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An Ounce of Prevention…

Published: March 1, 2015

Dr. Long Wang has had a box of Girl Scout cookies sitting on his desk for months—unopened.

Now that’s willpower.

Actually, it’s not all that surprising once you know Wang is an assistant professor of Family and Consumer Sciences, with a focus on nutrition.

“Overall nutrition is part of a lifestyle, either to promote health or as part of a management strategy in treating chronic diseases—obesity, diabetes and other things including cancer,” said Wang, “either during treatment or post treatment.”

Growing up and schooled in China, Wang became an M.D. in great part because going to medical school was his parents’ wish. He said medical school was fascinating and his specialization was radiation oncology, but while doing his residency at a regional cancer center, he witnessed a lot of terminal patients which had a great effect on him.

“It wasn’t the most pleasant experience to observe that and also I was thinking that at this point it’s too late,” said Wang. “Then I thought about prevention and to prevent it comes down to lifestyle, and regular exercise and a healthy diet are the two pillars of a healthy lifestyle. Our preferred goal is to prevent it or delay it, rather than do damage control. That’s why I went on to do my Ph.D. in nutrition.”

Wang acknowledges that making the right food choices is not always easy, sometimes near impossible for a number of reasons.

“There is the environmental factor. For example, there is what’s called a food desert,” said Wang. “That’s where a neighborhood does not have access to fresh produce and if you go to the store they have sodas rather than apples or you have a food truck that is selling pure candy or syrup over shaved ice. Not healthy choices. So you know what foods are good and healthy, but if you live in a neighborhood where these foods are not available, it’s difficult for anyone to eat healthy.”

Given a choice, a lot of people will go for the dessert he admits, but even with healthy food, you have to be careful.

“You not only need healthy choices, but portion control as well,” said Wang. “For example, you can say olive oil is good and butter is bad, but if you eat too much olive oil, it is still too much intake of total fats and it could harm you.”

Since there is no perfect food—one that can provide all the nutrients you need in the right proportion to sustain or promote optimum health—individuals must get their nutrition through all types of food.

“In nutrition one principal we emphasize is variety,” said Wang. “No matter how healthy one type of food is, you want to have a combination of everything. In Japan, they give the recommendation that, ideally, on a daily basis you should have 13 different kinds of food.”

So what about pizza you surely wonder. Well, again, it’s all about moderation.

“Pizza can be good,” said Wang. “You have starch, you have dairy, you have meat and some vegetables. Just don’t eat 20 slices of pizza. There is nothing wrong with having pizza as part of your diet. It’s really all about choices and amount. You need to choose healthy items, but also use portion control. If you have one square of chocolate every day, it’s not an issue, but if you have 12 squares then the amount becomes the issue.”

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PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Dr. Long Wang

In this country we know infectious disease is still around, and once in a while we have some outbreaks, but it is no longer as threatening as it was as late as the 1940s.

Wang noted that it’s the non-communicable diseases—hypertension, heart diseases, diabetes—that are the main culprits affecting Americans’ health and in turn overburden an already stretched healthcare system. Nutrition plays a role in the development and progression of these diseases.

“By paying attention to proper nutrition, we can maintain our health or become healthier, which itself will help prevent us from developing lots of chronic diseases,” he said.

And, of course, it’s difficult to talk about nutrition and not mention the much-publicized obesity problem in the United States. Wang is clearly aware childhood obesity is a problem, having more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Unfortunately obesity has become a pandemic,” said Wang. “Adult-wise, two-thirds of the U.S. population is either overweight or obese. Certain people become obese because they have a genetic pre-disposition and we have identified a few genes that can contribute to obesity. For most of us, it’s a combination of personal choices and environmental factors that lead to obesity over time.”