Born in Brooklyn, New York, I was raised on the Standard American Diet with all kinds of meat, dairy, eggs and a great variety of processed and refined foods. My father was a butcher so we had access to all the beef we could ever want and in all forms (i.e., rib steak, tenderloin, spleen, pancreas, bellybutton, ground beef, liver and even cow´s brains). We felt very fortunate to have so many “tasty” options at rock bottom prices. Sunday was a very special occasion for the family because of our commitment to a dinner where we literally “overdosed” on pastrami, corn beef, tongue and hotdogs, purchased from the neighborhood Delicatessen. That Sunday evening family meal was so important that all activities were put on hold. My childhood friends knew that, so whether or not we were playing “Hide and Seek” or the military strategic “Ring-a-Levio” or some other group game…once my mother called they would have to go on without me. Of course, at that time during the 1950s, like everyone else, I never thought about the consequences that food could have on my future health. At that time health information was pretty much non-existent. So, just like every kid on the block, I ate what my dear mother put on the table. No questions asked and no doubts came to mind.
Incidentally, during that time, studies were already emerging, linking cigarette smoking with lung cancer. Yet, smoking was widely accepted, even among doctors, entertainers and sports figures. It would take another 20 years before the public would be informed about cigarettes and cancer. During that time millions of people would die from that disease…which we now know is completely preventable.
The warning labels on cigarette packs are everywhere now, but for a long time, the link between smoking and lung cancer was suppressed by powerful interest groups – much as the relationship between certain foods and other leading killers is suppressed today.
Ever since the 1940s, The Standard American Diet (SAD), designed by the Department of Agriculture, has been the foundation of nutrition in Western cultures. Unfortunately, that government organization has always responded to the, not always, health interests of the meat, dairy and eggs industries. As a result, the SAD is what we ate then and still keep eating, to this very day…despite all the contrary health information that´s now available in books, videos and on social media. In 1943, the USDA wrote up recommendations called The Basic 7, which included two or more glasses of milk per day for adults and three or four glasses for children. Since then we´ve had minor changes to that diet, with The Basic Four, The Food Wheel, The Food Guide Pyramid, My Pyramid, and My Plate. Each of these stress a high protein, high fat and low carb diet. The results are a dismal health picture among populations following this diet. We´re not only talking about the prevalence of chronic diseases such as heart, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis but illnesses and afflictions such as obesity, high blood pressure, chronic constipation, allergies and auto-immune diseases (i.e., rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease). Mind you…these diseases and afflictions are rare in populations that follow a Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB) diet.
With regards to nutrition, between the 1940s and 1960s the following significant events took place that would forever change the nutrition and health horizon in countries that were dependent on the Standard American Diet:
FACTORY FARMS: With the growth of large cities and people´s cravings for meat, dairy and eggs, small farms could no longer keep up with the demand. Thus, the need for a more efficient means of production. The demand for vast quantities of meat at cheap prices led to meat producers pushing for efficiency and squeezing every bit of profit from every animal. Recently, scores of documentaries and videos have been produced showing the horrific environment and treatment in the factories…where the animals live and die.
HORMONES: In order to fatten the animals, during the 1950s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a number of steroid hormone drugs for use in beef cattle and sheep, including natural estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their synthetic versions. Studies show that, when consumed, the added hormones can cause serious unbalances within the human body.
ANTIBIOTICS: Because of the need to keep cramped animals in tight and unsanitary conditions, antibiotics in feed have been used in animal production in Europe since 1953 and in the USA since the 1960s. In the 1970s, researchers began warning that routine use of antibiotics was contributing to a surge in drug-resistant germs, or superbugs, that render antibiotics powerless against deadly infections in humans. A study in 1976 showed that highly-resistant e. coli E. coli bacteria could pass from chickens to farm workers who worked with the animals, in just a few weeks.
PESTICIDES: The pesticides used on crops meant for animals on Factory Farms end up embedded in the animal´s fat and milk. Those harmful chemicals eventually end up in the food we eat.
So, is the information we get on health and nutrition, friend or foe…a blessing or a curse?
Well, I think that it depends on the source of the information…and that responsibility falls upon each one of us. It´s quite obvious that there have always been interest groups trying to control the information we get. Now it´s time to wake up to that fact. It´s only then that we can begin to decipher who is actually looking out for us. I know that for many people it´s not easy to change diet and lifestyle, but once you start reaping the benefits of the changes and notice a difference in your health and wellbeing, the motivation to continue becomes energizing.