Odyssey Through Today’s Nutritional Jungle – A Fable
The hero of Homer’s epic Greek poem, Odysseus, encounters one deadly peril after another during his tumultuous ten-year voyage home after the Trojan war. Eventually, after countless close calls, he reaches his home island of Ithaca. There, after a last bit of drama, he is finally reunited with his loving family.
We face nutritional hazards today analogous to the dangers faced by Odysseus. Our nutritional jungle looks more benign than the perils Odysseus had to deal with, but the odyssey through this jungle is as hazardous as anything Odysseus encountered. Let’s compare our odyssey with his, but remember, this is a fable. Part I is pure literary whimsy – a spin-off of Homer’s classic poem. Part II is my commentary on the analogies made in Part I, followed by an account of what I do to avoid or minimize hidden dangers. I’m not perfect, but many of the dangers posed by our modern nutritional jungle can be by-passed!
Part I – The Fable
The Sirens were female temptresses whose beautiful singing drew passing sailors irresistibly into shipwreck on the rocks where they sang. No sailor ever survived an encounter with the sirens. Despite their legendary notoriety, Odysseus wanted to hear the songs of the Sirens, so he devised a clever plan. Before getting into their range, he told his crew to tie him tightly to the ship’s mast and not to untie him under any circumstances. He also had all his men plug their ears with beeswax so they couldn’t hear the singing of the Sirens. His plan worked. He pled with his men to untie him when he heard their singing, but they refused. Only he heard the Siren’s songs, and he survived.
The sirens in our nutritional jungle include sugar (in all its disguises), refined enriched flour, and butter-like saturated fats. Their products include cakes, candies, cookies, muffins, pies and a host of similar products. The “songs” of these products are almost irresistible. When they’re sampled, all good intentions to bypass them evaporate. Siren-songs from a host of sugary sodas and energy drinks also sweep millions toward shipwreck. Countless victims founder on these rocks over time.
Land of the Lotus-Eaters
One of the early diversions in the Odyssey was a stop at the land of the Lotus-Eaters. Odysseus sent three of his most trustworthy men to explore the land. They found friendly people who offered them the fruit of the lotus to eat. They fell in love with it. It induced a euphoric kind of state, and the men totally forgot their past and their purpose. They only wanted to stay and enjoy the fruit of the lotus forever. Odysseus had to take them back to the ship by force.
Chocolate is a product that has attributes similar to the fruit of the lotus. It’s official name, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods.” It induces a mild euphoria, and its devotees would like to enjoy it forever. Cocoa powder has many healthy features, but when combined with sugar and milk-fat, it is as seductive as the singing of the Sirens. It’s hard to bypass, and if sampled, even harder to tear away from.
Alcoholic drinks are different, but are also derived from many kinds of grains and fruits. These drinks induce variable levels of euphoria that attracts devotees. The deeper one gets into them, the more difficult it becomes to escape from them.
Land of the Cyclops
Soon after leaving the land of the Lotus-Eaters, Odysseus and his crew arrived at the land of the Cyclops, one-eyed giants who herded sheep. The crew discovered a huge cave with large supplies of sheep, milk and cheese. While they were investigating this find, Polyphemus returned with his flock. He immediately ate two of the sailors and kept all the others captive in his cave. Odysseus devised a plan of escape. He gave Polyphemus wine they brought until he fell into a drunken stupor. Then the crew attacked Polyphemus with a sharpened stake. Plunging it into his single eye, they blinded him and escaped with his sheep. Polyphemus then called on his father, Poseidon, the God of the sea, who angrily stirred up one storm after another to disrupt Odysseus’s voyage.
Who are the Cyclops in today’s nutritional jungle? They’re giant multi-national companies that spend billions to tempt children and adults with their tasty products. Their single eye is focused on the bottom line. Caring nothing about the ultimate fate of their victims, they rope in as many as possible to improve their profits.
Scylla and Charybdis
Scylla and Charybdis guarded a narrow strait through which Odysseus had to guide his sailing ship. The monsters on the rocks of Scylla swallowed sailors alive if they got too close to it, while the gigantic whirlpool of Charybdis engulfed entire ships that came near it.
