Gone are the days when you could eat almost any foods – however fatty, salty or sugary – without experiencing some doubts as to whether you might be damaging your health. Faulty nutrition, it is said, is a cause of disease and, conversely, healthy eating can lead to improved health and even to a cure for certain diseases.
The fact that diet can influence our health has been known ever since the foundations of medicine were laid in about the fourth century BC. Hippocrates, ‘the father of medicine’, said that our food should be our medicine.
The current upsurge of interest in nutritional therapy seems to be primarily a reaction to the highly refined, processed and chemical nature of foods which now form a major part of the Western diet and which many people fear may adversly affect our health. Some food reformers also argue that a simpler as well as more ‘natural’ diet leads to better health and a longer life. Yet others turn to health foods in the hope of finding remedies for particular illnesses. As a result, a vast number of different diets and health foods are advocated by different ‘nutritional experts’. The problem is how to decide which of the many, often contradictory, claims are true and which are not. Furthermore, one person may be more suited to one particular type of diet than to another. Some of the more popular health regimens are described below.
Macrobiotics was introduced into the West in the 1950s by George Oshawa (1893-1966), a Japanese who cured himself of tuberculosis using methods based on traditional oriental medicine. It is part of a whole system of oriental medicine and philosophy, according to which food is central to life and, therefore, must be choosen with great care. The oriental system of Yin and Yang – the theory of antagonistic but complementary opposites.- governs the choice of food. Every food is either predominantly Yin or Yang and because all disease is caused by an imbalance of
Yin and Yang in the body, by chosing a diet which redresses this imbalance, health is regained. For example, depression, nerve or skeletal weakness and poor digestion require more Yang foods – meat, fish and certain ‘strong’ grains. A nervous disposition, a tendency to be impatient or angry, and high blood pressure are conditions requiring more Yin foods -oats, wheat, green salads, raw vegetables, fruit and honey. Personal disposition, climate and level of activity also determine the balance needed. Cereal grains are important because they have an excellent balance of both Yin and Yang. Strict followers of macrobiotics adhere to many rules and recommendations. For example, food is taken in its natural form, with no processing beyond cooking; very little meat is eaten although fish is allowed; tea and coffee are avoided, as is any excessive food consumption. Macrobiotic diets are followed by many groups in Europe and the United States and there are special centres with trained teachers and health counsellors that deal solely with this form of nutritional ‘medicine’. Supporters claim that sufferers from both acute and chronic illnesses generally show considerable improvement, and in many cases are cured, by changing their diet and lifestyle. People on a macrobiotics diet are said to suffer proportionally less from diabetes, heart disease and cancer and to have a longer than average life-span. Orthodox doctors and nutritionists are generally less enthusiastic. Complications of malnutrition have occurred among fanatical macrobiotics followers, the most common being vitamin deficiencies, particularly of vitamin B,2, and folic acid. As these two vitamins are necessary for a normal production of red blood cells, a lack of them may result in anaemia.
In recent years the number of people who have turned to vegetarian diets has risen dramatically. Many vegetarians are motivated on ethical grounds, being opposed to any killing of animals. However, the reason for becoming a vegetarian may also be based on economical grounds. Many vegetarians choose to give up eating meat and all animal produce for health reasons.
As a rule vegetarians do not eat any animal flesh. However, there are different forms of vegetarianism: . an ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet excludes meat and fish but allows dairy products and egg. A lacto-vegetarian diet excludes meat, fish and eggs, but allows dairy products. . a pure vegetarian, or vegan diet, excludes all animal products, including dairy products and animal fats and foods containing them.
The main criticism levelled at vegetarianism and especially at veganism is that if the diet is not well-balanced, it could result in nutritional deficiencies, particularly from lack of protein, calcium and vitamins D and B,:. However, orthodox medical practitioners do agree that a non-meat diet can be useful in the prevention of certain forms of intestinal cancer. A vegetarian diet is claimed to be helpful for other conditions, including infantile eczema, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, ulcerative colitis, migraine, haemorrhoids and recurrent urinary tract infections. Many people thinking of becoming vegetarians worry that their diet may, as a result, become bland or boring. In fact, most vegetarians would argue that revising one’s eating habits and doing without animal products is an adventure in which new foods, herbs and spices can be discovered to create imaginative and innovative menus. Some people even claim that their sense of taste becomes more acute.
Health foods and wholefoods
Most food reformers recommend natural and organically grown foods – those produced without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, and which do not contain certain artificial preservatives or other additives. Animals too, they advise, should be reared without the use of hormones or antibiotics in their feeds. Wholefoods have also become popular because it is claimed that much of the nutritional value of food is lost during refining processes.
In addition, health food advocates believe that certain foods have particular health-giving properties, and these have been variously termed ‘health foods’, ‘wonder foods’, or ‘magic foods’. Some of the many foods promoted for their health-giving properties are brewer’s yeast, yoghurt, wheat germ, black molasses, cider vinegar, vitamins, ginseng, dates, some seaweeds, honey, garlic and lecithin.
Vitamin and mineral therapies
Several minerals, in particular selenium, magnesium and zinc, are said to be useful in preventing neurological, mental or geriatric diseases and even various forms of cancer. One particularly controversial claim is that of orthomolecular medicine, or mega-nutrition. This method claims that the generally accepted amounts of vitamins and minerals we have to ingest daily are only just enough to keep the body functioning. In order to enhance the self-healing properties of the body it is said that very large amounts (megadoses) of some substances are necessary. In this way, orthomolecular medicine claims to be successful in the treatment of all kinds of diseases, such as heart disease, mental illness, diabetes, arthritis, alcoholism and drug addiction. The most famous protagonist of this method is Linus C. Pauling who, born in 1901, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954, and for Peace in 1962. In 1976 he published a study in which the conclusion was that high doses of vitamin C (about 10 grams a day instead of the ‘normal’ daily intake of about 70 mg) could play a role in combating cancer. Since then, attempts to confirm these results through studies conducted by practitioners of orthodox medicine have been largely unsuccessful, although Pauling has claimed that the effect of vitamin C is only at its best when cytotoxic drugs have not been used. This is because the use of these drugs impairs the immune system and therefore suppresses the beneficial effects of the vitamin C treatment. This and similar claims explain why orthodox doctors are sometimes so opposed to alternative therapies. It means that patients may forgo the best treatment in order to follow an alternative method.