[This article was from the front page of this week's Christian Index.]
By Joe Westbury, Managing Editor
Published September 10, 2009
Imagine the United States without high blood pressure or a spiraling death rate from cancer. Now, imagine the same nation with little or no heart disease, diabetes, or hypertension.
Now let’s go one step further. Imagine the greatest evangelical nation in history without obesity, stroke, diverticulitis, malformed dental arches, or tooth decay; no varicose veins, ulcers, or hemorrhoids.
If you can stretch your imagination to those limits, let’s take the game one step further. With the elimination of those chronic illnesses, imagine a nation that no longer struggles with a national health care system on the verge of collapse due to largely preventable chronic diseases tied to poor lifestyle choices.
That’s the way our nation was before the current era of highly processed foods and an increased reliance on refined carbohydrates. In other words, in the years before we got lazy about what we ate.
It’s not just the poor Americans who don’t have healthy food options or the funds to eat better. It’s also the middle and upper classes who enjoy their convenience foods and their shake-and-bake lifestyle.
In short, the greatest nation the world has ever known is being hobbled by too much of a good thing – The Good Life.
A short history
As Americans moved from a farm-based society to one based on city living, they moved further from their source of food. The canning and storage of fruits and vegetables moved from the kitchen to the large companies that sprang up to take advantage of the cosmic shift in society.
While families began to get more of their fresh items in cans, they still kept alive the art of “scratch cooking” by using those items as just one of many ingredients in casseroles, pies, etc. But a new prosperity was ushered in at the end of World War II and, for the first time in its history, the nation made a giant leap from apartment dwellers to homeowners.
Those homes came with something called a mortgage that required both parents to work outside the home. The food industry, simply responding to the need of the market, developed highly processed food that replaced “scratch cooking” as a timesaving feature.
Real food was deconstructed and reassembled, shaped, and formed into what largely passed for the item it was trying to mimic. An army of food chemists emerged to meet the gastronomic needs of the time-crunched mother. Food colorings and other chemical additives soon found their way into the products that today fill the shelves of every pantry in America.
Much of the change was unavoidable for a society undergoing a radical shift. The question is, what price are we paying for the convenience of tearing the lid off of a box, adding water and an egg or two, and making a cake for a child’s birthday party?
Suddenly, Americans are finding themselves in a highly-evolved society filled with a host of chronic diseases almost unheard of a century ago. And all of this is occurring while other parts of the world, largely untouched by such prosperity, remain far more healthy.
Search for the Blue Zones
While Ponce de Leon traveled to Florida just shy of 500 years ago in search of the Fountain of Youth, longevity expert Don Buettner traveled the world for seven years to find where – and how – people were living up to 100 years of age in remarkable health. His search for the modern-day Fountain was conducted under the auspices of the National Geographic Society, the National Institutes for Health, and a consortium of medical researchers from around the world.
The group discovered five areas – the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; the highlands of Sardinia, in Italy; Ikaaria, an isolated Greek island; and, surprisingly, Loma Linda, Calif. Residents of the last three locations produce a high rate of centenarians, suffer a fraction of the diseases that commonly kill people in other parts of the developed world, and enjoy more healthy years of life.
Researchers wanted to know how they maintained such a high quality of life with little or no medication or disability. Did they possess modern technology, take massive amounts of supplements, run on treadmills, have special genes? The answer is none of these. It was not about the need for processed food and the convenience it brought. It was all about lifestyle.
Perhaps one of the most stunning observations is there was no taxpayer revolt about rising healthcare costs that were about to bankrupt the government.
The takeaway from the study is simple: “There is no ‘longevity diet,’” Buettner said on a recent broadcast of “The Splendid Table,” an NPR radio program, “though food does play into about a third of the longevity formula.
“The big idea is to eat a plant-based diet. All of the longest-lived people in the world eat mostly plants and avoid all processed foods.”
The Loma Linda group was especially intriguing to the researchers because the centenarians were living in the midst of one of the most densely populated, heavily traffic-congested cities in the world. That, in itself, defeated the notion that an individual would need to move to a less stressful, idyllic location to reap such benefits.
It didn’t take long for the researchers to determine that the group was not the general population but actually a sub-culture: they were Seventh-day Adventists who are largely vegetarians. Their choice to live their lives based on a biblical diet as first established in the book of Genesis – largely fruits, grains, and nuts – has been protecting them against many of the diseases that were sending their non-Adventist neighbors to an early grave.
Fiber in pancakes
So, when did fiber become a selling point for pancake mix? Since General Mills began expanding its highly successful Fiber One product line. Which of these two products would be the more healthful choice? Aunt Jemima makes no fiber claim and contains 1 percent fiber, but the Fiber One product lists five times as much fiber and brags it contains 20 percent of your daily needs.
To be honest, neither is healthy based on the artificial colorings, flavorings, and chemical additives. Fiber One contains 21 ingredients and Aunt Jemima packs in 25 – just to make a simple pancake. Most “from scratch” recipes top out at only five or six.
