The Health Consequences of the American Diet, Part 1
This two-part interview is a sneak peek at Dr. Tieraona Low Dog’s book on the state of the American diet. Every physician will want to get a head start on using Dr. Low Dog’s advice in their daily practice.
Kimberly Lord Stewart: We are a nation that is calorie rich and nutrient poor. Why are so many Americans missing the key nutrients they need for optimum health?
Dr. Tieraona Low Dog: Our lives have changed in many, many ways: from the foods we eat, to the way we are born, the way we spend our days, and the environmental stressors we are exposed to.
Our modern diet looks very different to that of our ancestors. People traditionally lived on wild game or meat from the animals they raised. Organ meats, which are extremely nutrient dense, were a regular part of the diet. The eggs from fowl, legumes, seeds, vegetables, fruits and nuts were eaten when and where available. Some cultures included cheese, butter and a variety of grains. Nowhere did people eat pop-tarts for breakfast, or potato chips and soda for lunch. Today, many of our grains are processed to the point where synthetic vitamins must be added to try to replace what was lost. In our obsession with low-fat food, industry has added increasing amounts of sugar and high fructose corn syrup to make up for the loss of taste and texture. And even those of us who shop in the “natural channel” fool ourselves with thinking that organic evaporated cane syrup or agave nectar somehow makes the 40 grams of sugar in the food healthy. We’re consuming more than 100 pounds of added sugars per person per year. It’s one of the major nutritional factors driving chronic disease in America today.
There have actually been many “unintended” consequences for the health messages that have dominated the consumer and medical airwaves for decades. We swapped out butter for margarine, what a disaster that was. Trans-fats are far more harmful than saturated fat could have ever been. We told people to stop eating eggs, even though they are an inexpensive source of high quality protein, loaded in vitamins and choline. Choline is a nutrient vitally important for the structural integrity of cell membranes, prevention of fatty liver disease, synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and the healthy development of the brain and nervous system of babies and young children. More than 90% of Americans fail to meet the RDA in their diet. This is as we see increasing amounts of neurological disorders and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Free-range, omega-3 rich eggs can be a very practical and healthy way of ensuring protein, B12, choline and DHA to pregnant women, children and people of all ages. Yet, many still go for the “egg white” omelet with spinach as the “healthy choice,” even though it is the yolk where the magic happens.
Our message to cut back on sodium has taken an unexpected twist. Many Americans get much of their sodium from processed and fast food, the majority of which do not contain iodized salt. Where have people been cutting back on salt? At home when they are using the saltshaker which increasingly contains pink Himalayan salt, kosher salt or sea salt, which are mostly not iodized. Over the past twenty years there has been a steady decrease in the mean urinary iodine levels from 320 μg/L to 145 μg/L. According to the CDC, women 25-39 years of age as a group are now borderline iodine insufficient. This is a concerning finding given the importance of iodine during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Even mild iodine deficiency during pregnancy has been associated with a higher incidence of children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder and lower IQ. More severe deficiency can cause miscarriage or the baby to be born with mental retardation.
Babies born vaginally get a huge head start when it comes to laying down a healthy microbiome, while breastfeeding encourages and supports the growth of friendly gut bacteria. Children that are born vaginally and breastfed are less likely to suffer from ear infections, vomiting, diarrhea, urinary tract infections, cow’s milk allergies, respiratory illness, celiac disease, childhood leukemia, diabetes and obesity. In a healthy society, roughly 5-10% of babies will need to be born by C-section to protect the life of the mother and/or the child. However, in the United States, almost 33% of births are by Cesarean. And while breastfeeding rates are up, fewer than half of babies are being breastfed at six months, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life for all the reasons mentioned above.
Plant-based foods are incredibly important for our health, and we need an abundance of them in our diet. However, as agricultural practices have allowed farmers to go to market with more and bigger produce, they have come at a price. Studies in the U.S. and UK have shown a 15-38% decline in calcium, iron, riboflavin, potassium and vitamin C in many of our major food crops over the past forty years. These foods are not only less nutritious but most are grown with the extensive use of pesticides and herbicides. There is growing evidence that a lifetime of exposure to “small doses” of these chemicals may increase the risk for childhood leukemia, prostate and breast cancer, early puberty, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, and neurological harm.
The reality is that the manner in which the government subsidizes certain crops and not others makes fruits and vegetables more costly and organic even more so. Many people simply cannot afford to buy organic food for their families, leaving them not only more exposed to these harmful toxins but also eating food that provides less of the very nutrients they need to protect them from harm.
About Tieraona Low Dog, MD
Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.’s exploration of natural medicine began more than 35 years ago as she studied midwifery, herbal medicine; massage therapy and martial arts before earning her medical degree from the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. An internationally recognized expert in the fields of integrative medicine, dietary supplements and women’s health, Dr. Low Dog was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy, served as the elected Chair of the US Pharmacopeia Dietary Supplements and Botanicals Expert Information Panel, and was appointed to the Scientific Advisory Council for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
She has been an invited speaker to more than 550 scientific/medical conferences, published 40 peer-reviewed articles, written 22 chapters for medical textbooks, and has authored five books, including three National Geographic books, Fortify Your Life, Healthy at Home and Life is Your Best Medicine. She has appeared on CNN, ABC’s 20/20, and is a frequent guest on the Dr. Oz show and NPR’s The People’s Pharmacy. She currently serves as the Fellowship Director for the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine.