To eat or not to eat

October 12, 2009 — by David Eng

“It’s a choice,” sophomore Natalie Berg said with conviction, referring to her vegan diet.

By conforming to a vegan diet, Berg originally intended to display her disapproval of the cruel treatment of animals in food production. However, over the past few years, she has also observed another benefit of her lifestyle choice: healthier eating.

In addition to eating more vegetables and regulating her protein and vitamin intake, Berg has also found herself scanning nutrition facts for ingredients and health contents.

The message is not that everyone should abstain from eating animal products, but that more people should pay greater attention to their diet and develop a better context of health consciousness.

Ruth Knittel, a registered dietitian who practices at an outpatient clinic in Oakland, urges people to develop good eating habits early in life. Though she primarily treats impoverished African-Americans and Hispanics in the East Bay, Knittel still stresses similar diet suggestions to Saratoga High’s teenagers.

“Fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, lean meat and whole grain are at the heart of a healthy diet,” said Knittel.

She also emphasizes the importance of developing good eating habits beginning in adolescence.

“Early on, we develop an idea of pleasure foods we really like, whether they be sweet treats or fried food,” she said. “We call these ‘comfort foods.’ When we become stressed by a new job or an unfamiliar environment, we tend to stray off of a healthy diet we know is good for us and begin consuming these comfort foods.” She cautions high school students to think twice before eating unhealthful comfort foods, like sweet treats and fried food, just to resolve stress.

Furthermore, her patients’ health situations provide a clear idea of the consequences of nearly a lifetime of unhealthy eating. Many of her patients experience diabetes, heart disease and cancer as a result of obesity spurred by an unbalanced diet high in fat and sugar. They often do not follow her dietary advice pertaining to vegetables and fruit, along with lean meat and whole grain.

Similar to how a chain smoker craves nicotine, chain eaters seem to grow addicted to a certain unhealthy diet. For this reason, Knittel’s advice to maintaining a healthy diet is that one must lay the foundation for healthy eating at the high school age or even earlier, never allowing the continuous chain of unhealthy meal after unhealthy meal to begin.

According to Knittel, having a sugary treat or indulgent desert once in a while is not an issue. The problem, she says, arises when consumption of these artery-clogging foods becomes routine, and the only solution is moderation in one’s diet.

“It’s an ongoing choice. Like I tell my [patients], you have to have the willpower to eat healthfully,” said Knittel. “This choice early on will yield benefits later in life, so you won’t necessarily have to visit dietitians like me.”

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