What is a Healthy Diet and Why Should I eat One? (Part III of ?)

Read Part I
Read Part II

Part III: We’re not that weird

Before my dad mentioned the China Study to us, I was basically clueless about nutrition. I was the top student in 4 or 5 different nutrition classes in college and was well versed in the government guidelines, but I had never before taken the time to look behind the curtain and read the studies and data myself.

I was floored to discover so much of what I had been taught was pure marketing. Just like pharmaceutical companies are constantly criticized for “buying” doctors to push their products, the meat and dairy industries (plus junk food makers, sugar producers, fast food restaurants, flour mills, and an amazing number of businesses) are putting major money into persuading us that eating the Standard American Diet is healthy and will make us feel better.

Yet Americans are getting fatter and sicker every year.

Gratefully, a large number of doctors, researchers, and ordinary people (hey, how are ya?) have realized that the root cause behind our nation’s epidemics of obesity and preventable disease is pretty simple to understand: a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. While type II diabetes clearly has a genetic component, the vast majority of people don’t get it because their parents had it. They get it because of the way they eat. People don’t get heart disease because their parents had it. They get it because of the way they eat.

In one sense, that’s incredibly liberating to discover. Although my grandpa died of a heart attack and I might be more inclined to do the same, if I take care of my arteries by eating well my risk drops to nearly zero. On the other hand, it makes people uncomfortable. Nobody likes to realize they are responsible for their own sickness, or even worse, getting their children sick. It’s easier for most people to choose to set asides millions of dollars of our taxes to “find a cure” for Type II Diabetes than it is for them to turn their own diet around.

Here’s the thing, though… even people that are making an effort to eat better are falling short and getting frustrated. I think in large part this is due to massive amounts of misinformation about what constitutes a healthy diet. The people who have a financial interest in persuading you to eat their food have muddied the waters to such a large degree that it’s easy to follow “guidelines for health” (which, coincidentally, are heavily biased) and still get sick with a preventable disease. For example, if you think that having adequate amounts of calcium and protein in your diet will prevent osteoporosis you may choose to load up on Lean Cuisine, Kraft Singles, and meat. Unfortunately, this won’t keep you from getting osteoporosis. What it will do is wreak havoc on your body.

The Information War

About a month ago, I stumbled across the transcripts from the meetings to determine The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are “the cornerstone of Federal nutrition policy and nutrition education activities.” I was interested to see that they invited the public to come and comment in their meeting and I wished I could have been there to voice my opinion. I skimmed the transcript of meeting 2 day 1, down to where members of the public stood up one by one and had the floor for a few minutes each. What unfolded had me glued to the edge of my seat. Seriously.

Public voice #1: Executive Director of McCormick Seasoning

He, predictably, wants more “spice” in the dietary guidelines. “Sounds like a good food group to encourage.” (He says, in reference to spices.)

Public voice #2: Senior Vice President of Nutrition Affairs with the National Dairy Council

“leading health authorities recommend three to four daily servings of dairy.” (She says, to a group of supposedly THE authorities on health.)

“If dairy foods are not included in the diet, calcium and potassium are severely compromised.” (Fascinating, considering it’s well documented that the countries consuming the most dairy have the most cases of osteoporotic hip fractures. And I’m not aware of widespread hypokalemia (potassium deficiency) in countries that skip dairy. Low-dairy Japan is ranked #3 for life expectancy whereas America is #50. I’m glad we aren’t severely compromised like Japan.)

Public voice #3: Vice President for Consumer Marketing at the National Pork Board

“Americans are not overconsuming meat.” (Well, since he says it, it must be true!)

“Many people don’t realize that a 3-ounce serving of lean beef or pork provides the same amount of protein as a cup and a half of legumes but in half the calories. ” (I have never, ever met anyone who’s protein-deficient in America, including vegetarians, vegans, and people who survive on junk food. I guarantee you haven’t either. Protein isn’t the point, people. Obesity, cancer, and heart disease are not caused by lack of protein! Meat absolutely has protein. So does every whole plant food I can think of. Is that really the best you can do?)”