And the fiber? The extra fiber in Fiber One comes from inulin, a popular additive that does nothing to lower cholesterol. The white powder, a chicory root extract, has not been shown to have any of the healthful benefits that you are paying the premium price for, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
But that isn’t keeping Americans from making the Fiber One line one of the hottest new products in recent years.
· The bottom line: If you want pancakes, make your own from scratch using whole grain flour. If you want fiber, eat your fruits and veggies rather than getting it from a box.
They also shared some common traits with other Blue Zone residents. They had developed a lifestyle that included a strong social network of friends and family, had a strong spiritual belief system, and worked exercise into their daily routine.
Dr. Lamont Murdoch of the Loma Linda University School of Medicine summed it up best when he theorized, “Faulty genetics loads the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger.”
Lifestyle plays larger role than genetics
That would help explain why Americans, with a mostly sedentary lifestyle, are developing chronic diseases that were largely unheard of a century ago when people exercised regularly and ate real food rather than processed food substitutes.
Clarence Ing, medical director of the Weimar Center of Health and Education in Weimar, Calif., believes that Americans frequently use the excuse of having “bad genes” for their health problems, especially being overweight and for developing chronic diseases. It’s just easier to pass the buck than develop new eating habits.
“Lifestyle makes up a far greater part of the health equation than genetics, I’d say at least 50 percent. We can determine this by looking at formerly healthy populations who became ill when changing their lifestyle – especially as they adapted to the high-fat Western Diet.
“Asians, particularly Japanese, have provided us with the best snapshot of how this occurs. Japanese historically have very little incidence of breast cancer and heart disease but as they move toward the east those rates increase,” he says.
Studies show the rates of those diseases increased slightly when the Japanese moved to Hawaii and then increased considerably when they moved to California and were assimilated into the American culture and diet.
Ing is quick to clarify his comments to avoid any misunderstanding.
“You definitely are at higher risk of developing certain diseases based on what your parents had, but that does not mean it is automatic. That’s why we believe that, being human, we all carry certain genetic abnormalities but lifestyle plays a large role in triggering the onset of diseases from those genes.”
For example, if your mother or sister has breast cancer your risk of developing the disease is doubled from the 1-in-8 norm. To lower that risk and to avoid other chronic diseases, Ing recommends a plant-based diet, preferably a vegan diet meaning no meat, fish, chicken, eggs, and dairy products. The same mathematical risk goes for men wanting to avoid colon cancer.
Chronic diseases largely avoidable
That stance is borne out in studies that show that the majority of chronic diseases are lifestyle related and that individuals who eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily seem to have half the cancer risk of people who eat only two servings.
“There are a lot of people today with breast cancer who do not have any family history of the disease. If we know that other cultures that do not share our lifestyle have far fewer cancer cases than we do, it would lead you to believe that our cancer rates are tied to our lifestyle – a lifestyle that has slowly evolved over the past several decades,” Ing says.
A century ago Americans died at an earlier age from natural causes such as pneumonia or infectious diseases. Now they are living far longer due to better medicine but as they age their quality of life decreases due to chronic illnesses.
The odds are not good for those who ignore the health warnings about being overweight or obese.
· One out of every four Americans will die of cancer, much of which is increasingly being tied to consumption of red meat.
· One out of every two will die from some form of cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure, stroke, or heart attack, much of which is lifestyle related – primarily from being overweight or obese.
The Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda have proved that does not have to be the case. The bottom line is that living off the fat of the land – or the fat of the grocery store – is not good for you.
Processed vs. all natural
Processed food manufacturers go out of their way to convince you that their artificial product is actually better for you than the way Mother Nature made it. Take, for instance, how they have transformed the simple bowl of oatmeal.
“All the nutrition of a bowl of instant oatmeal!” touts the health claim on the box of Quaker Oats “Oatmeal to Go.” There’s even an American Heart Association-look-alike logo to suggest it is heart healthy. In fact, it’s the same heart it uses truthfully on its box of Quaker Oats that says “Oatmeal helps reduce cholesterol.” But buyer, beware; do not confuse the truthful health claim of the oatmeal with the processed product.
“Oatmeal to Go” may claim that it has all those nutrients but a look at the label shows that it also has things that you don’t need – like the 43 carbs (versus the 27 in one serving of regular oatmeal) and a whopping 19 grams of sugar (verses the five or six if you use fresh fruit).
And what about the 5 grams of fiber in the processed item verses only 4 in the natural oats? It’s from polydextrose, a man-man fiber with none of the healthful benefits of that found in the natural oats.
The chemical chefs at Quaker Oats had to compile 55 ingredients to make their product. Most bowls of oats only contain three or four: oats, nuts, fruit, and milk/soy milk.
· The bottom line: Nutritionists are increasingly advising consumers against purchasing processed foods with more than five or six ingredients. In this case your cholesterol and digestive tract would be in far greater shape with the bowl of natural oatmeal. Your wallet – and your waistline – would be much poorer with the processed breakfast square.
