What We Eat Matters

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed us in so many ways. We find ourselves often lost in the middle of the process of sorting it all out. And in that process, we are seeing two very different and equally disturbing behaviors seemingly working hand and glove. Unhealthy dietary habits are one example. Reckless pedal to the metal behind the wheel driving habits is another.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the estimated 209 million adults in the United States, 117 million have a preventable chronic illness related to their eating habits. This equates to about 55% of the population. As reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, during the first three months of 2022, an estimated 9,560 people died in traffic-related incidents across the country, many the consequence of reckless driving. This represents a 7% increase compared to the same period in 2021 and the worst total recorded since 2002.

The unanswered question left hanging in the air for many of us when we hear of such behavior: Whatever happened to moderation? By this I mean that quality Aristotle once defined as a virtuous one when regulated by wisdom.

This situation recently came to mind in reading a report on the “dude food” trend in this country, equating consuming massive amounts of heavy, meaty dishes such as hamburgers, hot dogs or barbecue ribs and extra-loaded nachos as not only a demonstration of masculinity but a patriotic act.

“As an author of a new book on George Washington, notoriously the first among men, I can assure you that there was a time when dude food was not celebrated as either masculine or patriotic,” writes Maurizio Valsania, professor of American history at the University of Turin, in a recent post on The Conversation.

“At that moment in American history, devouring heaping helpings wasn’t considered manly by the country’s leaders. It was seen as grotesque, perhaps even a vestige of aristocratic British habits,” writes Valsania. “Educating Americans to eschew gluttony, to cut down on red meat and to model their manliness upon ideals of moderation, self-control … was serious stuff to Jefferson and his fellow founders,” he adds.

Valsania’s research shows that George Washington largely adhered to “a vegitable and milk diet,” eating only small amounts of red meat. He was also said to be fond of fish. “On Saturdays, especially during his time as president, he usually had what was called a ‘salt fish dinner,’ a potpourri of boiled beets, potatoes and onion mixed with boiled fish, fried pork scraps and egg sauce.” As a testament to his concern for the health of the Army, one of his orders makes plain that it “cannot be preserved without a due portion of vegetable diet. This must be procured whatever may be the expense.”

It seems as if this debate between plant-based versus animal-based diets has been going on forever. “Like most parts of nature, the best diet may be somewhere in between,” suggests NBC News health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom in a recent report on eating trends. “More and more people are looking for balance by returning to eating like an ‘omnivore,'” as beings with the ability to eat and survive on both plant and animal matter. “As omnivores, we are physically able to digest both plant and animal proteins equally well — and that variety supports optimal health,” she adds.

“In a perfect world, indulging in a daily portion of French fries instead of almonds would be a simple choice,” says a recent report from Harvard Health, “and no negative consequences would stem from selecting the salty, deep-fried option.” This seems to be the conclusion of a new study funded by the potato industry, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which suggests as much. The study’s findings suggest “there’s no significant difference between eating a 300-calorie serving of French fries and a 300-calorie serving of almonds every day for a month, in terms of weight gain or other markers for diabetes risk.”

Responds Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “That doesn’t make the decision equally as healthy … Almonds deliver health benefits, including lowering ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.” Willett points out that almonds are a far better option to help ward off chronic illnesses such as diabetes or in delaying their complications.

“We’ve learned from many studies over the past two decades that weight loss studies lasting less than a year are likely to give misleading results, so a study lasting only 30 days is less than useless,” says Willett. “The one clear finding was that consumption of French fries increased blood glucose and insulin secretion much more than did almonds,” he notes, and is associated with “an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, especially when compared to whole grains.”

Some of you may recall the “preventable forms of death” discussed last week. Type 2 diabetes could have also been mentioned with this added note: It is now a public health threat that has reached epidemic proportions.

“Over the past 50 years, medical advances have led to a more sophisticated understanding of the causes of Type 2 diabetes and to an abundance of new tools for managing it. But better treatments have done little to stem the rise of the disease,” reports the New York Times’ Roni Caryn Rabin. “One in seven American adults has Type 2 diabetes now, up from one in 20 in the 1970s. Many teenagers are developing what was once considered to be a disease of older people; 40 percent of young adults will be diagnosed with it at some point in their lives,” she adds. “The conflict between the food industry and researchers has raged for decades, but the fast-spreading epidemic of Type 2 diabetes has lent greater urgency to questions about improving what Americans eat.”

“Our entire society is perfectly designed to create Type 2 diabetes,” says Dr. Dean Schillinger, a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, to the New York Times. “We have to disrupt that.”