90% of the cases medical professionals treat in the hospital today are driven by lifestyle diseases—those associated with the way a person lives. That means that while 10% of our health is dictated by genetics, we still have control over the other 90%.
We’ve learned over the years that when we focus on weight, things fall apart. Moving from a definition of diet as a means to lose weight to diet as the kind of food a person continually eats can help us reduce the number and severity of lifestyle diseases.
Looking back, American diet trends have been intriguing. In the 1930s and 40s, smoking was marketed as a means for weight loss. In the 1950s, there was the cabbage soup diet. It was fast acting and easy to follow: seven days of broth and vegetables. We’ve seen drugs like Fenphedra and Apidren and additives likes Olestra, but these aren’t necessarily safe or sustainable. Diet pills help you lose weight quickly but are intended for short term use only. Diet pills and additives often have undesirable and/or serious medical side effects.
In the 1980s and 90s, we moved to a low fat trend. Shunning fats, we consumed too many carbs by eating increased amounts of processed fat free foods (which are also high in salt and sugar). The low fat trend gets much of the blame for America’s obesity epidemic.
In response, the Atkins Diet removed carbs in favor of high proteins. People lost weight fast, but the Atkins Diet also proved unsustainable. Carbohydrates are essential to our health; along with proteins and fats, they’re one of the macro-nutrients we need to function. Our muscles are fueled by carbs and our brains run on sugar or ketones. A lot of cancers track with a higher consumption of red meat. Those who followed the Atkins Diet experienced higher cholesterol levels and consumed little to no fiber, resulting in a lack of much needed prebiotics. And as soon as they stopped Atkins, their weight returned.
Meal replacement systems like Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig offer prepackaged foods delivered to your house. Portions are controlled and meals provide a balance of macro nutrients. Weight Watchers adds the accountability of a group setting. Drawbacks to these systems include their cost and their use of processed ingredients with lots of chemicals. They provide convenience to consumers but don’t establish a relationship between consumers and food. Once the program is finished, people often don’t know how to shop for and prepare their own meals.
Then came the Master Cleanse (or Lemonade Diet). It consists of salt water each morning, water with fresh lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper throughout the day, and an herbal laxative tea at night. With virtually no calories, weight loss is guaranteed. But you’ll be losing water weight and lean muscle mass—not fat. Fasting can negatively affect your metabolism, increasing the likelihood that you’ll regain weight once you resume a normal diet. Additionally, the Master Cleanse can set you up for nutrient deficiencies, a weakened immune system, and heart and kidney problems.
Juicing is a similar cleanse promoting detoxification and offering more calories (with little to no protein and fat). It can be a good reset for your body but not a healthy, sustainable weight loss program.
More recently, we’ve begun to see lifestyles marketed more so than diets. We hear people identifying themselves as Paleo or Vegan and proclaiming that they “eat clean.” These lifestyles are on the right track, but it’s important to remember that you can take the good parts from each plan to make your own healthy, sustainable lifestyle. We’re more likely to see people focus on real foods and stay away from processed foods. Mainstream messaging informs us about the harmful effects of sugar, a disease-causing “recreational drug.” More people understand the benefits of eating plant-based food rather than man-made food (aka, “the anti-nutrient”).
American diet trends are continuing in their transition from the determination to lose weight to the appreciation for whole body health. People are accepting that food can be functional and medicinal, tasty and fun. Mindfulness is moving into the kitchen with an intent to nurture a healthy relationship between food, eating, mental health and physical health. We’re considering nutrient density instead of counting calories. We even recognize that cultures exist—Blue Zones—where people don’t diet.
Because of their lifestyles, activities, eating habits and values, people in Blue Zones live long lives free of heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes. Blue Zone cultures tend to value mindless movement and/or exercise; community, friends and family; plant-based diets (with meat as an accent); sunshine; a sense of purpose or religion; wine; herbal teas; and goat milk. We can look to these cultures and see that food is more than what we eat.