Medical Self-Care: The Basics of Good Eating Habits

This installment of an ongoing column on self-directed health care highlights the importance of good eating habits.

| November/December 1979

  • Medical-Self-Care-good-eating-habits
    Dr. Tom Ferguson encouraged readers to adopt good eating habits.

  • Medical-Self-Care-good-eating-habits

While our national "nutrition consciousness" has expanded to the extent that many Americans do supplement their diets with vitamins these days, there's probably no point on which people's beliefs differ as much as they do about good eating habits and the values (or hazards) of various types of food. And—since it's not considered good scientific ethics to feed a possibly dangerous substance to men and women in order to test its toxicity—really conclusive nutrition studies (those done on human beings) are as rare as hens' teeth

Another element that clouds the whole nutrition issue is the "placebo phenomenon." You see, the mind is more powerful in shaping the effects of a food or drug than most folks think. In one recent study, for example, volunteers were given a drug that usually produces a violent nausea and vomiting, but the men and women were told the substance would relax and soothe their stomachs. Sure enough, the human "guinea pigs" experienced no queasiness, and internal measurements showed that their stomachs actually became more relaxed after the medication was administered! So, if you believe that a food is good for you, you can most likely eat that food and feel better regardless of what the substance may actually be doing to your body chemistry.

A third factor that adds to today's nutritional confusion is that different individuals can have very different dietary needs. In fact, if the size of our facial features varied as much as the concentration of certain enzymes in our bodies, some of us would have noses the size of BB's, while others would have 20-foot snouts'

Sweet, Salty, and Fat Villains 

That's the bad news. Now here's the good. In spite of all the raging controversies in the field, there are four basic nutritional guidelines which seem to hold true for nearly everyone and upon which the experts do agree: [1] Eat less fat, [2] eat less refined sugar, [3] eat less salt, and [4] avoid suspect food additives, especially nitrates and saccharin.

Many people, if asked to name the most harmful component in their diet, would probably say sugar, but—for almost all North Americans—the worst dietary villain is fat. The body's need for this substance is very small, and easily supplied by a diet that includes a variety of whole grains. Most Americans, however, eat over 40% of their calories in the form of fat—more than 10 times as much of the substance as humans really need—even though the association between high-fat diets and heart diseases (which cause more deaths in this country than all other illnesses combined) is well-known.

This largely unnecessary food accumulates in hard, white, fatty deposits on the inner walls of our arteries. These atherosclerotic plaques, as they're called, can begin to form in childhood or early adulthood and may grow until they block the passageways through which the blood must flow. Eventually, the narrowing of the coronary arteries increases the risk of a complete cutoff of blood to part of the heart's muscle. The result of such a stoppage is a heart attack. (There's also good evidence to indicate that a high-fat diet increases one's risk of both breast and bowel cancer.)


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