Read an Excerpt
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Healthiness
Dr. Dean's Straight-Talk Answers to Hundreds of Your Most Pressing Health Questions
There's a Reason We're Fat
My philosophy about food is simple: Enjoy what you eat.
Eating is one of the most fundamental pleasures in life, and yet many folks see it as a chore or, at the other extreme, a luxury they can't afford. That's too bad, because there's research supporting the idea that enjoying what you eat is an aspect of healthy living—and it has nothing to do with whether you're eating caviar or homemade soup. For me, eating pleasurably translates into a bowl of linguini marinara or a handful of macadamia nuts; I make them work in my diet because they make me happy.
I've noticed that the dietary guidelines of many countries include a message about the joy of eating. Britain has a slogan "Enjoy Your Food," the Vietnamese advise eating meals that are "delicious," and Norway concludes: "Food and Joy = Health." Unfortunately, in the United States, the slogan might be "Do They Have Drive-thru?" or "We Don't Have Time to Sit Down for Dinner." Our society is paying dearly for such habits, in both our health and our relationships.
Eating well does take some effort, but American cities have more well-stocked grocery stores than ever before, not to mention a diversity of restaurant experiences offering everything from pad thai to spicy tuna rolls to carne asada. If you are bored by food, you have no one to blame but yourself. If you're intimidated by it, afraid of it, or confused by it, just keep reading. A little food knowledge could have a good effect on your appetite.
The taste, texture, and appearance of food all combine for a pleasurable eating experience. But, studies show, the look and taste of cuisine can also make what you eat more nutritious and healthy. Your body's digestive system reacts positively to a happy meal (no, I'm not talking about McDonald's) by releasing juices that absorb more nutrients. But take that meal off the plate and put it in a blender before it's consumed, and there's less absorption of certain nutrients.
Of course, very few of us would put a chicken breast and mashed potatoes into the Osterizer for a meal on the run. But we are doing some strange things, because we have become obsessed with—and often misinformed about—eating for maximum good health.
What is the best diet for a healthy life? That's not easy. It's like asking, "What's the best way to make love?" If you look all over the world, and study eating habits throughout history, you will find different solutions. Eskimos and our forebears through the Ice Age ate lots of meat and fat and seemed to do just fine. In other parts of the world, people who depended heavily on carbohydrates in the form of plants and nuts lived healthy lives, too.
But somewhere along the line, we've been sold this idea that there must be a "best" food—that the world is made up of good foods and bad foods, and if only we could find the good ones, we'd live forever. Forget it.
This "moral nutrition" concept has created more anxiety and misinformation than anything I can think of. Human beings, it turns out, are capable of surviving and being healthy on a variety of diets. The critical word here is "variety." For example, we know the French eat more fat than we do, yet they do not succumb in the same numbers to the heart disease and obesity that we have in the United States. How can that be? Well, they eat a more diverse mix of foods, and so their bodies receive a broader assortment of micronutrients.
The "French Paradox" actually can be found throughout the Mediterranean, where the majority of fat consumed is olive oil. A recent study of the Greek diet found that an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, fish, and olive oil—as well as wine at most meals—lowered death rates from cancer and heart disease.
Of course, people eating traditional diets in the Mediterranean may have other behaviors that explain their healthiness, from less stress to more exercise.
And, let me repeat: No individual food group conferred benefits—it's the total diet.
I know too many people—and maybe this is true in your own family—who consistently eat the same limited diet week in and week out. And who go to the same restaurants when they eat out and order the same thing. Yet, if they become concerned about their weight, or their children's weight, they look for a miracle food—or a diet plan—to fix things. We've all done that, but it almost never works—or lasts for very long.
In the sixties, I tried vegetarianism, and most of my kids are still vegetarian. But I'm not, and I'm much more relaxed about my diet. While I generally eat what I want, the things I want to eat come from many cuisines—and I eat much differently than I did as a child, when I ate my breakfast cereal with heavy cream every day and even put sugar in my Coca-Cola because it wasn't sweet enough. Nowadays, parents would be demonized for allowing such behavior.
But I'm not sure we're much better off, food-wise, than when I was a child. The problem in America is not only what we're not eating, but the amount of what we are eating—and that's a critical issue that nutrition research is finally addressing. One of the newest pieces of research, from the University of North Carolina, looked at portion sizes for a variety of popular foods. Disturbingly, they found that between 1977 and 1996, portions both at home and in restaurants increased for everything but pizza. And some of those increases were staggering: A homemade hamburger jumped from 5.7 ounces to 8.4 ounces ...Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Healthiness
Dr. Dean's Straight-Talk Answers to Hundreds of Your Most Pressing Health Questions. Copyright © by Dean Edell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.