Red meat, processed foods and dairy products: the risks these foods that are the basis of a Western-style diet can cause to your health are underscored by a new study in the American Journal of Medicine. By examining medical data for a number of British adults from 1985-2009, researchers found that, by eating the fried, sugar-loaded, processed diet typical of too many in Western countries, people reduced their likelihood not only of living into old age but of enjoying all of one’s years.
Researchers from France under Tasnime Akbaraly studied 3,775 men and 1,575 women with a mean age of 51 — at the midpoint of life. All had been part of the British Whitehall II study that looked specifically at how diet can affect metabolic syndrome, which is known to be a predictor of heart disease.
Specifically, they assessed the health of participants following the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI), which was developed by members of the Harvard School of Public Health and others as an alternative to the USDA’s dietary guidelines. The AHEI was created to, indeed, show how “specific dietary patterns and eating behaviors” are “associated with lower chronic disease risk based on previous epidemiological and clinical investigations.” Under the AHEI guidelines, people are to make certain food choices, such as “white meat over red meat, whole grains over refined grains, oils high in unsaturated fat over ones with saturated fat and multivitamin use” — that is, to forego what has become the typical Western diet for something more healthy.
Akbaraly and the other researchers found that, among the thousands of British adults they studied, those who did not closely stick to the the AHEI’s guidelines raised their risk of cardiovascular and noncardiovascular death while lowering their chances for “ideal aging” in a state of good health, free of chronic diseases.
My grandmother, who died at the age of 103 in 2008, offers an example of what such a state of “high functionality” in old age looked like. For all but the very end of her life, she walked almost every day to Oakland’s Chinatown to buy groceries and play mahjong. She cooked and sewed and was a central focus of generations of my father’s family. She lived just a few blocks from a McDonalds, but I don’t recall seeing her eat anything from there. While she didn’t eat whole grains, sticking to the white rice that is a staple of Cantonese food, she ate (and had us eat) plenty of green, leafy vegetables.
American fast food — McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Starbucks — is something you can find “exported” to seemingly anywhere in the world, from India to Russia. Sadly, obesity and related health issues such as heart disease and diabetes, are also increasing in countries like Japan and India, where people have abandoned a traditional, far healthier diet and become more sedentary in their lifestyle.
Japanese men and women could once be said to “live longer and healthier than everyone else on Earth” thanks to a diet involving a “healthier balance of filling, delicious lower-calorie foods, presented with beautiful portion control in pretty little dishes and plates” — what is pretty much the exact opposite of the salt, sugar and fat-laden paper-wrapped food too many Westerners eat.
Other research has shown how addictive junk food can be. Perhaps the answer to living to a healthy old age lies in developing a preference for a plate of sushi (minus, of course, the potentially mercury-contaminated fish).
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