A hundred years ago, when refrigeration was not widespread and our diet contained much less meat and FAT, the average age of menarche was sixteen or seventeen. Today it is twelve and a half. Early puberty may not seem like a big deal by itself, until you realize that it has been linked to higher rates of breast cancer, a disease that one out of every eight American women will one day be diagnosed with.
I don't blame my mother for my early diet. It's only in the past ten years or so that we have begun to make the connection between diet and illness. But study after study has slowly led us to the inexorable truth: We have a lot more control over our health than we ever thought. According to the National Academy of Sciences, six out of the ten leading killer diseases are diet related.
This ought to have changed the way we eat. It hasn't. Only nine percent of the population eats the recommended five fruits or vegetables a day. "When we ask what people are eating," says Audrey Cross, Ph.D., a nutritionist and lawyer at the Columbia University School of Public Health who has worked with the federal government on setting up dietary guidelines, "it's more like two to three servings, and one of the vegetables is usually potatoes in the form of chips."
It's been years since I ate potato chips. They are fattening and I am vain. But that doesn't mean I eat a self-consciously healthy diet. When I question my food choices, I usually ask, "Will this make me fat?," not "Will this make me healthy?" In any case, I am not alone. Meat and egg sales, once on the decline, are rising — the average American now eats 64 pounds of beef a year. Last year's best-selling diet book, The Zone (Harper Collins), by Barry Sears and Bill Lawren, may have helped some people lose weight, but many nutritionists think it's a terrible way to eat for long-term health. "When you look around the world, the only people who eat a diet of predominantly fat and meat are Eskimos, and that's because their diet fits their latitude," says Cross.