Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rethinking healthy eating, Part 1

Eating has been on my mind lately, and not just because I am sitting at home all day long, staring from my perch on the couch back towards our kitchen. As my toddler grows into an increasingly robust, but at the same time highly opinionated, appetite, I am thinking more about what I put into his mouth, as well as what I put into mine. The carefree days of breastfeeding, when - as long as I stayed away from alcohol - I knew he was getting a perfect diet, are long gone!

I also stumbled upon a few other items that peaked my interest. One was an article in the New York Times  about the often conflicting messages of the USDA with regards to the diet and nutritional health of the U.S. at large. The article draws attention to the fact that many pizza chains, under the advisement of a federally-funded marketing firm, have greatly increased the cheese (and thereby fat) content of their pizzas recently as a way of selling more dairy products and ultimately more pizzas. Not surprisingly, the pizzas are tastier, and sales are better than ever! This makes Domino's, as well as the dairy industry (and by a complex web of associations, the USDA and the government) very happy.

The problem is, the USDA is also in charge of advising the public on healthy eating habits. Remember learning about the food pyramid in elementary school health or science class? Well, the composition of the pyramid reflected not just the best available science but also the influence of many parties in the food industry with vested interests in the eating habits of Americans. This is not to say that there is no value in the USDA's food pyramid. But like Mom always said, not everything you read is true, and consensus statements, particularly those coming from large organizations, can be influenced by the politics of the day and can also become rapidly outdated by advancing science.

I found a nice summary of the history of the food pyramid and the evolving state of nutritional research at the Harvard School of Public Health's website, The Nutrition Source. Here, researchers propose an alternative to the USDA's food pyramid that attempts to integrate more recent data about healthy eating.

Two points that I found most interesting were the following:

1. Calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health, but milk is not necessarily the ideal source of these nutrients. The powerful message that milk is good for your health, drilled into all of us since childhood, may have quite a bit more to do with good marketing by the milk and dairy industry than actual research and health outcomes data.

2. The traditional limits placed on recommended fat intake are likely artificially low, since they do not differentiate between saturated and unsaturated fats. Good sources of unsaturated fats, such as olive, peanut, canola, and other plant-based oils, can likely be used much more liberally than previously thought and contain important nutritional value.

Most importantly during this exercise, I came to realize that many of my general feelings about what it means to eat a healthy diet are at best slightly outdated, at worst based on myth, and the discussion above clearly just skims the surface. Which is why this entry is entitled "Part 1." In the weeks to come I hope to tackle other topics related to nutrition, come up with some concrete goals of my own for improving my diet, and collect more web-based resources for healthy cooking and eating. Bon appetit!

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