Aside from eating too much fat, Americans also eat the wrong kinds of fat. In the 1900’s, a process called hydrogenation was invented, which turned liquid oils into solid fat that was inexpensive, suitable for frying and baking, and didn’t go rancid. Since then, manufacturers replaced healthy oils with hydrogenated fats in thousands of products. On labels, you see them listed as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils or as vegetable shortening. According to the FDA, these “trans” fats now comprise about 2.6 percent of daily calories for those of us age twenty and older. These restructured fats are detrimental to our health and have been implicated in cancer, heart disease, and inflammatory conditions.
Although we eat too much fat, many of us are still deficient in essential fatty acids (good fats), especially the omega-3 fatty acids that are in seafood, grains, nuts, and seeds. These essential fatty acids are critical for growth, healing, reduction of pain and inflammation, healthy skin, reproduction, nervous system functioning, and overall well-being.
Dietary changes can substantially reduce the incidence of heart disease. Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, selenium, nitric oxide, glutathione, and carotenoids protect our blood vessels from inflammation, process that is now believed to be associated with heart disease. But these nutrients are stripped from our highly processed foods. An elevated homocysteine level in our blood is another risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Increasing dietary and supplemental levels of vitamins B6 and B12 and folic acid can normalize homocysteine levels. It’s estimated that taking a multivitamin with B-complex vitamins could prevent 10 percent of deaths from heart disease.
The average person consumes 12 grams of fiber daily, according to studies done by the USDA and the National Institutes of Health. This falls far short of the recommendation of 20 to 30 grams and is half of what people ate 150 years ago. Dietary fiber, found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, is beneficial to our digestive tract and reduces risk of GI illness. African diets which are high in fiber, when these people move to cities or change to a Westernized diet-of high-sugar, highly processed, low-fiber, and low-nutrient-density foods- they begin to develop these illnesses at the usual rates. Fiber-rich foods help us manufacture short-chained fatty acids, which protect us against diseases of the colon.
We have changed not only our diets, but also the way we eat. We eat 45 percent of meals away from home, up from 39 percent in 1980 and 34 percent in 1970. Many of us skip breakfast, and others skip breakfast and lunch. Studies show that school-age children perform better when they’ve eaten breakfast. Adults are no different. In fact, small, frequent meals keep our energy levels even and our minds alert. Americans often overeat socially and emotionally. This too contributes to digestive illness. We eat to give nourishment to our bodies, but meals are also a time for relaxation, rest, refreshment, and renewal. If we are relaxed while eating, we digest food better. People seem to know this intuitively. Saying grace or taking a couple of moments to center ourselves before eating is a global custom.