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Healthy Eating Basics
Healthy Eating Basics
The world of nutrition has been revolutionized in recent years. While doctors and nutritionists used to promote eggs for protein, red meat for iron, and plenty of whole milk, they now sing the praises of leafy green vegetables, fresh fruit, beans, and whole grains. The fact is, the old way of eating has gotten us into trouble. Heart disease, cancer, and other problems have become epidemics, and our collective waistline is expanding, with no end in sight.
This is especially worrisome among kids. More and more children are struggling with their weight. Many have the high cholesterol levels doctors would expect to find in their out-of-shape parents. And when researchers look into these children's arteries, they find early signs of artery damage that are the first indications that the child will one day be headed for a heart attack.
Children are also growing up too fast. Puberty is occurring earlier and earlier. Not only does this open a Pandora's Box of psychological issues, it also increases cancer risk, as the hormones that are active during a woman's menstrual cycle are the same ones that fuel some cancers, including that of the breast.
Where are these changes coming from? The problem is not just that children are more sedentary than ever, fixed in place in front of TV screens and computers, driving instead of walking, and exercising less and less. The fact is, their diets are changing, and temptations are now everywhere. It is hard to turn on a children's television program without being assaulted by endless commercials for "fast foods" and snacks. And these foods are hardenough for some parents to resist, let alone their kids.
Hints of a healthier diet came from researchers who compared the eating habits in North America to those in China, Japan, Mediterranean countries, and Africa. Piecing together hundreds of studies, the pattern became clear. In countries where a healthy variety of whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits is consumed, children are much healthier than in those where children follow typical Western diets. Brag as we might about the meaty American diet, it is no match for the health power of the traditional foods of other lands. Japanese children, for example, have traditionally eaten rice, vegetables, and bean dishes, with much less meat than Westerners consume (and none at all in some religious traditions), virtually no dairy products, and very little oil. The payoff has come in the form of slim waistlines, enviably low cancer rates, and longevity that consistently outstrips that of Americans. A close look at kids with plentiful food in China, Thailand, Mexico, rural Africa, and elsewhere has helped nutrition authorities rewrite basic diet recommendations.
In 1998 Benjamin Spock, M.D., completely revised his book Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, the most influential parents' guide ever written and the biggest-selling book in history other than the Bible. Out with the fat and cholesterol and in with vegetables and fruits was his prescription. Never one to mince words, Dr. Spock recommended that parents raise children on a vegan dieta diet made up entirely of plant foods with no meat (of any kind), eggs, or dairy products included. This event sparked a long-overdue review of current feeding practices for children. As the scientific studies and experiences of pediatricians were carefully evaluated, Dr. Spock was proven right: Vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruits are the optimal foods for both children and adults.
Why focus on these four food groups? Because they are cholesterol-free, high in fiber, low in fat, and rich in health-promoting substances found only in plants. They are also rich in healthy carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and mineralsthe nutrients you and your family need. Foods from the plant kingdom are also excellent sources of protein and calciumtwo nutrients once thought to be mainly in meat and dairy products.
In response to the new scientific understanding of the importance of the nutrients found in plants and the dangers of saturated fat and cholesterol, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine developed the New Four Food Groups as a menu-planning guide in 1991. It is designed to be zero in cholesterol, low in fat, and fiber-rich to promote optimal health for you and your children. Since then it has proven to be an effective but very simple and practical guide for adults and children.
The serving numbers and sizes recommended for an average adult are shown on page 6. Throughout the upcoming pages, you will learn how to apply the New Four Food Groups to you and your children in different life stages including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, and all stages of childhood, from toddlerhood to the teen years.
This meal-planning guide is likely to introduce a few new tastes. But rest assured that with a little time, you will find eating from the New Four Food Groups easy, enjoyable, and wonderfully healthy.
Build your diet from these healthy foods. Keep in mind that the number of servings in each group is a minimum number. Add more servings as needed to meet your energy requirements. Small amounts of other foods such as nuts, seeds, oils, sweets, and processed foods can be part of a healthy diet; just be sure to focus your diet on the four food groups.
