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Living the Food Life: Part 1 - My Plate

June 2, 2013
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

The word "diet," in relation to food, originates from the Greek "diaitasthal" meaning "to lead one's life." Later, another derivative meaning a regional assembly or legislature evolved from Middle English "diete," or "a day's journey," a phrase which is also romantically appropriate.

Greek physician Hippocrates was the first to go on record with an opinion on healthy lifestyle recommendations: light foods, running, wrestling, vomiting at lunch, etc. Luigi Cornaro, a Venetian merchant, agreed with him and published the first self-help diet book in 1558. Cornaro, who over-indulged for 40 years and faced serious health issues, proclaimed self-control after doctors gave up. He lost weight, shunned gluttony and shared his story in The Art of Living Long. His daily regimen became 12 ounces of bread, soup, yolks of new-laid eggs, fish and/or meat and 14 ounces of wine.

After that, dieting became de rigueur and fashionable in society, but not necessarily healthy. By the 20th century, disturbing fads cropped up, like the tapeworm diet and Lucky Strike cigarettes' "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet" campaign. Today in the United States alone, the diet industry tallies up an estimated $50 billion annually, including books, drugs, meals, plans and surgeries, the most of any country in the world. A solid 85 percent of the 108 million dieters are women, and 90 percent of teens diet regularly according to

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According to the Natural Society, the standard American diet (SAD) lifestyle has Americans eating around 1,831 pounds of food per year, including 29 pounds of French fries, 24 pounds of ice cream and 23 pounds of pizza.

Dieting itself is considered temporary by health providers, but studies at the University of Colorado indicate that at least 35 percent of people who diet become "addicted" to dieting. Around 66 percent of crash dieters regain their weight within one year and virtually all of them regain the weight within five years.

Done for the right reasons and without long-term expectations, diets are not necessarily "bad." Someone wanting to jumpstart a weight loss program, lose 5 to 10 pounds before a class reunion or prepare for an athletic event could diet safely for a few weeks. However, diets that promote long-term results using unrealistic claims of quick weight loss, unregulated supplements or diets that deplete or eliminate nutrients may not only be expensive but dangerous.

Experts agree that the best way to lose weight to become healthier is not dieting, but changing one's food lifestyle. This involves eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. People who lose weight and keep it off for at least five years average a total of one hour of exercise per day. One pound of fat equals 3,500 calories. Losing 25 pounds means using up 87,500 calories. No little pills in online ads can do it all.

Food is fuel for the body's life processes: building cells, pumping blood, fighting infection, breathing and digestion among others. Eating nutrient rich foods helps the body perform more efficiently and enhances the absorption process. Exercise builds muscle (including the heart) and burns some of those fat calories.

For all the money spent nurturing the diet industry, one would think that Americans would be tops in world health. That is not the case. The United States does, however, lead the pack in consumption of processed foods, solid fats, added sugar and sodium. The standard American diet (SAD) consists of an average 2,700 calories per day. The President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition notes that over the last 40 years, the number of fast food restaurants has doubled, and Americans have added 600 calories to their daily intake.

According to the Natural Society, the SAD lifestyle has Americans eating around 1,831 pounds of food per year. This includes 29 pounds of French fries, 24 pounds of ice cream, 23 pounds of pizza and just over 1 gallon per week of soda. The refined, processed and fast foods add 142 pounds of caloric sweeteners like sugar and corn syrup to the totals. Almost as alarming is the 24 pounds of artificial sweeteners Americans ingest annually, as well as almost 3 pounds of salt - 47 percent more than what is recommended.

Headlines are full of the results: 50 percent of Americans die from heart disease; 33 percent die from cancer; young children are now diagnosed with cancer, heart disease and diabetes, once considered adult diseases; obesity rates have doubled for adults and quadrupled for children ages 6 to 11 since the early 1970s. The President's Council states that reducing sodium intake to 1,200 mg per day could save as much as $20 billion per year in medical costs and that obese individuals have medical costs that are at least 42 percent higher than normal weight individuals.

There have been many diet plans based on traditional diets in other countries. What research has found is that many of these diets share the following characteristics: low in fat and higher in fish, lean protein, vegetables, fruits and beans. Omega-3 acids promote heart health, while vegetables and fruits contain anti-oxidants and help lower cholesterol. Other cultures also practice portion control. While they may eat rich cheeses or honey-laden sweets, they eat them in much smaller quantities less often.

What are the recommendations for healthy eating? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed dietary guidelines since 1916 which have progressed and evolved over the past century through food groups, nutrients, calories, wheels and pyramids. The current version is a plate, a graphically simple and identifiable representation that can be found at and is based on 2,000 calories per day for an average adult. Roughly, the percentages of the five food groups are as follows: 17 percent (340 calories) protein and 20 or 21 percent (400-420 calories) each of vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy.

Protein includes 5.5 ounces each day of lean meat, poultry or fish, and the USDA recommends eating seafood at least twice each week. A serving/ounce could also be one egg, one tablespoon of peanut butter, .5 ounce of nuts or seeds or .25 cup of beans.

Visually, vegetables and fruits should cover about one half of the plate. Strive for a variety of colors in vegetables such as red peppers, orange sweet potatoes and dark green broccoli. Dark berries like blueberries, blackberries and cherries are packed with antioxidants. Citrus juices - note 100 percent juice - from oranges and grapefruits give the body fresh vitamin C and benefit the skin. The USDA recommendation is 2 to 2.5 cups of each every day.

Whole grains are healthy carbohydrates. Because they are not refined, they are more complex and the body is able to capture more nutrients. They are processed slowly, and the body feels full longer. Six ounces per day is recommended, one ounce being one slice of bread or .5 cup of cereal, cooked pasta or rice. Look for "whole grain" or the word "whole" on the label and at the beginning of the ingredients list.

SAD diet statistics report that Americans eat about 14 percent more dairy than the recommended 3 cups per day. Because of the high fat and calorie content of milk and cheese, the USDA guidelines name skim and 1 percent, low fat yogurt and low fat cheese as preferred.

This is the foundation for what is considered a healthy eating program. For overall health, check food labels for solid fats, added sugars and sodium content, and eat fresh rather than processed (boxed, premade) whenever possible. The USDA also suggests that adults get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes per week of moderate exercise and add that children should be active at least one hour per day.

The best way to attack those thousands of fat calories is to use them - burning them off through exercise or reducing calorie intake and having the body use them for fuel. Keeping track of exercise and calories is as close as a smart phone or computer. There are apps and programs for every type of personality to track intake, calorie usage, goals, food groups and tips from doctors and others on the healthy food journey.

The next installment will examine popular commercial diets for effectiveness, expense and nutritional value.



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