As a Functional Medicine and Holistic Doctor, I believe that many of our modern ailments are due to a loss of traditional ways of eating. As I work with patients and clients of all ages, I am made aware that we seem to be getting sicker and sicker, with each generation. I believe that if we could return to the ways of eating of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, we could prevent 90% of our modern diseases.
Where we are now
There is a common perception today that we modern humans are living longer and longer and that makes us healthier than any generation in the past. One the the driving forces for my passion to improve the health of the next generation is based on the fact that over the past 80 years (or so), we Americans have in fact gotten sicker and sicker. Yes, we might be living slightly longer than we did 80 years ago, but this is ONLY due to dramatic and heroic life maintaining and life-saving measures in the from of invasive medical procedures and medications.The average adult over 45 is on 4 medications. (1). Stents, angioplasty, bypass surgery, carotid artery repair, tumor resection, bowel resection are just a few procedures keeping millions alive. We have skyrocketing rates of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, degenerative diseases, autoimmune disease, lung disease, kidney disease, debilitating painful conditions- all the while being kept alive by medicine. We are no longer dying of infections, accidents, child-birth and trauma, but we are FAR from healthy.
In fact, the next generation is projected to live a SHORTER lifespan than the previous generation, for the first time in history.
This is NOT OK with me.
Public Enemy #1: SUGAR
Until the 1930’s sugar was expensive and rare. When Great-grandma cooked with it, it was a treat. It was likely a home-made pie with fresh fruit, real eggs from the farm and healthy fats. It was not the sugar bomb we now see on store shelves, loaded with High Fructose Corn Syrup and providing a bolus of sugar that the body sees as a crisis. It was homemade and eaten as an occasional treat.
The problem is that today, kids are not only getting sugary treats regularly, but sugar makes up the basis of their diets.
Breakfast is often sugary cereal, with low-fat milk (high in milk sugar), with a side of OJ (as sugary, if not worse than soda). Lunch is sugary yogurt topped with sugary granola; snack is Goldfish and dinner is pasta with a sweet roll on the side. Looking at the processed carbohydrate/grain load in the Standard American diet, one finds enough sugar to equal TABLESPOONS of sugar per day; and that is not even including the added sugar!
What many don’t realize is that those “healthy whole grains” that the Food Guidelines taut as essential to get 6-11 times a day are processed in the liver and once they hit the blood, they look no different from a teaspoon of sugar. In fact, 2 slices of whole wheat bread can contain as much sugar as a full size snickers bar! (2)
How did we get here?
The 1950’s and 60’s saw changes in the way Mom cooked. Prepared, boxed foods came into fashion allowing Mom more free time outside the home. In the 40’s industrial seed oils like Crisco made their debut and in 1979, the USDA Food Guidelines began recommending reduction of fat intake.
The Beginning of Flawed Recommendations
Almost in tandem, the Post WWII era industrial boom ushered in the idea of using excess corn, cottonseed and soybean oil for human consumption AND dodgy science declared Saturated fat and Cholesterol the enemy of heart health. The results were Guidelines from the USDA recommending people steer clear of the natural animal fats (Saturated Fat/Cholesterol) they had lived on for millennia and switch to the industrial, highly processed seed oils (poly-unsaturated fats/low Cholesterol) that once were used to make candles (Crisco). The theory was that polyunsaturated seed/vegetable oils reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease. (3) Hand in hand with the recommendation to significantly decrease fat intake was the advice to increase grain intake to 6-11 servings per day.
The Daily Food Guide that came out in 1979 was the first to recommend eating “fats, alcohol and sweets in moderation”. However the other 4 food groups were left as equals: Milk and Cheese, Bread and Cereals, Meat, Poultry and Beans, and Fruit and Veggies.
In 1984, the Food Wheel was the first to recommend 6-11 servings of bread and cereals and more significantly reduce fat intake. Remember the Time magazine cover with the unhappy face made out of eggs and bacon? That was the iconic symbol of the rise to power of the almighty low-fat high-carb food craze. And we have gotten sicker and sicker ever since.
Note in the chart below the steep rise in obesity when the 6-11 servings recommendation and significant fear of fat set in.
In the next graph you will notice the rise in cardiovascular disease soon after the high carb, low fat craze hit.
And in the last chart, the rate of diabetes is demonstrated.
