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The Case for Eating Healthy

This is Part 1 in a 3-part series of eating healthy to prevent obesity and related health problems.

As a society, we are constantly trying to improve our health and the health of our children by making and encouraging healthier food choices and exercising to maintain or lose weight. Despite our best intentions, the rates of childhood and adult obesity have skyrocketed over the last 20 years.  To put this into perspective, Arizona’s obesity rates have gone from 10-14% in 1992 to well over 25% in 2012.  That is astounding.  We all hear about eating right and the importance of exercising; in fact, I have this conversation with my patients several times each day.   Unfortunately, no matter how much information I give, patients’ success rates for weight reduction are very low.  I have heard all the excuses:  “We try to eat healthy, but it’s too expensive”, “I exercise a lot without any results”, “We don’t have time to cook our own meals”, “We’ve tried a high protein diet or a low fat diet and to limit calories”. None of these excuses works to help patients permanently lose weight and the excuses only perpetuate the obesity problem.

 

While it may surprise you, I do not think portion size, lack of exercise, fast food and soda are the only culprits to blame in the obesity epidemic.  This summer I researched this topic further and have discovered that as our consumption of meat and dairy products has risen, so has our nation’s obesity level.  While some studies may be tedious for parents to read, there are a variety of easy to view documentaries on the subject.  My favorite is the documentary Forks Over Knives.  This is a game changer.  The researchers in this movie advocate a whole food, plant based diet—that is, a vegan diet.  I must admit, the very word “vegan” scared me.  With a vegan diet, individuals do not consume any animal products, which means no meat, fish, eggs or dairy.  What?  Give up meat, milk and my most beloved cheese?  How could I do that, much less ask my patients to do it?  After looking further into the issue and trying the vegan diet for myself, I have to say it makes a lot of sense.  All of the cholesterol and bad fats we consume are from animal products and processed foods.  Meat, including poultry, contains cholesterol.  When we eat meat, we also eat this cholesterol, which becomes a part of our bloodstream.  You may hope to avoid this by switching to fish, but this leads to other concerns, as many types of fish contain dangerously high levels of mercury.  Moreover, research is showing that meat and dairy products contain antibiotics and growth hormones, which are directly absorbed by those who consume these foods: us and our children.

 

But what about protein?  Don’t we, and our children, need protein?   We hear a lot about the need for protein from meat and dairy products.  While we do need this nutrient, the truth is that we don’t need nearly as much protein as we as a society presently consume.  Our consumption of meat per capita has increased dramatically in just the past 20-25 years.  Yet, our high protein meat based diets have not succeeded in improving obesity rates.  Substituting plant-based proteins for meat can still give us the nutrition our bodies need, with less health risk.  For instance, cultures with low consumption of meat and high consumption of plant-based foods typically have very low obesity rates.  Even if you do not want to become completely vegan, moving to a vegan diet 2 days, 3 days or even 6 days a week can help achieve weight loss and overall health.   Remember that this dietary change is a lifestyle change.   A plant-based diet can lower your cholesterol, blood pressure and risk for type II diabetes.  As a pediatrician, I am starting to see children with these issues.  The last thing I would ever want to do is put any of my patients on anti-hypertensive drugs and cholesterol reducing medications or have to treat them for type II diabetes.  Instead of prescribing medications for conditions related to unhealthy eating, I would rather prescribe healthy eating to prevent illness and obesity.

 

Part 2 of this series will discuss what to eat and the surprisingly low cost of eating healthy.

 

If you have a child with weight problems or would like to learn more about healthy eating, schedule an obesity or nutrition consultation with me at pediatrixmd.com or call for an appointment.

 

Sincerely,

 

Subir K. Mitra, MD, FAAP

Posted in Blog on August 31st, 2012