Diets

A diet is whatever we eat, and there are literally millions of them. What each one of us eats is our individualized diet. When we say this word “diet,” many of us may think of a particular time when we might try to lose or gain weight before going back to what we usually eat. Who we are, how we feel, and how we look in size and shape are the results of what we eat, our eating habits, and all that we do and think. So, if we wish to change in any way, we probably need to change our diet—that is, what and how we eat—rather than go on a diet.


In this section, I discuss the variations in diets, their different classifications, such as vegetarian or omnivorous diets, and the common cultural diets throughout the world. I define each one and then discuss its strengths and weaknesses, along with ways to modify it or additional supplements needed to make it healthier.


Diets are influenced by a number of factors. First, the classification of the diet is based on its content. This initially was based on availability of foods indigenous to locale—what could be grown or hunted, gathered or caught. NowaDay s, it is even wiser to eat locally and minimize imported foods, which often are heavily treated to protect them from decay and germ and insect infestation, as well as to meet government regulations. However, eating locally obviously has its limitations as our foods are subject to seasonal and climatic influences.


Each culture has its own dietary patterns regarding what is eaten and how it is prepared. These patterns are very strong, as are our tastes and food conditioning. Even stronger are family influences. Thus, both our culture and our environment affect our eating patterns. Specifically, diets and habits seem to run in families, as do many of the problems that cause them. I believe that in many cases, such diseases as hypertension, heart disease, adult diabetes, obesity, and even cancer are related more to familial influences, both psychological and nutritional, than to a genetic predisposition.


Our genetics may also play a factor in our diet. Over generations, our bodies adapt to the foods we eat and our physical well-being is influenced by our ability to digest, assimilate, and utilize any food. Although the human species is adaptable, genetic mutation is a slow process. When we shift cultures or markedly change diets, we may consume foods that our body will react to rather than receive easily. Digestive problems, other sensitivities, and allergies may occur from this. We should pay close attention to how our body handles new foods and new recipes.


Our general eating patterns and habits are greatly influenced by our upbringing. Such preferences as when we eat, whether we snack, or whether we like to eat quietly or very socially may have their origins in childhood. The emotional ties between love and food or between love and cleaning our plate are deep-seated and influence our whole life. Sweets such as ice cream or milk and cookies after dinner or before bed or sweets and treats as rewards may create lifelong problems with our relationship to food. These eating patterns, likes and dislikes, develop early and are very difficult to change. (I will discuss these aspects more in the next chapter, Dietary Habits.) Each of our individual constitutions affects how we respond to these influences and how
we grow on the diet fed to us. As we age, our individuality usually creates a new diet that fills our own needs; occasionally, though not often, this varies a fair amount from our family’s diet.


The increased availability of foods due to the industrialization of our world has influenced dietary changes more than any other factor in the last fifty years. Technology has led to food refinement, increased storage, and flavor control. Salt, sugar, and fried foods have never been so prevalent. Diets have shifted from more natural ones to fast and snack foods. The working class has always looked for ways to save time and effort in food preparation. Even in the last decade or two, we have seen a shift from TV dinners and other frozen foods to the huge “fast-food” restaurant business and microwave meals. The influence of technology on our food chain, though it has helped somewhat in food shelf life, has had a very bad effect overall on general nutrition. The Western or American diet has been the most shaped by these industrial changes, which are spreading rapidly to other nations.


These technological influences have definitely played a major role in the field of nutritional medicine. Our main concern in the past was deficiency disease, caused by not getting enough of certain important nutrients. Though this still occurs in some people, we now have the added concerns about problems that arise from excesses found in the new world diet.


There is no longer any doubt that there is an important relationship between diet and disease. Even the federal government has recently acknowledged this relationship. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published in 1988 The Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health. Dr. C. Everett Koop and other contributors discuss the dietary aspects of the most common diseases that plague our society, including high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, dental diseases, behavior, and many others.


Probably the most significant aspects of diet are the fat and fiber content. Protein sources are a concern, and vitamin and mineral levels are also important. But overall, it is the high amount of fat, specifically saturated fat, that is associated with the major diseases cancer, cardiovascular disease and hypertension and their secondary problems.


Though the high-fat (and high-protein) diet has made Americans and others consuming this diet bigger in stature and weight than most of the more vegetarian cultures, it is not necessarily healthier. Cancer and cardiovascular disease, both nutritionally related, are the two biggest killers of our adult population and the two greatest costs to society, in terms of direct medical costs and lost work. But these diseases can be changed, and they are changing, because more doctors and the public are responding to the suggestions contained in this book and many other good nutrition texts.


There are usually big differences between the diets of rural and urban families. The availability of restaurants, fast-food outlets, and giant supermarkets have become obstacles to good nutrition for many people. Growing our food, either as our means of making a living or in our own gardens, brings us back into contact with the earth and provides us with the freshest, most vital nutrition on the planet. This influence often will affect the rest of our diet for the better. And it has! Words such as natural (as nature provides), organic (chemical free), and fresh (just picked) are becoming more popular again in societies that have moved far from these qualities.


Each of us needs eventually to find our own balance in diet. Through knowledge
and experimentation, we can learn what works best for us. Each culture must find this balance as well. Each has its basic natural diet, as well as extremes or abuses that may undermine health. For example, the Oriental diet is high in fiber and complex carbohydrate, with a good balance of fat and protein. But it uses a lot of salted or pickled, preserved, foods which influences the incidence of stomach cancer. Those Western cultures that consume more fat and less fiber have a much higher incidence of colon cancer.


Balancing the diet is what is needed. This often requires developing new tastes.
And sometimes it involves taking some supplements to assure that we consume some hard-to-get nutrients or those that may be deficient in our soil or foods, as well as more of those nutrients that help protect us against cancer and atherosclerosis, such as the fish oils and the antioxidant nutrients vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, zinc, and selenium.


Historically, the evolution of our diet began with the nomadic tribes who moved with the seasons, eating those foods available through hunting and gathering. With more stable village life, we had to learn anew to feed ourselves, to cultivate, to store, and to prepare foods to feed the growing numbers of people. Both farming and hunting were necessary for survival. And these were influenced by the climates and the spirits. Droughts or floods affected feasts or famines and health and disease.


Different areas of the world had different foods available, and this led to the cultural-type diets. Knowledge and recipes to nourish the family were passed from generation to generation. Each generation usually added something new. And the increase in food cultivation and industrialization went hand in hand with the rise in the population and urban living. More food was needed to feed the masses.


Survival was dependent on the food supply. We had to become more adaptable and learn to eat new foods and even change our diet. And we still do and we still can. Adaptability is the key to survival. Even if we have eaten a similar diet for 40 years, we can still change if we feel that shifts may be helpful. Such change is often very important for continued health or to reduce the level or incidence of many diseases. And it is even more important as we age. Changing our diet or lifestyle is not necessarily easy, but it can be done, and it may influence many other aspects of our life for the better.

Elson M. Haas MD Written by Elson M. Haas MD

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