38. Healthy Eating, in a Nutshell

Healthy Eating, in a Nutshell

Establishing healthy eating habits from a young age is the single most important thing parents can do to promote long-term good health for themselves and their families. In the United States, people tend to eat diets rich in processed carbohydrates and animal proteins, leading to increased rates of diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and diverticulitis.

This past week a close relative of mine was hospitalized with a bad case of diverticulitis, requiring intravenous fluids and heavy-duty antibiotics. In past decades, diverticulitis tended to present in the sixth or seventh decades of life. But the relative I mentioned is in his early forties. Due to the typical American diet, diverticulitis has become a disease of much younger individuals. The same can be said for illnesses like colon cancer and diabetes. A few weeks ago, a 20-year-old presented to my office with full-blown, type II diabetes. The occurrence of these conditions in such young people is disheartening and indicates an acute need to change the way we eat in America.

The Netflix movie “Forks over Knives” presents an intriguing look at this topic. The film documents the careers of two prominent physicians who were raised in America and initially believed in the healthfulness of eating milk and animal products. However, as they studied medicine and spent time practicing overseas in countries where people mainly ate plant-based diets, they noticed much lower rates of Western diseases, such as atherosclerosis and cancer. One of the physicians began working with patients who had advanced atherosclerotic disease and were unresponsive to the usual medical and surgical treatments. The outlook for these patients was grim, but after being placed on a strict plant-based diet, most of them stabilized, and some demonstrated reversal of their heart disease over time.

This month a large, well-designed study looking at the effect of carbohydrate intake on lifespan was published in the Lancet, and the results are interesting. The study determined that eating carbohydrates in moderation (not too much, not too little) led to the longest lifespan. Moreover, those individuals who tended to eat unprocessed carbs did better than those who ate processed carbs; and individuals who opted for a low-carb diet did worse if they replaced their calories with meat and dairy products.

What can we take away from this information? As Americans, what type of diet will lead to the best health over time? In my opinion, the answer is simple, though difficult to execute in practice. Below I’ve listed some guidelines for healthy eating.

  1. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. The largest portion of each meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—should consist of fruits and vegetables.
  2. Try to eat healthy, unprocessed carbohydrates (i.e. potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, couscous, and other whole grains) rather than processed carbohydrates (anything made from white flour—i.e. white pasta, white bread, cookies, cake, pizza crust, etc.). Consume carbohydrates in moderation.
  3. Eat smaller amounts of meat and dairy products. When consuming meat, avoid red meat. Fish, which contains healthy oils, is a better choice than chicken.
  4. Drink only water. Avoid juice and soda, which contain excess added sugar.
  5. Check food labels. The RDA for sugar for older children and adults is 25 grams. One vanilla Chobani yogurt contains 20 grams of sugar. A can of Coke contains about 40. Keep this in mind when purchasing snacks.
  6. Avoid restaurants. Prepare food at home as much as possible.
  7. What about whole milk for children? Whole milk is still recommended by the AAP for children between the ages of one and two years. Some recent studies, however, have suggested that whole-fat milk and milk products probably aren’t that good for us. I’ve lately been wondering if the AAP will someday reverse its stance on whole milk. Keep in mind that the nutrients obtained from whole milk (ie. fat, calcium) can easily be obtained from other, healthier sources.

On a final note, we’re all in this together. I’ll be trying to follow these guidelines as much as possible in my own kitchen. Good luck to everyone!