The head of the World Health Organization thinks it may help ward off chronic disease, while one of the nation’s largest food companies believes it may reap significant gains for health and productivity. What is "it?" "It" is dietary change, and many groups believe its time has come.
The task will not be easy. Perhaps nothing illustrates the looming challenge at hand better than a recent report from Trust for America’s Health that found adult obesity rates increased in 23 states in 2008, including 16 states with two consecutive years of escalating obesity rates and 11 states with three straight years of higher rates.
The problem is not limited to the United States, either.
In a July 6 address at the Economic and Social Council 2009 High-level Segment in Geneva, Margaret Chan, director-general of the W.H.O., called attention to diets around the world, saying the focus on health is the key to the welfare of humanity.
"Global trends, such as the industrialization of food production and the globalization of its marketing and distribution, help feed the world," Dr. Chan said. "But these trends have also contributed to a public health crisis. I am referring to the dramatic rise of diet-related chronic diseases, especially in the developing world. This trend has, in turn, been exacerbated by the financial crisis and the food crisis.
"When money is tight, the first things that drop out of the diet are usually the healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables, and lean sources of protein, which are nearly always more expensive. Processed foods, rich in fats and sugar and low in essential nutrients, become the cheapest way to fill a hungry stomach. This is the type of diet linked to the rise of chronic diseases."
Diets can save money?
Money, obesity and diets were the focus of a recent study commissioned by ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, and published in the July issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.
The study, involving researchers from ConAgra; The Lewin Group, Church, Va.; and Nutrition Impact, L.L.C., Battle Creek, Mich., examined the potential health benefits and medical cost savings from calorie, sodium and saturated fat reductions in the American diet. Researchers used information from such sources as the National Center for Health Statistics, The National Academy of Sciences and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to measure the impact of diet changes among 225 million American adults.
Timothy Dall, lead author of the study and a member of The Lewin Group, said one of the most revealing findings was how big an impact eliminating 100 calories per day may have on health.
According to the study, the permanent reduction of 100 calories per day would eliminate approximately 71.2 million cases of overweight/obesity and save $58 billion annually in medical expenses. Eliminating 400 mg of sodium in people with uncontrolled hypertension, meanwhile, would cut about 1.5 million cases of overweight/obesity and save $2.3 billion annually. Approximately $2 billion per year may be saved by decreasing saturated fat intake by 5 grams per day, the study showed.
ConAgra said it commissioned the studies as part of its effort to better understand the relationship between diet and health.
"A key learning here is that making simple dietary improvements — such as a Healthy Choice meal in place of take-out lunch, Egg Beaters instead of eggs, and Orville Redenbacher’s SmartPop! as a whole grain, calorie-controlled reduced-sodium snack — empowers people to make meaningful changes that can translate to healthier lives, less costly health care and increased productivity," said Mark Andon, vice-president of nutrition at ConAgra.
Vote of confidence for veggies
Consumers following a vegetarian diet received a vote of confidence earlier this month after the American Dietetic Association (A.D.A.) released an updated position paper backing the value of the diet. According to the A.D.A., well-planned vegetarian diets are healthful and nutritious and have value in warding off chronic diseases.
"It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases," the A.D.A. said in the July issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. "Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence and for athletes."
The A.D.A. noted an association between vegetarian diets and certain health advantages, including lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes.
"Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates," the A.D.A. said. "Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals. These nutritional differences may explain some of the health advantages of those following a varied, balanced vegetarian diet."
In a separate study conducted by Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the A.D.A., the nutritional advantages and disadvantages of veggie burgers and hot dogs were analyzed.
Ms. Blatner said the advantage of many veggie burgers is they typically contain three times less total fat and seven times less saturated fat than average beef and turkey burgers. Veggie burgers also typically contain an average of 3 grams to 4 grams of fiber, which classifies it as a "good source." In comparison, most meat burgers contain no fiber.
The tradeoff, though, is veggie burgers typically contain five times more sodium than unseasoned beef or turkey burgers and have less protein, Ms. Blatner’s research showed.
Veggie hot dogs’ advantages over traditional meat hot dogs included fewer calories, less fat, less sodium and more protein, Ms. Blatner noted.
Whether consumers are willing to accept veggie burgers and hot dogs ultimately comes down to appearance and taste, though.
"Arguably if food doesn’t taste good, people are less likely to eat it even if it does wear an impressive nutrition label," Ms. Blatner said.
Mediterranean diet making a mark
Another diet gaining traction is the Mediterranean Diet, which is notable for its "whole diet" approach that includes eating from a well-rounded menu of foods largely from the plant kingdom.
Boston-based Oldways Preservation Trust, a food issues think tank that promotes the diet, in April revised the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid to combine all plant foods into a single group while upping its recommendation to eat fish at least twice a week.
Oldways said it has seen increased interest in involvement in the Mediterranean Foods Alliance, a group of companies dedicated to stepping up availability of Mediterranean-type products on supermarket shelves. Qualifying products may use the "Med Mark," a packaging symbol designed to help shoppers quickly identify healthy food, drinks and products that support the Mediterranean Diet. Launched in June 2007, the Med Mark now appears on more than 200 products.
The diet philosophy was in the news in June when a study published on the British Medical Journal web site examined the relative importance of the individual components of the Mediterranean Diet in generating the inverse association of increased adherence to the diet and overall mortality.
Researchers examined the diets of 23,349 Greek men and women and followed them for 8.5 years, on average, until June 2008. All diets were rated according to how closely they adhered to a traditional Mediterranean diet. During the study period, researchers found 652 deaths among 12,694 participants who had lower Mediterranean diet scores of 0 to 4 and 423 deaths among the 10,655 participants who had higher scores of at least 5. In general, the research showed those with higher scores were more likely to still be alive at the end of the study.
"The dominant components of the Mediterranean Diet score as a predictor of lower mortality are moderate consumption of ethanol, low consumption of meat and meat products, and high consumption of vegetables, fruits and nuts, olive oil, and legumes," the researchers concluded. "Minimal contributions were found for cereals and dairy products, possibly because they are heterogeneous categories of foods with different health effects, and for fish and seafood, the intake of which is low in this population."
The Mediterranean diet also is making its way into mainstream food service venues. Dallas-based Romano’s Macaroni Grill on July 1 introduced a new Italian Mediterranean menu in 32 restaurants across California. The company said the menu is inspired by the way of life and cooking along the Italian Mediterranean coast, including ingredients such as extra virgin olive oil, vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh lemons, select seafood, lean meats, colorful vegetables and imported artisan pasta. Thirteen new menu items have reduced calories from 25% to 65%, while five items have had their saturated fat grams reduced by more than 70%.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, July 21, 2009, starting on Page 21. Click