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  • Writer's pictureNicole Spear, MS, CNS

Food Wars! May the Best Diet Win

Updated: Aug 25, 2018

Confusion over dietary advice frustrates even the most skilled dietary professional. One day, we are told fat is bad and the next, fat is good. Eggs will raise your cholesterol. No, eggs are healthy. Eat eggs. Red meat causes heart disease. Red meat, bad! Oh, but grass-fed red meat is healthy. Eat red meat. At times, it feels as if you will give yourself a heart attack by simply trying to search for the best diet that will prevent such an event.

A Glimpse At Other Cultures and Dietary Patterns

Throughout history, civilizations have existed on a variety of diets. Have you ever wondered why the Mexican cuisine is classified by beans, rice and hot peppers or the Asian cuisine, by fish, rice and sea vegetables? How about the pasta and tomatoes that make us think of Italy or the potatoes and sausage that warms the heart of a true German? Although the dietary customs of each culture has certainly altered as food has become increasingly industrialized throughout the world, there still remains a thread of dietary tradition that holds cultural values and history in place.

So what can each of these cultures tell us about the “optimal” diet? Well, they may not give us the “in” to the best diet, but they do tell us that historically, people have survived on a variety of foods that were not chosen for health as much as for other factors that we don’t consider today, including:

  • Regional availability: In an era where we have unlimited access to all varieties of foods, regional availability doesn’t often sway our choices

  • Cultural traditions: What is the American tradition?

  • Religious practices: Some individuals will follow a Kosher diet, or a vegetarian diet for religious purposes, but again…. That’s not most us.

  • Government restrictions on imports: Some countries still restrict imports, which limits availability, but Americans can get nearly anything we desire.

  • Etc….. Can you think of other factors that would limit food choices?

Cultural traditions and regional availability are most likely responsible for the dietary differences seen throughout history. If an ideal diet existed, cultural traditions could be helpful in allowing us to see patterns of health associated with different dietary patterns. For example, we have often associated an Asian diet with decreased risks of cancer and heart disease – America’s two greatest causes of death. So we have discovered that fish, rice, and lots of sea vegetables are protective somehow. Similarly, the Mediterranean diet was promoted as being a “heart healthy” diet. Why? Because heart disease was not so common in the Mediterranean regions where whole grains, olive oil, and red wine persisted even when other dietary patterns blended with nearby regions. So again, looking at other cultures’ dietary trends can be helpful in seeing the outcomes of various dietary patterns.

A History of the American Cuisine… (whatever that is!)

America seems to be strangely alone in lacking a traditional, cultural cuisine and perhaps, this is why we are so confused about what our diet should look like. We were discovered after Africa, Europe and Asia. As other nations began populating America, we truly became a smorgasbord of nationalities, each of which possessed their own idea of “cuisine.” Of course, the pilgrims learned the native crops – corn, potatoes, squash and beans – but most domesticated animals (cattle, pigs, chickens, etc) and agriculture was brought over from the “Old World.”

So, what is the “American” cuisine? Strangely, if you ask Dr. Google this question, the reply will include hamburgers, French fries, hotdogs, and macaroni and cheese. I suppose the more sophisticated rendition of this would include the beloved steak and potato meal, with a starchy veggie on the side. However, even a meal such as this is becoming less characteristic of the traditional family meal as it is replaced by fast food, restaurants, freezer dinners, canned soups and processed meals-in-boxes. Why is this? Industrialization and biotechnology – topics for a later blog.

America’s Confusion About Diet and Our Health

What do our dietary trends say about us? Well…. The general health of America has remained near the bottom of the list for years. This has spurred us to create a multitude of pyramids and diets that have succeeded in leaving Americans confused and frustrated. Consider some of the most recent diet fads:

1820: Vinegar and Water Diet 1930s: The Grapefruit Diet 1950s: The Cabbage Soup Diet 1960s: Weight Watchers 1970s: Sleeping Beauty Diet, Cookie Diet, Slim-Fast 1980s: Jane Fonda, Jazzercise, Fit for Life (apparently, we gave up on food and tried exercise instead!) 1990s: Low-fat craze, Atkins Diet, Zone Diet, Sugar Busters Diet, Blood Type Diet, Mediterranean Diet, Vegetarian Diet (oops…exercise didn’t work, find a new diet!) 2000: Macrobiotic Diet, Raw Food Diet 2003: South Beach Diet 2006: Master Cleanse 2010: Paleo Diet 2011: HCG Diet

Apparently, the USDA food pyramid (established in the 1950s) failed to teach Americans how to eat and remains nothing more than a wall decoration in schools or a photo in textbooks. Unfortunately, this is the case because the USDA food pyramid is designed to promoted subsidized agriculture, rather than health.

One thing is clear, our search for the best diet is evidence of our declining health. Obesity continues to soar to unprecedented records each year. Children’s lifespans are now shorter than that of their parents. No longer is there an obscure diabetes diagnosis, but three types of diabetes, affecting all age groups.

Generational Dietary Patterns

The pendulum of dietary fads and trends has certainly left its mark on our culture. As I visit with clients of all generations, I see the dietary trends of their generation shine through.

Here’s what I have noticed:

  • The oldest generations: remain heavily reliant on canned vegetables, and pre-packaged meals. Sugar, bread and milk are staples in their fridge.

  • The Baby Boomers can’t seem to give up their soda, sugar, and McDonalds. After all, fast food was born during their childhood.

  • Generation Xers seem to create the divide between those who are interested in healthy eating and those who are not. Some come from the hippie movement and worship sprouted grains and vegetarian lifestyles. Others are staunch believers in the low-fat craze and/or rely heavily on calorie-counting and therefore, are the most likely candidates for yo-yo dieting.  

  • Millennials seem to be the most health-conscious as is evidenced by the sweeping movements toward “clean” eating and green lifestyles. High-protein/low-carb diet trends are common.

  • Centennials have yet to identify their long-term dietary trends.

Of course, within each designated generation, there exists some who are most or less health-conscience, usually based on parental role-modeling or peer influences. It it has not reached its crest yet.

State of the Nation

So, with the seemingly new and rising trends toward healthier eating, why is our health still in shambles? Generally speaking, processed foods, fast food, and junk foods still permeate a large percentage of the food industry and our homes. Staple food products such as meats, poultry, dairy, grains and crops have become almost exclusively industrialized and bioengineered, so that even the so-called “natural” products are harming our health. Fresh produce still remains a minority food group in most homes. So yes, the tide is turning, but it has not reached its crest yet.

Healthier eating is sprouting, but its growth is slow and seems to require alarming health disparities to occur before springing forth. As our nation’s health continues to decline, increasingly more people are becoming aware of the need for clear answers to healthy dietary patterns. We want the confusion cleared.

Why the Confusion?

So what have we learned so far about WHY we are so confused? Americans are confused about dietary advice because:

  • we are a melting pot of mixed regions, each of which brings its own dietary history

  • we are no longer limited to regional offerings, but industrialization has expanded our choices

  • the USDA created a food pyramid that does not promote health, but encourages subsidized food groups

  • a multitude of diets have been created to deal with the health issues stemming from unhealthy dietary choices, but none seem to be dealing with the real issue

Hope for the Future

There has never been a more important time in America’s history for us to get our diet right. The health of the Centennials is worse than seen in previous generations. We will lose our leaders, our military, our workforce and more if we don’t start getting a handle on our health.

So what is the ideal diet? In the next blog, we will identify similarities in historical dietary patterns within cultures and how following these trends can help us identify an “ideal” diet. At the same time, we will identify problems that have been unique to America and left our health in shambles. Let the food wars begin!!

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