Buying processed foods at the grocery store or picking up dinner at a fast-food drive through may seem like a time saver for harried families, but in the long run a steady diet of such products carries a heavy cost in both health and the time it takes to lose excess weight and repair the problems they cause your body. Conversely, eating natural foods in reasonable portions provides the energy needed to stay active, keeps your body strong, and may help prevent illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
"I've been saying for years that we need to eat at home," says Patty James, a certified natural chef who has a master's degree in holistic nutrition and is author of the new cookbook More Vegetables, Please! Over 100 Easy and Delicious Recipes for Eating Healthy Foods Each and Every Day. "Getting back to basics, I think, is the silver lining to the whole economic downturn. People realize what's important: family, conversing, reconnecting. I hope it sticks with us."
In January, James began a cross-country tour as part of her Shine the Light on America's Kids nonprofit (see www.shinethelightonkids.org), and plans to visit cities in all 50 states to discuss healthy eating with children and their parents as a way to help kids achieve their full potential. She stopped in New Orleans earlier this month.
"Once educated, kids are open to eating right," she says. "We have to get back to whole foods and lots of vegetables. Here's another key: home-cooked meals, gathering the family, sitting at the table and eating, even if it's a bowl of soup or something from the crock pot. I think people have to realize the new way of eating — all this store-bought food — is not healthy. What I found in my research while in school was that eating at a table (with family) just two times a week helps prevent pregnancy and drug intake among children — and they get better grades."
James is so concerned about the eating habits of children that she is spending her own retirement fund to pay for the yearlong Shine the Light on America's Kids tour. Much of the problem, she says, is that Americans are so accustomed to the convenience of processed foods and the taste of high-fat, high-sugar products that they are disconnected from natural foods.
"Parents want to do the right thing," she says. "They simply don't know how." James teaches them simple ways to adjust their eating habits such as substituting carrot sticks for potato chips and an apple for cookies in the lunches they prepare for their children. "When they know the phosphoric acid in sodas prevents the uptake of calcium and that all of our bone mass is laid down when we're kids up to age 18, they realize that all these kids who are drinking soft drinks and caffeine are going to pay for it later. It doesn't mean you can't have a soft drink or two every week, just do it in moderation."
She's not alone in her quest to change this country's eating habits.
"Cooking at home is the key," agrees Caroline Cerise, a nutritionist at Touro Infirmary who works with patients recovering from diseases by teaching them better nutrition. "When you cook at home you have more control over what is before you. Getting children involved (in food preparation) might be the first step in solving the problem of overweight children. When you have that openness at an early age, they will learn.
"Personally, I enjoy cooking. It takes away stress and relaxes me. It encourages a sense of community. A lot of people associate community with eating out, but I think it's a lot more enjoyable when you cook and invite people in. It's more economical, and I believe people appreciate your time. With the economy the way it is, there is a natural push for people to eat at home more."
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) wants to expand the good foods children can get at home into school environments. The group is advocating for more organic food in schools by sponsoring the "Organic: It's Worth it in Schools" contest in which it will provide the winning school with an organic garden complete with seeds, soil and expert gardening support or a vending machine stocked with organic items like milk, fruit, cheese, yogurt and snacks. (Those interested in entering their school in the contest, which runs through May 1, can find details at www.organicitsworthit.org/join/current-campaigns. The site also includes information about the health, economic and social benefits of organic food and gardening.)
"Organic food is the only food certified by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) to have no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, irradiation and genetically modified organisms," says Christine Bushway, executive director of the OTA. "Organically grown gardens use no harmful pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on the soil, which can be harmful to consumers and the environment."
Processed foods also contain additives and dyes suspected of harmful effects (see "By the Numbers," H&W, Feb. 2, 2010 for a list of a few of these). In an article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in November 2009, researchers at the University College of London found that diets heavy in processed foods and fats increased the risk of depression among the 3,486 civil service workers included in the study. In 1973, Dr. Benjamin Feingold, chief of allergy at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco, claimed that some food additives and colorings cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in children. Later research countered that the substances didn't cause those problems, but only made them worse in some kids. An earlier study in 1959 indicated additives produce severe allergic reactions in some people, but over the years other researchers have disputed the findings.
