It seems that unicorn food is everywhere these days—from Starbucks to the pages of The New York Times. What is the unicorn food fad? It’s all about eating beautiful, bright foods in every color of the rainbow. But I’d suggest sticking to fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. Unicorns may be mythical, but the health benefits of the nutrition rainbow aren’t.
The arrival of a new administration in Washington portends great changes in the political landscape. Many people are asking what this will mean for efforts to promote health, good nutrition, and ethical research. Will the new administration halt initiatives for healthy school meals and gut regulations that protect animals? Or will the opposite happen? Perhaps fiscal conservatives in the new administration will seek to end subsidies for the meat and dairy industries that drive up taxes and inflate health care costs. For now, it is too early to tell.
The sudden disappearance of the USDA animal welfare database in February was not a good sign. The database lists animal welfare violations and, as we report in this Good Medicine, its removal was a boon to animal abusers. The Physicians Committee is now suing the federal government to restore the database, working with a coalition of groups that are affected by this unwelcome change.
Troubling as this change at USDA was, it is too early to judge what the next four years will bring overall. In the world of nutrition, neither side of the political aisle has been a vigorous champion. Both are consistently lobbied by the meat, dairy, and snack food industries and have responded with federal subsidies, industry-friendly regulations, and the thoughtless inclusion of unhealthy foods in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The last administration aimed to do better than its predecessors, declaring war on childhood obesity with the Let’s Move campaign, but beat a quick retreat under intimidation by the food industry.
On the other hand, both sides of the aisle helped bring progress on animal testing last year with the passage of the Lautenberg Act which greatly favors nonanimal testing methods. This was the result of a successful roll-up-your-sleeves campaign that crossed the political divide.
So the Physicians Committee will work with the executive branch, Congress, and the courts for good health, smart science, and compassionate research. As always, we approach our work with neither pessimism nor unfounded optimism, but with determination.
Exploiting economically disadvantaged people as a way to prop up dairy profits is wrong. But the dairy industry is at it again. The International Dairy Foods Association just asked Congress to bail out the tanking industry by coercing SNAP (formerly food stamps) participants to purchase more milk and cheese. It’s a bad idea targeting a population particularly vulnerable to heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions linked to dairy products.
On March 22, Michael D. Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, told the House Agriculture Committee that the association wants the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program—which is aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption—to be reauthorized and expanded in the next Farm Bill to give SNAP participants incentives to purchase milk and dairy products.
“We believe adding voluntary incentives to encourage SNAP participants to increase their consumption of milk and dairy foods would be nutritionally sound and a wise use of taxpayer dollars,” said Dykes.
It would not. More milk means greater mortality risk from conditions including heart disease. Last month, the American Journal of Epidemiology published a study of more than 140,000 men and women. Those who consumed the most milk and the fewest servings of fruits or vegetables had higher mortality rates. The increase in risk was almost three-fold among the women participants.
But another study found that replacing dairy fats with plant-based foods decreases heart disease risk. This makes sense for SNAP participants, who are already at increased risk for death from heart disease.
A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health found that SNAP participants increased their risk of death from heart disease and had three times the diabetes mortality rate when compared to income-ineligible nonparticipants. They also had an increased risk compared to income-eligible nonparticipants.
Dairy products are also linked to cancer, hip fractures, and lactose intolerance, which affects approximately 65 percent of the human population.
The Healthy Staples Program, which I recently proposed in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is one possible remedy. It would encourage SNAP participants to choose a “package” of disease-fighting plant-based foods (with preparation tips and easy meal ideas) that participating grocers would supply.
The “Healthy Staples Program” could also save SNAP $26 billion each year. It would provide SNAP recipients abundant food and complete nutrition while reducing the average monthly benefit used per person from $126.39 to $78.66 each month. These cost savings can be reinvested into SNAP to expand its benefits.
The International Dairy Foods Association’s plan, on the other hand, would actually cost taxpayers, who are already paying tens of millions of dollars to bail out the dairy industry. Last August, the USDA announced that it would buy 11 million pounds of unwanted cheese at a cost of $20 million. Two months later, the USDA said it would buy an additional $20 million of cheddar cheese.
Continuing to bail out the dairy industry is a losing proposition. A recent report found that U.S. dairy sales will continue to decline until 2020 and that “growth of non-dairy milk will continue as consumers perceive it a better-for-you alternative to dairy milk.”
In response, Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin recently introduced the Dairy Pride Act, to “defend” the dairy industry from plant-based products.
It’s too late. As more and more Americans ditch dairy products for healthy plant-based options, it’s unfair for the U.S. government to continue propping up the dairy industry by dumping disease-causing milk and cheese into nutrition assistance programs that should promote healthful foods instead.
Are you looking for natural ways to boost energy and weight loss? Here are six tips to put into everyday practice:
- Fill up with Fiber. The average American consumes 15 to 16 grams of fiber a day. We should aim to eat much more, closer to 40 grams of daily fiber. It fills us up with minimal calories. Fiber-packed sources include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lentils, beans, and peas.