Seventh-day Adventists are the only known religious group in the nation to have created a documented longevity culture, Beuttner states in his book about the Blue Zones. Their healthful lifestyle first came to the attention of the American Cancer Society about 50 years ago when 25,000 of them were used as a control group in a groundbreaking study of the effects of smoking. Their participation played a large factor in drawing the connection between smoking and lung cancer.
That study revealed the startling result that Adventists, who are overwhelmingly non-smokers, contracted lung cancer at a rate of only 21 percent of the original group. But what really caught the eye of the researchers is that they had a much lower incidence of other cancers, as well as heart disease and diabetes.
That led to a second study funded by the National Institutes of Health that studied 34,000 California Adventists over age 25 from 1974-88, Buettner explains. The result was equally surprising and brought the solid conclusion that Adventists who abide by the denomination’s dietary teachings live longer.
In fact, a 30-year-old Adventist male lives 7.3 years longer than the average 30-year-old white California male. A 30-year-old Adventist female lives 4.4 years longer than the average 30-year-old California white female.
“If you [look at] Adventists who are fully vegetarian, it becomes 9.5 years longer for men and 6.1 years longer for women,” he added.
Another of the key findings was that approximately half of Adventists were vegetarians or rarely ate meat. After additional research it was further discovered that non-vegetarian Adventists – those who ate meat – had about four times the risk of heart disease as vegans or total vegetarians.
Ing sums up the findings about the plant-based lifestyle in two sentences: “The good news is that your genetic disposition is not a death sentence. Your lifestyle choices can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of your health.”
Baptists at ease in Zion
The same support group concept that works for Adventists – surrounding yourself with those of similar dietary and lifestyle values – may be working against Southern Baptists. If there is any truth to the observation that there is comfort in numbers, Baptists are at ease in Zion with their weight.
In spite of the denomination’s churches spending tens of millions of dollars on family life centers equipped with running tracks and exercise machines, it is obvious that most members do not darken the doors of those facilities.
A 2003 study released by Purdue University and published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion asked the question “Does Religion Increase the Prevalence and Incidence of Obesity in Adulthood?” Its findings were less than encouraging: Southern Baptists appeared at the top of the list as the most obese of any evangelical body.
While not presenting a formal explanation of the finding, it did shed insight on how it could occur.
The report acknowledged that many religions in the United States “place priority on constraining sins such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and sexual promiscuity. Gluttony does not receive the same level of pastoral or congregational condemnation in most denominations, perhaps indirectly creating an ‘accepted vice.’
“It is even possible that religion’s success in curtailing smoking may inadvertently lead to a higher rate of obesity. Some people use smoking as an appetite suppressant, and religion decreases the likelihood of smoking.
“Second, many religious functions use food, rather than alcohol, as the celebratory good to be consumed. From Sunday School donuts to church pot-luck dinners, food, especially high-fat foods, are key to the social organization of many U.S. religions.”
Lean – not anorexic – is good
Tony Malizia, prominent Atlanta physician who spoke to retired ministers and spouses at the Georgia Baptist Missions and Ministry Center in March, addressed the dangers of obesity and stressed the need for Baptists of all ages to downsize.
“We know that the leaner you are, the healthier you are. Regardless of the species, from small rats to humans to horses, the less weight you carry, the healthier you will be, and the longer you will live.
“I’m not talking about weight extremes like some anorexics, but the correct amount of weight for your frame. The math is simple; when you are lean your life expectancy increases; when you become overweight or obese, you experience all sorts of chronic health problems that are totally avoidable.”
Malizia and his wife prefer a low-fat diet with lots of fruits and vegetables similar to that used in the Mediterranean. But he doesn’t stop there.
“You have to combine healthy eating with regular exercise. It doesn’t have to be strenuous, but it does need to be regular. For my wife and I that means going on a four-mile walk every morning at 5:30 a.m. That’s how we begin most days.
“We’ve been doing it for 20 years and are healthier for making that a part of our life.”
How to eat healthy for less
If the recent economic downturn hasn’t left you trying to figure out ways to count costs, consider yourself pretty much alone. There are a few, simply ways to trim your food budget, and just possibly trim your waistline in the meantime.
1. Buy local. Choose produce that is in season and locally grown.
2. Focus on the grains and not protein. Rice, pasta, and grains are a good way to round out a meal. Try to choose whole grain foods whenever possible.
3. Invest time, not money. Forgo the convenience foods and focus on preparing dishes yourself and involve your family. While it might seem daunting to give up prepared foods, the premium you pay for someone to prepare foods for you will be invested instead in spending time with your family and cooking healthy alternatives.
Georgia obesity, diabetes seminar set for Nov. 3-5 at Ridgecrest
In 2003 there were 410,000 adult diabetics in Georgia; just four years later cases had nearly doubled to 700,000. The good news is that it is largely preventable by developing a healthy lifestyle.
The California-based Weimar Center of Health and Education will offer a three-day lifestyle intervention seminar in early November at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center near Black Mountain, N.C. The workshop will provide instruction on how to naturally reverse obesity and diabetes with instruction from physicians experienced in preventative medicine.
All classes will be taught by board-certified medical doctors. For information or to register call (800) 525-9192 or visitwww.reversingdiabetes.org.
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