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"And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat." Genesis 1:29
Why do we eat? Because we enjoy it. And we enjoy it enough that very few would want to give up the habit if they could. Thank God He created us with the ability to taste and smell and that He put such delightful flavors and aromas into the food He has appointed for us to eat. But even if we didn't enjoy it, we would still have to eat. Food is needed to furnish fuel to supply energy to the body, to provide material to repair and build tissues, and to supply substances that act to regulate body processes.
Any chemical substance found in foods that functions in one or more of these ways is known as a nutrient. The seven basic classes of nutrients are carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water.
Only carbohydrates, fats, and proteins provide energy or calories. Sugars and starches are both carbohydrates. Carbohydrates and proteins yield about four calories per gram, and fats yield about nine calories per gram. As these figures show, fats are a much more concentrated source of energy. Fiber, long regarded as a nonessential, is now recognized as an important body regulator. It helps to control blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and also aids in colon hygiene. A low-fiber diet is associated with increased risk of colon cancer, as well as other bowel diseases.
When food is properly selected and prepared, so that the basic nutrients are consumed in the correct ratios and amounts, we can be assured of good nutrition. All natural foods contain all seven essential nutrients. However, the different amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals are found in varying amounts in different foods. So we need to eat a variety of food to get all the nutrients in sufficient quantities.
Malnutrition means we are not getting the proper intake of nutrients, or in some cases that the nutrients are not utilized as they should be in the body. Undernutrition means there is a lack of certain nutrients. In under-developed countries the most common problem is simply not getting enough food to eat or not enough variety. Starvation is a tragic health problem for millions of people in the world. less frequent, but equally serious, are the problems of protein or vitamin/mineral deficiency diseases. Usually, as long as people are getting enough unrefined calories to eat, these diseases are not common.
Overnutrition means too many nutrients. In developed countries it is usually related to the excess consumption of refined foods. For millions of the well-fed people of the world overnutrition is the root cause of much premature death and disease. The top three killer diseases in the U.S. each have strong contributing dietary factors. They are heart disease, cancer, and strokes. Hypertension and diabetes also have strong dietary links. The specific dietary excesses that tend to promote or cause these diseases involve cholesterol, animal fat, too much total dietary fat, too much sugar, too much protein, and too much salt. Basically, just too many calories in general. It is possible to get a toxic overdose of specific vitamins or minerals. Usually one would have to be taking vitamin/mineral pills or highly concentrated foods for this to happen.
Obesity is one of the most common side effects of overnutrition. A combination of proper diet and exercise is needed to correct the problem. Briefly, the food in the diet should be low in fat and high in fiber. High-protein diets are no more effective than any other diet except that there is rapid initial water loss. Excess protein is harmful to the body in several ways; in time it weakens the kidneys, heart, bones, and immune system. Instead, eat a regular, balanced diet that is low in fat and sugar and high in fiber. In terms of food this regimen means sticking to mainly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Most people who are obese need to eat less. They probably need to learn to accept being slightly hungry most of the time-at least until their body adjusts to less food, and they become physically fit through an exercise program.
We can briefly summarize what we have learned about proper nutrition thus: "With a calm, thankful attitude and at proper times, eat a wide variety of mostly unrefined foods, prepared in a simple, attractive, and palatable way, in sufficient quantity to maintain ideal body weight and good health."
Our attitude about the food we eat and our attitude while eating is important. If we are nervous or in a hurry or upset about something, the digestive process is impaired. It is better not to eat at all, unless we can do so in a positive frame of mind and take our time. Hurried eating tends to overeating. Since digestion begins in the mouth, it is important to chew your food slowly and well.
A good breakfast should come early in the day. There is no such thing as "breakfast food" either. Many people enjoy potatoes, or beans, or other vegetables, and a main entree at breakfast. Why not? Such food gives your body the nutrients it needs to restore itself after the night's fast and sets the nutritional tone for the day. Usually, another main meal should be consumed no sooner than five hours later. Most people could get by very well on two meals per day. Those who do not need many calories for their daily occupation or who are overweight should try this two-meal-a-day plan. If a third meal is necessary it should be lighter and smaller and at least two hours before bedtime. Eating big meals late at night or before going to bed is not a good practice. Digestion during sleep is not efficient because the metabolic rate is falling. Sleep can be disturbed, and often one feels the effects the next morning. The same amount of calories eaten in the evening are more fattening than if they were eaten in the morning. This fact can easily be explained on the basis of the rise and fall in the metabolic rate between morning and evening. Also, most bodies are energy-conservation conscious, meaning that it is easier to store fat than to get rid of it once it is there.
Eating between meals or having too many meals in a day interferes with digestion. Sour stomachs and sour attitudes are often the result. Smaller, lighter meals do digest more rapidly. The rule is that the stomach should be allowed sufficient time to completely empty itself of one meal and rest for maybe an hour before more food is eaten.
