October 13, 2005

Time to skip the chips and head for health (from October 14 issue of the Yukon News)

By loading every sandwich with inch-thick loaves of lettuce, my mom made my lunch hours hell.

I’d open my brown bag in the schoolyard to expectant eyes, my friends licking their lips hoping some shiny-packaged marvel would emerge for which they could trade me their unwanted wagon wheel or potato chips.

The same chorus of taunts always arrived when I produced a real two-hander of a sandwich, with brown bread and about a pound of green leaves, along with a banana or an orange or an apple.

I sure took a ribbing for eating well.

But since my mom didn’t care what was “cool” to eat, I was healthy compared to my pimple-faced friends eating processed food.

Butch Johnson thinks Mom’s lunches need to make a comeback.

Butch is the project leader of the Yukon’s Coronary Health Improvement Project, an education-meets-diet-meets-how-to course that helps people re-learn how to eat properly.

And re-learn is the perfect word to describe what people in Western society need to do when it comes to food, he says.

“We’re fed misinformation about food. We’re raised by a fast-food and refined-food industry, and it’s killing us. It’s high fat, high sugar, and very low fibre, and a lot of the vitamins and minerals have been stripped out of the food as a result of processing.

“We’re overfed, calorically, but we’re underfed nutritionally.”

Butch and his wife, Lee Johnson, confronted the power diet has over health in the ‘80s, when Butch’s mother died of breast cancer and his father died 10 months later, after a battle with diabetes.

Butch’s research revealed that much of the disease afflicting Western cultures is preventable, and even caused by what we eat.

“We just started to look into it. We explored the books that were out there at the time. You had to do a tremendous amount of reading to bring a package together.”

What he learned — and continues to learn — about nutrition makes him lose his lunch: 60 to 70 per cent of cancers are preventable, as is 90 to 95 per cent of heart disease, he says.

“You can turn cancer on in lab animals by adding animal proteins to their diet, and you can turn it off by eliminating animal protein.”

Dr. Hans Diehl, who founded the Lifestyle Medicine Institute in California, created CHIP in 1988 to address nutritional ignorance.

Butch discovered the CHIP program and decided to help people eat right by bringing it to the Yukon.

He has been leading CHIP seminars here since 1989.

CHIP’s main message is to switch from packaged foods to whole foods, preferably ones that come from plants, not animals.

When CHIP comes to town, people unlearn their filthy eating habits and learn how to eat, shop and cook right, says Butch.

“People eat more than they’ve ever eaten before. The difference is we show them how to eat properly.”

The program is based on research without a bias or an agenda behind it, a rarity in a world where the diet industry is worth more than $40 billion in the United States alone.

“CHIP doesn’t sell anything,” brags Johnson.

At the start of a CHIP course, participants have their blood taken and analyzed for glucose and cholesterol levels.

Then their height, weight, wrist size, blood pressure and pulse are recorded.

The course is requires people to watch 32 hours of CHIP videos and take night classes for about a month, with each lesson followed by practical instruction from Butch and Lee.

“At the end of the program we do exactly the same blood test and lifestyle evaluation again,” says Butch. “Then people can see the effects of lifestyle on their blood chemistry and their weight.”

People lose an average of 1-2 pounds per week during the CHIP program, he says. And one guy went from a blood cholesterol level of 7.8 to 3.7 in 30 days.

“That’s incredibly high. And yet that person was very slim and very trim and would run two to three kilometres every day. You can be slim, but your blood cholesterol will demonstrate very clearly that you’re heading for a heart attack. Slim people have heart attacks.”

Many people believe skinniness equals healthiness. And a growing number believe exercise is a nutritional exoneration that lets them to eat as they please as long as they sweat.

Not so, says Butch.

“People think that they can exercise off their food. They can to a degree, but if they’ve got a high fat and a high sugar diet, and their cholesterol level is high, the major component to their problem is nutrition.”

A CHIP program costs about $11,000 per community.

If that seems like a lot of cash to teach people how to eat, consider that several provinces are investigating how CHIP can save them money.

Just ponder the alternative, says Butch.

“One heart attack could cost the government anywhere from $25-$40,000, so it’s cheap for the government to take a look at,” says Butch.

He credits health minister Peter Jenkins for being a “visionary” for CHIP in the Yukon.

Last year, the program lost its community development funding, when the health department picked it up and provided money.

“He’s been really helpful,” says Butch.

Though the CHIP programs are often in Whitehorse, it’s in Yukon communities that Butch feels the most help is needed, and where he can do the most good.

“They’ve got drugs and alcohol abuse, and residential school things that they’re working through, so nutrition and disease prevention is lower on their priorities,” he says.

Being exposed to the European diets has also ruined First Nations people’s health, and their nutrition sense, he says.

“There’s lots of junk foods — chips, and hot dogs and pizza and beer … all kinds of stuff that’s laying the groundwork for future problems,” he says.

“The problem is not the moose meat and the caribou. The problem is the Kentucky Fried Chicken and the fast food. So often they talk about ‘eating off the land.’ They don’t eat anywhere close to what they used to eat 100 years ago. They’ve incorporated so much of the refined foods into their diets that that’s what’s killing them.”

Programs in the communities attract fewer people, but that doesn’t mean the course doesn’t help.

“If you can get eight to 10 people in a community, each of those members have a family, and they take what they learn home. So it has a snowball effect,” says Butch.
What also needs to happen in the communities is a revolution in thinking about health, he says.

Prevention isn’t the only message that should be echoing from on high: disease reversal should be included, too.

“Fifty to 70 per cent of type 2 diabetics could be off their insulin if they were willing to make some lifestyle changes,” he says.

“But we, of course, have been told that the pill is the magic bullet, that it will solve everything, but it just doesn’t.”

Much of the health literature available in First Nations communities about diabetes doesn’t mention reversing the disease, he adds.

So, what’s the solution to our unhealthy ways, you may be asking.

“Eat like the Chinese do,” says Butch with a wry smile. “The Chinese have 17 times less heart disease than what we do. Their breast cancer rates are six to seven times lower than what ours. Osteoporosis? They don’t know what it is. Diabetes, in the rural communities, they’ve never even heard of it before,” he says.

“Degenerative diseases follow the western lifestyle.”

For those of you who can’t — or won’t — take the CHIP program, Butch has simple of advice.

“Reduce your fat intake, reduce your sugar intake, reduce your refined food intake, your milk, cheese and meat intake, and increase your fruits and vegetables and grains.”


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