Friday, May 10, 2013

How Can You Be Healthy When You Aren't Even Awake?

Dr. Janet Bond Brill, Blood Pressure Down: The 10-Step Plan to Lower Your Blood Pressure in 4 Weeks--Without Prescription Drugs

Forgive my rush to the conclusion, spilling Dr. Brill’s thesis first: Americans, and increasingly other peoples too, are just not conscious of what we put in our bodies. We eat packaged filth because it’s easier than thinking about food or paying attention to health effects. We don’t cook at home, and we don’t ask about what goes into the recipe. As a result, hypertension now sits at epidemic levels.

High blood pressure afflicts around a third of Americans. Worse, it’s a ripple effect disease. People with hypertension have higher risk of heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and certain cancers—many of the most common causes of preventable death. Doctors habitually treat hypertension with drugs, which aren’t worthless, but don’t do everything. According to Brill, solutions and preventions exist which don’t involve costly medical interventions.

I’m old enough to remember when everyone thought they could control blood pressure by watching their salt. But Brill, a nutritionist with specialization in cardiovascular disease, collates the latest science suggesting that salt is only one part of a much larger machine. Many of us regularly consume foods that, in small amounts, keep us running, but in large quantities, bog us down. And we think we’re eating healthy.

For instance, what foods hit you with the greatest sodium content? Did you say potato chips or french fries? While nobody should mistake these foods for healthful, foods which taste salty are often a fairly low sodium risk, because sodium forms compounds besides salt. Most packaged bread and cheese contains more sodium than salty-tasting foods. Same with commercial sauces, marinades, and salad dressings. Many supposedly healthy foods are hypertension bombs.

More important than just one element, though, Brill emphasizes the interaction of complex forces on human health. Many readers flinch at books like this because authors inevitably recommend weight loss. Yes, so does Brill. She urges readers to lose five pounds in four weeks, not an unreasonable standard. Many of us can lose five pounds by using stairs rather than elevators, taking a daily walk, and biking on weekends.

Once we’ve committed to weight loss and sodium control, Brill graduates to foods she wants us to consume more. If Americans get too much sodium, we get too little magnesium, potassium, and calcium. Brill goes into the science, but the thumbnail version goes thus: human physiology is optimized (whether by evolution, God, or whatever) for environments where sodium is rare, but other elements are common. That doesn’t describe today’s society.

Less bread, more bananas. Less cheese, more yogurt. Brill’s DASH Diet—Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension—isn’t about self denial. She stresses establishing good habits, including what fresh or nutritionally packed ingredients she wants us to introduce. This includes, no kidding, red wine and dark chocolate. But it does require one sacrifice: Brill wants us to cook and eat our meals at home.

Much take-out or delivery food relies heavily on bread, cheese, and cured meat. The preparation process for these foods requires heavy infusion of sodium, including salt and baking soda, to ensure long, stable shelf life. Moreover, storage strips these foods of necessary nutrients. Many people, including me, fail to check nutrition labels on packaged convenience foods, and wouldn’t dare ask restaurants for nutrition details. Remaining unconscious to consequences is easier.

The main body of Brill’s book emphasizes the science underlying her prescriptions. She says readers can cherry-pick which chapters they want to read, but I strongly recommend reading all of them, because if we understand why we make a dietary choice, we’ll resist the desire to stray. By combining her prescription with repercussions, Brill forces readers to remain conscious of the choices we make.

Brill moves her brass tacks to the appendices and back matter. Here she gives the checklists, charts, and nitty-gritty instructions on how to live out the plan she put in the main text. She also includes fifty pages of recipes, four weeks of nutritionally rich, flavor-packed meals that help us maintain needed bodily balances. Readers with food allergies should plan substitutions, but by just reading ahead, building healthy habits should come easily.

Look around any grocery store, and notice people tossing food blindly into baskets, looking hypnotized. Before reading this book, that was me. If that’s you, and you’re happy sleepwalking through deciding what to feed your body, avoid this book. But if you’re ready to wake up, pay attention, and take responsibility for your own health, let me introduce Janet Bond Brill. She’ll guide you to the world of attentive eating.

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