Sunday, September 19, 2010

What is wrong with the American diet?

Something, that's for sure. The more I read, the more convinced I am that this is the case. Medicine has advanced far beyond what we ever imagined, and yet it doesn't mean we tend to be that much healthier. Yes, we can cure more diseases, and yet there are dozens of "diseases of the modern lifestyle" that are killing us: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers. These are diseases that were less common before industrialization.

And that's not even all of it. Those of us who are normal weights, who don't have diabetes, whose hearts are beating fine, still aren't necessarily well. At 24, I'm finding that most of my friends have at least one nagging ailment that isn't serious enough for a doctor to spend real effort curing -- or else the doctors can't cure it. I have persistent headaches, for which doctors have offered to prescribe heavy painkillers or else put me on the Pill. No thanks. A friend has asthma and severe allergies. Another has a compromised immune system and gets very sick from every little bug. My dad had joint pain years ago, but all the doctors could tell him was "Well, it's not rheumatoid arthritis. Would you like some Motrin?" John was told by the GI specialist he visited last year that he "probably has IBS, but we can't confirm that, and it wouldn't matter if we did because there's no cure."

As a nation, we are not well. One hundred years ago, most people outside of the cities (where disease spread quickly and nutritional deficiencies were common) were healthy. Sometimes they caught diseases which killed them, many of which are curable today. But they didn't linger on just feeling crummy all the time like we do. They weren't all on diets which allowed them to eat very little which they enjoyed, or else rapidly gain weight. Very few were diabetic.

One friend, among all my friends with slight ailments, suffered from severe headaches and stomach trouble. She ended up going to see a naturopath instead of a conventional doctor. This lady told her to cut all gluten from her diet and avoid chocolate and caffeine. In a few months, she stopped having the headaches, her stomach settled down, and as a bonus she also lost a good amount of weight!

It makes me wonder. Our diet in America has taken several huge leaps, many of which were not tested out well before being accepted. For example, MSG and high fructose corn syrup have appeared in a multitude of foods. Most people aren't aware of eating them, so it's hard to tell if they react to them or not. We've started eating a lot more canned and packaged food. Corn has become so all-pervasive, we're usually unaware of how much we eat. Our meat eats a different diet than it used to -- cows eat corn instead of grass; chickens eat corn instead of a mix of grains and bugs.

And our outlook on food has changed. From the four basic food groups -- meat, dairy, vegetables, and grains -- we have gone to the "food pyramid," suggesting we should be eating lots of grains, less vegetables, hardly any meat and dairy, and "sparing" amounts of fat. Every week, it seems, a new study comes out telling us we should be eating something different, and yet conventional wisdom still prevails: eat low-fat, eat lots of whole grains, don't eat much meat (and if you do, it should be skinless, boneless chicken breast), don't eat much dairy (and if you do, it should be skim). Eggs, eaten in dozens by our healthy forebears less than a hundred years ago, are now going to kill you. Cream, once so valued, especially for children, is carefully removed from most dairy products. Butter has been replaced with margarine. Lard and drippings have been replaced with corn or canola oil.

Yet, as I said, we are sicker than ever. Deaths from measles, tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, and many other diseases have shrunk to almost nothing -- but cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are killing us as much or more than ever. We hear more about the "obesity epidemic" every day.

Of course there are many reasons for our ill-health. Televisions, the low price of food, formula feeding, and desk jobs all contribute to obesity, for instance. And then there's the question of radiation from radios, cellphones, and microwaves -- could it be killing us? Birth control pills contribute to breast cancer and blood clots, but a very large percentage of women take them for years.

But that clearly isn't everything. Some people are reasonably active and diet to the point of being hungry all the time, and yet they still can't lose weight. Adult-onset diabetes is striking children who are younger all the time. Certain hard-to-diagnose and impossible-to-cure ailments are all over the place: chronic fatigue, irritable bowel, migraines, severe allergies, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility in women, sterility in men. What is wrong with us?