Public voice #4: dietitian at the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine

“Every five years since 1980, the government has given new health and nutrition advice to the American public through the Dietary Guidelines, and every year since then, the American public has become markedly more overweight and obese. ” (Well, she certainly got MY attention)

“The average American now eats more than 200 pounds of meat per year, approximately the double global norm. We eat about 30 pounds of cheese per year, three times as much as we did in 1970.” (Still listening…)

“It is time for the Guidelines to take direct aim at the diet-related diseases that claim millions of American lives each year.” (Drumroll please…)

“Vegetarian diets should be touted as the ideal”

“Science supports a low-fat, plant-based diet for optimal health.”

“The studies continue to show that these types of diets still prevent type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some types of cancer.”

“Guidelines should rely solely on evidence-based research and disregard any special interest groups. It is possible to set the bar as high as the science dictates.” (And the crowd goes wild. Ok, maybe just Anne Bean goes wild. 🙂 )

Public Voice #5 – Vice President for Nutrition with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association

“In fact, today’s pork is 30 percent leaner than 30 years ago, and beef is 20 percent leaner than 14 years ago. ” (Stores also sell Kool-aid with less sugar. Does that make it an essential part of one’s diet? I’m just sayin’.)

“Despite the common reference that animal fats are saturated, nearly 50 percent in red meat are monounsaturated, and one-third of the saturated fat in beef and pork is stearic, which have a neutral or cholesterol-lowering effect.” (So, what you’re saying is… animal fat is saturated, just not all of it? Sweet. Sign me up. )

Vote count thus far? 1 for plant-based diet, 3 for meat & dairy.

Take note that the plant-based vote came from someone with no obvious financial motivation, whereas the beef, pork, and dairy people have billions of dollars at stake.

Let’s see what happens next:

Public Voice #6 – Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University and President of the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington.

“The preventive power of a meatless diet against heart disease, weight problems, diabetes, and other conditions exceeds that of other diets.” (Anyone else catching the MEAT! / NO MEAT! drama unfolding here?)

“Prospective studies confirm that milk-drinkers have no better bone development early in life and no fewer hip fractures later in life. ”

Public Voice #8 – Christina Pirello, Host of Christina Cooks on National Public Television (#7 was blah blah blah)

“The simple truth is, if people changed their diets, healthcare would reform itself.”

“We must encourage the consumption of vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole unprocessed grains.” (She also hits on vegetarian and vegan diets specifically.)

Other interest groups were… interesting

A bit of a side note, but this stuff really got me thinking of being more of an advocate to policy makers. If ordinary people won’t, than the landscape in D.C. will be dominated by those with a financial stake in things.

This decision had me sick to my stomach a few weeks ago. Why are so many government dollars supporting an industry that’s making us sick? To me that’s like having the government subsidize candy makers or people who make ding dongs. Bleh. If the government is going to support an industry, let it be broccoli or blueberries please.

I digress.

By my count no fewer than 5 out of ~50 presenters advocated that for our health, we should eat MORE refined grains. I’m not making that up. Three of them had an obvious horse in the race (they were grain producers, and I’m sure it’s cheaper and easier to store and market refined grains), but all 5 cited the risk of birth defects from not consuming enough folic acid. (Enriched grains are fortified with folic acid.) Hello? Why not fortify whole grains with the same? Or even better, eat some vegetables. They’re loaded with the stuff.

