Feast in November; be Jolly in December. That sets the holiday spirit, indeed. With all the misery in this imperfect world crowding in closer year by year—or so it seems—one feels especially blessed for every day in which civilization seems to work well enough to at least provide the basics that we sometimes take for granted.
I felt thankful and blessed to be invited to a delicious Thanksgiving feast yesterday: home-baked bread and chopped liver for starters, served with carrot and celery sticks, then turkey soup, and then the roast turkey and all the trimmings, sweet potatoes, nut and raisin stuffing and giblet gravy. And at the end a choice of pumpkin and fruit pies, coffee or tea and lots of good cheer.
Thanksgiving is especially enjoyable because it is a family holiday and the presence of youngsters brings energy, enthusiasm and adventure to these reunions. I rather enjoy such a feast because it is predictable and generally healthy. I don't feel compelled to criticize our ancestors for dietary excess. I just eat less the day of the feast and likewise the morning after—and I don't gorge to the point of discomfort. The purpose of a feast is to feel good.
I appreciate a good time so I try not to impose my professional thoughts about health and nutrition on my friends in the midst of dinner; but it is almost inevitable that someone at a feast will express guilt or concern about eating more than usual. Indeed, the subject of dietary fat and fatness came up around the table. The college age daughter of my host made a declarative statement: "Weight has nothing to do with calories! I just watch my fat intake and keep it below 3 grams per meal." How simple it sounded. And I couldn't help but notice that she had indeed lost a lot of weight since last we met. In fact she had dropped 20 pounds in five months after adopting her low fat idea from reading magazines. She is down to 114 pounds, what she feels is an optimal weight.
Ailene is an ethnic beauty, 5 feet 2 inches tall and naturally curvaceous and full-featured. Her new look is narrow-hipped by comparison and seems boney and angular. Maybe I'm just getting older and changing in my tastes, but I thought to myself that I liked her better the old way. "How do you feel," I asked. "Great, high energy and I'm so happy with myself."
It sounded so good and so simple that I secretly began to question myself: "...maybe I've been too skeptical of the low fat dietary advice that has taken over our country lately." So I decided to ask Ailene a few questions. Was she really on a low fat diet? Was she denying or overlooking symptoms? I asked her to describe what foods she does eat. It turned out to be not much.
She starts her day at 7:30 A.M. with two cups of coffee—to which she adds 2 teaspoonfuls (tsp.) of sugar and a tablespoonful (Tbsp.) of low fat milk. She skips lunch except for more coffee with sugar and skim milk and a bite of chocolate and some wheat chex, and so she depends on her evening meal for the bulk of her nutrients. It's not easy to satisfy one's nutrient requirements by just one meal a day, and her dinner menu is austere: a vegetable salad and chicken a few times a week, and fish once a week eaten without the skin. You don't have to be a nutrition genius to appreciate that this diet is low in calories. Luckily, she has been eating more on weekends by adding a vegetable omelette and fried potatoes for breakfast. However, she feels so tired afterward that she actually finds it more comfortable to stick to her "low fat" diet.
I didn't want to intrude in her personal habits, but I was genuinely concerned that her diet would do some harm to her before she knew it. Therefore I summoned up the simplest and most strategic advice I could muster. "Just two things to do," I said, "take a teaspoonful of cod liver oil and eat two eggs every day, not just on week-ends. And of course, take a multivitamin." The eggs add about half her requirements for high quality protein and all the other nutrient ingredients of life. Though the egg does not provide optimal quantities for all our needs, it is still the all-around best single food for most of us.
I called her the next day and took a more exact diet history. As I questioned her in a systematic medical manner, she became aware of symptoms that she has been ignoring. In the past three months she has had flu three times; her energy is definitely declining and she has spells of weakness. She needs more sleep and literally has to leave parties early because she gets so tired. Her skin and hair are becoming dry and she confided now that her reflection in the mirror looked "run down." Her gums have been bleeding, her lips chapped and her mental concentration and memory have decreased. Oh yes, she forgot to tell me that she has had spells of numbness in her fingers, especially when she grips the steering wheel of her car.
I thought it might be interesting to perform a computer analysis of her diet and my new program includes over 8000 foods and 50 nutrient read-outs. So I entered the 21 foods that make up her diet and—what a shock! The computer credited her with 2700 calories. Nonsense. "What am I doing wrong?" I asked myself. It took a while before I found that the computer program contains an error! The programmer entered incorrect data for sugar; thus the computer identified her 8 Tbsp of sugar (96 grams) as 533 grams! I am sharing this with you, dear reader, just to remind us all that computers aren't as perfect as we like to think.
After careful checking, I assured myself that the program is otherwise accurate and complete. Here is the analysis of her low fat diet (numbers rounded off for convenience): Calories 700, Protein 39 grams, Fat 14 grams, Carbohydrate 92 grams. Fifteen essential nutrients calculated below 50 percent of RDA: sodium, iron, calcium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, chromium, molybdenum, vitamin E, B1, pantothenic acid, biotin and vitamin D. In addition, the Omega-3 Essential fatty acids were definitely deficient, a total of only 60 mg, while Omega 6 EFA were also inadequate at 1.4 grams. Surprise! Her low fat diet actually doesn't contain enough fat! In fact, it doesn't contain enough food.
How did my advice figure on the computer? After adding two eggs and a teaspoonful of cod liver oil almost all of the very low nutrients improved closer to RDA values; however she still gets only 900 calories, too low for sensible health maintenance. Her protein intake increases by almost 7 grams per egg, to 51 grams per day, which is adequate. Fats are now increased to 32 Grams, ie. 288 calories, which is about 30% of her total calories, but remember these are mostly essential fatty acids and the Omega 3-EFA are now ample at 2.4. grams per day.
Seven nutrient deficiencies below 50 percent of RDA levels remain: sodium, calcium, zinc, copper, chromium, molybdenum and vitamin E. A multi-vitamin-mineral pill taken daily corrects these, except for sodium and calcium. The sodium (and iodine) are corrected if she salts her food, about half a teaspoonful per day, and she will have more energy and will no longer fall asleep at parties. A Tbsp of fresh-ground flax with her wheat chex would put all her trace minerals over the top and add some much needed calcium and fiber. Or, a Tbsp of cottage cheese with her salad would secure her calcium and protein needs without defeating her weight maintenance.
Hey, not so bad. I tried to intrude on her lifestyle as little as possible. She is not my patient, after all. Besides, my own Listen To Your Body Diet™ teaches you how to find the foods and food balances that work best for you and that permits much more variety and, in fact, weight maintenance without starvation. Everything else, including the "low fat/high-fad diet" is just guess-work. In this case, Ailene was guessing herself into chronic starvation. It was already catching up with her health and energy. Maybe its time she reads my book, MegaNutrition for Women.
Bottom line: holiday feasts are a traditional way to celebrate life and protect ourselves from crash diets and food fads. So here is the blessing of this nutrition-physician: Enjoy yourself and enjoy your food; Learn your needs and treat yourself good.
©2007 Richard A. Kunin, M.D.