Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Vegetarian Me Part 2 – Nutrition, Tradition and Nonsense


This morning I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (yuck, right?) with the title: “Easy on the spuds...” (snipped for brevity). This article draws on a newly released report from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council entitled: Providing the scientific evidence for healthier Australian diets (again snipped for brevity) which yours truly took himself over to read.

The draft Australian Dietary Guidelines 2011 contains a number of points I would like to unpack a little. First the guidelines have been prepared based on a “whole” food approach. What this means is that it recommends nutrition based on actual foods rather than abstract vitamin and mineral intake values. To me this is a huge step forward from the pseudo-objectivity of RDI tables and fortified/augmented soft drinks.

Second is the concept of “adherence” to guidelines. Although exceptionally and deeply analysed (research was analysed from a wide variety of local and international sources from the period 2003-2009) the information on hand does not really tell us anything we do not already know: in spite of affluence both economic and educational, Australians seem for the most part unable to adequately incorporate sufficient whole foods into their lifestyles. The guidelines go on to report the following harrowing information:

(a) Australian children (2-18 years old) consume 41% of their caloric intake in the form of nutritionally unsound saturated fat sources.

(b) Australians overall consume 35% of their caloric intake in the form of nutritionally unsound sugar sources.

In other words for many Australian children (adults as well), junk food outside of meals constitutes up to a staggering 76% of their daily caloric intake. Even if you were a highly active person, if you were eating 176% of your calories daily you would have your work cut out for you trying not to gain weight. But in our current couch potato age where the caloric intake of a significant proportion of the population likely exceeds this 176%, the answer is weight gain, ill-health and death.

Third, what is especially interesting is the Herald’s misleading article title. It is also a point with which I disagree. Although the guidelines do advocate for a 40% reduction in potato consumption, this reduction is explicitly to do with potato as a “vegetable”. What this means is that within the spectrum of different vegetables required for optimum nutrition, the quantity of potatoes should be reduced. However, I would argue that when considered as a source of calorie rich carbohydrates potatoes function as an excellent option in themselves or as an adjunct to other grains (the quantity of each is adjusted accordingly. Indeed the sweet potato rich traditional diet of Okinawans (southern-most prefecture of Japan) is frequently pointed to as the reason for their longevity (hey, warm weather year round doesn’t exactly hurt either!).

I would go on to say that the Australian diet by and large contains a sizeable hole relative to root vegetables. In Japan, root vegetables are considered integral to the cuisine and range from potatoes, onions and carrots familiar to most Australians to more (so-called yet easily cultivated) exotic roots such as sweet potato (especially purple skinned yellow/white fleshed satsuma and to a lesser extent the purple/red fleshed beni-imo), taro (in the form of sato-imo), burdock (gobo), yam (known locally as yama-imo, which unlike many kinds of yam is non-toxic and is frequently eaten raw), daikon radish, turnip (kabu) and lotus root (renkon which may also be eaten raw). Almost all of these root vegetables could be substituted for potato in order to decrease caloric intake and increase fibre, vitamin and mineral intake. I would argue that the dearth of root-vegetables in Australian diets and the over-reliance on “colourful” and “leafy” vegetables is in need of a serious re-think.

Finally, under the grains section the emphasis is on “whole” grains. This I will leave short and sweet and can fully attest to the veracity and benefit of switching from white to brown. Recently, I received a 10kg bag of genmai (brown/whole Japanese rice) from an uncle who would/could not eat it. Although supplemented from time to time with plain white rice (like making fried rice), every meal at which I eat rice, I eat genmai. Since I started this pattern I not only lost a small amount of weight (a stubborn mini-pot belly) but become clockwork-like regular and felt lighter and more vital as a result!

So what does my opinion have to do with anything? Nothing really, but it is my view that Australians need to take more pride in local agriculture, and let me say that again: local. By actively supporting local agricultural industry in increasing demand, Australians could:

1. Improve health through increased consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

2. Significantly reduce the environmental burden created by monocropping, over reliance on pesticides and herbicides for both local and export oriented markets.

3. Take pride in an increased national self-sufficiency production rate

4. Encourage the introduction and development of new and new varieties of fruits, vegetables and grains through selective breeding etc.

Or at least that is how it has worked here in Japan. C’mon Aussie, come o-o-o-n!

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