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Reasonable Dietary Guidelines

Recognizing that the American diet was producing a health crisis of degenerative diseases, about thirty years ago the U.S. government began to address the issue of an optimal diet for the American people. As early as 1969, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, chaired by Senator George McGovern, held hearings, and in 1977 they issued their conclusions. Despite strong opposition from the powerful American food industry, the McGovern Committee came up with important new recommendations in the form of the United States Dietary Goals. They recommended reducing calorie intake, increasing the consumption of complex carbohydrates, reducing the consumption of refined sugars, reducing overall fat consumption, reducing saturated fat consumption and balancing it with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, reducing cholesterol consumption, and limiting sodium intake.

These recommendations were met with strong protests from the cattle, egg, sugar, and food-processing industries, and even the American Medical Association. In the intervening years, though, the AMA altered its antagonistic position.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced a new "Eating Right Pyramid," which further de-emphasized meat and dairy products. However, in the face of a new wave of protests from the meat and dairy industries, the USDA pulled back promotion of the pyramid, provoking criticism from the American Cancer Society and other agencies.

Nonetheless, many nutrition advocates, including the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), believed that the food pyramid did not go far enough. PCRM proposed its own "new" four food groups, which consisted entirely of plant foods - whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. PCRM maintained that a diet centered on plant foods presents the least risk for causing heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity, colon cancer, breast cancer, and osteoporosis. Plant foods, they said, have tremendous advantages. Plant foods contain disease-fighting substances known as phytochemicals and are rich in other nutrients. They are also low in fat and high in fiber, which helps prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer and helps to remove dangerous toxins from the system.

Many people, however, prefer not to subsist solely on plant foods, but would rather add a small amount of lean meat, fish, and dairy products to their primarily vegetarian diets. This type of diet is generally referred to as a "plant-based" diet. Pure vegetarian diets can be very healthy, but many people find them to be excessively restrictive and run the risk of being protein deficient. Therefore, a plant-based diet strikes a healthy middle ground.

In October of 1997, the American Institute for Cancer Research released the first sweeping report on diet and cancer since the 1980s. The report was based upon an examination of 4,500 studies. The Institute's primary directive was to eat a plant-based diet, drink no alcohol, maintain a moderate weight throughout life, and get some exercise. According to Harvard's Dr. Walter C. Willett, one of the report's authors, "Ten to 15 years ago, the notion was that cancer was caused by too many bad things lurking in our food supply. . . . This report really turns things around and says, cancer comes, really, from not getting enough of the good things." One of the Institute's most important recommendations is to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, because fruits and vegetables are a potent way to protect the body against cancer. Additionally, the report also called for meat consumption of no more than three ounces daily, which is an amount equal to about the size of a deck of cards.

Research supporting this type of diet is powerful and voluminous. Many recent studies have shown that vegetarians are nearly 50 percent less likely to die from cancer than nonvegetarians. For example, Japanese women who follow Western-type diets that include meat are eight times likelier to develop breast cancer than Japanese women who eat a plant-based diet. Vegetarian diets also help prevent heart disease, since animal products are the main dietary source of saturated fat and the only source of cholesterol. Low-fat vegetarian diets, along with exercise, are also effective at controlling adult-onset diabetes.

In 1988, the American Dietetic Association issued a position paper endorsing vegetarian diets as "healthful and nutritionally adequate." According to the ADA, vegetarian diets provide adequate protein, although they generally provide less protein than nonvegetarian diets. This may actually be beneficial, as we will see later. Both vegetarians and nonvegetarians alike, said the ADA, may have difficulty meeting recommendations for iron intake. Also, vegetarians who don?t eat eggs or dairy products may need to take additional vitamin B12.

It was Dr. Denis Burkitt who first promulgated the value of fiber in the diet. More recently, he has commented that while developed countries have steadily increased their intake of meat and dairy products over the last two hundred years, our bodies have not adapted to these changes in diet, and have no more use for such foods than they did twenty thousand years ago.

However, though it may be tempting to make an across-the-board recommendation that all humans should eat nothing but plant-based diets, it is just such dogmatism that has long created discord and misunderstanding on the subject of nutrition. Thus, it is important to heed the advice of pioneering nutritionist Dr. Roger J. Williams, the discoverer of pantothenic acid and folic acid, who originated the principle of "biochemical individuality." Throughout his prolific writing, Dr. Williams pointed out that each person is biologically unique, and that there is no one diet that is suitable for all. Because we are all unique genetically, we require slight variations in our nutrient intake. For example, some people don?t produce enough of the enzyme lactase to properly digest milk. Environmental and lifestyle influences also contribute to our uniqueness. Furthermore, eating contaminated foods may make some people more chemically sensitive than others. Similarly, stress can affect digestion and nutritional needs. Even strenuous exercise creates an added demand for protective nutrients. Because of all of these factors, it is wise for each person to develop his or her own unique nutritional program.

Under the NCCAM grant at the Stanford University School of Medicine, the research team of Dr. Christopher Gardner, Dr. John W. Farquhar, and Dr. John B. Cooke has undertaken a number of innovative studies focused on plant-based diets. One study of a commercial garlic supplement was consistent with other studies indicating that garlic had little or no effect in lowering LDL cholesterol. Studies are under way in 1999 and into 2000 on the effects of phytoestrogens and soy protein on cholesterol, bone density, and breast cancer in postmenopausal women. One of the most innovative studies is to compare a plant-based diet to the currently recommended avoidance of fat and cholesterol diet. This research is oriented to determining an "optimal" diet that is as concerned with what is in a diet, phytonutrients, as with what is left out. Innovative research such as this will yield reliable, clear guidelines to create an optimal diet based on science rather than on marketing.

Nonetheless, for most people, research now clearly shows that a plant-based diet offers the most protection against the most common degenerative diseases.


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Copyright © 2000 by Dr. Kenneth R. Pelletier, Inc.

Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York.


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