Stayin' Alive


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THE FOOD INDUSTRY [image, unknown] Avoiding health hazards

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Stayin' alive
Diet is a major killer in the industrialised countries, causing a third to two thirds of cancer and contributing to the heart disease that accounts for one third of deaths in the rich world. Shocked at this annual carnage many people are now beginning to change their eating habits. In the US, for instance, annual deaths from cancer and heart disease have dropped by a stunning 30 per cent. So it can be done. And here - with a few New Internationalist embellishments - is what you do...

Fill up with fibre

Fibre - especially in the form of bran and beans - has been embraced by many slimmers in the vain hope that it will make the rest of their food pass through them too quickly to make them fat. Setting aside that rather revolting, immoral and wasteful idea, fibre in a healthy diet of whole-foods makes a lot of sense.

A study in Holland found that the 25 per cent of people with the lowest levels of fibre in their diet were three times as likely to die of heart disease and cancer than the 25 per cent with the highest levels. Low fibre diets are associated with bowel cancer, diverticulosis, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome. Bowel cancer is the most common fatal cancer in the US and second only to lung cancer in the UK.

In addition to protecting against bowel disease, a high fibre diet is thought to help cure up to 85 per cent of adult diabetes, and help prevent atherosclerosis (from saturated fat and cholesterol in food) and gall stones. Eating more wholefoods also means you automatically tend to cut down on fat and sugar.

Recommended daily intake offibre is at least 30gm. Foods to aim for are (with gins per average serving in brackets): pulses like beans and peas (6-16), spinach (7), wholemeal bread (6), sweetcorn (6), baked potato (5), muesli (4), broccoli (5); banana (3).

[image, unknown] Watch your weight

Even mild overweight can be dangerous, contributing to cardio-vascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, gall bladder disease, cancer.

But don’t waste energy feeling guilty for being self-indulgent. Use it for changing your eating habits, for being angry at a world system that means the rich world has 30 per cent more food than it needs while two thirds ofunder-fives in the poor world are undemourished, and for trying to understand the ways in which the food industry manipulates you into eating too much fat and sugar. It’s very hard to be overweight on a healthy diet.

MYTH Eating less of everything is the best way to diet.

MYTH All carbohydrates are fattening.

FACT Fat and sugar are the real bogies. Processed food is loaded with them. Compare the calories per 100gm in these foods: butter (740), cheese (406), sugar (394), whole-meal bread (216), pasta (117), potatoes (80), rice (123).

Stop the sugar

We all know sugar is bad for our teeth. But in the rich world, where almost everyone has tooth decay, the disease is a relatively minor irritant. In the poor world, where dentists are rare, tooth decay and gum disease can lead to excruciating pain, acute infection and disfigurement.

But sugar is more dangerous as a cause ofoverweightbecause, like fat, it provides a lot of calories but no sense of fullness - so you eat a lot without noticing. Three lumps provide the enrgy equivalent of walking one kilometer. Sugar is also linked with adult-onset diabetes and heart disease. It is used in huge quantities in processed food and drink to create bulk, shape and texture.

Worse still, it’s worth remembering that sugar is grown instead of food in many countries with disastrous effects on local nutrition.

Recommended level is 11 kg per person per year: about one quarter of current average consumption in the rich world - and many parts of the poor world too.

MYTH Brown sugar is less harmful than white.

FACT It’s all bad for you.

Finish with fat

[image, unknown] If you do nothing else, do reduce the fat in your diet. Because fat - especially animal fat - is doubly dangerous. First it contributes towards the production of cholesterol - linked with heart disease and bowel cancer. Secondly it is a potent cause of overweight because it packs a lot of calories per gram, allowing you to consume far more calories than you need without noticing. Diets high in animal fat and low in fibre are estimated to cause 45 per cent of all cancer.

At present fat provides about 40 per cent of calories eaten in the US and UK. Recommended level is 30 per cent, which means reducingourdaily intake from 128gm to 100gm per person. Only one third of this should be animal fat. Avoid these foods (per cent fat in brackets): processed meats (12-40), fresh meat (12-70) except chicken. Cheap cuts contain most fat), butter (82), cream (20-48), cake (26), pastry (20-40), biscuits (16-30), cheese (20-40 , except cottage cheese), cooking oil( 100), margarine (81).

It’s also worth remembering that it takes up to 16 times the calories in a kilo of cereal to produce one kilo of meat, and that animals fattened in factory farms suffer appalling conditions before they are slaughtered.

Save the salt

High blood pressure - hypertension - is a major risk factor in heart disease and strokes. Overweight is an important cause of hypertension. Another is sodium. Japan, with the highest levels of salt (sodium chloride) in the diet, has the highest levels of hypertension anddeathfrom strokes.

One quarter of all people are thought to be genetically predisposed to hypertension as a result of too much sodium. 10-15 per cent of the US population aged 35-64 and25 per cent of Britons aged 45-64 have dangerously high blood pressure. Salt is also linked with stomach cancer - especially prevalent in Japan. In Belgium a government campaign to reduce salt intake led to a reduction in stomach cancer and strokes.

On average we each consume 4.5kg of salt a year - about 12gm, or 2½ teaspoons, a day. The recommended daily level is just 5gm and only 1gm if you have high blood pressure. With the majority of our salt intake coming from processed food, the only sure way to cut down signiflcantiy is by cutting out processed foods.

Foods to avoid: anything ‘in brine’, ‘smoked’, ‘self-raising’ or containing disodium additives or monosodium glutamate, also preserved meat like bacon, shellfish, tinned meat, packet soups and sauces, cheese, breakfast cereals, biscuits.

Cut the cholesterol

[image, unknown] Cholesterol is a fatty substance, obtained from our food and made in the liver, that contributes to atherosclerosis - blockage of the arteries - which causes heart disease. A relatively safe level of cholesterol in the bloodstream is 1.6 gm per litre. But over one fifth of the US population has a level over 2.4 gm - they also have two fifths of heart attacks in the US. And the average level in the UK is 2.4 gm.

Every one per cent reduction in cholesterol level leads to a two per cent reduction in risk of heart disease. Recommended daily limits are 300mg for men and 225mg for women. To be relatively sure of keeping within these limits avoid the following (cholesterol in mg per 100gm is in brackets):, kidney (400-700), egg (450), liver (240-430), butter (230), shellfish (100-200), cheese (72-120, except cottage cheese). One egg weighs approximately 60gm.

Look at the label

Inform yourself about what you’re eating. Look at the country of origin and avoid foods from places where you know the profits will help bolster a repressive regime like South Africa. Make sure you know which additives are especially suspect (remember not all have been properly tested - see Additive Alert) and avoid foods containing them. Food additives are thought to cause up to five per cent of cancer in the rich world, and more may be in store for the future.

Watch out for hidden additives, like pesticides. A lettuce, for example, can be sprayed up to 14 times before you buy it. If that outrages youjoin your local branch of Pesticide Action Network (Action section). Be suspicious of the advertisements: ‘natural’, ‘wholesome’ or ‘nourishing’ doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

And don’t trust that government regulations will safeguard your health. The food industry is very powerful and renowned for mounting misleading publicity campaigns and pressurising governments to legislate in their favour. If you’re especially concerned about the way the food industry operates buy a share in a big company like Unilever and turn up at the shareholders’ meeting to ask difficult questions.

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