Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Big Fat Joke of our Dietary Recommendations in the US

I've received a number of interesting emails the last few days; asking everything from "where are you going with this?" to "that's not a plant-based diet, and most definitely not a vegetarian diet, so what's your point?"

Patience grasshopper, patience!

My point is this - over the last thirty-odd years we've been repeatedly told to limit meat, consume fewer eggs, choose low-fat dairy, use vegetable oils instead of animal fats for cooking, take the skin off our chicken and eat more chicken and fish; advised to have a few "vegetarian nights" for dinner; told to spread margarine, not butter, on our bread; pressured restaurants and fast food outlets to use partially hydrogenated oils to reduce saturated fat; reminded to eat more grains for fiber; and, at the end of the day, bought - hook line and sinker - the message that how we used to eat was bad, bad, bad and a diet with more plant-based calories was better for us.

Slowly but surely we have modified our diet and more calories now, than ever before, 73% in fact, come from plant-based sources; and we've grown obese, diabetic and disabled with increased incidence of degenerative disease. We're also a nation slowly becoming dependent on prescription medications to relieve the symptoms of our poor dietary habits while we're repeatedly told our health would improve if we just ate less meat, eggs, butter, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

Folks, these are not the problems in our diet.

Oh, we have modified our calories to consume more plant-based sources of calories, but we're not eating closer to a vegetarian diet (nor do I think we have to).

What we're eating is more and more processed foods with the majority of calories coming from three nutritionally poor, calorie dense sources - added sugars, added vegetable oils and refined grain products.

In fact, these three things - added sugars, added vegetable oils and processed grains - made up more than 60% of our daily calories in 2000. By 2004, little changed over four years, these three items still provided more than 60% of our daily calories.

These three items, that are providing most of our calories each day, aren't really "foods" but are better thought of as "ingredients" since no one will readily sit with a sugar-bowl and eat spoon after spoon of sugar, take slugs from a bottle of corn syrup, chow down over a big bowl of flour, or pour a nice big glass of soybean oil to sip at the end of the day.

These ingredients however litter our food supply and are found in virtually all processed foods - those you'll likely find in a box, jar, can or bag; those with a nutrition label on them detailing the fat, carbohydrate, fiber and protein, followed by the ingredients; frozen, refrigerated or stable on the shelf, these foods contain the ingredients that provide the majority of our calories each day.

As the past couple of posts highlighted, the devil is in the details - it's not what you're eating per se that appears to be a problem; but it's what's in what you're eating that is adding not only significant calories each day, but a significant burden on your metabolism.

With more than 60% of calories from nutritionally bankrupt ingredients that provide little more than energy, should we be surprised we're growing obese, diabetic and suffering an increase of degenerative disease?

Take a close look at what our diet looks like from the ERS data - in 2000 averaged 2,739-calories, with those calories coming from:
  • dairy, 285-calories (10.4%);
  • fruits 80-calories (2.9%);
  • vegetables, including potatoes and legumes, 133-calories (4.9%);
  • nuts, including peanuts, 90-calories (3.3%);
  • eggs 27-calories (1%);
  • meats, poultry and fish combined provide 374-calories (13.6%)
    red meats, including beef, pork, lamb and veal, 248-calories (9%);
    poultry, including chicken and turkey, 110-calories (4%)
    fish 16-calories (less than 1%)
  • grains, 634-calories (23%)
    whole grains, 32-calories (1.1%)
    refined grains, 602-calories (21.9%)
  • added sugars, 502-calories (18.3%)
  • added fats, 650-calories (23.7%)
    vegetable oils (mostly soybean), 276-calories (10%)
    shortening, 238-calories (8.7%)
    margarine, 40-calories (1.5%)

To determine the ratios of whole grain versus refined grain, I based the above calorie intakes on a 2002 Nutrition Research Newsletter that included the following, "Grains account for approximately 25% of energy consumption in the United States. However, an estimated 95% of grain available for consumption is refined."

Our diet is appalling - not because we eat too much meat, not because we can't give up eggs, and not because we love our butter...but because we're replacing "real food" with processed foods rich with added sugars, added vegetable oils and refined grains!