We also had the sugar people ask us not to blame sugar for America’s fatness, Martek Biosciences advocating supplementation with Omega-3s, the salt people asking us to not blame salt for America’s heart disease, tree nut people asking us to replace refined foods as snacks with nuts, the fish people wanting the council to recommend fish without caveats, and the processed Dairy people want us to have discretionary calories to sweeten up our milk and yogurt

Here’s what gets me, though. Nearly half of the 50 people that presented advocated for a plant-based diet. That’s incredible! From what I could tell, 3 were from animal-rights groups (though it doesn’t discount the studies they cited about the nutrient density of plant foods), and 2 were from produce organizations. All the rest? Concerned citizens. School lunch coordinators. Doctors. Dietitians.

Here are a few snippets from those who appeared (to me) to have no motivation for being there other than their hope that Americans will become healthier:

Plants = Healthy

Public Voice #10 – Concerned citizen

“A couple of months ago, I was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome. I weighed over 225 pounds, and I was told I had diabetes, high blood pressure, and I was on the verge of taking five different pills. I was assigned to meet with a dietitian, who told me I had to follow the Dietary Guidelines that included dairy, meat, and, of course, fruits and vegetables. I indicated to her that I was interested in following an alternative diet, which was vegetarian, that I had read could improve my diabetes.

” I followed this diet, and was able to lose almost 100 pounds… I am no longer diabetic…. My cholesterol went from 215 to 137. My blood pressure, which was 140 over 80, is now 102 over 63. ”

Public Voice #11 – Executive Director of the Wellness Forum in Columbus, Ohio (woop!)

“It is quite clear to me that the reason we have such a health crisis in this country is based on food intake. When people come into our office, we put them on a near- vegetarian or vegan diet, and their health issues start to resolve and they lose weight.”

“I would ask the Committee to really think about looking at some of the myths that perpetuate bad diets, one of which is that we don’t know what really constitutes the best diet for humans, but I think the research is quite clear: plant-based diets are better for human health.”

“Another is that people won’t adopt this type of diet, so why bother to tell them about it? But my experience is completely different. When we talk to people about the dangers of the American diet, and we show them how to adopt a near vegetarian and vegan diet, a lot of them do it.”

“Still another myth is that children won’t adopt this kind of diet, but they will.”

“Last but not least, I’d like to address a very important myth, which is that little changes result in health change, and they don’t. People come into my office, they’ve been trying to change their diet for a long time without success, but when we address the totality of their diet, the good changes in health status begin to emerge. ”

Public Voice #13 – A High School Junior

Summary: Wants vegetarian diets added to the guidelines because she piloted a vegetarian lunch program at her school to much success.

Public Voice #24 A doctor in Howard County, where 31% of youth are overweight or obese

She urges the council to “incorporate into their policies the many scientific studies that demonstrate the benefits of plant-based diets and the dangers associated with high consumption of animal-related foods, meaning meat and dairy. ”

“Now is the time for a groundbreaking 2010 Dietary Guidelines similar to the 1954 Surgeon General’s report on the danger of tobacco use. Further delay is putting millions of Americans at risk of various chronic diseases.”

Public Voice #27 – an ordinary citizen

Summary: She tells the story of her experience. She read that a vegan diet is best and convinced her mother to eat that way and her mother lived to be 93. All 12 of her mother’s siblings died before the age of 40 from cardiovascular disease. (Just one data point, but what a tragic story.)

Public Voice #34 – Dietitian and faculty member in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina

“I, like so many of the presenters so far this morning — it seems about half — encourage you to put more emphasis on choosing a more plant-based diet.”

“A plant-based diet is an eating pattern characterized by a foundation of whole grains, dried beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. These foods are nutrient-dense and confer significant advantages in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, obesity, cancer, and type II diabetes.”

Public Voice #44 – Director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food

“Chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, pizza, cheeseburgers, and hotdogs…. It is unbelievable that these regular menu items are described as balanced and nutritious and that they meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

““The majority of school meals are not health-supporting. Since school meals are to be consistent with the Guidelines, we recommend these changes:”

– “Meat and beans group: Change the name to the protein group, with legumes and other plant proteins as the primary source. Animal proteins should be listed as optional or infrequent. “

– “Dairy group: Change the name to the calcium group. It is a mistake to focus so much on dairy when people in the U.S. cannot digest it, including the majority of people of color.”

