Feeding the Nutrition-Expert Frenzy

Judging by the endless booths sampling healthy foods at this year's Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif., March 8-11, one wonders why we aren't the leanest and fittest nation on earth.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D.

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Attendees could feast on one sample of meal or snack item after another, all healthy -- or at least allegedly so. (Of course, one had to apply a little common sense and not simply fill up on the many chocolate and dessert samples.)

Maybe the fact that we're still far from being lean and fit is that we spend too much time listening to diet and lifestyle "experts" and not enough time focusing on healthy food and exercise. Every celebrity who lost a pound by any means is hawking a diet book, diet plan, cookbook or exercise gadget for thighs, buns and abs. At least half a dozen of them were at the expo, too.

Health is an inescapably popular discussion topic on talk shows -- and infomercials disguised as talk shows -- where a parade of self-proclaimed nutrition experts dispense helpful advice like, "Don't mix starches with protein," (How do you eat a bean?) "Eat all raw like our ancestors." (You mean the ones with chimp-sized brains?)

A study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. compared top selling diets -- Atkins, Zone, and Ornish -- against more standard dietary recommendations. At the end of a year, Atkins appeared to win the weight-loss contest, generating national 42-point headlines. However, in reading the study, the average weight loss over a year in all groups ranged from only 3.5 -10 pounds, with results statistically significant only comparing Atkins to Zone. All participants adhered to a diet of about 1,800 calories and every subject cheated on the respective rules (no subject could stand the extremes).

So, with the American culture of celebrity worship, and the teeming masses working so hard at emulating the famous, celebrities and or near-celebrities line up to tell us what to eat and how to live.

The use of actors as spokespersons is as old as the movies. It was thus no great segue into celebrity marketing of specific health foods and diet plans. The problem is that a testimonial -- a euphemism for report only the positive results and never the downside -- is as misleading from a celebrity as it is from anyone else and should be greeted with equal scrutiny. Celebrity status confers no special health expertise. Health expertise has to be earned.

But then, along comes someone like Ed Begley, Jr. The longtime environment and health advocate is that rarest of Hollywood birds, someone who not only talks the talk but walks the walk -- and has done so for several decades.

There's something genuine about a guy who pedals a bike hooked up to a device that stores energy in batteries that provide power his house, when he could just as well live in opulence and use his star power to push useless products. Ed Begley Jr, Six-time Emmy nominee for St. Elsewhere, in his new show, "Living with Ed," will put on display the healthy, eco-friendly lifestyle that has been his passion for nearly 40 years. The show is filled with advice on health and leaving a smaller footprint on the earth, things he practices with missionary enthusiasm.

Begley's interest in a healthy lifestyle and planet began when he was a boy scout, which was not only a great introduction to nature, but made a smoggy LA even more noticeable. Then things really kicked into gear with the first Earth Day in 1970. "I decided that I wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem," he says. Begley became an avid organic gardener, championing that organic food naturally tastes better when grown in healthy living soil.

Begley doesn't present himself as a professional nutritionist, yet his advice is totally unlike what his fellow celebs push in that it is nutritionally sound. "I eat a healthy diet, and that's something I feature in the show, along with other aspects of healthy living." Although no longer a strict vegetarian, Begley eats a "mostly" vegetarian diet. "You don't have to be a vegetarian to eat more fruits and vegetables," he states. Along with his wife, Rachelle Carson, also an actress, "Living with Ed" reflects their healthy approach to diet.

Instead of adhering to "strict dieting rules," the Begleys focus on a balanced mix of foods full of whole grains, lean protein, fruits and vegetables, in reasonable portions and with vitamins and a big helping of exercise.

Begley believes filling up on greens rather than meat helps the environment because growing a pound of fruit or vegetables (including potatoes, grains and beans) uses significantly less energy than raising and processing a pound of meat. "Eating lower on the food chain helps save water and energy, and it also requires less land for farming. It's better for both our generation and the next," he explains.

Begley visits local markets weekly -- not only to support local growers, but also to get an idea on what to grow next in his own garden. And, he points out, gardening means fewer energy-wasting trips to the store.

On the subject of energy, Begley not only stays in shape on a bike that powers his battery array, from which he can literally make his own toast, he saves energy with solar power for the house, and an electric car for transportation. (Some thirty years ago he became one of the first people to use a modern electric car for daily transportation.)

The Begley family commitment even extends to kitchen equipment. The star cooks in a solar oven whenever he gets the chance -- "which is about 310 days per year in California. It's better than a gas oven and can do soups and stews. Why would I want to waste precious natural gas just to boil water?" he asks. "A solar oven can get up to 350°F."

Now that's star power!

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