A Conversation with Gaurth Hansen on Diet, Foods, and Nutrition


Is this 30 percent what they call empty calories?

That term has been used, and though it is overworked, it is pretty accurate. If you skip breakfast and have snack foods for lunch, make sure you eat a good evening meal that has foods chosen from the four basic groups. I’d say a glass of milk would substitute nicely for a soft drink with a meal. If you are counting calories, drink skim milk. It is a lot better for you than soft drinks.

I’m concerned about diet, but not from the calorie standpoint. I often have just a soft drink and a hamburger. I’ve heard this type of eating is bad for athletes, and I wonder how it fits in with the Word of Wisdom.

Recent surveys show that up to 30 percent of our calorie intake comes from snack foods—cookies, candy bars, soft drinks, and other snack items. This means that the other 70 percent of your calories have to be even more carefully chosen from the so-called natural foods, with wide variety to compensate for the snack foods.

Is It true that food eaten in the evening settles to fat at night and that the same food eaten earlier in the day would be all used up?

A slight difference does seem to exist. In tests, animals seem to get a little more efficiency out of their food when they nibble all the time instead of eating the same quantity during one feeding period. However, this same trend has not been documented in humans. Even if these same differences do exist in humans, they are so slight that you can safely assume that a calorie is a calorie and will be handled about the same by your body no matter when you eat it.

Will the day ever come when we won’t have to worry about planning meals, when we can just sit down and take a pill for supper or a pill for breakfast and have that take care of all our needs?

It will have to be a good-sized pill if it is to contain all the calories you will need. If you require 2500 calories, at 4 calories per gram for carbohydrates, 9 calories per gram for fat, you can see that you’ll need 400 grams just for your calories, and that is almost a pound. That is a pretty big pill! Then, of course, you’ll need some 50 grams of protein, vitamins, and minerals, and some of these are required in milligram quantities. I think when all of your requirements are in, you would have a very good-sized pill.

How can we follow the Word of Wisdom advice concerning eating meat sparingly and still get a balanced diet?

Well, here again I can only give my opinion. As a nutritionist, I know that meat is a good source of protein, but it’s also an expensive part of many diets. A total meat diet leads to excessive heat production and other problems. Obviously, it is not desirable to eat a lot of meat during the summer. And to me the Word of Wisdom advises moderation. This is very consistent with my professional feelings. Also, remember that from a dietary point of view you get very good protein from fish, poultry, nuts, and milk products, as well as beef and pork. I think that in our society beef has become a status food, and this is the only kind of protein many people think worth eating.

If you have to be so careful at the grocery store in choosing what you buy, how did John the Baptist ever survive on wild locusts and honey?

You can get the required nutrients from a number of sources. Honey is a good one. It is high in calories, and it contains some important nutrients. Insects are not bad; many cultures have adapted themselves to eating insects. That makes more sense nutritionally than it does aesthetically! No matter what culture you live in, you can get good sound nutrition by choosing a wide variety of foods. To me, this is the most important thing we have discussed today.

I’m interested in the diets that help you to lose weight rapidly. Are these diets nutritionally sound?

I don’t know of any good crash diets. When you are dieting, you should strive to get all the needed nutrients while reducing your total caloric intake. That is one reason exercise is beneficial.

You have to be careful because even the reasonably well-balanced, low-calorie preparations don’t contain all of the trace nutrients that your body needs; so I’d avoid staying on them for extended periods of time. My suggestion would be to avoid the fad diets, but you can cut calories and still have nutritionally sound meals.

How important is breakfast?

Generally nutritionists agree that breakfast is a good idea. It should contain about a quarter of the day’s required calories, and it should be started with a juice that will help provide the vitamin C needed during the day.

Also, it has been reasonably well documented, even by people who are reducing, that persons are better able to control calorie intake if they start by eating in the morning. I’m not sure of the physiological reasons, but this does seem to be true. Many people work better after breakfast. Schools have always felt that children learn better after they have had breakfast than they do when they have not eaten breakfast.

lf breakfast is good for you, does that mean that there might be an advantage in having a large meal in the middle of the day rather than late at night? It seems that most of us eat our big meals at night.

This is a difficult question to answer, but it is important. My personal experience is that if I eat too much at noon, I am sluggish and cannot do my best work in the afternoon. If you eat a large lunch and then have to do physical work, it can often lead to indigestion. This would be true with athletes. Of course, you’re better off if you do not overeat at any meal.

The evening meal is especially important in our society from a sociological point of view. It is the time when the whole family can get together and really talk to each other. It should be a pleasant time to relax from a hectic day, a time when the family can enjoy each other’s company and have a pleasant meal and good conversation together.

While we are talking about health foods, how do you feel about the use of stone-ground flour as compared to white flour?

