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Fatty Liver Syndrome...Our New Stealth Epidemic?

I was reading my husband’s Men’s Health Magazine. My blood pressure soared when I read an article by a contributor. And it was not actually the article that drives this blog, but the blatant disconnect by the author between food and health…and not because I question the intelligence of the author, but because it made me think about the real problems we face when it comes to our collective health and wellness. Convoluted, I know, but stay with me.

Written by a young father in his early 30’s, the article begins with the tale of the author failing his physical for life insurance due to elevated liver enzyme levels. Quickly diagnosed with NAFLD (Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease), the author did research and discovered that up to 25% of Americans suffer with this disorder and that men 30 years of age and older make up a disproportionate number of those affected.

Lazo M, Hernaez R, Bonekamp S, Kamel IR, Brancati FL, Guallar E, Clark JM (2011). "Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and mortality among US adults: prospective cohort study". BMJ 343 (Nov 18): d6891. doi:10.1136/bmj.d6891. PMC 3220620. PMID 22102439)

On his doctor’s advice, the author eliminated simple carbohydrates, including his beloved pizza, mashed potatoes, French fries and sugar. He cut his alcohol consumption dramatically. He exercised regularly, at least three times a week. He gave up junk food for the most part. Adding lots of green vegetables, whole grains and salads to his diet, his results were impressive. After six months, he dropped 40 pounds and showed lower liver enzymes within normal range…success!!!

On hearing the news, did this young dad embrace his healthy lifestyle with gusto? Did he pass his newfound knowledge on to his young family? Nope. He “began poaching a few fries every time my daughter enjoyed a Happy Meal.” And while he got back ‘on the wagon’ of healthy eating and living when his enzyme levels once again skyrocketed, his action and reaction is the root of pretty much all that ails our modern culture.

There seems to be an inability to resonate with healthy living that is, well…killing us. As an advocate for healthy eating for more than thirty years, I see it more often than I would like to admit. People discover a health problem and change their lifestyle to help alleviate symptoms and recover. They succeed, as this young father did. They cannot wait to return to their old habits and are invariably shocked when their symptoms return or other problems arise. It reminds me of people on diets who lose the weight they desire, abandon their diet and gain the weight back.

What is going on here? What is it about healthy living that we resist so strongly? What is it about junk food that we can’t imagine ‘depriving’ our children (or ourselves) of their ‘enjoyment’ of a Happy Meal? We are all more than aware of the fat-sugar-salt addiction cycle created by junk food.

We are all aware, right?

Do we see healthy living in the same light as we see diets? Something to grimly endure until we get to our desired weight, health, liver enzyme level or cholesterol number? I can’t imagine a parent thinking a Happy Meal is a good idea for their kids, (even when driven by socio-economic necessity). Devoid of any valuable nutrition, save protein…oh, and sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat, chemicals and simple sugars, Happy Meals will make our kids anything but happy in the long run. Obese, prone to diabetes, heart disease and stroke…and NAFLD as this young father discovered, which leads to a lot of things, but happiness ain’t on the list.

Natural foods are delicious. At first, a change of diet seems challenging and unfamiliar; more work to prepare meals; the food may be a little less intensely satisfying than convenience foods with their amped-up flavors. But I will promise you this. If you stick to it; if you commit to one month of healthy eating, food cooked in your kitchen, your life will change. You will feel lighter, less cranky; you will sleep more soundly and have less aches and pains; you will manage stress better. You will have more energy. And if you give it the full month, by the third week, you will wonder what all the fuss was about. You’ll discover the food is anything but boring; you will find it delicious, satisfying, beautiful and nourishing. The downside? You will wish you had embraced healthy eating sooner.

I can hear the grumbling now. Oh, sure, eat your veggies; take all the fun out of life, right? Well, if stiff joints, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke are your idea of fun in life…I had a very wise teacher who once told me that changing our food was challenging because we choose to eat ‘kid food’ on a daily basis. We act like spoiled children when change is suggested, like when kids resist going to bed early. See, when I was a kid, hamburgers and fries were a very occasional treat, not the food we ate day to day for lunch or dinner (or both). That was considered ‘kid food’ not to be taken seriously, but allowed now and then as a dalliance with non-nutritious foods.

It’s time to reconnect with the food we choose and its impact on our day to day health. It’s time to teach our children the habits that foster wellness, not put them at risk later in life. We have a responsibility as parents…as a culture…to create the next generation of strong, creative, compassionate, motivated people to carry us into the future. Happy Meals won’t create that; we create it in our kitchens daily.

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