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Growing on empty

Robert D. Sheeler, M.D.
Medical Editor, Mayo Clinic Health Letter

Telling people what to eat is a clear invitation to a confrontation. Our food choices are deeply ingrained in our culture, or ethnicity, and even our self-identity.

But if we step outside of these roles for a bit, we can see that as Americans we have made some cultural choices that we could make anew to reinvest in the future of our own health and that of our children.

America has always been a land of abundance. In the mid-1950s, Americans were a full 4 inches taller than their European counterparts. A rich agricultural base and widespread prosperity led to such sustained success that biologically, we were reaching toward our maximum potential. But a funny thing happened after that — Americans have been stuck around 5 feet 9 1/2 inches, while our European counterparts have continued to grow . . . and now to outgrow the average American. Even the Japanese, who once were much shorter than the average American, are catching up.

Male heightsSo what happened? America is still one of the richest nations on earth.

Some of this trend may have to do with the unequal way we share wealth, unemployment rates and access to health care. But I think that the biggest cause is obvious if we simply look at our dinner tables and our eating habits.

While Europeans eat a variety of foods from the garden and from many different sources, Americans tend to eat vast quantities of empty calories. While we run from soccer games to basketball practices with our children, or work long hours at the office, we often grab whatever is at hand in the machines or at convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.

Food chartIf we compare a sit-down dinner that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables and meats with a limited selection of snack foods from a convenience store or fast-food restaurant, it isn't hard to tell which one has a greater variety of nutrients. But it is "micronutrients" that may make a lot of the difference. There are over 40 different types of micronutrients essential to maximizing growth and development. Some, such as iodine and iron, can at critical times in development make as much as 10 IQ points difference in intellectual development. Others that need to be present in sufficient amounts include many trace metals, such as selenium and copper.

It is just not possible to get the full spectrum of these nutrients from french fries, pretzels and various combinations of sugar water.

Even many of our staple crops may be deficient in micronutrients because of the ways we raise them. I owned a farm for a number of years. When we first took over the land, I tried to grow corn on land that had been used for successive crops of corn and soybeans. I didn't fertilize and found that the soil was so depleted that the corn got only 18 inches tall, and that the local raccoons would cut through my garden without even stopping to sample my wares. When we use the soil without replenishing all the nutrients — not just the nitrogen — we also contribute to food that lacks some of the substance that our families got from their tables here in America years ago. For this reason, among many, I choose organic foods raised by small farmers, when I get a chance.

My belief is not only that we pay a price in the height and IQ we attain, but also that a healthy, varied diet is likely to play a role in our health even after we have matured. Our immune and nervous systems, for instance, are highly regulated, delicate systems that depend upon the interplay of a substantial number of elements to function in optimum health. I am betting that over time we will come to know, and then to understand, why a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and whole grains adds not only years of life but also quality of life along the way.

Change is difficult. But if we choose as a people to walk away from the fast and furious, we can get to a better place. We can take time to eat a meal with those we care about and sustain ourselves with a variety of foods and the richness of their company.

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