“Research does not support that dairy prevents osteoporosis.”

– “The 2000 Guidelines stated that most of our calories should come from plant sources. This was removed for 2005. Please add that statement back, emphasize it, and make it very clear that the majority of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers are preventable with diet.

It is a free country. People can choose to eat how they want, but, please, let’s tell them real truth, the kind that is not paid for or influenced by the food industry.”

Public Voice #46 – Ordinary citizen

“I grew up eating the standard American diet. Fast foods several times each week; Sunday mornings of eggs and bacon; every lunch and dinner centered around a meat dish. ”

“I was 40 pounds overweight by the time I was 17 years old. At that time, I began searching for information about losing weight and being healthy. Today my weight is where it should be, my cholesterol is 148, I take no medications, I have no health issues, and have been vegetarian for 17 years and vegan for 11.”

“In contrast, my father, who never changed his eating habits, has had two heart bypass surgeries, several angioplasties, takes numerous medications to control his blood pressure, cholesterol, and other chronic conditions, and has been diagnosed as pre- diabetic. ”

“I point this out to show that choosing a healthy diet, regardless of family genes, can prevent the majority of chronic diseases that are now prevalent in epidemic proportions in this country, and to serve as an anecdotal example of what the scientific studies we’ve heard about today, I’m sure you all know about, support.

Standby #4 – registered dietician

“..Encouraging Americans to begin the process of moving away from our typical meat-based fatty diet toward a healthier plant-based diet just makes sense. ”

“The health rewards of doing so are enormous, as I see every day in my practice. People lose weight automatically. High blood pressure drops. Blood sugar levels improve. Cholesterol improves. People are able to lessen or entirely get off their medications.”

Get Educated

Clearly, there is a growing movement towards better health but I think most of us are only exposed to what we see in the news or in ads and commercials. Break out of the shell. Seek out information for yourself and apply what you learn to your family. You just might save a life.

Our journey to better health started with my dad and I’m determined that it won’t end with us. 🙂


About beanland

Scott is a family practice doctor and Anne is a full-time mother and teacher to three beautiful girls and one boy.
This entry was posted in Healthy Eating, Why we do it. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to What is a Healthy Diet and Why Should I eat One? (Part III of ?)

  1. Kelsey says:

    Hey Anne! I have enjoyed reading your blog and all of the research that you have done. This last year I have really tried to change my lifestyle because of a couple of reasons 1) I wanted to feel good again 2) I didn’t want to end up like my parents and grandparents. Both of my parents have had either gastric bypass or a lap band surgery because they were both so overweight, yet they have not changed their eating habits, which is the source of the problem. Anyway, so in January I started going to the gym and putting myself on a better diet and I have lost 20 pounds so far. I hope to keep improving my diet, and it is very encouraging to read what you guys have done!


  2. Maya says:

    As you’ve pointed out, there is the whole marketing issue to confuse people as to what’s healthy. If you are interested in advocacy though, I’d ask you to consider all the ways to get involved locally. From a public health practitioner perspective, we need to do more to improve access to healthy foods. In our urban areas we’ve found that many are overweight not necessarily because they don’t know what to eat, but because they don’t have access to fresh fruits and veggies. A survey of neighborhoods just in Columbus done by the College of Public Health showed the closest thing to a grocery store that many of them have is the 7-11. Without a car, it’s not always possible to get to a place that sells fruits and veggies. If you’re interested in the local effort, let me know 🙂


  3. lisa (lost pezhead) says:

    k i didn’t read all of it cause i’m tired…but that was cool that lady said the vegetarian diet was ideal. i think that is great. it is very hard to go against what we are used to and what everyone around us is doing. thanks to you though there are a lot of people now aware and trying to improve! special interest stuff, money & advertising….you really do have to be careful where your info is coming from.


