As I said in my first article about the name, Alternative Medicine, much of what we see as alternative is not new. The concept of food as medicine goes back about 5,000 years, if not longer.
Diet in America has most popularly been altered in an attempt to acheive weight loss. I say in an attempt because the use of dieting alone, although one might lose weight temporarily, most often leads to a rebound weight gain. Consistently, those who keep their weight off, in many studies, are those who combine other factors, especially an excercise program, with a diet.
This has led to the use of medical diets, the liquid protein diet for example, which require medical supervision and do promote rapid weight loss. The problem again is that no one can stay on such a diet forever, and rebound fat often takes over.
But food is not just about losing weight. Food is about life and health. This raises the question as to what is the optimal diet.
It also forces us to question just what fad diets are, without substantiated health benefits, and what is the time and place, if any, for supplemented vitamins, minerals and specific medicinal foods.
The most recent fad really started 20 or more years ago with the Atkins diet, recommending meat eating throughout the day, fruits, vegetables and no carbohydrates. This ultimately puts the dieter into a state of mild ketosis (an acidic blood state) that reduces the appetite, many times through a mild state of nausea, and promotes weight loss. The diet has returned with some new theory and variations. Now it is "lean" meat that becomes the staple. High carbohydrate diets (lots of grains and some beans) are thought to raise triglyceride levels in the blood and promote insulin secretion. The increased insulin secretion is then blamed for numerous ill health effects and weight gain.
Not all of this is totally inaccurate, but there are problems with the theory and practice of this diet, says Dr. Charles Glueck of the Cincinnati Health Alliance Cholesterol Center.
"The high-meat diet, unless we really take precautions, is a high-fat diet with high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol," he says.
It should be noted that another recent fad, the body-type diet, recommends this composition for those with a certain blood type.
"This diet, however, is the same diet we give laboratory animals to grow plaque in their arteries," Glueck says.
Even if the fat problem is modified, the high-protein, low- carbohydrate diet depletes energy stores (glycogen) in the liver, making the average person hungry once they stop the diet, initiating the dieting, eating, weight gain and loss cycle mentioned earlier. Finally, high-fat diets are implicated as being cancer promoters.
Those who study diet and use it for treatment every day use what we might call the optimal diet. The optimal diet, found in cultures without access to an over supply of meat, is described by Gleuck as follows: 5 to 8 percent of calories from meat, less than 10 percent from fat and the rest from complex carbohydrates, vegetables and some fruit. This recommendation is in line with diets, especially if fish is the meat used, that have actually caused reversal of plaque in the coronary arteries. The optimal diet also is in line with the government's current food pyramid recommendations. Cultures that follow such a diet tend to be relatively free of many of the diseases we associate with "civilization." Oddly enough, diets such as the macrobiotic diet, introduced decades ago, tend to follow such traditional principles but were initially labeled "fads," many times by those who now promote a very similar "healthy" diet of, guess what, grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit and fish.
In short, most food servings during the day should be whole grains, vegetables, legumes and fruit. A minimum of calories should come from meat or fat. Here, we get into components of the diet, and we can make a few more general statements.
Complex carbohydrates are things like whole grain rice, wheat, barley, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat and millet. Here we see an immediate problem. How many people, on average, even know of all these grains. We tend to think of a grain as a refined breakfast cereal that actually is not often a whole grain. Most bread is not whole grain. How many restaurants do we go to that cook and present whole grains? What has happened is that a good dietary recommendation has been adulterated by history and current food services. White rice, for example, historically represented a luxury over whole grain brown rice. This also was true of white bread. Unfortunately, most whole wheat bread now is refined bread with vitamins added back in after refinement. Following the food pyramid with its emphasis on grains, then, might have the undesirable results mentioned earlier. But the problem is empty calories from starch without the multitude of ingredients in the whole food. In theory, craving for this type of food, excess eating and fat might be the result of subclinical deficiencies in nutrition.
Fats should be chosen carefully, avoiding saturated fat, synthetic saturated fat such as margarine, solidified vegetable oils and even polyunsaturated fats, which generate nasty little entities called free radicals — known cancer initiators and promoters. At this point in time, the monounsaturates — olive and certain other oils — and fat from fish seem to be the safest and actually have health benefits. Any other type of fat needed by the body will come from the balanced diet via the food in its natural state.
In addition to specific food ideas, the concept of whole food is becoming more and more important to health. Phytochemicals, or the total complex of chemicals in plants that are considered nutritional, is the key term. Whole wheat might have 5,000 known constituents. Once refined, this amount may reduce to five. Adding back 10 vitamins does not make whole wheat.
We have known for a very long time that yellow and orange vegetables like carrots and squash seem to prevent a variety of cancers. When one of these pigments, beta carotene, is isolated and given to people daily, the results are not as promising. The response in stores has been to offer a caratenoid complex containing, simply put, more of the phytochemicals, but not all. This is the new trend we see in health food stores toward "power foods," including caratenoid complexes, mixtures of antioxidants and mixtures of green foods like spirulina, various types of blue-green algae and grain sprouts such as barley grass. Some of these supplements are closer to being whole food but some, like vitamin complexes, are farther away.
Give the difficulty of obtaining high quality whole food in restaurants and even many stores, I can understand the demand for whole food and vitamin supplements. Part of the adulteration of whole food, however, has been due to demands for apparent freshness and consistency year-round. Many of us do not want to cook, even though becoming cooks, selecting our own raw food and cooking it with the correct specific ingredients, would be ideal. Going along with a demand for a variety of food at all times, or perhaps in conflict with that demand, we should all begin seeking high quality whole food with an abundance of grain and vegetable selections.
We also could make demands on menu selection when eating out, perhaps more ability to create our own proportions to order, and insist on correct use of fat. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem in that the food industry, at least in chef schools, is well aware of the public's increasing health consciousness. Also, refining whole foods, then putting back synthetic nutrients, flavors and fillers, as anyone can see by visiting a health food store, is not an absolute necessity for storage and packaging. Much of what science knows about the least damaging of all such methods should be incorporated, on public demand, into practice.
Finally, we can all become healthier by becoming cooks or cooks' helpers to whatever minimal or maximal extent we find possible. I can take one hour, two afternoons a week, to select the best raw, whole, fresh, unprocessed vegetable salad ingredients available. Once I know where to get them, I'll spend about half an hour a week. Perhaps another hour will be spent making one or two salad meals. Not much, but a start. A side effect of doing this is that we start reading all ingredients on food in the store. We become more knowledgeable and critical of the food in restaurants that we, frankly, pay too much for.
We can start feeding our demands for health into the system that feeds us.