For much of human history, our forebears waged a daily struggle to catch, gather or grow enough food to live. Food literally was about survival. In developed countries today, our relationship with food has become far more complex. Food is relatively cheap, overly abundant and, unless we limit ourselves, increases the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and even certain types of cancer.
Food is no longer just about survival. It has become entertainment, comfort, convenience, indulgence and sometimes just mindless eating. In the 1970s, the mantra, "you are what you eat," signaled a growing awareness about the relationship between diet and health. Today we have the research to back that slogan. What we eat has a direct and significant effect on our health and longevity.
Making sound choices about diet and nutrition is complicated by the fact that there is a lot of contradictory information out there. And consumers face a constant barrage of food-related advertising, most focused on fast food choices, snack items, pop and convenience foods. Healthy foods are certainly readily available at the grocery store, but the number of healthful offerings is often dwarfed by literally thousands of pre-packaged not so-healthy items to supplement the daily fast food runs that fuel so many busy lives.
There are a number of things we do know about poor diet choices:
• Low fiber diets are linked to some types of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Not getting enough fiber in our diet is also associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
• Too much sugar and other sweeteners, such as high fructose corn sweetener found in pop and many packaged foods, are at least partly responsible for the dramatic rise in obesity seen in recent years, even among children.
• Trans fatty acids found in many margarines, chips prepared cookies, cakes and a host of packaged foods, raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.
Here are a number of suggestions, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Pyramid:
• Balance the intake of energy (the food you eat) with the energy output (the number of calories burned in a day). Even someone making healthy food choices who doesn't follow this basic rule will gain unwanted weight and increase his or her risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.
• Not all fats are bad. We need to limit bad fats in our diet - the saturated fats found in meat, butter and other high-fat animal products plus trans fats found in some margarines and a host of packaged foods. But moderate amounts of good fats are actually beneficial and have a positive effect on cholesterol. Beneficial fats when consumed in moderate amounts include olive oil and canola oil as well as fats found in nuts and fish.
• Choose more complex carbohydrates. Not all carbs are created equal. We need to cut back on white bread, white rice, cakes, cookies, chips and other highly processes foods. Healthy carbohydrate choices include whole wheat bread, oatmeal, whole grain cereals and brown rice.
• Protein eaten in moderate amounts can promote good nutrition and help with weight control. Choose healthy sources of protein such as chicken, fish and beans.
• Cut back on empty calories from pop. Many researchers believe that the increase in pop consumption and the fact that pop has replaced milk in the diets of many children are responsible for the sharp rise in obesity rates.
• Adding milk back into the diet can also help with both nutrition and weight control, as long as the milk is low fat. Many teenage girls and young women avoid milk because they worry it will make them gain weight. A number of studies show the reverse is true: women who eat low-fat dairy products such as skim milk and low-fat yogurt are less likely to be overweight than women who avoid dairy.
• Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of a number of chronic diseases. Rather than aiming for five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, the Harvard researchers say we should consider that to be a minimum and try to take in as many as nine servings per day.
• Fruits and vegetables have multiple benefits. As well s being high in vitamins, minerals and fiber, they are a good source of phytochemicals, bioactive substances capable of interfering with some disease processes.
Making the decision to improve your diet and, if you're a parent, your family's diet, may seem overwhelming. But it doesn't have to be.
Start by making a few small changes and resolve to keep making small changes until your efforts have snowballed into a new way of eating. Keep a food diary for a week or two, then look at it carefully for things that you can change. You could decide to choose the five highest fat things you ate in the past week and look for healthier substitutes for each of them.
One relatively painless strategy is to change to healthier cooking oils and spreads. Olive and canola oil work well as basic cooking oils. Read the labels on margarine and spreads carefully and choose one with no trans fats. Light versions of margarines have water whipped into them and save calorie over regular versions although the light varieties are not suitable for cooking.
Try to eat at home more often, where you have more control over what you eat and how foods are prepared. If you have children, get them involved in meal preparation and planning. Try to make cooking together a fun time rather than a chore. Learning to cook is a valuable life skill and the time spent cooking and eating as a family can create happy memories related to healthy eating.
In a world brimming with unlimited food choices we have to take responsibility for our diet. Consistently making sound choices can help keep us healthy and even expand our life span. There's no shortage of delicious and healthy foods to fuel our busy lives. It's up to us to take control of what we eat.