By Catherine Guthrie
Americans have a love-hate relationship with food. When we decide an item is just the thing to clear our arteries or prevent cancer, we embrace it with gusto. Olive oil, broccoli, garlic, salmon: We look for every opportunity to load such health-promoters onto our plates.
However, our enthusiasm can just as easily go sour. If we gain too much weight or begin to feel crummy, a particular food can suddenly become the enemy, and instead of cutting down on it, we kiss it good-bye.
Scan the diet section of any bookstore and you’ll note that three food categories tend to take the most heat: dairy, wheat, and sugar. Indeed, walk into any health food store, and you’ll hear legions of tales about chronically ill people who gave up one or all of these dietary demons and suddenly careened back to health.
No doubt about it, these foods represent three of the biggest thugs on many practitioners’ hit lists. “If every chronically ill person gave up dairy, wheat, and sugar, 80 percent would get well,” says Nancy Appleton, an anti-sugar champion of 25 years. Joseph Mercola, a Chicago osteopath and author, thinks that “85 percent of the population should avoid grain at all costs.” And the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a pro-vegetarianism nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., has put dairy in its crosshairs. “The notion that milk is a healthy food is a huge misconception,” says Amy Lanou, the group’s nutritional director.
Some experts, however, think this all-or-nothing approach is foolhardy. “Americans find the deprivation-style form of eating seductive,” says Dave Grotto, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and a nutritionist at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, Illinois. “We’d love to think the reason we’re not enjoying good health is because of one bad food, like sugar or dairy. But that link hasn’t been established. The smoking guns are actually bad overall diet and not enough physical activity.”
He has a point. As a country, our food choices are truly abysmal. And in fact, many of the foods we load up on, and that all practitioners say can be bad for our health—cookies, pasta, ice cream—include the white villains. To compound the problem, few of us get enough exercise to ward off excess pounds. More than 30 percent of Americans are overweight, and obesity-related diseases, including heart disease and diabetes, are skyrocketing.
Still, before you draw a line through the entire category of dairy, wheat, or sugar, it’s worth asking a few simple questions: What are the negative claims against them? Who should eschew them completely? And what’s a reasonable approach for the rest of us?
The case against it
Lanou ticks off three reasons to shun dairy products (defined as anything made with cow’s milk, including butter, yogurt, and cheese): saturated fat, which clogs arteries; proteins that trigger allergies; and substances that promote cancer growth. Others blame dairy for a host of intestinal troubles; still others dislike cow’s milk (and cheese) because of its growth hormones. And there’s a nugget of truth in each of these claims.
For people who are lactose intolerant, which means they’re short on the enzyme needed to break down the sugar in milk products, a caffe latte, say, can trigger a cascade of intestinal symptoms ranging from nausea and cramps to gas and diarrhea. And there’s very little dispute about the heart-harming potential of saturated fat.
Then there’s the phlegm. Some people are indeed allergic to casein, a milk protein that revs up the immune system. Symptoms may range from an increase in mucus to shortness of breath to vomiting.
As for the dairy/cancer connection, several solid studies do show a link between prostate cancer and high dairy intake. The guilty party appears to be insulin-like growth factor (IGF), a substance found naturally in cow’s milk and in higher-than-normal levels in the blood of people who load up on dairy products.
But the main hormone many people are concerned about is one that doesn’t occur naturally. Bovine growth hormone (BGH) is genetically engineered, and ranchers inject it into cows to stimulate milk production. Critics claim the cows can get stressed by having to overproduce and end up with health problems, like udder infections, that require antibiotics. And more antibiotics in cows means more residues in the milk you drink. In addition, BGH actually stimulates the cow to produce more IGF, which also ends up in the milk.
Who should avoid it
The 30 to 50 million Americans with lactose intolerance, along with anyone who’s allergic to casein. In fact, Lanou thinks the connection between dairy and respiratory problems is strong enough that anyone with allergies, asthma, or other breathing ailments should avoid dairy foods. Men with prostate cancer or a strong family history of the disease should also keep dairy at arm’s length.
For people who decide to go dairy free, it’s important to look for other sources of some of the good things milk has to offer, particularly calcium. Dark leafy greens, tofu, and almonds are good sources, as is the multitude of calcium-fortified foods, including orange juice, soy milk, bread, and cereal. The recommended daily allowance is 1,000 milligrams for adults and 1,200 for men and women 50 and over. But it can be hard to get that much every day from these nondairy items, so many people will also need to take a supplement.
Advice for the rest of us
The fact is, even if you’re worried about your heart, there’s no reason to give up dairy altogether—but you certainly want to look for low- or nonfat products, which are light on saturated fat. Goat cheese is also a good choice since it’s lower in saturated fat than its bovine counterparts. (Goat’s milk, on the other hand, is not.) It also contains no BGH.
If that hormone is your main concern, stick to organic milk or look for varieties that specify on the label that they don’t contain BGH. Also, look for European cheeses, since giving BGH to cows is illegal in Europe.
The case against it
The common thread among grain-free diets (including Atkins and the Zone) is the notion that the human digestive tract isn’t designed to accommodate wheat. Mercola echoes other anti-grain advocates when he points to humans’ transition from hunter-gathers to agriculturalists 6,000 years ago as the beginning of the end of good health. “The consumption of grains caused degenerative diseases to shoot through the roof,” he says.
The core of Mercola’s argument, outlined in his new book The No-Grain Diet, is that eating carbohydrates, such as grains and sugars, triggers a rise in blood glucose levels. The pancreas releases insulin to bring glucose levels back to normal, but too much circulating insulin can be a problem. Some people think it goads the body into storing fat, which can lead to obesity, the first step toward a slew of chronic diseases.
