Date: May 1st, 2007
The Dream of the Perfect Food
A food that grants youth and immortality is an ancient dream celebrated in myth. The Greek gods ate ambrosia, which conferred grace or immortality. To stay young forever, the Norse gods ate the golden apples of Idun.
Now in the 21st century, science tells us that a healthy diet is important to insuring a long and healthy life. But just what makes for a healthy diet? We are inundated by conflicting nutritional advice.
In an effort to simplify food choices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled the now-familiar "food pyramid" in 1992. It divided foods into five groups and recommended daily servings of each. In 2005, the USDA unveiled a new pyramid, "MyPyramid." It tailors recommendations to a user's age and activity level and has more precise information about serving sizes. While a considerable improvement, "MyPyramid" has received mixed reviews. It doesn't discuss foods to avoid, and takes an uncritical approach to the foods it includes.
Two months before MyPyramid appeared, another food pyramid quietly bowed, one specifically designed to promote healing. The Healing Foods Pyramid(HFP) includes only those foods known to have healing benefits or to contain essential nutrients.
The HFP is the braindchild of Dr. Monica Myklebust and dietitian Jeanna Wunder of the University of Michigan's Integrative Medicine Clinical Services. During two years' review of scientific studies, they noted striking similarities of nutrition recommendations for the prevention and treatment of such conditions as cancer, heart disease, high serum lipids, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, headaches, mood disorders and chronic pain.
"I am a family doctor, and was looking for practical answers. We devised our pyramid because there wasn't a nutrition tool that encompassed what was important," said Myklebust. "We hope it will serve as a practical guide to healthy eating."
The Healing Pyramid
The first thing that strikes you about the HFP is that its foundation is not a food at all, but water, with a recommended 64-96 ounces daily. Next level up are a variety of fruits and vegetables, low in calories but abundant in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Next are grains and starchy vegetables, then legumes including soy. "Soy, for instance, is something most of the world eats, but is rarely treated in the standard food pyramid," said Myklebust.
Dairy, eggs, fish, and meat are all covered in detail, but described as "optional" - recognizing that some may choose a vegan diet. Dairy emphasizes low-fat choices; meats should be consumed no more than one to three servings weekly.
There are also a number of categories unique to the Healing Foods Pyramid, such as a section on seasonings. Accompaniments such as alcohol, dark chocolate, and tea are given special consideration. Finally, at the top, a "personal space" is left blank for food which the user considers to be healing to be enjoyed occasionally.
A click on a food category on the HFP immediately brings the user to a "Facts About" guidelines that detail serving sizes, health benefits, and special considerations. Even if you feel your diet is already a healthy one, check out the "Hot Topics" -- detailed discussions of subjects such as coffee, mushrooms, and sweeteners.
Advice for Older Adults
Can what you eat really affect a disease? "It's been clear for some time that nutrition plays a big role in heart disease, but what is less commonly known is how inflammation contributes to so many diseases, from rheumatoid arthritis to chronic pain. And what you eat can influence inflammation," said Myklebust. "In general, plant-based foods are preferable choices, rather than animal-based, which may mean you choose soy milk, rather than milk, or nuts, rather than cheese. Many seasonings - such as garlic, ginger, and turmeric - have anti-inflammatory properties. The most amazing results I've seen in with changes in diet are with rheumatoid arthritis."
Her advice to older adults? "Educate yourself about where your food comes from," says Micklebust. "Farms are different, crops are different than from when many of today's seniors grew up. Read the labels, and don't be afraid to try organic products."
She also warns against falling into a "food rut." "Be aware of what you eat out of habit, and try modifying it in steps. Choose one new food a week, particularly in vegetables."
- Dietary Guidelines, the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy