Articles about eating to be healthy are commonplace, so I thought I would write one about eating to get sick. As our Western dietary habits have now spread across the world, we have created a situation where unhealthy food products are ubiquitous, they're heavily marketed, they're socially acceptable and normalized, and they appear to be highly addictive.
Yet, the unhealthy things we eat are only part of the problem. They are replacing the healthy things we need to eat. Large research studies have revealed that not eating enough of certain food groups causes as many health problems as consuming too many poor choices
Here are 15 relevant dietary factors that are making our world sick:
- diets low in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, milk, nuts and seeds, fiber, calcium, seafood-derived omega-3 fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids
- diets high in red meats, processed meats, trans fatty acids, sugary drinks, sugar laden foods, and sodium
Let’s examine the role of sugar. In the early 1900’s, the average American consumed 90 pounds of sugar per year. Now, more than half of Americans consume a half a pound of sugar each day! This enormous sugar load causes diabetes, heart disease, weight gain, liver disease, and contributes indirectly to numerous other health problems.
One major source is the sugars that are added to our food, the most famous of which is high fructose corn syrup, (HFCS). There is a correlation between the introduction of this syrup into our food supply and the rapid rise of diabetes. A different study showed that the prevalence of diabetes is 20% higher in countries with higher availability of HFCS, compared to countries with low availability.
As alarming as sugar laden foods may be, an even greater source of dietary sugar is sugary drinks. A single soda or flavored beverage can contain as much as 10 teaspoons of sugar! Just drinking one sugar sweetened beverage a day can lead to a weight gain of 5 pounds per year.
Perhaps even more frightening are the effects of our diet on our children. A large Norwegian study showed that children who ate more unhealthy foods, defined in the study as chips, buns, cakes, waffles, chocolate, cookies, sweets, soda, ice cream, popsicles, bread with jam or honey, pizza, and soda with artificial sweeteners, had higher levels of internalizing behaviors such as worry, sadness, crying, and anxiety, as well as externalizing behaviors, including aggression, tantrums, hyperactivity, and defiant behavior.
In comparison, children who ate more healthy foods, defined as white fish, oily fish, boiled and raw vegetables, fruit, bread with fish products, eggs, bread with meat, Norwegian brown cheese, and fish products, had lower levels of these problem behaviors.
What the mothers ate during their pregnancy also affected these behaviors. An unhealthy prenatal diet consisting of higher intake of processed meats, refined cereals, sweet drinks, and salty snacks predisposed offspring to more behavioral problems, whereas a healthy diet, consisting of higher intake of vegetables, fruit, high-fiber cereals, and vegetable oils, was associated with fewer behavioral problems in the children.
Further, our diet has been proven to affect our mental health. One study of almost 9000 adults found that those who consistently consumed "fast food," such as hamburgers and pizza, were 40% more likely to develop depression than participants who consumed little to none of these types of food! That study also found that depression risk rose as more fast food was consumed.
Another study concluded that a whole diet characterized by vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and high-quality meat and fish might help ward off depression and anxiety, whereas a so-called Western diet high in refined or processed foods and saturated fats may increase the risk for depression in adult women.
Still another showed that consuming a high-fat diet may cause brain changes that lead to anxiety and depression, and although switching to a healthy diet reversed the metabolic changes, mood problems seemed to persist.
So, in the face of this frightening news, what can we do? Protect ourselves and our families with good dietary choices. And here I must return to eating to stay healthy: Consume healthy (non-red meat sourced) protein, large quantities of vegetables of varied colors, a variety of fruits, a small handful of mixed nuts daily, whole grains, and healthy oils. Minimize anything with sugar, white flour, fast food, processed food, corn products, chips, salt, processed meats, and red meat. Eat to be healthy- don’t eat to be sick!