And we're eating like this thinking we're choosing healthy foods because we're told these foods are healthier for us - when we reach for the whole grain crackers, whole grain breads, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals touting whole grains, reduced fat salad dressings, and other "foods" we're encouraged to eat - almost all contain one, two or all three of the offending ingredients.

Want an example of just how we're encouraged to eat foods with these ingredients? The Mayo Clinic says "For a healthy breakfast on the go, munch dry, ready-to-eat cereal with a banana and drink a small carton of low-fat or skim milk. The best cereals are those that are higher in fiber. If counting calories, choose cereals that are lower in calories."

Among the options suggested by the Mayo Clinic?

Basic Four
INGREDIENTS include: Sugar, Rice, Brown Sugar, Crisp Rice (Rice Flour, Malt Extract, Sugar, Salt),Corn Syrup, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Corn Syrup Solids, Dextrose, Malt Syrup, Dried High Maltose Corn Syrup, and High Maltose Corn Syrup

With 200-calories per serving, 41.5% of those calories are from added sugars and added vegetable oil (partially hydrogenated vegetable oil); if 50% of the grains are refined, as the ingredients suggest, than another 12.5 grams of carbohydrate, or 25% more of the calories, are from refined grains, bringing the total calories from three ingredients - added sugars, added oils and refined grains - to 66.5% of the total calories in a serving.

It's not just the Mayo Clinic serving up advice that leads directly to higher than anticipated consumption of added sugars, added vegetable oils and processed grains.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans maintains a document "Food Groups to Encourage" that reads "Consume 3 or more ounce-equivalents of whole-grain products per day, with the rest of the recommended grains coming from enriched or whole-grain products. In general, at least half the grains should come from whole grains;" an implicit nod to continue eating processed foods, now just look for whole grain in the ingredients!

The American Heart Association makes the same recommendation and even offers manufacturers an opportunity to have the AHA Heart Check Mark on their products for consumers to identify those that are "heart healthy" - among those promoted as "heart healthy" - breads with added sugars and partially hydrogenated oils; ready-to-eat breakfast cereals including Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs, Berry Berry Kix, and Trix; chocolate and strawberry flavored milks; microwave popcorn; and reduced fat crackers. The No-Fad Diet, an AHA publication, specifically includes donuts, fast food bacon biscuits and other fare as "healthy" when it is clearly the opposite!

And yet we blame Americans for being unable to make good choices?

The American Dietetics Association, in their Nutrition Facts Sheets, maintains a document, targeted toward the consumer, titled "Whole Grains Made Easy" - within it, a weeks menu with granola bars, pretzels, cornbread, ready-to-eat cereal, graham crackers, tortilla chips, veggie burgers and waffles; all included as "whole grain" foods to choose each day! Ignore that each is processed and includes one or more of the three ingredients above.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) includes sugar, processed foods and copious amounts of vegetable oils in their advice to those at risk for or diagnosed with diabetes. In their latest update to their Nutrition Recommendations and Interventions for Diabetes - 2006, they specifically state a low-carbohydrate diet (less tahn 130g of carbohydrate each day) is to be avoided and that "Individuals at high risk for type 2 diabetes should be encouraged to achieve the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommendation for dietary fiber...and foods containing whole grains (one-half of grain intake);" and "people with diabetes are encouraged to choose a variety of fiber-containing foods such as legumes, fiber-rich cereals..., fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products because they provide vitamins, minerals, and other substances important for good health."

More food products, with added sugars, added vegetable oils and refined grains, encouraged as good choices.

And yet we blame Americans for being unable to make good choices?

While we're repeatedly told to limit our consumption of red meat, butter, eggs and other animal foods, we're also specifically encouraged to consume processed food products disguised as "healthful" because they're a "source" of whole grains, low-fat, no cholesterol.

Ignore the added sugars, ignore the vegetable oils, ignore how much of a product is not whole grain...just don't eat animal foods!

Our current diet is wrecking havoc on our metabolism; its nothing more than excessive sugars, oils and processed grain products, which leave our bodies wondering what its supposed to do with these calories coming in that do not include much in the way of essential nutrients to work with.

We're reminded it's all about calories, without much said about meeting essential nutrient requirements; we're reminded to limit saturated fat, without much said about the detriments of excess polyunsaturated fatty acids providing excess omega-6 and the nutrient deficiency risk when limiting or replacing one type of food with another; and when we hear "food" mentioned by experts, it's often a "food product" with little distinction between real whole food versus processed foods.

