January, 1993

Fruits of Thought

The Ten Percent Solution

The health authorities of America are lying to the American people and as a result people are dying earlier than necessary and living lives less healthy and less happy than they could. Such is the thesis of The 10 Percent Solution For a Healthy Life by Raymond Kurzweil (357 pages, Crown Publishers, Inc., $20.00).

The book is subtitled “How to Eliminate Virtually All Risk of Heart Disease and Cancer,” and for the produce industry the real story is that our 5 A Day program is urging woefully inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables to really help people’s health.

Kurzweil is a top scientist and leading expert on artificial intelligence and his “10 percent solution” is a call for Americans to reduce the percentage of calories from fat in their diet to no more than 10 percent of total calories consumed.

Kurzweil came to this solution motivated by that most human of emotions: fear. His father had a heart attack in his late forties and died at 58 of heart disease. Kurzweil set out to find a way to prevent his own untimely death.

In the course of doing so, he tried many diets, changed doctors and eventually came across the work of Nathan Pritikin, who had developed a diet program low in fat and cholesterol (10% of calories from fat and 100 milligrams of cholesterol a day).

Pritikin’s diet was controversial and resisted by the medical establishment of his day. This book, however, brings attention to much medical research that was not available to Pritikin and adds drama to the medical research by utilizing Kurzweil as a case study in what happens to the human body when the 10 percent solution is adopted.

The book makes a technical topic easy to read with a conversational format, but the science is the star of the book. From the Bantus of Africa, to contemporary Japanese, both in the U.S. and in Japan, not to mention study after study on Europeans, Chinese and Americans, the author martials his arguments impressively and persuasively.

American health authorities are currently urging American consumers to limit the calories they consume from fat to no more than 30 percent of their total consumption. But Kurzweil convincingly show that this is not the level that current science would recommend. Kurzweil contends that only at 10 percent of calories from fat can help assure optimal health and even reverse already existing damage caused by excessive fat consumption.

This is very important for everyone, because even people who look great, who perhaps exercise off extra fat calories they consume, may in fact have a fatal disease, atherosclerosis. To illustrate the point, Kurzweil cites a scary study of American soldiers killed in Korea in which 77 percent of young American male soldiers had significant atherosclerosis.

So, why do health authorities recommend 30 percent of calories from fat? Well, the charitable interpretation is that as the typical American diet gets 35 to 40 percent calories from fat (and many people get much more), a recommendation to cut down to 10 percent may be too drastic for people. As such, health authorities may want to gradually introduce people to the ideal of limiting fat. After society moves closer to the 30 percent level, it may be lowered to 20 percent, then lowered again.

Others, less charitable than Kurzweil, would say the influence of the meat, poultry and dairy lobby weigh heavily on the USDA and have encouraged a “balance diet approach” that research doesn’t support.

But for the fruit and vegetable industry, all the talk about percentage of calories from fat obscures one very important fact: when you really analyze what is being recommended, it comes down to an almost vegetarian diet. Kurzweil recommends no more than four ounces of meat, poultry or fish every day. This means instead of being the centerpiece of meals, meat poultry and fish really become the accents, the side dishes. The main dish becomes a salad; a little chicken cooked with the skin becomes the flavoring.

The 10 percent solution demands a diet composed heavily of fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains. And five a day won’t do it. In all likelihood, people who adopt the 10 percent solution are going to wind up eating more like 15 a day. This is particularly true because the serving you take of vegetables is likely to be very different if it is the heart of the meal as opposed to a side dish.

This book doesn’t mention it, but really poses a challenge to the produce industry. Can the industry move aggressively, not just to proselytize for eating more produce, but to stand for a healthy low fat diet, confident that, in the end, this means higher produce consumption?

There are many targets of opportunity. Medical schools still emphasize the role of a doctor as a “fix-it” man, who corrects malfunctions when the body breaks down. Can we, as an industry, gather the funds to work with the grain people to insist that medical schools also focus on disease prevention, including heavy emphasis on nutrition?

Health insurance is another target of opportunity for the industry. Neither private insurance companies nor Medicaid and Medicare will generally pay a doctor for time invested to prevent illness. Yet perhaps prevention would be the most effective sales approach the produce industry could have.

Above all, the produce industry should be at the forefront of efforts to get a very low fat diet endorsed by the government and health authorities. Our health authorities owe it to the public to give them the truth and give it to them straight. If cigarette smoking is bad, you don’t suggest reducing from three packs a day to two. You tell people it’s bad and they should cut out smoking. Equally, you don’t tell people to eat 30 percent fat when they should be eating 10 percent.

This could be a big challenge to the industry. But it could transform the Produce For Better Health Foundation into an organization 50 times its size. It is a challenge the industry should examine seriously. First, it would sell lots of fruits and vegetables. Second, it would save a lot of lives.  pb