The new Guidelines were a Blood Sugar Bomb waiting to go off for 3 reasons:
1). The highly processed grains turn STRAIGHT to blood sugar
2). With the pendulum swung so far to the “fear of fat” side, sugar was given a free ride. We are all familiar with the belief (to which many still adhere) that, “ as long as it is fat-free it will not make you fat”, “ as long as it is fat-free, you can eat as much as you wish,” and “sugar doesn’t make you fat, fat makes you fat”, or “ fat causes heart disease, sugar has nothing to do with it”, or “sugar is easily burned off, but fat sits in your arteries and on you butt.” I could go on and on and you likely have a few of your own that are stuck in your brain from years of indoctrination.
3). By restricting fat in the high carb/sugar diet, there is no buffer for sugar absorption and the sugar is fast-tracked straight to the blood. Fat and Fiber can slow the absorption of sugar into blood glucose, reducing the “blood sugar spike”.
So, how to we stop this train and get back to proper eating?
It should seem intuitive, but alas, propaganda of the past 60 years has been highly successful. “Eat how Grandma ate” has become the epitome of blocked arteries. But it is FALSE, FALSE FALSE.
#1. Cut the sugar
Shun the processed, sugary treated, granola bars and sport drinks. Save cake and cookies for special occasions.
#2. Don’t fall for the idea that grains are essential and carbs are the only place we get energy. Switch from having bread, rice, pasta, crackers and cereal at every meal to eating fruit, veggies, meat, fish, chicken, eggs, nuts, seeds and fats. Load your plate with veggies then add some meat. There are no nutrients in processed carbs! They are added because they are devoid of them. So why fill your little one’s tummy with empty calories? Kids need more nutrients pound for pound than adults because they are growing so fast- so don’t waste the space! Fill their little tummies with nutrient dense veggies, meats and fats!
#3. Don’t fear the fat or the Cholesterol! Natural fats like butter, lard and tallow actually contain nutrients that PREVENT heart disease! Saturated fat makes up 60% of our brains! Cell walls rely on saturated fat to be strong and supple. Cholesterol is essential to life! Without it, we would have no hormones, no Vitamin D, no cell walls and no immune system!
#4 Eat like Grandma did, or as close to it as possible. If Grandma didn’t live on a farm, she got her food from the farmer down the road. Food was fresh, raw, full fat and REAL. She did not have fat-free anything, packaged food, egg whites in a carton, or margarine. She did not have 64 oz Cokes and sugar-bomb energy bars. She drank fresh, full-fat, raw milk and ate butter. Cooking fats came from their animals. They ate the whole animal because that is what their ancestors had done and there was no wasting good nutritious organs (if you think I’m crazy, ask Great Grandma about steak and kidney pie, fried liver and onions, Rocky Mountain Oysters and cooking bones on the stove for days) . Grains were not eaten excessively. They ate off the land. Corn was not a hidden ingredient in everything, and GMO’s were unheard of. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease were rare. So were food allergies, asthma, gut issues, auto-immune disease. Grandma relied on her nutrition to keep her healthy and alive, because she didn’t have the miracles of modern medicine.
The Frog in Boiling Water
You know the anecdote of the the frog in boiling water? It is a metaphor for people not realizing how bad things are becoming if the change happens slowly enough.
It goes like this: if you put a frog in cold water and slowly turn up the temperature, the frog will boil to death, not realizing that the water is heating up because it’s happening so slowly. However, if you bring the water to a boil THEN place the frog in the boiling water, the frog will literally freak out and fight like heck to get out of the water.
I believe, as Americans, with regard to our ailing health, we are Frogs in Water being turned up slowly and we are almost at a boil.
And my greatest fear is that our children are going to bear the brunt of this behavior.
We need to realize we are in a pot of water headed for boiling point and GET OUT! The first step is to realize we have been doing this diet thing all wrong! (many of us, maybe not all of us- you smart cookie, you!). I am not satisfied with our kid’s health overall, are you? I refuse to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The Food Guides keep getting lower and lower fat and sugar is still not as vilified as it should be! We need to change course! Are you ready to take small steps today in your family’s diet to change the trajectory of our kids’ lives? It may not be easy, but I challenge you to take the leap!
3: “Death by Food Pyramid”, by Denise Minger
4: “The Big Fat Surprise,” by Nina Teicholz
5: “What Did Great-Grandma Eat?”, by Katania Taylor