  4. Kimberlie says:

    Thank you, Anne, for writing all of that!
    I think most of us were raised eating meat-centric meals and sort of freak out at the thought of never eating meat again. But if we skip the labels of vegan, vegetarian, carnivore, etc – and just break it down like you did, it seems doable. Eat more plant based meals, decrease or eliminate processed foods, etc. Don’t eat/drink things because advertisers say they are good for you. I love that they recently put fiber in Lucky Charms and are now pushing it as a “health food”! For goodness sakes! Americans are generally suspicious of government involvement in things, yet we have let lobbyists and legislators lead us around like a bull with a ring in its nose.
    Bravo for your post!
    P.S. We really don’t think you are weird – perhaps we are envious?!


  5. Bethany says:

    I was a dietetics major my first three years of college, and then my mom became a vegan. I discussed nutrition and diet with her a lot and read many of her books on vegetarian eating. I wasn’t yet convinced, but I did doubt the reliability of the science behind ‘the pyramid’ enough to change my major. I got a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing instead (and I love it) but I cringe every time I see a diabetic patient’s tray. A common diabetic dinner is a plain grilled chicken breast, half a potato with low fat sour cream, a white dinner roll, juice or milk, and an iceberg lettuce and shredded carrot salad that could fit in the palm of a child’s hand! Where are the whole grains? What about a decent serving of vegetables? I just want to scream every time I hear a diabetic person say they can only eat meat, eggs, dairy, and a few vegetables because grains and fruit will make their sugars go up. And don’t even get me started on the gallons of diet soda they drink every day!
    I am glad to know there is yet another place people can turn for healthy advice. Keep it up!


    • Maya says:

      Bethany, I don’t know who you are but can you PLEASE explain in nursing terms why diet soda is so bad? My husband is a Type 1 diabetic and drinks diet soda like a fiend. I’ve been trying to get him to stop but he doesn’t believe me that it’s unhealthy. He’ll believe a nurse though! Thanks 🙂


  6. Bethany says:

    The byproducts formed from the breakdown of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are not absorbable by the body and can often be harmful substances. These chemicals cannot be used and cause strain on the kidneys and liver as they are excreted. This can be especially harmful for a diabetic, who is already at increased risk for kidney damage. Splenda is considered at this time to be somewhat safer, but it is a relatively new product, and it is still unknown what long-term effects it could have. The other problem with diet sodas is caffeine (most people drink caffeinated soda). Caffeine is actually a diuretic, which means it causes the kidneys to excrete more urine and actually dehydrates the body. Caffeinated beverages are not even supposed to be calculated in liquid intake because of the dehydrating effect they can have on the body. I hope this helps you, and I’ll tell you when I stopped drinking diet soda, I lost 5 pounds and now I CRAVE water. Once you retrain your taste buds to give up the fake sweetness of diet soda, you can realize how refreshing ice water really is. GOod luck!


    • beanland says:

      Thanks, Bethany! I really resonate with retraining your taste buds. I used to go the “fake sugar” route with yogurt and I can tell you, it didn’t help reduce my sugar cravings in other foods one bit. But when I switched to plain yogurt? You bet. (Though now I don’t eat yogurt much at all.)


  7. Jenny (Vest) Hatch says:

    Hey Anne! Thanks for all of the research and for inspiring me!! I’ve read your blog every so often, and turned back to it when I remember how ya’ll eat. Since I’ve become a Mom I’ve felt the extra urge and desire to feed my kids in the healthiest way I can and to set those positive eating habits early. We’re doing pretty good with what we call “Shrek Shakes” in the morning – aka Green Smoothies, and work more veggies in throughout the day. They don’t drink milk anymore, and I’m trying to get the kids off snacking on cheese and yogurt.

