“We are indeed much more than we eat,
but what we eat nevertheless helps us
to be much more than we are.”
A century ago our ancestors feared infectious and communicable diseases such as smallpox — diseases that claimed many children’s lives and limited the average life expectancy of adults. Today far fewer infectious diseases threaten us, thanks to medical science’s ability to identify disease-causing microorganisms and develop vaccines. In developed nations, purification of water prevents the spread of infections, and immunizations protect individuals. Most people live well into their later years, and today’s average life expectancy far exceeds that of our ancestors (Whitney pp.646).
As the 20th century draws to a close medical science’s concerns differ significantly from those of earlier years. According to the Background on Adult Nutrition from the FamilyHaven site: “prior to World War II, Americans’ main nutritional problems stemmed from lack of sufficient food or variety of foods. Nutrition scientists of that era focused on defining essential nutrients, primarily vitamins, in order to outline the minimum food intake for good health.”
Diet has always played a vital role in supporting health. Today, over consumption of foods — especially those high in fat — is a major concern for people in the United States. When we look at the ten leading causes of illness and death in the United States, the top categories are heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. Diet influences the development of the chronic diseases. Taken together, these four diseases account for about two-thirds of the nation’s 2 million deaths each year (FamilyHaven: Food choices pp.15).
These “causes” are stated as if single conditions such as heart disease caused death, but most chronic diseases arise from multiple factors over many years. A person who died from heart failure may have had preexisting conditions, such as obesity and high blood pressure, may have been a cigarette smoker, may have spent years eating a high-fat diet and getting too little exercise (Dr. Solomon pp18-19).
Of course, not all people who die of heart disease fit this description, nor do all people with these characteristics die of heart disease. People who are over weight may die from complications of diabetes, or those who smoke may die from cancer. They might even die from something totally unrelated to any of these factors, such as automobile accidents. Still, statistical studies have shown that certain conditions and behaviors are linked to certain diseases.
Today, there is a growing awareness that the food you eat affects your health and your whole life. However, according to a new Gallop survey, Americans today recognize that they do not need to sacrifice taste to eat right. Rather, they can enjoy their favorite foods in a way that combines the basic tenets of a healthy diet: balance, variety and moderation. People can continue to eat their favorite foods, even if they are high in fat, salt or sugars, but remember to moderate their portion size and frequency. In comparing the findings with a similar survey conducted in 1990, Americans continue to be very concerned about good nutrition and want sound information on healthy eating. Their interest in diet and health continues at a fairly high level (FamilyHaven: food choices pp.1).
Despite consumers’ positive attitude toward good nutrition, some misconceptions continue to prevail. As in the 1990 survey, two-thirds of Americans believe there are “good” and “bad” diets. Any food can fit into a healthy way of eating. The key is to balance your food choices over time so that your overall diet is sound. For example, when you eat a higher-fat food, cut back on the fat in the next meal or snack.
Consumers are also confused about the fat content of individual foods and their overall diet. Seven out of ten respondents believe that foods should contain 30 percent or less calories from dietary fats. Americans appear to be incorrectly applying the figure of 30 percent of calories to individual foods, rather than to the total diet. A diet with this percent of calories from fat can contain both lower-fat and higher-fat foods. What matters is not how much fat is in each food but how much fat you can eat over the course of a day or several days (Ibid. 11pp).
“These misconceptions tell us that consumers need further guidance in balancing individual food over time to create sound eating patterns,” said Sara C. Parks, RD, President of the American Dietetic Association (ADA). “People need to be shown that foods are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’…. and that one’s overall diet, not individual foods, should contain 30 percent or less of calories from fat. One of our goals is to help consumers understand how all foods can fit into their overall eating style.”
Where do consumers look for information about diet and health? As in the 1990 findings, the media is cited as the primary source of food and nutrition information for the general public. The most popular sources include magazine articles, newspaper reports, and television broadcasts. A small percentage of people further seek nutrition advice from health professional.
Many consumers want to eat less fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, more complex carbohydrates, and dietary fibers. Until recently, however, grocery shoppers found foods without nutrition labels or labels without enough useful information. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 brought sweeping changes to the regulations that define what is required on the food labels. The new requirements were designed so that the labels would provide consumers with useful information about the food they eat, and especially about how individual foods fit into their daily diets. Labels are valuable only if people know how to use them, and so the labeling law contains an educational component. Consumers who understand how to read labels will be best able to apply the information to achieve and maintain healthful dietary practices. The Food and drug Administration (FDA) has designed several programs to educate consumers about the nutrition information on food labels and the benefits of using that information to maintain healthful dietary habits (Whitney 69).
It is common scientific knowledge that the overly rich diet people eat today – people in every part of this country and in other prosperous countries – is linked with serious diseases: heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. These diseases threaten life development as a result of metabolic abnormalities induced by such factors as genetics, age, sex lifestyle and environment. Diet is among the many lifestyle factors that influence the risks of developing these chronic diseases (Davis 5).
The same factors can affect many chronic diseases. High-fat diet can be linked to various cancers, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart diseases, obesity, and strokes. Factors that are associated with a high incidence of a disease are called risk factors. Some risk factors, such as diet and physical activity, are modifiable, meaning that they can be changed; others, such as genetics, sex, and age cannot be changed (Dr. Solomon 34).
