Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mixed Messages: What Exactly IS a Balanced Diet?

Image courtesty of spiderpic.com
You remember the colorful food pyramid poster that waltzed in and out of your childhood. It was usually tacked onto bulletin boards in the classroom or lunchroom. It was plastered on cereal boxes. And if I'm not mistaken, it was even included in your health or science textbooks.

Image courtesy of nal.usda.gov
Well, what if I told you that the very same food pyramid is - in the now famous words of VP Joe Biden - a bunch of malarkey? Yes, dear friend, you have been misled... by the government-run USDA, the educational system and big business at it's finest.  Since 1943, the USDA's various eating guides have infiltrated our subconscious and clearly affected the way we choose to eat. We have good intentions, but what are good intentions when based on the wrong material?!?

The USDA's food pyramid can be compared to the many incarnations of Madonna. It has seen it's share of different looks. First there was a pyramid, then there was a pyramid with stairs to indicate the importance of adding exercise to the equation and now, forget the pyramid, there's a plate. Sorry, USDA. Close, but no cigar.

Image courtesy of oklahomafarmreport.com
In his book Eat, Drink and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Eating Healthy, Dr. Walter Willett, a leading nutrition researcher, shares that...

"The thing to keep in mind about the USDA Pyramid is that it comes from the [U.S.] Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for promoting American agriculture, not from agencies established to monitor and protect our health, like the Department of Health and Human Services, or the National Institutes of Health, or the Institute of Medicine... 

Serving two masters is tricky business, especially when one of them includes persuasive and well-connected representative of the formidable meat, dairy, and sugar industires. The end result of their tug-of-war is a set of positive, feel-good, all-inclusive recommendations that completely distort what could be the single most important tool for improving your health and the health of the nation."

There is no phrase more confusing than the phrase balanced diet. Let's forget all about the Food Pyramid and My Plate for a second and take things a bit further. What percentage of protein should we be eating? And what about calcium? Is dairy really the best source? And when it comes to fiber, how much is too much?

These are all very valid questions and different schools of thought will tell you different things. At the end of the day, there is no all-encompassing diet that I can recommend. Every body is different and requires different foods to satisfy it. Culture plays a major part in dietary habits, as well as climate. For example, the Eskimos - who eat primarily meat and lard - have very low rates of heart disease and very 'clean arteries'. This doesn't make logical sense, but their bodies are conditioned to process these foods because they need them to survive the harsh conditions of their environment.

Image courtesy of theholistickitchen.com
Let's talk about protein since it is one of the main building blocks of the body. Your body needs it to build and repair tissues, regulate body processes, produce enzymes and hormones and provide energy. It's very important that you get enough protein every day. In her book What To Eat, Dr. Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU, clarifies protein requirements perfectly...

"To meet nutritional requirements, you only need to eat about half a gram of protein each day for every pound you weigh, which works out to 55 grams (just under two ounces) for a 120-pound woman and 65 grams (just over two ounces) for a 180-pound man. Note: these are ounces of protein, not meat... 4 ounces of cooked beef, poultry, or pork can easily provide 20 or 30 grams of protein (and so can beans)...Even if you are a vegan and eat no animal products at all, you almost certainly get more than enough protein from the grains, beans, and vegetables you eat. 

Indeed, unless you diet is unusually restrictive, you will get enough protein as long as you get enough calories."

If you eat well, you don't need to be weighing your portions, doing complex equations and worrying about getting enough protein. If anything, you're probably getting more than enough. Excess protein  is actually stored as fat, so you don't want to be eating a Porterhouse at every meal. Use your good judgment.

Image courtesy of balancedbites.com
Next on the list is calcium for bone health. Now before you reach for the milk carton, think twice. Dairy products are not actually an effective source of calcium like we are told by the USDA and the dairy industry. In fact, dairy products do quite the opposite of what you might expect in regards to calcium. Vivian Goldschmidt, MA, who holds a Masters Degree from NYU in Nutritional Science and Biochemistry and authored a book called Save Our Bones, explains that...

