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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

Unprocessed, basic foods are frequently dirt cheap. Potatoes sometimes go for as little as a nickel or dime a pound in many places, and they're one of the very most nutritious foods. Beans and rice are very inexpensive. Chicken is less expensive than beef.

Let's go back to food additives for just a moment.
Which additives should people watch out for?

Three in particular—sodium nitrite, saccharin, and caffeine. The government has acknowledged that saccharin and sodium nitrite cause cancer, but they're still on the market because of political pressure from the food industry.

The big danger of caffeine is for pregnant women—it increases the chance of having a baby with a birth defect. For some reason, obstetricians will warn a prospective mother to avoid drugs while she is carrying the baby, but will usually forget to mention that caffeine is one of the most dangerous drugs during this period. I think the day will come when a mother whose doctor didn't warn her about caffeine, who drinks lots of coffee and then gives birth to an abnormal baby, will be able to sue her doctor for malpractice.

How about other areas of nutrition—what kind of marks do you give health workers in general?

D minus. With the exception of a few nurses, more dentists, and lots of dieticians, there are few health workers who provide their clients with good nutrition information. In clinics used by poor people, I understand that the average client is overweight, diabetic, and hvpertensive.

Physicians are probably the worst nutrition educators of all the health professions. As a rule they know little about nutrition, and they become defensive and tend to poo-poo their patients' very legitimate concerns.

At my medical school, the only physicians at all interested in nutrition were the ones in charge of deciding what to feed someone who's comatose— through a tube.

That's right.
Biochemistry classes may touch on the metabolism of intermediate pathways, but doctors don't learn the most important thing of all—what to tell people to eat.

I also think that physicians have failed to act on a political level—perhaps through the A.M.A.—to encourage both government and industry to develop and push a meaningful nutrition policy. But there are some good signs for the future. Many people now in medical school, and many recent medical school graduates, were brought up on brown rice and vegetables.

What would a meaningful nutrition policy include?

It would mean, first of all, get state, local, and federal governments into the nutritious foods business. The federal government alone serves millions of meals every day—and they're not the most nutritious. If school food programs, the armed services, and government cafeterias upgraded the quality of their food, it would have a gigantic effect on the nation's health.

It would call for nutrition education campaigns. I think we should assist farmers who produce what are basically junk foods like hogs or sugar beets to change over to producing more nutritious foods.

Do you think these things are likely to happen?

I do. The Surgeon General's Report on Disease Prevention, issued in July 1979 was certainly the most important document on nutrition ever to be published in the United States. It was much more far-reaching than the McGovern Report. The Surgeon General's Report is a real vindication of what food activists— from CSPI to McGovern, from the Berkeley Food Co-op down to some mother in Iowa—have been saying for years. The federal government has now gone on record as saying that Americans are eating a poor diet, and that we can minimize our risk of disease by switching to a low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt, low cholesterol, high-fiber diet.

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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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