Many diseases have genetic components. A family history of a certain disease is a powerful indicator of a person’s tendency to contract that disease. Still, environmental factors are often pivotal in determining whether that tendency will be expressed. Genetic and environmental factors often work synergistically; for instance, cigarette smoking is especially likely to bring on heart disease in people who are predisposed to develop it.
Dr. Solomon in his book High Health Diet and Exercise Plan claims:
“Risk factors tend to persist over time. Without intervention, a young adult with high blood pressure will most likely continue to have high blood pressure as an older adult. These factors also tend to cluster. For instance, a person who is overweight is likely to be physically inactive, to have high blood pressure, and to have high blood cholesterol – all risk factors associated with heart disease. Intervention that focuses on one risk factor often benefits the others as well. For example, physical activity can reduce weight. Then both physical activity and weight loss will help to lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol.” (36)
Some risk factors, such as smoking, dietary habits, physical activity and alcohol consumption, are personal behaviors that can be changed. Decisions not to smoke, to eat a well-balanced diet, to engage in regular physical activity, and to drink alcohol in moderation (if at all) improve the likelihood that a person will enjoy good health. Other risk factors, such as genetics, sex, and age, also play important roles in the development of chronic diseases. Health recommendations acknowledge the influence of such factors on the development of the disease, but most focus on those that are changeable.
Heart disease, collectively known as cardiovascular disease, has made the US the most unhealthy country in the world. It accounts for 50 percent of all deaths, which is ten times higher than in most civilized nations. This disease kills more men than women under the age of 45, but during the later years more women succumb to it (Davis 63).
The arteries supplying blood to the heart muscles are arranged somewhat like a crown, or corona; hence they are called the coronary arteries. Regardless of the variety of heart diseases, these coronary arteries are clogged to some degree with fatty substances. If the circulation has been so decreased that little oxygen reaches the heart, a heart attack known as coronary occlusion occurs. When the clot lodges in the artery of the brain, it kills a portion of the brain tissue – a stroke. Because fatty substances are deposited slowly, years pass before the blood supply is thus completely blocked. In any attack, great masses of cells – perhaps even half the heart itself – are destroyed. Before health can be restored, fatty deposits must be removed from the arterial walls, more clots prevented from forming, and destroyed area must be gradually filled with normal tissues (Davis 64).
Research devoted to probing heart attacks and other circulatory disorders indicate that some forms of these diseases are caused in part by the excessive consumption of foods high in fats, including lipids and sterols. U.S. studies show that as much as 50 percent of the caloric intake in a modern diet is in the forms of fats. Other studies demonstrate that the likelihood of heart attack decreases when the intake of saturated fats is reduced. When saturated solid fats are added to the diet, the amount of cholesterol in the blood increases, but when liquid, unsaturated fats or oils (particularly the polyunsaturated type) replace solid fat, the amount of cholesterol decrease. High cholesterol levels in the blood appear to promote the deposition of hard, fatty materials in the arteries, causing the arteries eventually to clog. When the coronary artery around the heart becomes clogged in this manner, blood supply to the heart is interrupted and a heart attack occurs. The American Heart Association recommends restricting the total fat in a diet, reducing the intake of cholesterol-rich foods, such as milk and butter, and replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats (Encarta Microsoft Encyclopedia 8pp).
Encarta Microsoft Encyclopedia states that: “The occurrence of the heart attack itself is much more likely in persons who have high blood pressure. Hypertension or high blood pressure, physiological condition involving increased pressure on the arterial walls by the blood.” It is similar to the pushing of water against the sides of a garden hose. Decreasing the water in a hose or replacing a small hose with a large one and keeping the amount of water the same reduces the force against the walls, simulating low blood pressure. Conversely, if the amount of water in the hose is increased or a standard hose is replaced by a small one, the pressure against the wall is raised, as in hypertension. When most of the arteries are plugged up with cholesterol, and the muscular walls are compressed in beds of fat, the blood is squeezed into a relatively little space, and the blood pressure naturally becomes high. Hypertension also occurs when larger than normal amounts of water and sodium are held in the body, a situation that invariably occurs during the alarm reaction to stress. In this case, the quality of blood plasma, or the blood volume, increases. Most persistent high blood pressure result from a combination of these factors (Davis 258-261).
An ideal diet must not only lower elevated blood pressure but also gradually rebuild damage in the blood vessels, kidneys, heart, and brain, which usually accompanies hypertension. It is tragic indeed that a vast number of people are content to alleviate the exhaustion of low blood pressure with “pep pills”, thus allowing the body to continue to generate. Sound nutrition relieves symptoms by improving the health of the body as a whole. Its reward is a renewed zest for living (Davis 269).
The thought of cancer often strikes fear in people. This fear arises in part from personal experiences with cancer and in part from the knowledge that some cancers are incurable. The prognosis for most people today, however, is far brighter than in the past. Some cancers are preventable, and many are curable, especially when they are detected early.
Genetic, environmental, and dietary factors can play roles in cancer development. People who wish to reduce their cancer risks can reduce their exposure to environmental and dietary factors that have been linked to cancer. Among environmental factors, smoking, water and air pollution, and sun exposure are known to cause cancer (Whitney 662).