Good ingredients for your 2009 New Year’s resolutions
by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D.
“The way we grow, distribute and prepare food should celebrate our various cultures and our shared humanity, providing not only sustenance, but justice, beauty and pleasure.” – Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture
Food is sustenance and food is life. Eating well is not difficult. All we need is to eat a selection of foods that supply appropriate amounts of essential nutrients and energy. Whole foods, including grains, beans, seeds and nuts, fruits, berries and vegetables, wild fish, eggs, mushrooms, lean meats and vegetable oils, sustain us with substances called nutrients that work to supply the body with energy and structural materials and to regulate growth, maintenance and repair of body tissues. Protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals and water are the six major classes of nutrients.
What we eat contributes to death and disease, fitness and wellness, learning and achievement and rising health care costs. Research shows a combination of simple factors keep people healthy and well. They include daily exercise and good nutrition, a lifestyle free of tobacco and drugs, healthy cholesterol levels, low blood pressure and normal blood glucose, no belly fat, low levels of stress and the absence of depression.
Anxiety, depression, high blood pressure and heart disease respond to meditation. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that a practice that incorporates meditation can boost attentiveness and improve mood while lowering stress in less than a week. After five days, students who meditated outscored their peers on grueling tests of academic performance and attention and reported feeling less angry, anxious and depressed.
You may wonder what triggers our urge to eat, our eating habits and food addictions. Why are we so tempted to eat high-fat, high calorie foods we know are not good for us? In modern day society we are no longer driven to eat by hunger. The strongest reason we choose to eat certain foods is for taste. We like the taste of sweet and salty foods. In fact, the human tongue is a sense organ with taste buds that prefer sweet and salty foods.
Additionally, fatty foods like hamburgers, ice cream and buttery sauces send “pleasure” signals to the “I can’t get no satisfaction” centers in your brainstem. We crave foods with happy associations like the cake and cookies we eat at holiday celebrations and family gatherings. Comfort eating and food addictions center on foods that substitute for pleasurable emotions. Caffeine, chocolate, alcoholic beverages and juices high in antioxidants are examples of foods that, like prescription drugs, pleasurably alter mood and emotions.
Other factors influencing what we eat include food availability, social habits, family, peer and co-worker pressures, economics, convenience and commercial marketing. In Bayview Hunters Point there are fewer resources for nutritious foods and fewer opportunities for recreation. The southeastern neighborhoods of San Francisco have a significant deficit of parks and open space relative to other neighborhoods in San Francisco.
Fast food outlets abound in low income neighborhoods where a 700 calorie meal can cost less than $3. One fast food chain now aggressively markets a “fourth” meal. Eating late at night before bedtime is the fastest route to obesity. I gained 30 pounds while working late nights in an emergency department with an ice cream vending machine in the lobby!
The metabolic syndrome has been well defined. It is triggered by stress and is characterized by hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and body fat localized to the abdomen – called truncal adiposity.
Metabolic syndromes can be reversed by lifestyle changes that reduce stress and optimize aerobic exercise to burn belly fat, relax muscle tension, normalize mood and sleep, lower blood sugar, blood pressure and bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol.
A 2007 report from the U.S. Census Bureau projected that a baby born today could expect to live to be 78 years old … nine years longer than a baby born 50 years ago. But those predictions are now proving to be dangerously wrong! Cases of heart disease, diabetes and obesity are multiplying and for the first time in U.S. history we are giving birth to a generation of children whose life expectancy is below that of their parents.
“Our nation is at a health crossroads,” according to Mary Woolley, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Research America. “And the news is not good.”
Among African Americans, higher rates of infant mortality have emerged as a new civil rights issue. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies commissioned recommendations to curtail infant deaths in a report released in October of 2007.
The Commission called for an education campaign to increase the rate of breastfeeding by African American women after detecting a link between high infant mortality rates and the fact that Black women have the lowest rate of breastfeeding among ethnic groups. The commission also found relationships between infant mortality and maternal nutrition.
Obesity is a symptom of an imbalance between how much energy we eat and how much energy we expend in activity. This energy equation is measured in calories. Unhealthy eating habits contribute to low energy stores and poor fitness and are a risk factor for four of the six leading causes of death in the United States: heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. Nutrition related chronic diseases place heavy demands on our overburdened health care system and exact a toll on worker productivity, length and quality of life.
