Putting these Dietary Guidelines in context of our genetics and the evolution of man, you'll notice we are very far removed from living and eating according to Nature's original plan.
The changing landscape
Our food options have changed through the centuries. About 72 percent of the calories consumed by people in the U.S. are from foods that never existed in Paleolithic diets: refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, white flour, high fructose corn syrup, shortening (trans fats).
Questions arise: Are humans designed to thrive on Krispy-Kreme donuts, Cocoa Crispies, Pringles, Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, Big Macs, ketchup? Or is that one reason why we are now confronting the "diseases of civilization?" Almost 40 percent of all deaths are due to heart disease; 25 percent are due to cancer (of which, one-third are related to nutrition).
Our activity patterns have also changed; our daily lifestyle lacks physical activity. We no longer need muscles to roll down the car window, open the garage door, or change the TV station. We can just push a button ... and too easily be too sedentary for our own good. This includes children who sit in front of the TV.
Every one of us gets older every day. If your goal is to have the body and health of a 39-year-old when you are in your 80s, you need to consciously make that happen. Although, as high school and college athletes, you likely considered yourself bullet proof, by the time you reach mid-life, you may be starting to feel more vulnerable. You watch your parents die of heart attacks, your classmates succumb to cancer. You feel your joints ache.
Not even the healthiest marathoner or the strongest triathlete among us is bullet proof. Hence, the time to make dietary changes is now -- before you have the heart attack, hear the words "you have cancer," or break a bone due to osteoporosis.
The purpose of this article is to encourage you to stay active and fuel your body by eating closer to the earth, closer to the food choices of our long-ago ancestors, closer to the Dietary Guidelines, and farther away from refined sugar, trans fats and sodium-filled processed foods.
Pop-tarts, Cap'n Crunch, Pepsi, Gatorade and gels are just a few examples of refined sugar. In the year 2000, the average American consumed 152 pounds of sugar; that's about 400 calories of sugar per day! In contrast, early man consumed no refined sugar. Some athletes drink sports drinks non-stop -- 200 sugar-calories per quart. Suggestions:
Industrialization is responsible for the creation of trans fats -- the processed, partially hydrogenated fats that are in commercially baked and fried foods. Trans fats offer a pleasing texture to baked goods and prolong their freshness. But trans fats rarely, if ever, are found in natural foods and our bodies don't like them. Trans fats create an inflammatory response that contributes to heart disease and cancer. They are health-eroding. Suggestions:
The typical American diet offers 1.5 teaspoons of salt per day; that's about 3,750 mg sodium (and more than the recommended 2,300 mg). This includes the salt in processed foods, cooking and what's added at the table. Most of our sodium intake comes from processed foods: Spaghettios (1,980 mg/can), ramen noodles (1,700 mg/packet), American cheese (360 mg/slice), commercial salad dressing (300 mg/ 2 tablespoons). Only 10 percent of our salt intake comes from the sodium in natural foods (65 mg per egg; 125 mg per eight ounces of milk).
In the Stone Age (2.6 million years ago), hunter-gathers survived with little or no salt added to their food. Questions arise: Were our bodies designed for today's high salt intake? Or is this a reason why we are plagued with hypertension, strokes and cancer?
For athletes who exercise for more than four hours straight (as one might during a triathlon), sodium is deemed necessary to replace that lost in sweat. Athletes who experience muscle cramps are told to increase their sodium intake to alleviate the problem. But if these athletes never consumed lots of salt in the first place, would they be better off? Some health professionals believe so.
Costs and benefits of dietary changes
The "typical American diet" is tasty, convenient and comforting amidst the stresses and strains of our too-busy lives. But the costs are mounting: Escalating health insurance premiums; obese people who crowd the hospitals; children who never get to meet their grandparents.
Today is the time to start making a few dietary changes that bring you closer to the earth. For example, drink more orange juice, less orange soda. (Better yet, eat more oranges.) Each day, you can make a few choices that reduce your intake of refined sugar, trans fats and sodium-laden processed food. You'll enhance your likelihood for better health when you are 80. Even fit athletes can succumb to the diseases of civilization.
Much of the information in this article is from Cordain L.: "Origins and evolution of the Western Diet: health implications for the 21st century". Am J Clin Nutr 81:341-54. Feb 2005
Copyright Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., March 2005
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., counsels both casual exercisers and competitive athletes at her private practice in Healthworks (617-383-6100), the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill, MA. She teaches them how to manage food for sports. Her new Cyclist's Food Guide ($20), as well as her Sports Nutrition Guidebook ($23) and Food Guide for Marathoners are available via www.nancyclarkrd.com.