Chronically elevated insulin levels are also a suspect in the onset of Syndrome X, a metabolic condition that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions. Signs of Syndrome X include excess weight gain around the middle (an apple shape) and elevated triglycerides—both risk factors for heart disease—as well as high blood pressure.
Who should avoid it
Anyone with celiac disease, a genetic conditon that makes it impossible for sufferers to digest gluten, a protein in wheat as well as in rye, barley, and oats. Symptoms include bloating, diarrhea, anemia, gas, and fatigue. An estimated 1 in 4,700 Americans are diagnosed with the disease, but more people may actually have it, since it’s often either misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome or missed altogether.
Victoria Groce, a musician and writer in Atlanta, was 19 when her physician suggested she cut wheat from her diet for a month to ease her chronic lethargy, cramping, and diarrhea. Within three days of being wheat-free, all of her symptoms vanished. “I had more energy, I wasn’t sick after meals, and my mood improved,” she says. The eventual diagnosis: celiac disease.
Advice for the rest of us
The solution to the grain-glucose problem can be summed up in two words: whole grains. With the outer bran layers intact, whole grains take longer to digest, so glucose spikes are averted—and, presumably, so are the conditions that often result.
A study published last April in the Journal of the American Medical Association may be the best proof yet that a diet high in whole grains can stave off heart disease. For eight years, more than 3,500 volunteers completed food questionnaires. In the end, those who ate the most fiber were 21 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke than those who nibbled the least. High-fiber foods include whole wheat and rye breads, oats, bran, and beans (as well as many fruits and vegetables).
Another proven benefit of whole grains is cancer prevention. In two studies recently reported in The Lancet, people with high-fiber diets were significantly less likely to develop colon cancer than those whose fiber consumption was low.
The case against
it In her book Lick the Sugar Habit, Nancy Appleton lists 78 ways sugar can ruin your day by causing everything from arthritis to cataracts to cancer. The theory that she, among others, espouses is that sugar sets off a domino effect of disease by upsetting the body’s intricate system of checks and balances, ultimately weakening the immune system.
Lately, conventionally minded practitioners have been coming around to the anti-sugar side. For years, their biggest complaint against sugar was that it caused cavities and weight gain, with no nutritional payoff. However, a recent study suggested something worse: a possible link between sugar and heart disease. Sugar appears to lower HDL, the good cholesterol, and may also raise levels of triglycerides, a type of fat that increases the growth of arterial plaque. As mentioned above, sugar is also a suspect in the development of Syndrome X because of the glucose surges it causes.
Another reason to be wary of sugar is the relationship between the sweetener and candida, an overgrowth of yeast (candida albicans). Many practitioners believe that a yeast imbalance occurs when the gut’s flora are thrown off-kilter, either from too many antibiotics or too much food containing sugar and refined grains.
Krista Reiner, a book publicist in Bridgeport, Connecticut, is a case in point. After a four-month stint on antibiotics to treat her Lyme disease, Reiner felt like she was at war with her body. Her joints ached, her skin was broken out, and she craved daily naps. She decided to visit a naturopath, who diagnosed candida. He recommended she give up not only sugar but also refined grains, which act like sugar in the body. Three weeks later her body was transformed: Her skin had cleared, her brain fog lifted, and her joints were pain free. “I felt so much better it was startling,” she says.
Who should avoid it
Since it does nothing for your health, no one would suffer from shunning sugar. By the same token, there’s little solid evidence to suggest that anyone in particular absolutely must give it up.
There’s even research to suggest that people looking to prevent diabetes don’t need to avoid sugar. For six years, researchers from Harvard Medical School tracked the diets of nearly 40,000 postmenopausal women. At the end of that time, they found no difference in sugar intake between the volunteers who developed diabetes and their disease-free counterparts.
The key is moderation, says Simin Liu, director of nutrition research at Harvard Medical School and the study’s author. Sure, too much sugar can cause obesity, which can lead to diabetes. But if you don’t go crazy with sweets, you shouldn’t have a problem.
Still, if Appleton is right and sugar does deplete the immune system, people with chronic ills might want to consider a three-week experiment of living without sugar. If symptoms clear, all the better. Same goes if you’ve recently taken a round of antibiotics; doing without sugar for a time can help rebalance the bacteria in your gut.
Advice for the rest of us
That’s easy: Cut back. If people stuck to the USDA’s recommendation to get no more than 12 teaspoons of sugar a day, it might not even be on so many hit lists. But by last count, the average American gobbles more than 31 teaspoons of the sweetener each day.
Unfortunately, actually cutting down isn’t so easy, since sugar sweetens everything from bread to ketchup to chewable vitamin C tablets. The simplest place to start is with foods you know aren’t good for you, like candy, cake, and ice cream. But you also need to begin reading labels. (For easy conversion, remember that 1 teaspoon equals 4 grams.) Keep in mind that sugar often comes disguised by another name, such as dextrose, sucrose, sorbitol, or corn syrup.
Finally, choose your sweeteners wisely. Sucanat, honey, maple syrup, and turbinado sugar don’t do your body any favors. They’re primarily sucrose, just like table sugar, and act the same way in the body. Instead, Grotto suggests using sweeteners that are higher in fructose, the sugar found in fruit, such as agave syrup or malted barley. They’re less refined, meaning they won’t trigger the dramatic rise and fall of blood sugar and insulin that simple sugars do. Natural sweeteners such as stevia and xylitol are also good choices. For baking, try sucralose, which can be traded one-for-one for sugar.