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We Are What We Eat [Washington Woman magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Washington Woman magazine
Cover story
October 2000

If you are like most Washington women, you try to eat right, get enough exercise, and stay in good shape. But it isn’t always easy. Schedules are hectic, work is demanding, and kids can take up any spare time—which makes it tough to find a moment to prepare healthy meals.

And just what is the perfect meal, anyway? It seems that studies contradicting each other are published almost weekly. Coffee is bad for you, then it isn’t. Eggs are the enemy. But maybe not. Vegetables are the perfect food. But is organic really better?

How does the nutrition-conscious woman handle this conflicting information?

“Consider all of the information available,” says Faye Berger Mitchell, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in private practice in Chevy Chase, MD. “And don’t make sweeping changes in your diet based on one report.”

To that end, the following is a roundup of recent nutrition reports to help guide you.


Nearly 30 years ago eggs were first determined to elevate plasma cholesterol levels in the blood and increase the risk of heart disease. So in 1972, the American Medical Association (ANXA) recommended consuming no more than three to four eggs-a week, or 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day. With about 213 milligrams of cholesterol each, eggs made their way to the “just say no” list for most health-conscious Americans.

By 1998, people were eating an average of 244 eggs per year, according to the American Egg Board, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents egg producers. (That’s down from the 405 eggs Americans gobbled annually in 1945.)

However, a 14-year study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health may change the way we look at eggs again.

“Up to one egg per day is unlikely to have substantial overall impact on the risk of coronary heart disease or stroke among healthy men and women,” concluded researcher Dr. Frank Hu.

Published in the April 21,1999 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study found no relationship in healthy people between eating eggs and suffering from cardiovascular disease. Further, the study found that three of the highest egg consuming countries—Japan, Spain and France—had the lowest rates of cardiovascular mortality of any of the world’s industrialized countries.

“We hope the study will once and for all exonerate the egg, so that people can enjoy its many nutritional benefits without unwarranted fears of dietary cholesterol,” wrote Dr. Hu in the study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Eggs, in fact, are a great source of protein, contain a hearty helping of 13 vitamins including A, D, E, and K, and have minerals such as iron. They also are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, essential for brain growth and development, nutritionists say.

As far as cholesterol is concerned, the eggs you eat are far less harmful than the saturated fat in butter, cream, cheese and red meat, says Dr. Andrew Weil, the Harvard-educated doctor who has become one of the country’s leading practitioners of alternative medicine.

His advice: “While you shouldn’t take this as a license to eat all the eggs you want, most people ca n eat an egg a day as long as they don’t cook it in butter or mix it with cheese cream, or other fatty foods.”

BUTTER VS. MARGARINE: The Controversy Rages On

Unfortunately, the butter vs. margarine debate is one without resolution. Although most nutritionists agree it can be especially harmful to consume anything made with trans-fatty acids (liquid vegetable oils made solid by pumping them with hydrogen and used to make commercial baked goods last longer), there is no consensus as to whether it is better to use butter or margarine.

Butter is better, says Stephanie DiPietro, founder of the Scotts Valley, CA holistic healing center, “Oriental Healing Arts.”

“While butter is a saturated fat and contains cholesterol, it is still a whole food and has cholesterol mobilizing nutrients within it,” DiPietro says. “Margarine is composed primarily of partially hydrogenated fats and oils. When processed, it is converted to synthetic substances that our bodies were never designed to consume. It lacks food value and can cause a great deal of harm.”

However, a study published in May 2000 by the USDA’s Human Nutrition Research Center in Beltsville, MD, suggests that margarine sold in a tub is the preferred fat.

In this study, scientists charted the cholesterol levels in 46 men and women for several months, periodically varying the type of fat they ate: butter, tub margarine and trans-free tub margarine. It turned out that the margarines improved blood cholesterol levels, while the butter did not.

Completely confused? So are the experts. But you can’t go wrong if you stick to the basics, says Harvard’s researcher, Dr. Hu, who points back to his egg study for a helping of common sense.

“The problem is that when many people sit down to eat, say, an egg breakfast, they also consume other cholesterol-rich foods, such as sausage and bacon,” he says. “People should focus on eating a healthy and balanced diet. Reduce your intake of saturated fat such as butter, cutout trans fat, and eat more grains, fruits and vegetables.”


If you reached for a steaming cup of coffee this morning, you actually may have done your body good. A study published this spring showed that a mug of “jo” may actually help stave off Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder characterized by tremors.

Published in the May 24 issue of JAMA, researchers looked at data collected from 8,004 Japanese-American men by the Honolulu Heart Program and found only 102 men in the test group developed Parkinson’s disease. They deduced that caffeine’s effect on the nervous system was the tonic, for the men who drank no coffee were three times more I likely to develop Parkinson’s than those who had 28 ounces daily.

Although the researchers didn’t study why this was the case, they found that drinking tea and coffee produced similar results and that adding milk or sugar to the coffee had no effect on the outcome.

Researchers once thought coffee consumption might be linked to digestive tract cancers (including oral, rectal, stomach, liver and colon cancer) and heart disease. However, after several years and a few more studies, the AMA says these associations are no longer supported by medical research.

The health advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), however, remains concerned that caffeine consumption may lead to miscarriages, insomnia and infertility. In 1997, it filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urging that it require the caffeine content of foods be posted on nutrition labels.

“Caffeine is the only drug that is widely added to the food supply and consumers have the right to know how much caffeine various foods contain,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI. “This is especially important for women who are or might be-
come pregnant and want to limit or avoid caffeine.”

Although in 1981 the FDA issued an advisory warning pregnant women to avoid foods and drugs that contain caffeine or consume them sparingly, officials say the government agency continues to stand behind its 1987 affirmation that normal caffeine intake poses no risk to health. According the FDA, 300 milligrams of caffeine per day is safe for most adults (an 8-ounce cup of drip-brewed coffee typically has 8 5 milligrams of caffeine, and an 8-ounce cup of tea has about 35 to 40 milligrams).

You might need to add a few extra veggies to your salad tonight to get the same nutritional punch that you would have a few decades ago. Why? Well recent studies indicate that some produce—including onions, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, green beans, spinach, corn, peas, broccoli and kale—may not be as nutritious as they were 20 years ago.

The alleged culprit is chemical fertilizer that may be damaging soil causing it—and everything grown in it—to lose essential nutrients. Crop rotation is supposed to fix the problem. Since the days of George Washington, many U.S. farmers have planted a different crop on the same field every two or three years.

In 1998, though, Massachusetts-based researcher / writer Alex Jack studied USDA food composition tables from 1975 and 1997. He found the average calcium levels in many vegetables had declined 27 percent, that iron levels were down 37 percent, and Vitamin C levels had dipped 30 percent. His conclusion: the depletion was due to deterioration in soil, air, and water quality.


Phyllis E. Johnson, director of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, says nutrient levels in some vegetables may in fact have dropped in the last few decades. She doesn’t blame soil depletion, however.

Rather, she cites 14 possible explanations for the decline, ranging from changes that naturally occur due to cultivars (a variety of a cultivated plant that is developed by breeding) to the public’s perception of what is the edible portion of a vegetable.

Further, Johnson points out that some vegetables have significantly increased in nutritional value. The vitamin A content of carrots increased 134 percent between 1950 and 1984, and the ascorbic acid in peas had increased 54 percent and the calcium content has risen 14 percent, she said.


“At this point, it’s hard to know who to believe,” admits nutritionist Mitchell. “But, if fresh food is really losing vitamins and minerals, consumers can fight back.”

She advises:

• Don’t boil your veggies. Eat them raw or steamed, since boiling vegetables causes them to lose too many nutrients, and
you end up pouring healthy water down the drain.
• Choose colorful vegetables and fruits. The darker, more colorful produce tends to have a higher level of nutrients.
• Don’t peel the skin. That’s where most of the nutrition is found. Just be sure to wash everything thoroughly.

“Your best bet is simply to stick to basics,” says Mitchell. “Eat from all the food groups, make sure there’s plenty of variety in your diet, and eat moderately,”

It’s not a sexy recipe, Mitchell acknowledges, but the old message still holds true: Balance is best. She says some good rules to eat by include:

• Consume more fruits and vegetables.
• Get an adequate dose of dairy and calcium daily.
• Eat more unprocessed whole grains.
• About three times a week prepare fish, preferably salmon, that has omega- 3 fatty acids to protect against heart disease.
• For good measure, women should take a multi-vitamin with iron. A generic brand is fine.

And the best nutrition advice, Mitchell says, is that women use common sense when planning meals. “Eat what you like, do not cut out any one food group, and do not deprive yourself-it just leads to bingeing.”


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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.