We're left totally confused within the grocery store as more and more packages have labels touting their food product as superior to another because "insert health claim here;" manufacturers and retailers are gearing up to confuse us further with in-store promotions of whole grain products and other such "healthful" selections, totally ignoring the added sugars, vegetable oils and processed grains in those products you'll be directed toward because they're "healthier" for you.

Nutrition advice in the United States is a total joke, yet no one is laughing at the consequence of our folly that has resulted in an explosion of obesity, diabetes and other degenerative diseases.

Yet we continue down the path, warning incessantly about the terrible things in real whole food - saturated fat in meats and coconut oil; cholesterol in animal foods, especially eggs and butter; too much fat in nuts and seeds, too much fat in milk and cheese; while encouraging the consumption of vegetable oils, processed grains, fruits & vegetables and legumes; in a continued attempt to modify our dietary habits to include more plant-based foods, more vegetarian selections and include even fewer animal foods each day.

Just get with the program and all with be well.

But if you look at our food intake, and look at where it was forty years ago, thirty years ago, even twenty years ago, we're eating similar levels of animal foods - what we've increased, significantly, is added sugars, processed grains and vegetable oils.

We do this without much thought, eat without realizing just how much more we are consuming calorie-wise, because added sugars, vegetable oils (soybean) and processed grains do not offer satiety or a level of nutrients our metabolism can use; all these ingredients offer is additional calories which short-circuit our metabolism and cause a host of problems from insulin resistance, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, high triglycerides, elevated blood sugars and more.

Over time these disturbances lead to diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

If we seriously want to halt the trends in obesity, reverse the epidemic of diabetes and stop the continued rise in degenerative diseases, we must - must - stop promoting processed food products as "healthful" options; better for us than real, whole foods that happen to include meat, dairy, eggs, oatmeal, qunioa, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, etc.

For over thirty years we've been sold a bill of goods that is directly causing our poor health and growing obesity - processed foods that contain added sugars, vegetable oils and processed grains - are adding significant hidden calories to our diet and not providing for essential nutrients that are critical for our health.

The experts wring their hands over the obesity epidemic while they refuse to consider the source of our inability to regulate appetite; they blame the population for making poor choices and lacking willpower; and they ignore that the foods they're specifically encouraging are the problem. Until the powers that be have the guts to address the issue of processed foods and the damaging effects of excess ingredients in packaged foods, little is going to change regarding obesity or diabetes.

But you - you can read the consumption data yourself and begin to see exactly how our eating pattern has changed in ways no one is talking about. You can see with your own eyes just how much more added sugars, vegetable oils and processed grains we're consuming in this country and then look at the various recommendations being made to consume that foodstuff.

Then, you can evaluate your own diet - see where you can make improvements to eliminate these ingredients adding calories, these foods that are not healthful to you and begin to eat a diet that truly is healthy....one rich with nutrients, rich with real, whole foods.


  1. Anonymous11:52 AM


    Set 'em up, knock 'em down. Case closed. QED

    What else can I say. I am floored by the weight and force of your presentation and arguement.

  2. Anonymous2:02 PM

    We need you Regina. The power and might of entrenched opinion is reinforced yet again today by the American Heart Association revised guidelines for women. It consists of more of the same, more grains, more fish, more veggies, and cuts their already untenable limit of saturated fats from 10% to 7%.

    Please, keep posting.


  3. so, tell us how you really feel! :-)

  4. Another great post.

    I posted a blog showing the nutritional value (or lack of) of the recommendations of the AHA's No-fad diet. (http://cindyslowcarblife.blogspot.com/2007/02/women-and-aha.html)

    Now....when will we see your review on the latest news about women and stroke????

    Thanks Regina....your posts are great! I look forward to each and every one!!!

  5. Thank YOU, Regina! Right on!
    Your excellent column directly connects with Michael Pollan's recent best-seller, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which I think is an absolutely masterful book.

    What you're saying needs to get out into the bigger world and I'll do all I can to make sure more people read it.

  6. Anonymous4:29 AM

    Good article. It looks as if the vegan moral crusade may be healthy for animals, but unhealthy for humans. It is a fact that humans became smaller and more violent after switching from a meat-rich diet of the hunter/gatherer to the largely vegetarian diet of an agrarian farmer.

