Granny Versus Food Pyramids, Food Charts, and Food Plates
By Brent Leung, C.N.
PART I – Common Sense is Not so Common
Growing up, visiting my grandparents was always a harrowing experience. Inevitably, I would do something wrong, causing Grandpa to endlessly chase me up and down the hallways with his slippers. Granny would force me to sit and read Readers Digest. There were mandated nap times and Sunday school lessons (even if it was a Tuesday). Contemporary secular music was out of the question, with classical music and talk radio being the dictated choices. Yet, all of this distress paled in comparison to the dining experience.
Liquids were not allowed during dinner. Greens were in overabundance, dwarfing any hint of juicy, succulent meat. Dessert? Forget about it! I remember sometimes sitting for hours at the table refusing to eat my greens, waiting for that golden opportunity when no one was looking to surreptitiously discard contents from my plate into a napkin.
Later in the evening, once the food digestion process was firmly underway, I was finally allowed some H2O (no sodas) to quench my dry mouth. Granted, fruity fortified water had not yet been invented, but I’m pretty sure if it had, Granny would have had some criticism of it. Growing up, my grandmother had strong, but simple beliefs about what should and should not be eaten for vitality and health. This was not an isolated experience, but prevailing wisdom. Dining out, fast food and instant microwave dinners were not yet common lifestyle traits among my friends. Most brought mom-prepared lunches to school and enjoyed home-cooked meals around the dining room table in the evenings.
Fast-forward some thirty years and the diet of my childhood bears no resemblance to the daily fare of today’s youth. In fact, the simple act of eating has become a complex, torturous labyrinth of diets where government food guidelines outnumber the different breeds of tomatoes. Search “nutrition” on Amazon.com and you’ll find more than 175K books with titles like Eat, Drink and be Healthy; Contemporary Nutrition, The Chemistry of Food and Nutrition, and of course Nutrition for Dummies. One could postulate that this complicated evolution is in direct response to the advances in food science that have fundamentally guided our beliefs about food nutrition, food digestion, and what we the people should eat to live healthy, long, fulfilling lives.
The billion-dollar question: has science’s enlightened understanding of food served as the vehicle for living healthier, longer, quality lives? According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) current figures:
- Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the number one cause of death, representing 30% of all deaths globally. Addressing risk factors such as unhealthy diets, obesity, and physical inactivity can prevent CVD.
- Diabetes afflicts more than 347 million people worldwide. A healthy diet, regular physical activity and other measures can prevent or delay the onset of type 2-diabetes.
- Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide. About 30% is a result of five behavioral and dietary risks: high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, alcohol use.
- Obesity is represented by 40 million children under the age of five worldwide. 65% of the world’s population lives in countries where obesity and being overweight kills more people than being underweight due to its connection to a host of chronic diseases. Globally, obesity has more than doubled since 1980.
Reading these statistics, two glaring conclusions emerge: one, the mammoth accumulation of knowledge in food science has had zero positive impact on overall global health. In fact, things may be worse because of it. Two, these four disease categories share one salient commonality: a bad diet. Maybe Granny had it right; common sense is the best approach.
A former coworker of mine used to carry around some fifty pounds of extra weight. In an effort to purge his spare tire, he undertook what Granny would consider to be a common-sense approach. His motto: if it grows from the ground or falls from a tree, I’ll eat it. The results were prodigious. He lost the weight and over a decade later, still looks great.
In the West, old-world diseases are largely conquered. We have an incredible understanding of micro and macronutrients and their roles in health. There’s unlimited access to an array of nutrient-dense whole foods (if one can afford it – a topic for another article), and the ability to get physical checkups that include complete blood counts along with a myriad of other tests that assess immune health. In essence, we should be the healthiest generation the world has ever seen. So why are we so sick? Where did global health take a wrong turn?
Unfortunately, there is no silver-bullet answer, but there are a series of co-factors, some more impactful than others. If we open the history books, one unarguable contributing factor reveals itself via the birth of the U.S. federal dietary guidelines.
Stay tuned for part II.