Regardless of which scientific argument prevails, many nutritionists advocate eating fresh, locally grown, unprocessed foods when possible for a healthier life.
Nicky Schmidt, who with Marci Cahill Leach owns the medical-based Women & Men's Nutrition and Weight Control Centers in Metairie, says education about diet and exercise has helped her company achieve an 80 percent success rate in helping clients, who range in age from 8 to 83, lose weight and develop a healthy lifestyle they can maintain.
"We teach them to use real foods in proper proportions so they aren't skipping proteins or carbohydrates or taking all the fat out of their diets," she says. "We advise them to eat three meals and two snacks a day. You can tolerate food in smaller potions and it keeps your metabolism going, especially in people over 40. I don't think people realize they are skipping breakfast and lunch and are actually gaining weight because their brain thinks they are starving and goes into fat-storage mode. They get home and are starving, so they eat until they go to bed."
Eating a healthy diet isn't as confusing as it sounds. On its Web site, www.mypyramid.gov, the USDA provides a food pyramid that gives a basic outline of what people should consume and in what amounts, as well as a formula for tailoring recommendations for individuals. Generally, the USDA's dietary guidelines for 2005 (updated guidelines are due out later this year) recommend Americans eat a minimum of 3 ounces of whole grains a day, and more dark green and orange vegetables, dry beans and peas than they now consume. Vegetable intake recommendations range from 1 cup a day for children 2 to 3 years old to 3 cups for men between the ages of 19 and 50. Fruit recommendations range from 1 cup for 2 to 3 year olds to 1 1/2 to 2 cups for other groups and should include a variety of fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruit and limited amounts of fruit juices. Oils also are on the recommended list, but the USDA says most people consume enough oils in the foods they already eat, including nuts, fish, cooking oils and salad dressings. Recommendations depend on the age, sex and activity levels of individuals but range from 3 teaspoons of oils for 2 and 3 year olds to 5 or 6 teaspoons for most other groups.
Dairy products are important for calcium and other nutrients, but should be low-fat or fat-free and should not include cream cheese, cream or butter, which don't retain their calcium. Amounts include 2 cups for children between 2 and 8 years old, and 3 cups for other groups. People should vary their meats and protein choices with lean meats that are grilled, baked or broiled, fish, peas, beans, nuts and seeds. Recommendations include 2 ounces for 2 and 3 year olds, 3 to 4 ounces for 4 to 8 year olds and vary between 5 and 6 1/2 ounces for other groups.
In general, the USDA says, Americans consume too many calories, sugars, salt, cholesterol and saturated and trans fats. Adults don't get enough vitamins A, C and E, calcium, magnesium, potassium and fiber, and children's diets lack adequate vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium and fiber, the agency says.
James says most people get less than half the fiber they need, consuming only 10 to 14 grams a day when they should get 30 to 35 grams. "Fiber is a key to health," she says. "Basically there are a whole lot of constipated people out there, even children. It's a much bigger problem than people recognize. You need to drink enough water and eat enough fiber. I find that most people who get migraines are constipated; the toxins are getting reabsorbed."
Nutritional supplements have their place, but no individual one fits everyone's needs and quality among various brands can vary greatly, Schmidt says. "We teach our patients what vitamins are beneficial and which are overkill," as well as which supplements might interact with other drugs they are taking, she says. "If you don't eat seafood, you need Omega-3. If you're not getting a good pharmaceutical-grade supplement, you don't know what you're putting in your mouth." Pharmaceutical grade, indicated by USP, means the supplement is 90 percent to 99 percent pure, without binders, fillers, dyes and other substances added. It also indicates bioavailability (the ability to be absorbed into the body).
The best way to ensure proper nutrition is to read labels on products, avoid additives, eat fresh, locally grown produce as much as possible — produce grown locally is less likely to have preservatives added since it is not shipped a long way — consume a variety of foods, watch portion sizes and stay active.
"It's realizing what you do every day that really determines your health, and not just the genetics," Schmidt says. "I don't think people realize (that by eating poorly) what they are taking away from themselves in the long run is their health and happiness."