Sharon Palmer, R.D.

Environmental Nutrition

Health practitioners from across the country gathered in San Francisco in May for the 8th Annual Nutrition and Health Conference. Over the next few days, they would learn about the latest information on nutrition and health from today's leading nutrition oracles, including Andrew Weil, M.D., Marion Nestle, Ph.D., Dean Ornish, M.D., and Michael Pollan. We listened to their conversation in order to share their words of wisdom.

Anti-inflammatory Eating

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Weil's familiar face, with his iconic silver beard, has become a symbol for the "healthy aging" movement -- he's sold over 10 million books on the subject. As founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, he champions educating physicians about the importance of integrating nutrition into medicine -- a concept sorely lacking today.

The foundation of Weil's advice for an optimal diet lies in the concept of reducing chronic inflammation, the root of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer's disease. "Most people go through life in a pro-inflammatory state as a result of environmental toxins and the modern industrialized diet," said Weil, who stressed that an anti-inflammatory diet promotes optimum health at any age. Here's a look at Weil's tips:

-- Include a variety of as much fresh food as possible.

-- Minimize consumption of processed and fast foods.

-- Eat an abundance of fruits and vegetables of all colors.

-- Reduce intake of foods made with flour and sugar.

-- Eat more whole grains in which the grain is intact or in a few large pieces, such as brown rice or bulgur.

-- Eat more beans, soy, winter squashes and sweet potatoes.

-- Focus on healthy fats such as avocados, nuts, extra virgin olive oil, and omega-3 rich foods from fish, omega-3 fortified eggs, hemp seeds and flax seeds. Reduce intake of saturated fats from butter, cream, high-fat cheese, fatty meats and palm kernel oil. Avoid margarine, vegetable shortening and partially hydrogenated oils.

-- Decrease intake of animal protein, except for fish and high quality natural cheese and yogurt.

-- Aim for 40 grams of fiber per day.

-- Drink tea instead of coffee.

-- If you drink alcohol, use red wine preferably.

-- Enjoy plain dark chocolate (minimum 70 percent cocoa) in moderation.

The Food System and Obesity

Marion Nestle, Ph.D.

Author of Food Politics and Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition at New York University, Nestle is one of the country's preeminent voices on the food system. So, what's her take on why our nation is obese? Simple: We started eating more calories. Before 1980 there were 3,200 calories available for every human; after 1980 this soared to 3,900 -- an increase of 700 calories.

Nestle reported two big changes in the food system that pushed calorie levels up. Changes in agricultural policy in the late 1970s paid farmers to grow as much food as possible, resulting in a sea of corn and high fructose corn syrup. Secondly, the "share holder value movement" promoted the concept that companies need faster, higher returns on investments. "For food companies, this was especially bad news. They were trying to sell food in an environment when there was about twice as much as anybody needed," said Nestle.

Today's society continues to promote obesity, according to Nestle. "The introduction of large portions in the food supply happened in parallel with weight gain," she said. And food is ubiquitous and in close proximity; it's sold everywhere from bookstores to vending machines. Food is also cheap, according to Nestle. "Federal policy makes some foods cheaper than others," she added. "At McDonalds you can buy five hamburgers for $5, but it costs $5.19 for a salad." It's harder for the food industry to make profits on whole fresh fruits and vegetables compared with processed foods. Top it off with a "cacophony of health claims" on food labels, often using deceptive marketing, and it's easy to see how obesity thrives, said Nestle.

Fortunately, the tide is turning; 73 percent of Americans are more concerned about the food they're eating than they were five years ago. "It has to be a bottom-up effort; the top isn't going to make or serve only healthy foods," she concluded.

Your Genes Are Not Your Fate

Dean Ornish, M.D.

"Genetic nihilism."

That's what Ornish, founder and president of Preventive Medicine Research Institute, and author of six best-selling books, calls the attitude that many people have about their genetic predisposition for disease. Yet Ornish's own research proves that your genes are not your fate. Lifestyle changes can affect gene expression by "turning on" disease-preventing genes and "turning off" genes that promote disease, as well as increasing telomerase, an enzyme that lengthens telomeres, the ends of our chromosomes that control aging.

"The body has a remarkable capacity to heal itself. If you eat and live better, you can feel better. Lifestyle is better than drugs in many conditions. Seventy-five percent of the $2.5 trillion health care costs are due to chronic diseases, most of which can be prevented or even reversed by change in diet and lifestyle," said Ornish, whose research indicates that comprehensive lifestyle changes may reverse the progression of coronary heart disease and effect the progression of prostate cancer.

Ornish's comprehensive lifestyle approach is based on the concept of a spectrum. "It's how to personalize a way of eating and living. Instead of using shame, guilt or humiliation, we want people to move in a healthy direction," said Ornish. If you're genetically predisposed towards heart disease, you may need to make greater lifestyle changes to gain positive effects. In addition to including regular exercise, meditation, and love and intimacy in your life, Ornish recommends an optimal eating plan based on a plant-based diet focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, soy products, legumes, nonfat dairy and egg whites in their natural forms, as well as an emphasis on good fats like omega-3 fatty acids.

The Sugar Dilemma

Michael Pollan

Perhaps there's nobody who has transformed America's food conscience more than Pollan, thanks to his thought-provoking books "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food." Pollan has encouraged people to take a long, hard look at the food system -- from how food is grown to what's on their dinner plate

Pollan was asked to comment on a popular topic: refined carbs, in particular, sugar. He chimed in on America's fondness for the stuff: "We mainline sugar and we want flour as white as it can be, as well as sugar from beets and cane. If you turn back the trajectory of refinement as available in nature, sugar was very rare. You could get honey, but you took great risks to obtain it." The big problem is the sheer amount of sugar being used in food products today. "When you let corporations settle on the amount of sugar in drinks, you get more than you would ever add. Milk companies sweeten chocolate milk differently than you sweeten yours. It's an arms race -- whoever sweetens more sells more."

So how do you fix the sugar problem? Pollan believes that demonizing sugar isn't the answer. "You can take any critique and turn it into the next marketing campaign. High fructose corn syrup is no worse than sugar, but stores are bursting with new products boasting about no high fructose corn syrup. 'Real cane' sugar on the label is now a plus. The problem is that high fructose corn syrup ended up in products that were never sweetened before." For example, companies use high fructose corn syrup on breads for its pleasant "browning" effect on the outer surface.

Pollan has a simple rule about managing sweets and junk foods: Don't eat it unless you cook it yourself. "You don't want to eliminate these foods completely, but you could follow one rule that you can eat all the junk food you want as long as you prepare it yourself. For example, French fries are a pain to make; they used to be very rare. If you cooked it yourself, you'd have it about once a month, which is about right. The big problem is that when we outsourced our food to others to make, special occasion foods that were expensive and a lot of work became common."


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