Jewish World Review Sept. 4, 2002 / 27 Elul, 5762
Dr. Ed Blonz
Dear F.S.: I appreciate your request to have me "weigh in," and I am glad to step up to the soapbox.
I am not inclined to recommend either the low-fat or the low-carbohydrate approach. The problem is with the very concept of making a public health "recommendation." This presumes to know which weight-loss approach will be best for everyone, but it simply doesn't work that way. Different diets work best for different bodies, but it's difficult to know which approach works best with whom. As a general rule, the only "low" that seems to works for all is low CALORIE.
I don't favor eliminating or severely curtailing entire groups of whole foods. It is a bad policy, especially when there is ample evidence from around the world that restrictive approaches are not essential for good health.
The current media-darling -- the low-carbohydrate diet -- short-changes plant foods, such as fiber-rich and nutrient-rich whole grains, fruits and vegetables. These foods contain important phytochemicals that can help lower the risk of chronic disease.
Independent of their nutritional attributes, carbohydrate-rich foods contribute important tastes and textures that add much to the enjoyment of food. The flip side of a low-carbohydrate approach is that it opens the door to an unbridled consumption of meats and other high-protein, high-fat foods. Eating fat-laden foods while limiting foods that can help your body handle fat and cholesterol smacks of a long-term health disaster.
Then, there is the fact that radical, restrictive diets tend to be short-term affairs. What happens when you go off the diet? If you haven't learned anything, it might mean a return to the habits that got you into trouble in the first place.
Regarding obesity: Why is it so prevalent in the United States? Is it really because we have become so inactive? That is definitely a big factor, and it starts in childhood, during the formative years when the body takes shape and habits are formed. But another part of the problem is the onslaught of value marketing in the food industry. Food has gotten less expensive to produce, so, rather than lowering prices, we get more for the same amount of money.
Food manufacturers have also found a way to make more money (let's super-size it!) by pushing excess calories for a few pennies more. You go into the theater, for example, and order a box of popcorn. Then, you're told that for a few pennies more you can get the next size up (with free refills). What a value! People don't like to leave something on the plate (or in a box) if they have already paid for it. Blend this with our decreased level of physical activity, and we have sown the seeds of a public health disaster.
There are no simple fixes, but here are some of my observations: Just like there isn't one approach to dieting that will work for everyone, there isn't a single path to good health that works for all. I have always favored a long-term strategy, where changes are subtle and lasting as opposed to drastic and short-lived. If weight loss is the immediate goal, the gradual shift should not only emphasize reducing calories, but it must include an activity component. Exercise burns calories and checks the slowing of the metabolism -- a natural side effect of dieting.
Eating should be enjoyable -- not looked upon as prescriptive or simply as a means to satisfy hunger. I always encourage people to get in the kitchen and cook, and this is especially true for children. Schools have our children during a teachable period in their lives, and they need to integrate an understanding and appreciation for the growth, production and preparation of foods. What kind of message do we send by turning our most valuable resource over to a cafeteria populated by fast food restaurants?
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