What do these food groups look like on your plate? When eating a pasta dish, choose a light marinara sauce instead of a meat or cream sauce. Or adorn your plate with vegetable lasagna, a bean burrito, baked beans, rice pilaf, or an autumn stew with mashed potatoes and plenty of vegetables. When it comes to soups, try lentil, split pea, minestrone, black bean, or vegetable soup. The recipe section in the last chapter will give you plenty of delicious ideas.
The Shift to Plant-Based Diets
Building your diet from grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables, over the long run, has an enormous effect on your health and that of your loved ones. Here are a few of the advantages for your family.
Staying slim. A plant-based diet will help your children avoid the weight problems that will befall many of their classmates. That's a terrific advantage, because being overweight is a major contributor to diabetes, heart attack, stroke, cancer, and arthritis. Research studies show that vegetarians, on average, are 10 percent leaner than omnivores. Vegans are even leaner, weighing, on average, 12 to 20 pounds less than lacto-ovo vegetarians (i.e., vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products) or omnivores.
A healthy heart. The foods you feed your children can keep their arteries open and healthy, nourishing their hearts and every other part of their bodies. Far too many children have the beginnings of serious heart disease before they finish high school.
Vegetarians have much lower cholesterol levels than nonvegetarians. Vegans (people who consume only foods from plant sources with no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products) have even lower levels. These plant-based diets are dramatically better at reducing cholesterol levels than diets based on lean meats, chicken, or fish. The participants in Dr. Dean Ornish's history-making study at California's Preventive Medicine Research Institute lowered their cholesterol levels by a full 24 percent using a vegetarian diet and actually reversed their heart disease.
Protection from cancer. Though more common in adults, cancer can appear at any age. Raising your children on healthy meals will help protect them from this and other illnesses. Vegetarians are about 40 percent less likely to get cancer than nonvegetarians, regardless of other risks such as smoking, body size, and socioeconomic status. The vegetarians' advantage comes partly from what they're avoiding: One study found that eating just 1-1/2 to 3 servings of meat, eggs, or dairy a week is associated with an increased incidence of breast cancer compared to eating less than 1 serving of these foods weekly.
Vegetarians also benefit from what they are including in their daily diets. Having generous amounts of fruits and vegetables every day helps protect against cancers in many sites, including the lung, breast, colon, bladder, stomach, and pancreas. Recent studies suggest that naturally occurring compounds in vegetables such as beta-carotene, lycopene, folic acid, and genistein, among many others, help ward off cancer. A study by Harvard University researchers of 109 breast biopsies showed that women whose breast tissue contained a high concentration of these helpful plant chemicals were 30 to 70 percent less likely to have breast cancer. In some cases natural antioxidants appear to help prevent and even repair the kinds of cell damage that can start the cancer process in the first place. Other plant nutrients, called phytoestrogens, which are particularly rich in soy products, can thereby reduce the cellstimulating effects of sex hormones, in turn reducing the risk of hormone-related cancers such as breast, ovarian, or uterine cancer.
Healthy blood pressure. Building your kids' diet from the New Four Food Groups is great protection against high blood pressure, cutting the risk by nearly 70 percent. A study of African Americans found high blood pressure in 44 percent of nonvegetarians but in only 18 percent of vegetarians. Among a group of Caucasians, high blood pressure was found in 22 percent of meat-eaters compared to only 7 percent of vegetarians. The medical literature is full of studies showing that a vegetarian diet effectively and naturally lowers blood pressure.
Lower risk of diabetes. Diabetes is on the rise, especially in children. A person with diabetes has difficulty regulating blood sugar levels, and this can lead to a variety of problems, including impaired circulation, kidney disease, strokes, and heart attacks. Vegetarians are much less likely to develop diabetes, and this same diet has even been shown to be effective in treating, and sometimes reversing Type 2 (adult-onset) diabetes.
In addition to keeping you slim and free of these major chronic diseases, building your diet from the New Four Food Groups has other advantages for children and adults. Vegetarians have been shown in several studies to gain a measure of protection from kidney stones and other kidney diseases, gallstones, diverticulosis, appendicitis, constipation, and hemorrhoids, among other conditions. There is no longer any question: The healthiest diets are built from the New Four Food Groups. When your children are in the habit of eating healthy foods, they are on track for long, healthy lives.