Highly processed foods and a wide variety of fast-food outlets are the Scylla and Charybdis of our nutritional jungle today. Highly processed meats like bacon, sausage and high-fat deli meats are high in salt, saturated fat and chemical preservatives. Research studies consistently show that these foods increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Thousands of other highly processed foods lure victims into unhealthy nutritional patterns and consequences.
The Island of the Sun
During a stopover in the underworld, Odysseus was told that he would eventually reach home, but that more trials would test him along the way. He was warned never to touch the cattle of the Sun. When they got to the Island of the Sun, his men persuaded him to stay awhile to rest. He agreed against his better judgment, but warned them not to touch the cattle of the Sun. When their rations ran out, they waited until Odysseus was asleep and then slaughtered the cattle of the Sun so they could feast. They had a real meat binge. The enraged Sun stirred up storms that sank the departing ship, killing every man aboard except Odysseus himself.
In today’s nutritional jungle, red meat represents the cattle of the Sun. The American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society both recommend limiting red meat. Modest amounts may have some benefit, but daily consumption or going on big binges is not a great idea.
Part II – Commentary
Homer’s epic poem is renowned. The fable of today’s nutritional jungle is not, but the analogies are sobering. A major point to make is that, unlike the dangers that threatened Odysseus in obvious ways, the hazards we face in today’s nutritional jungle are internal threats to health that are invisible. This makes them even more treacherous than the perils faced by Odysseus. He could see who or what was threatening his life. We can’t see the menacing threats developing in our own bodies.
A prime example is the process of atherosclerosis. We can’t see it. Yet nearly everyone today has atherosclerotic build-up in vital arteries threatening life and health. Most begin to develop this in the teen or pre-teen years, and most have no clue about this growing internal threat. Healthy arteries are flexible with a smooth inner lining, as seen in the drawing of a normal artery. Atherosclerosis creates blockages that stiffen arteries and eventually restrict blood flow.
Atherosclerotic arteries are a major factor leading to hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure, impotence, blindness, amputations, and other disorders. We don’t see the linkage between faulty nutrition and these complications because it takes ten or twenty years for such diseases to become flagrant. Yet they’re lurking in our nutritional jungle, pouncing on unsuspecting victims at the most unexpected times. The nutritional jungle is a dangerous place indeed.
Sugar and saturated fat are involved in the atherosclerosis process. We need them both in small amounts, but they betray us when consumed in excess. They are so seductive in their taste appeal that most of us eat or drink too much of the foods that carry them. Examples include pies, cakes, cookies, ice cream, milkshakes, sodas, and many others. Excess sugar binds to proteins in our muscles and tendons, including the smooth muscle in our arteries, in a process called glycation. The sugar/protein cross-linkage decreases elasticity and causes stiffening of the arteries, leading to high blood pressure. Then hypertension causes injury to the delicate intimal layer of our arteries, and these injured sites are most vulnerable to infiltration by oxidized LDL cholesterol. The long process of atherosclerotic build-up takes place over ten to twenty years until a “tipping point” occurs when stress, anger, or an extra cheeseburger triggers a heart attack or a stroke. Our medical system is skilled at rescuing many patients who suffer such disastrous events, but not so great at preventing the disease process in the first place.
Chocolates and alcoholic beverages are also duplicitous in different ways. Pure cocoa powder is high in good antioxidants, but milk chocolate is loaded with sugar and milk to make it more palatable. That makes it a delicious but treacherous treat.
Alcoholic beverages may have a slight benefit, but they’re toxic to delicate cellular function in surprisingly small amounts. On balance, they betray the consumer’s health, subtly at first, and then with increasingly severe consequences.
Highly Processed Foods, Meat, and Dairy Products
Many highly processed foods flood our food markets today. Meat and many dairy products are high in LDL cholesterol and saturated fat that pose dangers to health. Severe atherosclerosis is associated with LDL cholesterol and trans fats in meat, dairy products, and many processed foods. It’s a big factor in the major killing diseases in Western culture. Avoiding atherosclerosis is a serious matter. It’s smart to minimize meat, dairy products, sugar and highly processed foods. Exercise doesn’t burn off atherosclerotic plaque. Sound nutrition is needed to shield one from the hazards of today’s nutritional jungle. This is not simply theory. Physicians like Dr. Barnard, Dr. Esselstyn, Dr. Fuhrman, Dr. McDougall and Dr. Ornish have proven the great value of good nutrition in preventing our major killing diseases.
