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Protect Yourself: Health, Diet and Risk Introduction

Americans, like most people in the developed world, worry a lot about their diets. While dieting to lose weight may still be more common among middle class women than other groups, just about everyone thinks in some way about what he or she eats. The appeal of fad diets cuts across just about all demographic categories.

The popularity of organic foods has spread to such a degree that even mainstream grocery stores are stocking organic products.

But the basic health effects of diet are simple. In 1992, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) devised a Food Guide Pyramid that specifies the number of servings of each type of food Americans should ingest each day, including:

1) bread, cereal, rice and pasta;

2) vegetables;

3) fruit;

4) meat, poultry, fish, dried beans, eggs and nuts;

5) milk, yogurt and cheese; and

6) fats and sugars.

(See the following page for a graphic of the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid.)

The USDA suggests that each food group provides most -- not all -- of the nutrients a person needs each day to remain in good health.

But there has been much debate since the USDA came out with its dietary guidelines about whether or not its serving allotments are the best for overall health. For instance, some argue that the six to 11 servings of bread, rice and pasta a day is too high. Others suggest that the Food Guide Pyramid's guidelines for types and amounts of food are not right for people of different ages and sexes. In this chapter, we'll consider the various ways that foods are analyzed for safety and nutritional value. We'll also consider how different groups -- pregnant women, people with particular health conditions, the elderly -- respond to these analyses. Finally, we'll make some conclusions about what an average, smart person can do to improve his or her health.

People diet for two basic reasons: To avoid dangerous foods and to lose weight. But what is a dangerous food?

Determining what constitutes a dangerous food can be difficult. Poison can be defined as too much of anything. But how much is too much? Is there a threshold at which small amounts of foods that cause cancer or heart disease are not harmful? In most cases, no one can answer these questions with certainty.

Dietary risks, like others, are usually described in the odds of causing a fatal illness or in the average number of days or years by which they shorten your life. Consider these fluky factoids:

Drinking milk every other day adds a one in 7,200 chance of getting liver cancer from a mold that produces aflatoxin -- a naturally-occurring carcinogen.

Three pats of butter on a slice of toast takes a half hour off your life.

A steak dinner, complete with a snifter of brandy afterward, will cut 20 minutes off your life (though this sounds like a bargain compared to the three pats of butter).

All of these statistics are of questionable value, though. They're usually based on one of two methods -- both of which have flaws.

First, some of these numbers are based on aggressive extrapolation from standard dietary impact charts, which lose their effectiveness the farther they move from empirical numbers. In the case of the three pats of butter on toast, that figure is taken from an American Heart Association statistic on daily fat intake over a lifetime. To extrapolate such a small number out of a lifetime measure makes it meaningless.

Furthermore, cancer statistics are often based on animal tests, which have an important flaw: animal experiments necessarily involve large doses. Thus, to pinpoint a risk of one in a million, you'd have to perform a million tests, involving as many as 1,000 animals each. The cost would be prohibitive.

The best scientists can do is experiment with large doses, adjust for the weight and metabolic activity of the animals compared with humans...and project the possible results of small doses on people.

A lot of guesswork is involved. Take, for example, the synthetic sweeteners Nutra-Sweet and Equal. Large doses of those cause cancer in mice -- but you'd have to consume an unrealistic amount to be at the same risk at those mice. An yet, you are forewarned on the label "May cause cancer."

Of course, not everyone diets to avoid cancer or strokes. Many people diet because they want to lose weight. This involves one main risk: That you'll regain whatever weight you lose.

Begin a denial-based diet and you'll probably lose weight. For how long is an entirely different question.

Losing weight at the rate of two to three pounds per week produces the best long-range effects. Many experts say this means making realistic changes to your life-style in the way you eat and how much you exercise.

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