I believe that something is up with our diet. The food that lines supermarket shelves isn't all health food -- even the stuff that's labeled as if it were. Unfortunately, I'm not completely sure what is causing the trouble. Is it the fact that so much of our diet comes from corn? Is it the white bread and processed cheese? Genetically modified foods? Pesticide residues? Would it all be better if we ate organic? Or if we switched to whole grains? Or if we became vegan?

There are so many schools of thought, some of which make some sense to me and some of which don't at all. The two that I like the best are the real food movement, for instance Weston A. Price, and the primal/low-carb/grain-free movement.

The real food movement, which I discovered through the cookbook Nourishing Traditions, is based on a simple principle: If your grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, don't put it in your mouth. Of course it's a little more complicated than that. The author draws a great deal on the work of the dentist Dr. Weston Price, who traveled the world examining the teeth and the diets of different populations. He found that the more "traditional" cultures -- those who eat their traditional diet rather than a Westernized diet -- had healthier teeth and were healthier overall. Their diets tended to include animal foods and fermented foods, and were low in sugar and processed grains.

Proponents of real food generally suggest eating organic vegetables; pastured meats, dairy, and eggs; and fermented foods like sauerkraut and pickles. They avoid sugar of any kind, but particularly refined sugars, and they differ about grains, but generally soak their (whole) grains before eating them, sprout them, or make them into sourdough in order to reduce harmful antinutrients within them. My favorite real food blog is Kitchen Stewardship.

The "Primal" plan goes even further back. I guess I could state it this way: if a caveman wouldn't recognize it as food, don't eat it. Primal eaters avoid grains altogether, first, because eating of grains is a relative innovation since the agricultural revolution (whereas our bodies were made/evolved before that, so theoretically are not designed to digest grains), and second, because grains have several antinutrients which are intended to discourage animals from eating the seeds and preventing the plant from reproducing. Naturally this plan ends up being low-carb, though not extremely low like the Atkins diet, and focuses on meat and vegetables. I'm getting all this from the primal blog Mark's Daily Apple.

Lately I've been very aware of what we're eating, because of the baby's issues. So far I've identified tomatoes, spicy things, eggs, and chicken as almost certainly the cause of a lot of problems. If he has a few fussy days, all I have to do is take a few steps backward in terms of food I've introduced, and he bounces right back to incredibly happy.

It makes me wonder, what would happen if I broke down my own diet, bit by bit, and found out what agrees with me and what doesn't? I already know sugar is a big trigger for my headaches, and so I do try to avoid it. But what else might help me feel better?

And then, of course, there's John. His (probable) IBS has been flaring up more lately, and overall he just hasn't been feeling well. This has been a long-term problem, really ever since he left his (extremely healthy and organic) diet of mainly fresh vegetables and meat from his family's farm, but lately it's particularly bad. I knew it had to be bad when he finally gave me permission to make some drastic changes to the food we eat in the hopes of helping him feel better.

At the same time, I was reading testimony after testimony on various blogs. People who changed their diet and cured themselves and their families of IBS, arthritis, allergies, attention problems, infertility, PMS, severely crooked teeth, and high blood pressure. This story was the most striking; I just read it while researching this post.

So, we're taking the plunge. For now, we are going to cut out all grains. It isn't too hard for John, who prefers potatoes anyway, but it will be tough for me to lose the pasta and PBJ's. I figure we can do it for a week or two and see how we feel. If John has no more IBS flare-ups in that time, we'll re-up for another week. As long as we feel good, there's nothing to lose.

Meanwhile, we'll step up the amount of vegetables we eat, particularly fresh vegetables. Though we can't really afford to go grass-fed with all our meat (particularly since I can't have chicken), we'll see what we can manage in that area. We'll try to make everything we eat as nutrient-dense as possible.

And, if the no-grains plan doesn't work for us, we'll try something else until we find something that does. We are committed to feeling better.

I'd challenge you to consider the same. Take a moment to think about how you feel. Have you felt good for the past week? The past month? Is there a nagging health problem or yucky feeling that you've resigned yourself to living with? Why not test a different diet and see if it helps? Do some research to see what others with the same condition have done. Or just make a goal to eat more natural, nutrient-dense foods. Keep a food and symptom journal and see how you feel.

