Tired of being told what not to eat? Join the club. In the laudable national quest for good health, finger-pointers and fearmongers too often shout down the voices of moderation, hope, and plain old enjoyment. Every bite becomes a nagging vexation. In T.S. Eliot's poem, J. Alfred Prufrock only had to wonder, "Do I dare to eat a peach?" These days, it's whether to quit carbohydrates, shun sugar, flee from fat, or ban beef. And every other new book on the market contains its own special proscription, some hitherto undiscovered "secret" about which foods to deep-six. You would get the idea that the only way to eat healthfully is also to walk a tightrope - designed for Olympic athletes with 2% body fat.
Not from us, though. Cooking Light has always stuck with one elegantly simple message: Choose a balanced diet in combination with sensible exercise. You'll have fun, you'll eat well, and you'll stay healthy. We think it's worth noting, therefore, that there's been an important shift in proactive advice from five of the nation's leading health organizations: the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Dietetic Association, the American Heart Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research, and the National Institutes of Health. All have endorsed a new dietary position that emphasizes what might be called the power of positive eating: concentrating on what foods are good for you, rather than worrying about the ones that aren't.
A Healthy Diet
The positive-eating messages, directed at possible changes to federal "Dietary Guidelines" (seven tenets used to shape a number of government nutritional programs), started in June 1999 with a call from the AICR for "reshaping of the American diet in a positive manner." According to Melanie Polk, the cancer-fighting group's director of nutrition education, the new strategy "is to encourage people to eat what makes them healthier." That doesn't mean browbeating the public about what to fear, but giving people sound and appealing suggestions about how to make the good stuff more appealing. Such as what? Not hard to guess. "Vegetables and fruit, along with other plant-based foods," said the AICR, "should be moved to the center of the plate at breakfast, lunch and dinner."
That position, with some modifications, got strong backup a few weeks later when the other four health groups issued a joint call for what they dubbed "Unified Dietary Guidelines." Instead of confusing people with a lot of different diets, the groups said, the best advice would be for everyone to essentially follow a single, simple set of parameters known to enhance, if not prolong, human life. The unified approach would be a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet high in vegetables, fruits, cereals, and grains. Although a little more open than the strong plant-based recommendation from the AICR, the Unified Guidelines also indicated a shift of focus to the benefits of what's healthy, not unhealthy. It also strongly suggested that specialty and fad diets, which typically vilify or extol one or two dietary components, often in an extreme way, are irrelevant. The good news is that we don't need one diet to prevent heart disease, another to decrease cancer risk, and yet another to prevent obesity and diabetes, says Richard J. Deckelbaum, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Columbia University and a member of the American Heart Association's nutrition committee. A single healthy diet cuts across disease categories to lower the risk of many chronic conditions.
Should I Just Eat My Veggies?
Sure, these "eat positive" messages might sound like just another way of getting you to finish your broccoli. But there's more to it. It's a good idea to learn to love veggies, fruits, grains and cereals for their own sakes - rather than just as a substitute for the fatty, deep-fried and sugar-loaded heart bombs that are truly your passion - for the same reason your mother said that while you could love anyone, it's just as easy to love somebody with a future.
The plant-based strategy offers you a future. A good one. An exhaustive, four-year AICR-sponsored review of 4,500 different studies linking diet and cancer found that eight of 10 reports clearly indicate fruits and vegetables protect against cancer. "It's not that fat is no longer an issue in terms of fighting cancer and other illnesses," says the AICR's Polk. "It's that the evidence showing fruits and vegetables are protective is so convincing. We're not saying it's possible that eating fruits and vegetables may lower cancer risk. We're saying there's convincing evidence that it will." Just five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, research shows, could drop overall cancer rates by as much as 20%.
In general, diet is crucial in maintaining good health. It's estimated that half of all breast cancers could be sidestepped with better eating habits. Three of every four cases of colon cancer could be prevented. Up to one out of every three cases of lung cancer could be derailed. Vegetables, fruits and whole grains are the common denominators in all of these dietary solutions.