Case study: Let’s say you’re traveling and need to grab a bite to eat. If you go to a local diner, you could easily ask for steamed greens and beans, like the Brussels Sprouts & Lentils dish at the Silver Diner. Compared to fish tacos, the veggie dish has twice as much fiber, nearly identical amounts of calories and protein, and no cholesterol. Studies show when we make the veggie choice every day, it’s easier to keep our blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and body weight in a healthy range.
- Favor Green Vegetables. Eat at least one leafy green vegetable each day. Research shows leafy green vegetables help stabilize blood sugar and reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes. Plus, they provide calcium and iron in their most healthful forms.
Case study: To sneak in extra servings of leafy greens, opt for Swiss chard sandwich wraps, add microgreens as a topping to vegetable and rice bowls, and use broccoli or arugula as a base for “beta-carotene bowls,” a mix of steamed squash, brown rice, black beans, and your favorite cruciferous greens. If you normally pile on cheesy spreads, top this dish with a touch of tahini and nutritional yeast.
- Ditch Problem Foods. If cheese, meat, chocolate, and sugar call your name and derail weight-loss efforts, leave these foods aside for a few weeks. See how you feel. This timeframe is long enough to see a difference, but short enough to make it manageable.
Case study: Try replacement foods that emulate your favorite staples. If you normally have a chocolate or candy bar, try fresh fruit with carob chips or blend steamed soymilk with cacao powder. If your afternoon snack is an apple and a hunk of cheese, try a nut-based cashew cheese blend. If it’s cheese crackers, opt for a base of cucumbers or whole-wheat pita bread and add hummus with roasted red peppers.
- Exercise. Exercise is not an especially strong calorie-burner. But it does burn some calories—about 100 calories for every mile you walk or run. Plus, it’s tough to eat a bowl of ice cream while you’re jogging. So lace up your sneakers. Aim for 40 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, a few times each week. This can be as simple as going for a brisk walk with a friend, running for a four-mile loop around the neighborhood, or signing up for a water aerobics class. The key is to find something that keeps your heart rate up and to stick with it.
Case study: Instead of turning to the television after dinner, grab a family member or friend and go for a brisk walk. Your energy rebounds and your sleep is better, too. It also provides cognitive benefits. Regular exercise reverses brain shrinkage and improves memory.
- Sleep. Our brains need time to recharge and fully function. By incorporating adequate sleep into your wellness routine you’ll reboot the regions of the brain that need it. My rule is lights out by 10 p.m.
Case study: We make our best decisions, including what to eat, after a good night’s rest. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
- Social Support. Take advantage of peer pressure by creating your own social support groups, which might be spending more time with family or volunteering at the library. Music counts, too.
Case study: When I was in medical school 30 years ago, music was my stress-reducer. I recruited some great musicians, and we’re still making music today. It turns out that the same parts of the brain’s reward center than are turned on by alcohol, drugs, and junk food can be stimulated in a healthier way by social interactions, exercise, and music, amazingly enough.
For more tips on healthful weight loss and energy, tune in to the Energy Weight Loss Solution, which airs on PBS nationwide this month. Look up local listings at PBS.org.
And if you are hooked on cheese, tune in to the Dr. Oz Show today, Wednesday, March 8. Look up local times and listings at DoctorOz.com.
Bob Harper, host of The Biggest Loser, recently suffered a heart attack. I’m happy that he is feeling better. I hope that by speaking out about his heart attack he inspires others to take steps to keep their hearts healthy. Following is my open letter to Bob.
We are thinking of you and wishing you a quick and easy recovery from your heart attack—and we are eager to help in any way we can. I know it took courage for you to tell the media yesterday that this happened. On The Biggest Loser and in your other work, you’ve educated and inspired millions of people on the benefits of exercise, and, along the way, you have also shown tremendous kindness and compassion for people whose motivation was slipping.
While you have said that family history influenced your heart attack, lifestyle choices play a role in the vast majority of heart attacks. That’s why we are eager to work with you to again educate and inspire everyone at risk.
When you began a vegan diet in 2010, animal fat and cholesterol were gone from your life, and healthy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans filled your menu. This diet, along with a healthy lifestyle, can reverse heart disease and helps prevent heart attacks. While no diet can make a person bullet-proof, getting away from animal products is as solid a decision as one can make.
When you modified this diet in 2013, you invited some animal products and their “bad fat” and cholesterol back onto your plate. Many people have been pushed to do the same by a commercially driven “fat is back” movement designed to lure people to unhealthful food products.
Let’s work together to let people know that foods do matter. Healthy foods—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans—can heal the heart, while meats, cheese, and other unhealthful foods put us at risk that all the exercise in the world cannot undo.
I wish you all the best as you get back on your feet and again bring a vital health message to people who need it.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D., F.A.C.C.