According to the Prevention Institute, poor nutrition and poor school performance are linked. School age children increasingly show signs of diet related chronic diseases, including Type II diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Poor nutrition in adolescents is associated with depression, low self esteem, social withdrawal and declining academic performance. Obese children face a heightened risk of cancer, stroke and diabetes later in life. In addition, obesity and physical inactivity costs California $28 billion annually for medical care, workers compensation and lost productivity.
In 2007 the California State Assembly passed legislation to protect children’s health, including bills to update school nutritional standards, prohibit the sale of foods at schools with more than 35 percent of calories from fat or sugar, and limit the sale of sugar sweetened beverages and candies with high levels of lead.
An emerging body of research suggests that soda and fast food consumption may be linked to increased risk of weight gain and diabetes. Additionally, in recent decades much less of every dollar spent for food has gone to producers in the local community. About six cents of every dollar goes to food processing, packaging, shipping and retailing controlled by distant corporations.
Rather than promoting fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other nutrient dense, high fiber foods important for our health, commercial food industries market mass consumption of processed animal products and highly refined, calorie dense food that is malaligned with U.S dietary guidelines and fosters inhumane treatment of farm animals.
In addition to fostering nutritional imbalances and disease, our system of industrialized eating fosters reliance on methods of production and distribution that hurt us, endanger workers and the environment in which we live. Compared to the early 1900s, the U.S. food supply today has more empty calories, fat, salt, sweeteners, meat and dairy products per person and fewer vegetables and grains.
A summary report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the nutrient content of U.S. foods found that high sugar or high fat foods including soft drinks, salty snacks, sweets and desserts comprise over 30 percent of all calories consumed by Americans. That study is now 10 years old!
According to the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture, governments have a duty to protect people from malnutrition, unsafe food and commercial exploitation and to protect the land and water on which we depend from degradation. Last year the U.S had the highest number of recalls of food, drugs and consumer goods. According to a 2008 university report, it’s because the Food and Drug Administration lacks the money and manpower to inspect all of the products produced by and entering our country.
Industrialized meatpacking is one of the country’s most dangerous occupations, injuring up to 25 percent of workers each year. Pesticides used in industrial scale food production expose farm workers and their children to dangerous chemicals that may exceed established safety levels.
Every year up to 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used by the U.S agricultural industry to promote growth in poultry, swine, beef and farmed fish. This is 10 times the total antibiotics used in human medicine and worsens antibiotic resistance to bacteria that cause human infections!
The Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture sets a good agenda for a New Year of good health and justice: “We, the undersigned, believe that a healthy food system is necessary to meet the urgent challenges of our time. Behind us stands a half century of industrial food production, underwritten by cheap fossil fuels, abundant land and water resources, and a drive to maximize the global harvest of cheap calories. Ahead lie rising energy and food costs, a changing climate, declining water supplies, a growing population, and the paradox of widespread hunger and obesity. …
“Individuals, producers and organizations have a duty to create regional systems that can provide healthy food for their communities. We all have a duty to respect and honor the laborers of the land without whom we could not survive. The changes we call for here have begun, but the time has come to accelerate the transformation of our food and agriculture and make its benefits available to all.”
You can endorse and comment on this declaration, a project of Roots of Change, at
221 Kearny St., Third Floor, San Francisco, CA 94108, (414) 391-0545, www.FoodDeclaration.org.
What you can do
Here are some excellent New Year’s resolutions for 2009:
1. Shop at Bayview farmers’ markets or those in your neighborhood. Buy locally grown and produced food, especially food grown by Black farmers.
2. Grow fresh produce in your own garden. Zucchini, oranges, lemons, green apples, blackberries and other produce grow well in your own back yard!
3. Reduce your consumption of meat and eat animal products raised without antibiotics or hormones.
4. Eliminate fast food restaurants, vending machines and gas station food stores from your diet.
5. Purchase foods that provide fair prices and wages to workers, like certified Fair Trade coffees.
6. Buy organic products produced without synthetic pesticides, hormones or antibiotics.
7. Limit total fat intake for children to 35 percent of total daily calories.
8. Cut out fried foods and processed foods with hydrogenated oils and use olive, canola or flaxseed oil.
9. Increase dietary intake of nuts, seeds, berries, fruits and vegetables and fatty fish.
10. Reduce TV time! The average child watches TV for six hours a day, often staring at the screen and eating unhealthy snacks.
11. Demand that school lunch programs incorporate nutrition education for children.
12. Support physical activity and healthy open space corridors along southeastern San Francisco.
Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai can be reached at (415) 835-4763 or firstname.lastname@example.org.