"...not only do we barely absorb the calcium in cow's milk (especially if pasteurized), but to make matters worse, it actually increases calcium loss from the bones...

Here's how it happens. Like all animal protein, milk acidifies the body pH which in turn triggers a biological correction. You see, calcium is an excellent acid neutralizer and the biggest storage of calcium in the body is - you guessed it... in the bones. So the very same calcium that our bones need to stay strong is utilized to neutralize the acidifying effect of milk. Once calcium is pulled out of the bones, it leaves the body via the urine, so that the surprising net result after this is an actual calcium deficit.

Knowing this, you'll understand why statistics show that countries with the lowest consumption of dairy products also have the lowest fracture incidence in their population..."

Courtesy of theeveningclass.blogspot.com
If you've ever seen the documentary Forks Over Knives, you've already been introduced to this concept. The Office of Dietary Supplements with the National Institutes of Health recommends that most adults get 1,000 mg of calcium per day. This amount is up for debate though, as it's been suggested that this amount is so big to make up for the excessive amounts of protein and sodium that we consume in America, which both encourage calcium loss.

Instead of embracing the 'Got Milk' campaign and all it entails, I suggest you look towards vegetables and other foods for your calcium needs. Here are a few examples of the calcium content in 1 cup of...

Cooked turnip greens (450 mg)
Cooked bok choy (330 mg)
Cooked collard (300 mg)
Cooked kale (200 mg)
Romaine lettuce (40 mg)
Cooked pinto beans (100 mg)
Garbanzo beans (95 mg)
Cooked quinoa (80 mg)
Oats (40 mg)
Shrimp (300 mg)
Raw oysters (240 mg)
Almonds (750 mg)
Walnuts (280 mg)
Sunflower seeds (260 mg)

Again, if you concentrate on eating foods from plant sources, you may not need to have as much calcium per day. And on the flip side, if you're OD'ing on calcium (taking three to four times the recommended average, due to supplementation plus excess amounts in your diet), you may start to notice side effects such as dry mouth, headaches, increased thirst, loss of appetite, constipation or depression.

Image courtesy of kpsantaclaracancercare.org
Last, I'd like to touch on fiber intake. Fiber is important for everything from intestinal health to weight loss. Your body needs it to keep things moving, which in turn, keeps you regular AND happy. The Institute of Medicine suggests 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories eaten. So if you're on a 2,000 calorie diet, you should be eating about 28 grams of fiber daily. You can get fiber from whole grains (especially bran), nuts and seeds (remember my post on chia seeds?), legumes (beans and lentils), fruits (especially berries and apples) and vegetables (sweet potatoes with the skin, peppers, mushrooms, peas and greens). When you get your daily fiber from whole foods (versus supplements), you are guaranteeing that you're getting both types of fiber - soluble and insoluble fiber - which both play an integral part in intestinal health.

Obviously, these three aspects of diet only begin to touch the vast list of things we could discuss, but I'll save the rest for another post. In the meantime, I think it's important to remember that, in general and excluding anyone with major health complications or allergies, a balanced diet means a diet full of unprocessed foods - lots of vegetables, whole grains and fruit. You'd be shocked at how much of your daily nutritional requirements are met through vegetables especially. In very rare situations do you actually need supplements. When you take supplements, you are picking and choosing which nutrients your body needs, but when you eat whole foods, you are reaping the benefits of the full spectrum of nutrition - the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and more!

Image courtesy of listverse.com
Don't worry your pretty little heads about numbers and percentages. Instead, focus on the quality of the foods you put in your mouth. If you concentrate on eating whole foods (versus processed junk food), you will find that your daily nutritional requirements are being met naturally and your body will start to respond in positive ways. 

Your body is the best indicator of whether you are eating a balanced diet - a diet appropriate for your particular situation! Just learn to tune in and listen to it.

1 comment:

  1. The definition of "healthy diet" can be quite confusing especially now that you have mentioned that the food pyramid is not accurate reference. I think it will be much better to follow the "plate" guidelines.