A national Food Day campaign is being launched later this month by The Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group encourages people to support “healthy, affordable food grown in a sustainable, humane way.” Best Food Facts spoke with Dr. Barbara Klein, Professor Emerita of Foods and Nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois, about what she views as the top healthy eating issues we face.
The sponsoring organization for Food Day states: “A healthy diet can lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, and prevent everything from tooth decay and obesity to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.” What’s your reaction to this?
Dr. Klein: Diet change alone cannot PREVENT all of these syndromes, although it can certainly play a role. Even proponents of restrictive vegetarian diets will admit that they are hard to follow although they can be beneficial. Time-pressured adults are unlikely to undertake a diet that requires considerable knowledge, food purchasing and cooking know-how, and teach their kids to like it.
The rising obesity rate in the U.S. is viewed as one of our top health concerns. How would you characterize the obesity problem in the United States?
Dr. Klein: Obesity, particularly in children, is a growing concern. The data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate the change in obesity rates, as characterized by BMI (Body Mass Index), remains upward bound. This is in spite of many medical and nutrition experts sounding an alarm.
It is not the obesity in itself that is the problem, but the accompanying changes in cardiovascular health. Hypertension is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the United States. (See the Institute of Medicine report on A Population-based Policy and Systems Change Approach to Prevent and Control Hypertension.)
The group of factors that influence our risk of coronary heart disease, coronary artery disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes Includes overweight and obesity. It is important to recognize that multiple risk factors impact our overall health—not just the single one of eating a healthful diet.
What, in your opinion, is the primary cause of our obesity predicament?
Dr. Klein: As noted, there are multiple causes—social, economic, genetic. The availability of a variety of inexpensive fast foods, particularly for family eating, certainly plays a part. Our taste for high fat and high salt foods has increased with their accessibility and price.
Over the past several decades, everyday physical activity has diminished. We drive to work, our children are dropped off at school, physical education classes are cut from curricula, we have no time to play outdoors with our children.
We cannot say that we don’t, in general, have access to the ingredients for a healthful diet. A trip to the supermarket confirms the availability of an array of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, poultry and fish, and an increase in the whole grain foods that are recommended by health and nutrition gurus. These foods can be expensive at times (the strawberries in January syndrome), and in tough economic times and neighborhoods, might not be purchased.
Such things as red meat, sodium, processed foods, and high fructose corn syrup have been targeted by some groups as things that need to be avoided. What’s your view?
Dr. Klein: Avoidance is difficult to sell. Tell someone not to eat a hamburger and suddenly it becomes the most desirable food in the world. And if we tell people to avoid too many specific things, they find it difficult to cope with the advice. We can find research studies to support or refute our hypotheses. Meta-analyses (consideration of multiple studies on a particular topic) are often used to provide guidance for health and diet recommendations. There is minimal evidence to suggest that eliminating red meat or high fructose corn syrup will have substantial effect on health parameters, unless they are coupled with other strategies.
“Processed foods” is too large a category to approach. After all, milk, cheese, canned tomatoes, and orange juice are all processed. Are they “bad foods”? The answer is there are no “bad foods”—it is how they are incorporated into the diet. Dry cereals are often cited as being problematic in children’s diets, but comparisons of cereals will only show that if they are high sugar added cereals, they have more calories.
Sodium or salt intake is another story. Although there is some debate on the issue, most health and nutrition experts agree that we do eat an extraordinarily high amount of salt, mostly (but not exclusively) from prepared foods. Included among these are canned soups, snack chips and crackers, and even some canned vegetables. Salt added at the table can also inflate intake much more than we imagine. The problem is, salt makes foods “taste better”—it is a flavor enhancer. But it also results in hypertension when consumed at the levels that Americans like. Most food processors are trying hard to reduce sodium without impacting consumer acceptance, and this is a challenge.
Finally, can you give us some basic advice on the things Americans should keep in mind when it comes to healthful eating?
Dr. Klein: The new recommendations for eating well – the MyPlate concept – have much to offer. It may seem somewhat simplistic, but it can help make choices. You might call it the “keep it simple” or “it’s not rocket science” approach.