published Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Cleaveland: Dietary advice: eat plants

What should I eat? How much should I eat?

These deceptively simple questions have stimulated a flood of dietary books and fads that emphasize one particular food or ethnic menu over another. I have tried several weight-loss diets beginning with the Scarsdale diet 30 years ago. With each new diet I typically lost a few pounds during an initial burst of enthusiasm whereupon the diet became boring or impractical. Left to my own devices, I routinely regained the weight that I had lost.

Weight Watchers was the first diet that I could sustain without a sense of guilt or deprivation. The diet included a wide range of easily obtained food. Regular exercise was encouraged. More important for me were the weekly weigh-ins and informational sessions. Each meeting with men and women engaged in the same challenge kept me focused. Losing weight cannot be a casual or part-time endeavor. I have been able to maintain the weight loss that I achieved in two years of Weight Watchers.

A new book by Michael Pollan, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" (Penguin paperback 2009) provides a valuable background in non-technical terms for constructing a healthful diet within any cultural or ethnic tradition. Rather than promote a particular dietary plan or gimmick, Pollan advances a philosophy of selecting and eating food wisely.

The opening line captures his thesis: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Pollan blames the Western diet with its emphasis on meat, processed food, sugar, and fat for America's epidemic of obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. He points out that America's epidemic of obesity worsened as various governmental and scientific panels issued guidelines on what we should eat. Sometimes political considerations dictated the content of governmental recommendations. Warnings to reduce animal fats, for example, led to production of vegetable fats loaded with trans-fatty acids, now known to be damaging to the lining of our coronary arteries.

The author draws a distinction between "food" and the vast array of processed items sold in stores and fast food restaurants. Food is the product of gardens and pasturelands without added chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones. Pollan directs the shopper to the sides and backs of supermarkets where fruits and vegetables and dairy products are displayed. Avoid the shelves in the centers of stores where endless varieties of processed or manufactured nutrients are shelved.

Some broad recommendations:

* Protein: Pay more but eat smaller portions of meat and poultry that is farm-raised. Meat and milk from grass-fed animals contain more nutritious fats than corn-fed animals. Grass-fed animals are healthier and require fewer antibiotics compared to factory-farm animals which are raised in tightly packed feed-lots. Select wild-caught fish as replacements for some meat entrees. He emphasizes that when we eat animal protein, we ingest all that animal has eaten in its life.

* Vegetables: While seeds such as wheat, barley and soy beans are important, leafy vegetables provide fiber and unique nutrients not found in seeds. Leaves are less energy-dense, which means slower digestion and longer intervals before hunger returns. Fresh fruits are equally important.

* Carbohydrates: Excessive sugars displace healthier calories from fruits and vegetables. Complex carbohydrates such as pasta, brown rice, whole-grain cereals and breads digest more slowly than simple sugars and satisfy longer. Avoid high-fructose corn syrup.

* Fats: Limit saturated fats found in beef and pork. Olive oil, canola oil, and fish are good sources of healthier, unsaturated fats. Avoid trans-fatty acids altogether.

* Processed foods: Read labels. Avoid products that contain numerous or unfamiliar chemicals or that make health-claims.

* Mealtime: Share it with family or friends, eating at regular hours at an unhurried pace. Find time to prepare more meals in the home using known ingredients. Avoid packaged snacks. Meals based on traditional ethnic cooking, whether Indian, Chinese or Mediterranean are generally healthier than the Western diet.

We pay attention to the gasoline and oil that we use in our automobiles. We must use similar care in selecting what goes into our bodies. "In Defense of Food" makes this challenge easier and more logical.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at

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