Principles of Healthy Nutrition
My personal principles of healthy nutrition are very simple, but it’s taken me a lifetime to distill them to their essence.
1. Eat wholesome plant-based foods primarily.
2. Eat at least ten servings of fruits and veggies daily.
3. Avoid or minimize highly processed foods as much as possible.
That’s it. How do I apply these principles in my own life? I enjoy three simple meals a day. I am mostly vegetarian. It’s hard to beat the value of meals full of veggies and fruit. There are other ways of healthy eating, but the goal of ten servings of veggies and fruit daily is hard for many people to reach. Why are veggies and fruit so valuable? They’re high in fiber and vitamins and they’re loaded with antioxidants that boost immunity and absorb damaging free radicals. They’re our best health protectors and boosters. Following are examples of my meals. (Carol’s brunch differs from my breakfast and lunch, but is also healthy, illustrating that there is more than one way of healthy eating.)
I have a large bowl of oatmeal (double serving) every morning. I add a handful of raisins to the oatmeal as it’s cooking for sweetness. I top off my bowl of oatmeal with a sliced banana, a half-cup of sliced organic strawberries and blueberries, a handful of walnut pieces, and a half-cup of almond milk. On the side I have a 6-ounce glass of orange juice, one slice of whole wheat toast with organic raspberry spread, three prunes, and one cup of chamomile tea. I usually have breakfast at 6:30 AM, and this holds me nicely until 1:00 PM. (No mid-morning snack desired – unless Carol tempts me with a fruit smoothie that she fixes for her brunch!)
Most commonly, lunch for me consists of crunchy organic peanut butter and banana (sliced lengthwise) between two slices of 100% wholewheat bread. I also have one or two pieces of fruit and a tall 16-ounce glass of water for lunch. The fruit varies according to season. It may be an organic apple or plum, an orange or kiwi-fruit, a thick slice of cantaloupe, papaya, or pineapple, or whatever is in season. Occasionally I’ll have an avocado on whole wheat sandwich instead of peanut butter and banana, or a garden salad instead of a sandwich. In the winter, I may have vegetable or lentil soup.
Carol and I usually fix supper together. One of us puts together fresh salad plates with romaine lettuce, organic celery, radish slices, cucumber, sliced bell pepper, cut-up organic tomato, and cut-up avocado, all topped with julienned broccoli slaw. The other prepares the main entrée plus a mess of fresh organic greens (kale, swiss chard, collard or beet greens,) and two or three other veggies such as beets, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, carrots, zucchini, calabaza, or summer squash. The main veggie entree may be baked sweet potato, baked Idaho potato, mashed potatoes, baked butternut or acorn squash, or a medley of such veggies cut up in thick slices or wedges to be baked. Other options include brown rice with stir-fry veggies or brown rice and quinoa with beans. Once or twice a month we may have baked or grilled wild salmon fillets as our entrée. Carol prefers Paul Newman’s Oil and Vinegar salad dressing for her salad, while I usually use Balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil as my salad dressing.
We are so full after this big meal that we often skip dessert. If we want a bit of sweet, we’ll have something like organic grapes, cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, or other fruit that may be in season. These meals minimize or avoid highly processed foods almost entirely, They consist mostly of wholesome plant-based foods, including at least ten servings of veggies and fruit daily. We don’t count calories, but we never gain weight because even though veggies and fruit are high in good nutrition, most of them are very low in calories. One can eat big platefuls every day without gaining an ounce.
The most common question I get when someone learns that I’m vegetarian: Isn’t it boring to eat veggies all the time? The truth is that I have become a veggie-lover. I look forward to all my meals with keen anticipation, and enjoy them with gusto. Veggies aren’t your “cup of tea”? Relax. With the right mindset, you can learn to like veggies! In the meantime, you don’t have to be a total vegetarian to enjoy healthy nutrition.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH