February 14, 2013

(+++) IN SEARCH OF CERTAINTY


The Best Things You Can Eat. By David Grotto, R.D., L.D.N. Da Capo. $15.99.

      Our unending search for simple solutions to complex problems spawns all sorts of “this is all you need to do” books aimed at helping people de-stress, live better, have a healthier life, lose weight, become more attractive, and sprout wings and fly to the moon (well, maybe not that last one).  Now there is a book that purports to make eating – that is, fueling your body – a simple matter of following its prescriptions. The recommendations come from Registered Dietitian and Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist David Grotto, not from a medical doctor, but Grotto repeatedly calls on readers to see doctors for a variety of reasons: “If you are reading this section [on hot peppers], right at this moment, and have an upset stomach, my advice is to skip hot peppers and go directly to the suggestions [for an upset stomach] that follow. And while we are at it, if your tummy problems persist, seek out care from a qualified health professional!”

      And while we are at it (no exclamation point necessary), take the recommendations in The Best Things You Can Eat with a grain or two of – well, maybe not salt, which comes in for a bad rap just about everywhere nowadays (even though Grotto does acknowledge its value), but maybe with a touch of vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and the other vitamins served up by Grotto in his first chapter, which has the cutesy title, “The Vita-Man Can.”  This chapter begins a section called “The Vital Nutrients,” but it is the second and third sections – “Best Foods for Whatever Ails You” and “Best in Show” – that are the meat (so to speak) of Grotto’s book.  Here you will find, for example, “Plaque Attack! Top 8 Foods for Lowering Cholesterol,” which (lest the suspense become overwhelming) are almonds, apples, flaxseeds, garlic, uncooked oatmeal, extra-virgin olive oil, psyllium husks and cooked soybeans. There is, in fact, nothing surprising on this list, or on many of the lists Grotto provides; and his write-ups, once you get past their rather hectic style, are actually pretty responsible: “Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of nearly any nut, such as almonds, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.”  Notice – not just almonds. And eat the nuts in the context of an appropriate diet. And if you do that, cardiovascular risk may be reduced. Yes, all this is correct – if scarcely as enticing as the notion of taking a simple pill (or eating a series of prescribed foods) and magically transforming your health.

      The truth is that many Americans’ diets are pretty unhealthful, with the result that many Americans are pretty unhealthy.  Anything that encourages better eating is worth trying, and if it takes a sensationalized one-size-fits-all book title and some overly chatty writing to get people to improve their food intake, than that is all to the good.  The problem with Grotto’s book is that he often lets his style overcome his essentially intelligent recommendations. For instance, he starts one bullet-point paragraph with the words, “Chew the fat,” but the whole paragraph says to eat a diet very low in fat, and consume only certain types of fat rather than other types – there is nothing about chewing at all. And another bullet point oversimplifies a task that is very, very difficult for many people: “Shed a few pounds: Trimming off even a few unwanted pounds can improve your HDL level.”

      To be sure, Grotto’s presentation is more entertaining and effective in some sections than others. Beneath his top seven foods for stopping bad breath (apples, cherries, lettuce, milk, pears, green tea and yogurt), for example, he gives a series of honorable mentions and then the dishonorable mentions of smoking, alcohol, spicy foods, sugar, coffee, black tea, onions and garlic.  The fact that some foods in this latter group get a positive recommendation for other purposes is a trifle confusing, though.  But it points to a reality of food consumption: foods are not all good or all bad. What matters is context, overall diet, and total intake of all foods combined. You may want to eat garlic as one of Grotto’s top “flu fighters,” for instance, even knowing that it promotes bad breath.  The reality is that there is no simple, appropriate-for-everyone list of foods to eat (or foods to avoid); moderation in food intake (as in many things) is the key to better health, and an emphasis on certain types of foods (such as fruits and vegetables) with a de-emphasis of others (red and cured meats, for example) makes sense.  But extreme recommendations, demands that people make major changes in what they eat, simply produce anger and frustration and cause people to continue eating habits that, in truth, are not good for them.  Gradual improvements in diet, shifts to better eating habits rather than wholesale and quick changes, are the key to long-term improvement in nutrition and therefore in health.  The best foods you can eat are the ones that, in combination, fuel the body adequately, provide vitamins and other nutrients in sufficient quantities to stabilize and even improve health, and are enjoyably tasty enough so you do not feel deprived whenever you have a meal. The exact food mixture will vary from person to person – and there is nothing whatever wrong with that. After all, doctors offer different prescriptions for the same medical condition, depending on what is best for individual patients. It is just as important for nutritionists and other dietary advisers to pay attention to the differences among the people to whom they are making recommendations.

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