After all, you have nothing to lose. If you still feel awful, you can go back to your PBJ's or your Skittles and no harm done. But if you feel better, then you decide if it's worth it to you to give up a pet food or two to feel better than you're used to feeling.

If you do this -- or if you've already done it -- please comment and tell me how it worked for you!


Carla Schmidt Holloway said...

The sad part is, regardless of the fact that I really, really want to try a healthier diet, we're just too poor to afford it. The kitchen in our cheapo apartment is too small to spend much time on meals and that means a lot of pre-packaged or easy meals (pasta, frozen pizza, cereal, and canned soup make up the majority of our diet). It also doesn't help that I feel completely overwhelmed at the prospect of turning food into a science project lol.

I have constant GI problems, stuffy nose, headaches, acne, and bad PMS (I've always attributed most of it to my thyroid disease). I would really like this to change.

Katie @ Kitchen Stewardship said...

I had to read your story when I saw this post on Twitter! I'm so honored to be yr fav real food blog, and I have to say - let's do this grain thing together. I haven't announced it on the blog yet, but we just started grain free 4 days ago b/c my husband has Crohn's (IBD, worse than IBS) and it just flared up for the first time in 8 years. So the bread baking thing will be postponed - but this post is perfect for the Test Your Grains Challenge, which will obviously be "no grains" for the KS family. I don't think I'm having the kids participate, though. That's tricky!

Can't wait to hear how you do!
:) Katie

PS - spaghetti squash is a lifesaver. :)

Sheila said...

Carla -- that's the place we were in until recently. Between our small income, busy hours, and lack of energy (in my case, mainly because of pregnancy), we just muddled on however we could, with an occasional fresh veggie or chicken stock to help us get by.

Here's hoping your situation improves soon so that you can eat the way you want to!

Katie -- can't wait to hear how it goes! I think it's an advantage for us that the baby isn't eating yet -- this way, if grain-free works for us, we can just raise our kids that way too.

Beth said...

So weird...I JUST put up a post about real food on a budget. Strange actually. Anyway, for me, I found that cutting out the processed food ultimately is saving us money. It took a while to build up my whole foods pantry (good olive oil, coconut oil and organic whole grain flours), and I will confess thought that it is largely chicken/egg based.

Also, if you haven't ever done it, I really recommend trying home-baked sourdough bread with digestive issues. I can't handle commerical bread at all, but sourdough and soaked whole wheat bread work for me.

As for the PB&J...try PB & celery. Or in lettuce leaf "wraps".

Colin and Jenne said...

I've noticed I feel SO much better when I eat raw fruits and vegetables. Colin and I go on health food binges. (Mostly because if we don't eat the fresh food right away, we forget about it and it goes bad.)

Meredith said...

I am wondering if my ADD could be helped by a change in diet... I don't eat much processed food, but maybe if I ate more fish I would have a longer attention span? Confusing! I am going to try taking fish oil, anyway.

In addition to the food issue, Americans simply need to get up and walk around town more. It's difficult to walk places in the suburbs, when everything is spread out and reachable mostly by car.

Sheila said...

Beth - I enjoy sourdough, but John detests it, so no help there. I've discovered peanut butter is delicious on green apples! The jam I'm going to mix with plain yogurt.

Jenne - so funny; I do the same thing. I buy vegetables so that I will be FORCED to eat them before they go bad.

Meredith - I don't know. I have heard of various developmental disorders (like autism and attention problems) being helped by special diets. Mainly cutting out food additives, and sometimes grains. Look up the GAPS diet; it's the one that I hear of the most.

Walking is definitely something we all need to do more of. I think we get more from a good outdoor walk than from working out in a gym... and besides, how many people with a gym membership actually work out regularly?

Andrew pointed out, when we were at his place the other day, that if the government wants to fight obesity, they should get rid of zoning laws so that we can all walk more places instead of having to drive. Very smart! I remember wishing for this when I was a carless teenager living in a sprawling suburb.

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