    Jared Diamond documents how paleoanthropologists have determined that we lost some 6-7 inches of stature when we made the transition.

    Thanks to folks like PETA, there is now significant backlash against proselytizing vegetarians and vegans. You can find sites such as http://www.vegetariansareevil.com and more springing up to counter PETA sites such as www.meat.org.

  7. 2bthinner!5:48 PM

    I just want to comment that these recommendations can make it hard for those of us who have trouble losing weight anyway. Even on low carb. I go around and around with my doctor all the time. He gave me a pamphlet outlining what "I should eat". It looks like your menu samples! I threw it out. (TC210/LDL150/HDL67/TG64) And he wants me on a statin? NOT!

    I feel for people who have an even harder time standing up to their doctor. My mother just takes the script and never fills it. =D

  8. Anonymous10:16 AM

    I live in Canada and it's hard for me to find a doctor since mine retired. We have an acute shortage of them and even though I don't believe in going to them to maintain good health, sometimes you need to have them around. Well I finally found one and I have to pussy foot around him so he won't boot me. His motto, it's my way or the highway. It's not like I have a choice and can go shopping for doctors. So far I have managed to detract him from prescribing drugs as my blood lipids are perfect (I didn't tell him what I eat) and now I need to bring my BP down by 5-10 points otherwise he's going to put me on blood pressure meds. It's a nightmare. I suppose I could just fill them and not take them. Do they keep track of who fills their prescriptions? Oh and btw he went on a tirade when I refused to go for a mammogram. He ranted for 15 minutes, so I told him I would seriously give the matter some thought. I'm still thinking 2 months later. Wonder how long I can stall?

  9. Anonymous4:56 PM

    from one anonymous to another - who is in charge, you or the doctor?? who is paying the fee you or the doctor? is this person someone who helps you when you have a problem with your health or is he or she a dictator that tells you how you are feeling & what drugs to take? On the streets this person would be a drug pusher, don't be so intimidated by this person who after all is only someones kid who went to med school & passed an exam a few years ago. You can read the same books he did you can read the same information that is available to him what makes him or her so special? the word doctor?? I don't think doctor is spelt "god". So if this person tells you to get a mamogram which I wouldn't have in a pink fit myself & you don't want one then tell them so. Just say thanks for your advice but this is my position on the whole thing & while I respect your views on it you need to respect mine as well. Read up on the issues, take notes if you have to & take them in with you, write down all the doctors answers to your fears or real objections & tell him you will check up on those points of view too & get back to him/her. You have rights, you have a brain & you can know just as much if not more than this person, Plus you are paying for their service so who is really in charge?? Take charge of your own health matters & the doctor should be just another tool in that adventure not the be all & end all of medical knowledge. It is your body & if the doctor insists on writing you a prescription & you don't want to fill it then don't - he can't make you take drugs if you don't want to. Get him to come up with a better way make him research alternatives like vitamins & minerals or other means of keeping you healthy after all that is what his job is isn't it? Not masking a set of symptoms with a non-curative drug.

  10. Anonymous1:55 PM

    A response from one anonymous to another...I know more about nutrition in my fingernail than my doctor does in his entire body several times over but unfortunately 10 years ago I had a stroke as I was following the wonderful "SAD" diet and since then have endeavoured to learn as much as I can about nutrition and health. The only book I haven't read yet is Kendrick's "Cholesterol Con" out of the UK. The issue is not my knowledge but the fact that I needed a doctor to fill out a form every year because I have a medical restriction on my driver's licence. The government still values doctors' opinions on these matters and since they call the shots, we have to conform. Since my old doctor retired, it's taken me 4 years to find a new one. If I had started spouting off nutritional truths to my present doctor, he would have acted like a "god" and droppped me as a patient. That's the reality here where I live. I don't like it but I have to live with it. Fortunately, since I have been stroke free for over 10 years thanks to a low-carb diet I adopted about 6 years ago, my medical restriction has been lifted as of last week. I will continue doing what I have been doing/not-doing and let the doctor say whatever he likes. I'm old enough to know who will listen and who won't. Besides, I don't need him anymore. That could prove very interesting in the future.