The Problem: The American Diet!

A healthy diet is not just for people who are overweight, have diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. Healthy eating increases energy levels and decreases the risk of many diseases (too many to mention). Before changing your diet, first consult with your doctor as several medical conditions require special dietary considerations or caloric considerations.

Thirty-four percent of Americans over the age of 20 are obese. The dietary causes of obesity in the USA include:

  • EXTREME excess of simple carbohydrates
  • Excess of fat and oil (especially saturated fats and trans fats)
  • Lack of Fiber (soluble and insoluble fiber)
  • Meal skipping
  • Late night eating. (See Sleep Hygiene)
Unhealthy Carbohydrates

Unfortunately, the typical American diet is an extremist diet, high in simple carbohydrates and fat. Remember, carbohydrates are nothing but long chains of sugar. Every single molecule of sugar will be processed in your body resulting in weight gain. In the United States, the majority of simple (unhealthy) carbohydrates come from:

  • Wheat products: Bread (white and whole wheat), rolls, biscuits, buns, pastas, wheat tortillas, crackers, cookies, cereals, pizza, hot pockets, breaded meats, bread stuffing, cakes, donuts, etc. For more information, read the book Wheat Belly by William Davis, MD.
  • Corn products: Corn chips, corn cereals, corn bread, corn tortillas, tamales, corn stuffing, etc.
  • Potatoes: Baked potatoes, red potatoes, potato chips, French Fries and any fried potatoes.
  • Rice: White rice, rice cakes, fried rice, rice cereals, etc.
  • Sugar: Corn syrup, cane sugar (including brown sugar and powdered sugar), honey, fructose (fruit juices and dried fruit), etc. This includes sweetened drinks such as sodas, sport drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks, and sweet tea. Almost all processed foods contain sugar. Some fruits are also very high in natural sugars such as grapes, melon, water melon, and bananas and could raise blood sugar in diabetic patients if eaten in excess.
Unhealthy Fats

Most Americans are aware of the health consequences of excess fat, especially saturated fats and trans fats. As you probably know, all the fat you ingest will be processed by your body and result in weight gain, high cholesterol, and increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and many other diseases. Examples of food high in fat are:

  • Meats: Sausage, bacon, ribs (pork and beef), fried chicken, any fried or breaded meats, or any excess of red meat.
  • Oils and Hydrogenated oils: Crisco, lard, fried foods, cakes, candies, chips, margarine, and almost any processed food or fast food.
  • Dairy: Cream, butter, sour cream, whole milk, ice cream, shakes, and some cheeses.

There are MANY healthy diets out there and MANY opinions about healthy eating. This can be confusing as you may not know who to believe. Some people therefore fall victim to extremist fad diets or starvation diets which can result in rapid weight loss and fatigue followed by rapid weight gain. Other people may enroll in commercial diet plans which can be very healthy, but many people give them up due to the expense. Other people try to follow very complex diet plans but their busy lifestyle causes them to give up and return to unhealthy eating. Healthy eating should be a lifetime commitment, not a temporary fad.

The Solution: Avoiding Dietary Extremism!

We are surrounded by dietary extremism, to the point that we have lost our perspective on a healthy balanced diet. We are bombarded by dietary misinformation from the TV and internet. However, eating healthy is NOT complicated. All healthy diets share the same key characteristics:

  • High in soluble and insoluble fiber
  • Low in simple carbohydrates (see above)
  • Low in saturated and trans fats (see above)
  • Moderate protein intake
  • Include polyunsaturated fats

Here is a very simple and very fast way to get away from the typical American unhealthy extremist diet, and get back on track with a balanced diet containing all the good qualities mentioned above. The guidelines below are general guidelines for a typical adult and may not be right for you. For example, a 25 year old marathon runner with a history of kidney stones would not eat the same diet as a 52 year old truck driver with diabetes and high cholesterol. Please consult with your physician before changing your diet.

Four Portion Diet: Use the Palm of your Hand to Estimate Portions
Portion One: One palm-full of Protein

Your body needs protein for muscle, the immune system, and repairing itself. On the other hand, we do NOT need large amounts of protein. Stay away from fried meats, breaded meats, fast food, and processed foods such as fish sticks or Hot Pockets. Estimate the portion of protein in every meal by imagining it fitting in the palm of your hand. Examples of protein are:

  • Egg white
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Sugar-free Greek yogurt
  • Poultry (Chicken and Turkey)
  • Fish (contains polyunsaturated fat)
  • Lean red meat such as Beef Filet

You do NOT need to eat meat to obtain plenty of protein in your diet. If you are a vegetarian, or are interested in becoming a vegetarian, I recommend the book a patient recommended to me: Eat to Live, by Joel Fuhrman, M.D. I also recommend the book for anybody who is interested in learning to eat healthy.

