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A Healthy Diet Foundation for the New Year

It’s the New Year and across the nation millions of people are embarking on their journeys down the resolution road (again), determined to lose weight and get healthier. This is not without good intent, as the number of our fellow Americans who are overweight and obese continue to climb. The Center for Disease Control list 36% of adult Americans and 17% of our children as obese. Over 65% of Americans are overweight…which is a financial dream come true for those in the diet industry. Americans spent upwards of 60 billion dollars, (yes billion) per year over the past several years on diet programs and products, yet we are still getting fatter by the year. How do we turn the tide in this war on bellies and thighs? Just send me $49.95 and I’ll tell you the secret on how to lose weight and keep it off…sound familiar? Since I’m feeling generous, and since it really isn’t any secret, I’ll tell you for free. I feel I can speak on this subject with a little bit of authority since I studied nutrition for many years and worked for several nutrition companies before going to medical school.

First, let’s dispel a few myths about being overweight.

  • "It’s my glands!" - With the exception of <5% of the overweight population, it is not your thyroid or other hormonal imbalance making you fat. It is however partially an excess of insulin as a result of your diet that is contributing to laying down increasing amounts of fat, but we'll talk about that later.

  • "It's genetic!"- Every person alive today has it genetically coded in them to store extra calories as fat. Arguably, some individuals may be more efficient at extracting calories from their food, and there is even some evidence that the "microbiome," or resident bacterial species in the intestines, differs between obese and non-obese people, aiding in this caloric extraction. One could shout, "It’s my bacteria!!!" and that might be slightly more accurate, but the bottom line is the law of thermodynamics- if calories in are greater than calories out, you are likely to gain weight.

That being said, there is a phenomenon of “Epigenetics,” or how certain genes get turned on or turned off at certain points in our lives, that is of significant interest in obesity and many other disease states. There appears to be an increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes going on down the generations. A child of obese parents is far more likely to become obese and diabetic for a host of reasons. One of which is that even in the womb, the unborn child of an overweight or obese mother is likely having certain "fat genes" activated, which will predispose them to obesity later in life if the right conditions are met. Environmental conditions in childhood (diet, activity level) will also further turn on and turn off certain genes associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes. This child will then later be more predisposed to obesity and having all the associated diseases if they continue to eat like the average American. This stresses the importance of starting good habits early and keeping your kids on a healthy diet with plenty of exercise from the time they are old enough to walk.

So what is the best diet? This is a somewhat loaded question, since there are dozens of diet books each year that repackage many of the same principles in a new flashy cover. Our reductionist thinking always leads to someone touting the “miracle food or vitamin” instead of looking at the bigger picture. There are also some really bizarre and limiting Hollywood fad diets that can be downright dangerous, but continue to appear every few years. Much of what passes for nutritional advice is still marketing or rhetoric, and is based on outdated thinking. A diet should be a sustainable positive change for the long haul, not a quick weight loss fix that will disappear like yesterday's news. Let’s go over some basic principles that apply to all good diets, and then look at one of the more popular diets that I think is pretty sound.

  • Principal #1- Don’t eat like the average American. If most people are eating it, then chances are it is contributing to the obesity epidemic, and you should avoid it.

  • Principle #2- Fresh fruits and vegetables are the basis for human life on this planet. If you don’t eat a fairly decent quantity of fresh fruits and vegetables, you will likely not live a long and healthy life.

  • Principle #3- The more processed and farther away a food is from its original form, the worse it is for you. Avoiding processed, packaged, pre-prepared foods as much as possible is a safe bet for eating healthier. If your great grandmother would not recognize it as food, it probably isn’t. Whole grains (rice, quinoa, millet) rather than refined flours, whole fruits and vegetables instead of juices or canned/chemically processed, meats that are straight from the source- these are real foods.

For anyone thinking I am pushing a vegetarian diet, nothing could be further from the truth. I am a true meatatarian and feel that the healthiest diets contain meats, poultry and fish…as well as lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and a few other items. Meats are the best source of absorbable B vitamins, as well as iron, zinc and protein. Game meat and locally raised grass fed beef are very healthy when combined with plenty of vegetables. It’s the low quality, high fat and processed meat that gives it a bad name.

In the coming months I will provide tips and reviews of popular diet trends.

Tom Flass MD, MS is a Pediatric Gastroenterologist at St Vincent Healthcare. He has a B.S. in Nutrition from Cornell University and a M.S. in Nutrition from Colorado State University with a focus on omega-3 fatty acids. He did his medical training at University of Colorado and Children’s Hospital Colorado.