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 Conversations with Leaders in Self-Care: A Field Guide to Eating  
Interview with Michael Jacobson PhD
   as interviewed by Tom Ferguson MD

In a way, the Pritikin diet just broadens the definition of a junk food—to include things like butter and fatty meats and egg yolks and cheeses.

Yes, and he's got a point. Most people think of junk foods as being snack foods, but you can eat celery sticks or chicken as a snack, and these are very nutritious foods.

On the other hand, something like a hot dog is right at the top of the list of junk foods, even though it contains very little sugar, because it's so high in fat, and because it contains sodium nitrite.

Exactly how do you define a junk food?

I'd define a junk food as one that's relatively high in fat, sugar, or salt, and relatively low in minerals, vitamins, protein, or fiber.

How do you feel about the ways nutrition has been taught in the schools?

For years, nutrition education in the schools has meant teaching the basic four food groups. The problem with the basic four is that balancing among the different food groups is not the whole story. If you ate a hot dog on white bread, a milk shake, and a bag of french fries, you'd be eating the basic four, but unfortunately the basic four includes junk food. For the Center for Science in the Public Interest's The New American Eating Guide, we reorganized the basic four so that within each group there are foods to eat Anytime, In Moderation, and Now and Then. The Anytime foods are the most nutritious, and the Now and Then are closer to the junk food end of the spectrum.

The elementary school would be a key place to serve very nutritious foods, and to give the children food exploration exercises along the lines of the ones described in CSPI's book, Creative Food Experiences for Children.

Do you think that following one's blood cholesterol level is a good way to follow the effects of one's diet?

I would very highly recommend that anyone past thirty know his or her own cholesterol level and get it rechecked every year or so. You can have this done at any doctor's office or clinic and at some clinical laboratories.

What kind of a level do you aim for?

Mine usually runs around 160 to 170. I'm pretty comfortable with that. If it got up beyond 200, I'd start to worry, but below 180, for a person my age—thirty six—is pretty reasonable.

Pritikin suggests a guideline of 100 plus your age, with a maximum of 160.

That's a terrific goal. It would certainly mean a major change in eating habits for most people. I'd guess that maybe 2 percent or less of adult Americans have a cholesterol level as low as 130 to 140. But if one wants a target to shoot at, that certainly would be a good one. On the other hand, there would have to be some pretty big changes in attitudes before a significant proportion of Americans could come anywhere close to that goal.

For example...

One good example is the American man's attitude toward meat. Red meat is a symbol of masculinity for many men. Wives say that their husbands simply demand to have meat on the table once or twice a day. They say that they'd be seriously risking divorce if they refused to serve it.

Maybe what we need is some big tough sports hero to go on television and talk about how it's more masculine to eat vegetables. He could be riding a big motorcycle he bought with the money he saved by eating beans.

That's a good point. Eating a sound diet often costs less.

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 About The Author
Tom Ferguson, M.D. (1943-2006), was a pioneering physician, author, and researcher who virtually led the movement to advocate informed self-care as the starting point for good health. Dr. Ferguson studied and wrote......moreTom Ferguson MD
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