Portion Two: One Palm-full of carbohydrate

If you are a typical American, you are likely eating MUCH MORE carbohydrate than your body can metabolized. Carbohydrates consist of long chains of sugar molecules. Your body will turn excess carbohydrate into fat cells, raise triglycerides, and increase risk of diabetes. Complex carbohydrates contain fiber, amino acids, vitamins, minerals etc. and are preferred over simple carbohydrates as they are processed more slowly. Here are some examples of some healthier choices for carbohydrates:

  • Legumes (beans, black eyed peas, Lima beans, lentils, chick peas, green peas, etc.)
  • Squash (MANY different kinds of squash)
  • Cabbage
  • Black Rice, Long Grain Rice, and Wild Rice
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Whole kernel Corn (fresh or frozen)
  • Old Fashioned Quaker Oats and Steel Cut Oats
  • Rye, Chia, and Barley are healthier carbs than wheat and corn

I am a realist, so I understand that most people are not going to completely cut out their simple carbohydrates, but if the portions are limited to the palm of their hand, they will be less damaging.

Portions Three and Four: TWO palms-full of vegetables

For 14 years of practice I have been trying to convince my patients to eat vegetables. But in most cases, when I mention vegetables, my patients say something like “yes, I eat iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes”. Or, they will say “Yes, I really like fruit”. Fruit is addressed below, but fruit is NOT a vegetable. However, we are not worried about precise definitions, just about eating healthy.

Vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrate with both soluble and insoluble fiber and amino acids for making proteins. If you are eating PLENTY of vegetables, you will not absorb carbohydrates as fast and will avoid the fatigue to hunger roller coaster that we hear our patients complain about in the clinic. The soluble fiber will bind fats and lower cholesterol while boosting HDL cholesterol. I have made a list of some healthy choices for foods to be included in the two palms portion for each meal. Notice that iceberg lettuce is NOT included as it is mostly cellulose and water.

  • Spinach
  • Green Beans
  • Sugar Snap Peas
  • Green Peas
  • Broccoli
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Green Leafy Lettuce
  • Bok Choy Lettuce
  • Kale
  • Many other types of lettuce other than Iceberg
  • Asparagus
  • Brussel Sprouts
  • Turnip Greens

By following the above guidelines, you should be able to decrease simple carbohydrates and fat while increasing complex carbohydrates, fiber, amino acids and vitamins and minerals. You should have more energy and less of the fatigue and get out of the fatigue to hunger cycle we get caught in by indulging in simple carbohydrates.

Remember to eat THREE meals a day. By eating once or twice a day, your body’s metabolism will slow down and you will gain weight. Eating three well balanced meals a day helps to avoid snacking on junk food.

Breakfast: An Important Meal

Skipping breakfast will slow your metabolism and cause you to over eat later in the day, resulting in weight gain. Breakfast, like all meals, should contain protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. A good choice for breakfast would be Old Fashioned Oatmeal and a boiled, poached, or scrambled egg. To add flavor to the oatmeal, consider adding pecans, cinnamon, and berries. A vegetable omelet is another good choice. Avoid cereals that claim to be healthy but may be high in sugar. Wheat, corn, and rice based cereals, despite all their claims to be healthy, will contain mostly carbohydrates and simple sugars and will lack complex carbs and soluble fiber.

Fruit and Snack Food: Avoid junk food and processed food!

We are constantly tempted by snack food and junk food. But if we eat healthy and remember to eat three meals a day, we will have fewer cravings for snack food. Do NOT drink sugared cokes, fruit drinks, sugared energy drinks or sugared sport drinks. Avoid processed snack foods.

But what about fruit? Most healthcare professionals agree that fruit, in moderation, is a healthy part of a balanced diet. Fruits are relatively low in fiber compared to legumes and vegetables so fruit cannot replace vegetables. Remember, fruit is a carbohydrate that can be very high in sugar, so diabetics with uncontrolled blood sugar may need to avoid high sugar fruits such as grapes, melons, water melon, peaches, apples, pears, bananas, etc. until the blood sugars are in good control. Berries and avocados are more healthy fruits that can be added to other foods for flavor. Fruit in moderation is a much better choice than processed snack foods and sweets.

Exercise: The Other Half of the Story

The American economy is an information economy. Most of us have jobs which make us sedentary for most of the day. Many of us are working long hours under high stress. We find ourselves sleeping poorly and suffering from fatigue. Daily exercise is critical for increasing metabolic rate, increasing energy levels, improved sleep, and reduced stress. Consult your physician before starting an exercise regimen.

More Information

I recommend the following books to learn more:

  • Eat to Live, by Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
  • The End of Diabetes, by Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
  • Wheat Belly, by William Davis, M.D.
  • Wheat Belly Cook Book, by William Davis, M.D.

The following website is fun to learn about nutritional value of specific foods:

For Technical geeks who want software to improve their health, here is a program that some of my patients have used with lots of success:

Final Reminder

Certain medical conditions such as liver disease, heart failure, renal failure, kidney stones, pregnancy, cystic fibrosis, gout, PKU and other metabolic disorders, and patients taking warfarin may require special diets or some modification to their diet and caloric intake. Please consult with your physician. For more information about warfarin, visit our page on Warfarin Safety.