Factors that slow the stomach's emptying time are the fat content of the meal, amount of food eaten, liquid drunk with the meal, and sedentary occupations. Fruit or vegetable meals usually leave the stomach in about two hours, whereas higher fat and protein meals take four to five hours.
To prevent overeating and indigestion there should not be too many varieties of food eaten at once. It is true that we should eat a wide variety of food from meal to meal and from day to day, but three or four different kinds of food at one time is plenty.
A good variety of plain, unrefined plant food is more nutritionally balanced than the animal products and manmade processed foods. Whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds contain high-quality protein, a better fatty-acid profile (thus decreasing the risk of heart disease and cancer), no cholesterol, plenty of complex carbohydrates and fiber, and are rich in vitamins and minerals and water. Animal products and man-made foods are often high in fat, cholesterol, sugar, salt, and harmful additives, and are lacking in fiber. Sometimes we cannot obtain an ideal diet. People shouldn't be made to feel guilty about what they eat if they are doing the best that they can with what knowledge and resources they have. Certainly it is not unhealthful to use some refined products like white flour, sugar, or oil in small amounts to prepare healthful and tasty dishes. A moderate amount of salt can be used by most people. The problem is that the average American taste bud has been conditioned through overuse to expect and demand far too much of these things. It would be well to gradually re-educate people to require much less.
The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in 1977 issued these recommendations to all Americans: Reduce salt intake by about 50-85 percent, cut fat consumption by at least 10 percent, slash sugar ingestion by 40 percent, and limit cholesterol to 300 mg. daily (equivalent to one egg).
These guidelines suggest that major changes are in order for the average American diet. The benefits of making such significant changes in the types of food in the diet are amazing. The Adventist Health study has shown that pure vegetarians (no animal products) have only one-third as many deaths from cancer and one-fourth as many deaths from coronary heart disease as non-vegetarians. In these studies other variables such as tobacco and alcohol were accounted for, so that we know that the tremendous health advantage of the pure vegetarian group is due to the fact that they are not using animal products in their diet. These same studies have shown that the vegetarians who do not smoke or drink have only 14 percent as many heart-attack deaths and 9 percent as many cancer deaths and live an average of l2 years longer than the general population.
Traditionally, most people measure the nutritional status of their diet by the Four Food Group Plan. The four food groups are: Milk and milk products, meat or protein, fruits and vegetables, and bread and cereals. The idea is to eat a certain number of servings from each group every day to ensure balanced nutrition. This plan does ensure that we will meet the daily requirements for all nutrients. Its chief drawback is that it does not guard very well against overnutrition, which is the greatest nutritional problem in the U.S. today. We can easily consume too much protein, fat, cholesterol, and salt on this plan. Do we really need four food groups when we can obtain all our nutrients from just two groups-the fruit and vegetable and bread and cereal groupójust as the vegetarians do who are so much healthier than the nonvegetarians? It is an elemental fact of nutrition science that there is no such thing as an essential food. There are only essential nutrients. We can get them all from two groups or four.
The chief concern then should be "What are the best sources available to me to get the nutrients I need?" We now know the answer to that question, "A well-balanced vegetarian diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds."
Although vitamin B12 deficiencies are very rare, even among vegetarians, there is still a question as to whether or not there are any good vegetarian sources of this vitamin. Small amounts of low-fat dairy products or a vitamin supplement would take care of this. But there is evidence that the vitamin is produced in the human body, and vitamin B12 is also found in some drinking water, which may account for the rarity of such vitamin deficiencies.
The case in favor of the vegetarian diet can be summarized by the American Dietetic Association, "The (ADA) affirms that a well-planned diet, consisting of a variety of largely unrefined plant foods supplemented with some milk and eggs (lacto-ovo vegetarian diet), meets all known nutrient needs. Furthermore, a total plant dietary can be made adequate by careful planning, giving proper attention to specific nutrients which may be in a less available form or in lower concentrations or absent in plant foods. The (ADA) recognizes that a growing body of scientific evidence supports a positive relationship between consumption of a plant-based dietary and the prevention of certain diseases."
For people who want a better diet it is better to make changes gradually so that the body has time to adapt. Other family members who are not so eager to change their diet need time to adapt, too. A good strategy would be to start decreasing and eliminating some of the worst junk food first and add in their place more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Switch to low-fat dairy products and omit fatty and processed meats. Cut out more of the refined, processed foods like instant dinners, pastries, snack foods, and soft drinks. Buy whole-grain breads and cereals instead of the refined ones. Use less of the unnecessary toppings, dressings, and gravies that add so many calories to the meal, and when you do use them look for low-fat or reduced-calorie varieties. Eat at home more often, pack your own lunches and simplify your eating. Get some good health-conscious, vegetarian cookbooks (some are not that healthful, as they overuse cheese, eggs, and nuts) and start practicing and experimenting with new dishes. But keep it simple.
"Blessed art thou, 0 land, when... thy princes eat in due season, for strength, and not for drunkenness!" Ecclesiastes 10:17
Compiled by Kurt Unglaub, M.P.H.
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