Returning to an Optimal Diet

Chronic diseases are overrunning us. Take cardiovascular disease: rare in 1928, it now accounts for every third death in the United States. Or take the incidence rate of breast cancer: in 1960, 1 out of 20 women would develop cancer in a lifetime; today, it’s every seventh woman. Or take the common form of diabetes: the rates have tripled during the last 30 years, to the point that every second American adult is now either a pre-diabetic or already suffering from the onslaught of full-blown diabetes. And three out of four adults today are overweight or obese, despite a $75 billion slimming industry. 

The cost of healthcare is no longer sustainable, with a current price tag of $13,500/person/year. Medical bills have become the #1 cause of bankruptcies in America. We spend 86% of our national healthcare dollars on managing and treating the symptoms of chronic diseases without being able to cure them medically. Yet most of them could be prevented, arrested, and reversed because they are culturally promoted and largely self-made, being mainly lifestyle-centered diseases. Their primary cause is related especially to our calorie-dense yet nutrition-poor diet. Smoking, high blood pressure, and sedentary living are important secondary and complementary causes.

Engineered Foods and Animal Products

The calories of our current Standard American Diet largely come from refined, processed, engineered foods (69%) and from animal and dairy products (25%). Only 6% of our calories eaten today come from “foods-as-grown” or whole plant foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), and nuts and seeds. Based on large studies, an estimated 82% of our common circulation-related deaths have been caused by our diet, followed by tobacco and lack of exercise. Similarly, 91% of diabetes and 71% of colon cancer are considered to be preventable through better dietary choices and a healthier lifestyle. 

This Standard American Diet is known and envied for its hyper palatability (taste appeal). This is, however, at great variance with human dietary traditions1, especially after the 1970s when the food industry evolved to effectively provide mass-marketed factory-produced foods that no longer have the biological and chemical properties of natural products. These foods, along with the abundance of animal products such as meat, cheese, sausage, and eggs, are largely devoid of dietary fiber. Yet they are loaded with cholesterol, saturated fat, sugar, salt, and refined starch. In our current diet, some 44% of the calories in food are supplied as “empty calories” (sugar, oils, alcohol), so named because they have little to no nutritional value. And yet, the least nutritious foods with the most sugar, fat, and refined starch are now most widely advertised and in demand.

Getting Hooked 

Neuroscientists and food engineers have learned that if food products contain sufficient amounts of fat, sugar, and salt, their taste will activate brain circuitry that registers as a “bliss point” experience. After tasting concentrated sugar, the brain can experience this sensation within nanoseconds. The follow-up is often an almost irresistible demand for more. Understandably, processed food manufacturers are suspected of intentionally using excess fat, sugar, and salt in order to maximize stimulation of the brain’s pleasure centers, which in turn increases the appeal of these products, leading to craving, habitual eating, and overconsumption of these foods. Food engineers have turned potatoes into enticing Pringles, corn into Doritos, wheat into Zingers, beans into juicy burgers, grains into Krispy Kreme donuts, and water into bubbling colas. 

The allegations against the food industry have been growing as these modified foods are emerging as the main contributor to the widespread chronic disease epidemic that has led to compromised health, shortened lifespans, and an unprecedented ecologic burden on our planet. 

The Optimal Diet 

On the other hand, opinions of a more natural diet, largely centered on foods-as-grown, where animal products and processed foods are side-lined, have changed. Over the past 100 years, the attitudes towards vegetarian diets have gradually progressed from ridicule and skepticism to condescending tolerance, to sometimes grudging acceptance, to acclaim. 

Looking around the world for the longest-living people, Dan Buettner of National Geographic identified five “Blue Zones” with a concentration of centenarians. One of the blue zones was the Adventist population of Loma Linda, California, which, in a more generalized sense, stands for some 25 million Seventh-day Adventists who live around the world and rank among the longest-living people globally. Among their lifestyle choices, their diet stands out for the promotion of simple foods as-grown, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and nuts and seeds. A large seven-year government-supported population study of 96,000 Seventh-day Adventists in North America showed that those who adhered most closely to the recommended dietary principles clearly had the best health outcomes in terms of cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, weight, and lifespan.

Summary and Recommendations 

The current American diet has emerged as the diet of choice around the world. It evolved as economic prosperity, government subsidies, creative entrepreneurship, food technology, and marketing savvy came together to produce taste sensations with an allure that is difficult to resist.

It is this diet, conspicuously centered on processed and engineered foods and animal products, that has radically changed what is typically consumed and has been responsible for its major contribution to the emergence of the chronic disease epidemic. 

In stark contrast to the current US Diet, the Optimal Diet is naturally very low in animal protein and processed foods. It is very low in fat (30-45 gm/day), sugar (<10 tsp/day), and salt (<4 gm/day), but abundant in unrefined complex carbohydrates (70%), fiber (>40 gm/day), antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals. It is virtually free of cholesterol and very low in saturated fats. 

Once people come to a better understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship between their dietary choices and health and disease, many will no longer opt for the “good life.” Instead, they will choose the best life possible. And that is characterized by a chosen simplicity of more nature-designed, plant-based whole foods. 

*The Babylonians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans all built their civilizations on the staple of wheat. The Oriental cultures built theirs on diets of rice. The Aztecs and Mayans were known as the people of corn and beans.

Note: For strict and pure vegetarians, a B-12 vitamin supplement may be advisable.

  1. The Babylonians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans all built their civilizations on the staple of wheat. The Oriental cultures built theirs on diets of rice. The Aztecs and Mayans were known as the people of corn and beans. ↩︎

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