    I’m currently reading Disease-Proof Your Child which I saw on your blog – and LOVE it. It’s really eye opening and I’m beginning to wonder why ANYONE would eat so much meat and dairy and less of the really good stuff.

    We love some of the recipes you’ve posted and I just got Veganomicon at the library to test out a few more recipes.

    Basically I’m saying THANK YOU for posting what you do, and I’m glad I fell upon your blog a while back. PLEASE keep up the great work!

    Your daughter is so cute…and I’m excited for ya’ll to start the new chapter of your lives here fairly soon!

    Thanks again!


    • beanland says:

      Hey Jenny,

      Thanks for stopping by. Your comment encouraged ME, so it works out nicely. I’m going to try to be better about posting recipes and how-tos here as work slows down in the next few weeks.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying that book! It was super helpful to me, as well. It really made me examine the lack of emphasis we as parents tend to place on physical nutrition. We’re big on not letting kids cross the street without an adult, and wiping their noses, and teaching them how to be polite, but when it comes to what they put into their mouths? It’s almost like most of us have given up or forgotten that being a parent means making tough, educated choices. Of COURSE three-year-olds like cheese and candy more than broccoli. They also like hogging toys, running around naked in public and not worrying about bedtimes. 🙂


  8. Kathryn says:

    I love this post! I’ve read it about 3 times now. Thanks for putting it up so we know where the U.S. stands when it comes to nutrition. I hope after I become a registered dietitian I can help open people’s eyes. Also I have a applied to Bastyr University (Seattle WA) and the cafeteria there is vegetarian and uses 70% organics and much of the produce comes from their own garden! They also have some good vegetarian recipes on their site 🙂


  9. Leslee says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, for all the research, information and ideas in your entire blog! I often find it so overwhelming to try to sort out the mess of what is and what is not “good for you” and have spent my life thinking that I was just “built heavy” and that I have no control over what shape my body is or what diseases I may be prone to.
    I’ve been really working hard to become healthier, lose the extra weight I’ve carried my whole life, and establish a lifestyle that will keep my family and me healthy. Thanks to you and Scott for so generously sharing what you’ve learned and how you’ve applied those things in your household.
    I’m learning so much and excited to implement these guidelines in my own family.


  10. Pingback: What is a Healthy Diet and Why Should I Eat One? (Part IV of ?) « Adventures in Beanland

  11. Pingback: What is a Healthy Diet and Why Should I Eat One? (Part V of ???) « Adventures in Beanland

  12. Bree says:

    Hi Anne!

    I love this post! I want to get the word out on it so more people can read about your great research. Could I ask a favor? Could you add some sort of image to the post so I can link to it on Pinterest? The Mormon icon is the only image that shows up to link to, and while great, doesn’t really connect to the subject of the post.

    Thank you so much! Facebooking now!



    • beanland says:

      Hey Aubree,

      Thanks for dropping by and for the encouragement. I apologize for my slow reply.

      I stuck a couple of pictures in the post. Hopefully that’s what what you had in mind?

      It was fun for me to re-read this and it lit a fire under me to start blogging more about nutrition. So, thanks for that as well! 🙂


  13. Erin Nichols says:

    Hi I’m new to your site, having found it looking for a beans and rice recipe. I am attempting to migrate my diet toward vegetarianism. I do not currently have any health issues and maintain a healthy weight; however, the evidence is slowly becoming more and more strong toward the vegetarian diet. Thank you for the information that I have read so far (I look forward to continuing to catch up in the next few days on your blog/writings). You offer very compelling FACTS that I look forward to sharing with those around me. God Bless!


  14. Pingback: What is a Healthy Diet and Why Should I Eat One? (Part VII of ?) | Adventures in Beanland

  15. Pingback: What is a Healthy Diet and Why Should I Eat One? (Part VIII of ?) | Adventures in Beanland

  16. Pingback: What is a Healthy Diet and Why Should I Eat One? (Part IX of ?) | Adventures in Beanland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s