About 70 percent of the wheat kernels are retained in the white flour, with some 30 percent being discarded in the milling process. Much of what you don’t get in white flour is of very desirable nutritional quality. So whole wheat might be important to consider, especially if a major portion of your calories comes from flour and products made from flour. If this is the case with you, I’d advise that some of your foods be made from whole wheat.

Basically, white flour is convenient in food handling and food storage, and many people seem to prefer products made from it. Refined flour is enriched with some vitamins and minerals, but not all of the nutrients taken from wheat in the milling process are replaced.

Stone grinding of wheat is supposed to have desirable consequences at some higher cost, but I don’t think the cost is justified by the results. I would place my concern on a balanced nutrient intake and not on how wheat is ground.

How important is nutrition? Does It really affect our size and mentality?

Nutrition definitely affects the average size of individuals in the population. While diet may not be the only factor, better nutrition does contribute to each generation of college freshmen being larger than its predecessor. Children are bigger than their parents. And malnourished children are smaller than children who are adequately fed. There seems to be evidence that nutrition also affects mental ability. Malnutrition at critical stages in the development of a person may hinder mental development, but this is much more difficult to document than physical growth.

What about using certain foods for specific purposes? When I visit my grandmother, she’ll say, “Here, eat some of this; it’s good dream food;” or, “Eat this; it’s good for your complexion.”

Yes, there are foods that are good to eat and others that should be avoided in any great quantity, especially by people in certain age groups. If you have a complexion problem, I would urge you to visit a dermatologist, and he’ll usually give you a certain diet to follow. For instance, stimulants and foods that are rich in fats can be hard on the complexion. This is another reason why colas, tea, and coffee are not good for you. Reduced fat intake is advisable. In some cases fats seem to accumulate in the vicinity of the surface tissues where the problem is already centered. You’ll probably want to avoid some foods entirely. Chocolate, for example, besides containing a stimulant, also has a fat in it that seems to accumulate near the surface of the skin. I’ve seen physicians work wonders on young people’s complexions with a combination of diet, antibiotics, and good hygiene.

What about vegetarian diets? Are they nutritious?

I think it would be difficult to have a properly balanced diet from fruits and vegetables alone. The main reason is that vegetable protein is of lower quality than meat protein. Often between one and three of the amino acids in good quality protein are not present in adequate quantity in vegetable protein. To me, this is a fad diet; but fruits and vegetables are a very important part of a balanced diet.

What suggestions do you have for young, single people living away from home who want to eat right but have a tight budget for food?

Generally the food in college dormitories is well-prepared, good, and inexpensive. You select a variety of foods from the groups we talked about before. You do the same thing when you are shopping at the grocery store. And there are some good buys. Skim milk and its products are good sources of protein and nutrients. And don’t overlook fruits and vegetables; vegetables often tend to be inexpensive. Of course, the season you buy in is important. If you insist that your favorite fruit in winter is strawberries, they will cost you some money; it’s the same if you buy oranges out of season. This is when canning can come in handy. You buy and can fruits and vegetables when they are in season and use them during the off-season.

How do chemical contaminants affect the food we get from the general food supply, and how can we lessen their effect on us?

Chemicals are often used in the production and preparation of food, particularly in the United States. And this, generally, benefits you. For instance, about 17 percent of the average income in the United States is spent for food. In parts of Europe it varies between 25 and 40 percent, and in some under-developed countries it goes up to 70 to 80 percent. This differential means that you are the recipient of the products of a highly efficient food preparation network, and chemicals happen to be part of it. There are sensitive procedures for monitoring and determining the consequences to the human individual, and while there are possible dangers, they are considered minimal.

However, if you are concerned, I would suggest that you select your own foods from a wide variety of sources.

Many young people today insist on eating food that is organically grown. I’m interested in your opinion of this phenomenon in our society.

I’m quite confident of the adequate quantity and quality of our general food supply. You can go to the supermarket and purchase a well-balanced, nutritionally complete diet at what seems to be a reasonable cost for most people. Of course, you have to shop wisely anywhere. You ought to include foods from the four basic food groups in your diet every day: milk and milk products; meat, which includes poultry, fish, nuts, and other high protein sources; cereals; and, of course, fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Gaurth Hansen, a biochemist at Utah State University, is one of the foremost authorities on nutrition. Presently a member of the Council on Food and Nutrition, he has served as a consultant for the United States Public Health Service and as a consultant to the American Medical Association. He has published more than ninety journal papers and has received a national Borden award for his metabolic research.

The New Era asked some young Latter-day Saint readers attending Utah State University to help interview Brother Hansen. Those participating in the discussion were Gary Anderson, Ronald L. Urry, Marva Dalton, Susan Campbell, Allison Gates, Susan Knutson, Dory Dorman, Tom Eccles, and Tim Holst.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ginger Brown

[photos] Photos by Eldon Linschoten