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Monday, April 8, 2013

Something Seedy in our Diet

Here's some more of my "book report" about Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food.

As I wrote in the last post about Pollan's book, we are eating loads of corn and soy (among other things) to our health's detriment.  The thing is we should be eating much more leaves than seeds to get the most nutrition from plants. 

Green plants give us much of the omega-3 fatty acids (that we often associate with fish).  Leaves make these fatty acids through photosynthesis.  We need them because, well, we can't go through photosynthesis--or any other process--to produce them ourselves.  And they are important: they've been found to help our brains, eyes, metabolism, inflammation and on and on.  What we get from seeds are omega-6, which isn't bad, we just don't need so much of it.

Pollan writes:
It helps to think of omega-3s as fleet and flexible, omega-6s as sturdy and slow.  Because the two fatty acids compete with each other for space in cell membranes and for the attention of various enzymes, the ratio between omega-3s and omega-6s, in the diet and in turn in our tissues, may matter more than the absolute quantity of either fat.  So, too much omega-6 may be just as much of a problem as too little omega-3.
So by eating a Western diet, that ratio is all screwed up in our bodies.  The same goes for our food animals, which often are not being fed the leaves that they were meant to eat.  Their diet is replaced with grains, which lowers the omega-3s in our meat, dairy, eggs, etc and increases the omega-6s.  For example, that's why grass fed/finished beef is so much healthier than grain-fed.

Pollan uses the Japanese as a comparison to Americans.  The Japanese take in huge amounts of omega-3s (much of it from fish) and have amazingly low rates of cardiovascular disease--even though they smoke at high rates and have high blood pressure.  Americans, on the other hand, take in about a third of omega-3s and have about 4 times the rate of death from heart disease.  Hmm...  So even using omega-3 supplements in our diets doesn't really do too much good unless we lower the omega-6s we're ingesting.

But how do we know this?  Who is supposed to tell us to eat fish or greens to be healthy?  For most of human history, it was our culture, our ethnicity, those traditional foods that were raised or caught where we or our ancestors lived.  Now where do we look for help?  The health care industry.  How's that working out?

More from Pollan:
Medicine is learning how to keep alive the people whom the Western diet is making sick.  Doctors have gotten really good at keeping people with heart disease alive, and now they're hard at work on obesity and diabetes.  Much more so than the human body, capitalism is marvelously adaptive, able to turn the problems it creates into new business opportunities: diet pills, heart bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery.  But though fast food may be good business for the health care industry, the cost to society--an estimated $250 billion a year in diet-related health care costs and rising rapidly--cannot be sustained indefinitely.
He goes on to write how an American born in 2000 has a 1 in 3 chance of getting diabetes sometime in his life--even more if he's African-American or Hispanic-American.  Being diagnosed with diabetes takes about 12 years off your life and costs $13,000 in medical costs.  Someone without diabetes has about $2500 in those costs.  Diabetes is becoming more of the norm in the US thanks to the Western diet.  As Pollan writes: "Apparently it is easier, or at least a lot more profitable, to change a disease of civilization into a lifestyle than it is to change the way that civilization eats."

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