinks, particularly “low fat foods” and sweetened drinks, are filled with added sugar. The average can of soda has 9 teaspoons of sugar in it.
2. There are many types of sugars. The healthiest are the sugars found in fresh fruit. The key is to eat the whole fruit, which includes the fiber, rather than just drinking the significantly less healthy juice. There is increasing evidence that it is the fructose part of the sugar molecule that affects us the most and a growing body of evidence that high fructose corn syrup is worse than the regular sugar it replaced.
3. Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in America are fed to our livestock. Antibiotics are fed to animals to help them gain weight faster and survive the poor diets and unhealthy conditions they are forced to live in. We have long understood that excess antibiotics promote ill health in humans. But we are just beginning to understand that antibiotics in our food are also a bad idea.
4. Some of our livestock are treated with hormones, again for more rapid weight gain. We are growing increasingly concerned that hormones in our food may be playing a role in our epidemic of obesity and in other hormonal problems such as the earlier and earlier age that girls are hitting puberty.
5. Pesticides in our food is a new and perhaps frightening line of research. If we take children, test their urine for pesticide metabolites and then put them on an organic diet and check them again, the level of pesticides in their urine drops dramatically and quickly. We are only now beginning to fully appreciate that pesticides in our bodies are part of daily living in the U.S. While we are seeing an explosion of studies trying to understand the effects of these pesticides, we don’t yet have a full understanding of the potential harm. There is evidence that pesticide exposure from our food, and household and agricultural spraying may affect our hormones; increase the possibility of diabetes, cancer and obesity; and may play a role in the increasing incidence of neurobehavioral disorders in children.
The best way to convince the food companies to produce healthier foods is to join the movement of motivated consumers. If we stop buying processed food, it increases the demand for and thus the supply of healthier food. Real foods make for much healthier bodies. Here are some general food guidelines:
1. Stop buying low-fat processed foods. The problem is not fat, it is added sugar and low-fat foods are often higher in sugar.
2. Buy much less in the middle aisles of supermarkets, as that is where most the processed foods are. Processed food tends to include multiple ingredients, preservatives and additives. Check your label — in general, the fewer ingredients, the better.
3. Buy real foods around the edges of the store in the vegetable, fruit and meat sections. Frozen fruits and vegetables are also a healthy and affordable option.
4. Go to farmers’ markets and buy fresh local foods.
5. If it fits into your budget, buy organic dairy, produce and bread. The more organic we buy, the more it is produced and the cheaper it gets. But organic does not necessarily mean healthy. Be wary of heavily processed foods which may carry the organic label.
6. Stop buying bottled water; use tap and/or filtered water. There is increasing evidence that BPA and other chemicals in plastics may affect our hormones and be one more cause of our obesity epidemic and ill-health.
7. Minimize or eliminate all soda drinks and fruit juices. Sorry, even fruit juices are very high in sugar. Instead, eat the whole fruit as the fiber in the fruit slows the absorption of the sugar and makes it healthier.
8. Vary your diet. The modern diet consists mostly of wheat (bread and pasta), soy, potatoes and dairy. Try to make your diet much more varied. Aim for 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
9. Eat much less bread. American bread should be called cake, as it is full of sugar. In addition, the wheat for the bread is often sprayed with pesticides right before harvesting. Once eaten, the bread converts into pure sugar and shows up in our blood streams even faster than table sugar does. So, eat much less bread and, if it fits your budget, consider organic bread.
10. Change your food containers. Avoid plastic containers by using glass whenever possible.
Follow these 10 easy steps to improve your own health and reduce the $2.4 trillion a year that Americans spend on the treatment of chronic diseases.
Dr. Lee Evslin is a retired physician. He has lived and practiced on Kauai since 1979. He also served as the CEO of Kauai Medical Clinic and Wilcox Hospital. He will be providing a regular column for TGI. His goal will be to present new ideas on health-related issues.