Friday, January 25, 2013

Batch of links - Food and weight

I’ve rounded up the following links on the same theme: the connection(s) between what we eat and how much we weigh. There’s more text than usual, but it isn’t exactly an article, either, just links and musings.

It is often said that our ancestors were eating healthier food than we are. There’s a Michael Pollan quote that says, “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” That statement should be qualified: there were fewer processed foods before, so those of us who eat a lot of processed foods today are probably not eating as healthy as our ancestors. However, there was also a time when good food wasn’t available year-round, and some diets were severely lacking, especially in places with a harsh winter. Case in point: a Globe and Mail article about a week of eating like it’s 1912. That diet was bland, rich in fat and salt while low in fruits and veggies, especially in winter. So perhaps it should be said that people ate healthier 50 years ago than today (as opposed to 100 years ago), though we actually have more options to eat healthy whole foods today, as well as more options to eat poorly, which makes individuals much more responsible for their food choices today than back then.

I’ve also heard the argument that a Chipotle burrito is worse for your health than a McDonald’s Big Mac (see here). While the stats might look like they support that theory, since it does have more calories, there are several more things one should take into consideration, as is pointed out on Fooducate. First of all, those stats are for a fully loaded burrito, with cheese and guacamole and all, but since the customer chooses what to put in there, anyone’s burrito could have fewer calories. Second, their burritos are huge, and for some people (including myself), it’s basically two meals; many people either don’t finish it, or save the rest for later. A Big Mac, on the other hand, is not only a meal, but is usually consumed along with fries and a soda, so the final meal has more calories than the Chipotle meal. Third, a Chipotle burrito is full of vegetables and legumes and whole foods (it can even be vegetarian), with almost 70% of the recommended daily amount of fiber, while the Big Mac is highly processed, full of empty calories and causes a sugar spike. I personally believe that if you are going to eat a given amount of calories, eating it in whole foods, veggies and legumes is much better than eating the same amount in fat and sugar.

This seems to be backed up by a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (abstract here, summary the layman can understand here). Participants were split into three diet groups: low-carb, low-fat and low-glycemic index. It appears that while a low-carb diet (like the Atkins diet) enables participants to lose weight and keep it off, it also has negative effects on stress levels and heart health. The most effective diet to lose weight and keep it off seems to be a low-glycemic index (like the Mediterranean diet), where roughly 40% of calories come from carbs, 40% come from fat and 20% come from protein, with an emphasis on whole grains, lean protein, produce, legumes and healthy fats and an avoidance of highly processed foods and snacks. Granted, the study was only a short-term one and only had 21 participants, but the protocol seems sound and the findings really make sense to me. (If you want to make some changes to your diet, but are intimidated by drastic changes, you could try being flexitarian, which works well for us, or do it the Mark Bittman way and be Vegan Before 6:00.)

Last year, Clean Plate (on Slate) ran a feature called The Five Obstacles to Eating Right, written by Ellen Tarlin. After all, we know what we should be eating, yet we don’t always make the right choices. The five obstacles she identified were information overload, money, time, outside influences, and inertia (meaning that we continue eating the way we are used to eating, unless we consciously and realistically take steps to change that). The author spent one week trying to overcome each of these obstacles, keeping a photo food diary, then put it all together in a way that was practical for her. In a conclusion post, she explains the main lessons she has learned doing this project: eat breakfast, think small, eat beans, plan ahead, and eating healthy takes work. She also learned two surprising reasons why people don’t make the best food choices even when they know better: they don’t think they are worth it, and for some reason, eating healthy is sometimes perceived as elitist (more on that in a later post).

Another problem is instant gratification. This Time article explains that obesity isn’t caused by food deserts, as some researchers think. Of course, access to affordable healthy food is important, but what’s more important is whether or not individuals have realistic mid- to long-term goals that rank higher in their minds than instant gratification (for example, eating that donut versus being thinner in three months). If people are struggling just to get through the month (financially, emotionally, etc.), they are much less likely to invest in things like their health or education, which would make their long-term life better but which rank lower on their priority list at any given moment. I should also point out that a recent study has found a link between soda consumption and depression. People who drink 4 or more servings of soda a day are 30% more likely to suffer from depression, and this risk is actually increased if they drink sodas with artificial sweeteners. And depression can lead to overeating, so talk about a vicious circle…

And while we’re at it, food deserts aren’t just in poor neighborhoods. I’ve become acutely aware of this after two and a half years of driving back and forth between San Antonio and Montreal. If you’re travelling by planes, trains or automobiles, you’re in a food desert (and because I like being constructive, here’s a roundup of foods that travel well).

There’s also the possibility that food addictions are real. People speculated about this for a few decades, as far as I remember, but only recently did serious scientists actually conduct experiments to test this theory (the experiments are done on rats, though, and as far as I know, only brain imaging has been done on humans, but with some conclusive results). There’s a short article on the topic over at The New York Times, and a longer one in Newsweek. It’s interesting to note that these food addictions only involve highly refined foods, not whole foods, and affect the same neuro-receptors that are involved in drug addiction (drugs also being, incidentally, highly refined). It could even help explain why experts recommend that recovery from drug addiction be done on a full stomach, and with the help of certain medications instead of quitting cold turkey.

Then there’s research explaining how your upbringing might influence your eating habits. I’m of the “clean your plate” persuasion, where I was taught to eat everything on my plate. I usually eat almost every grain of rice, trying not to waste anything. The irony is that this can contribute to weight gain, because I’m conditioned to eat even after I’m full. The Engineer wasn’t taught the same thing, or at least, his version of “clean plate” would never have made it at my family’s house when I was growing up – I always feel like he leaves too much on there when he says he’s done, but to him, his plate is empty. We just see the same thing and interpret it differently. I found it interesting to read 7 Things Parents Say That Cause Eating and Weight Problem in Kids, especially since it gives ideas about what to say instead. Besides the “Clean your plate” line, I also heard “You are a picky eater” and “Eat your vegetables or you won’t get any dessert.” (But luckily I never heard items 6 and 7 on that list.) And while I already knew that we rely more on our eyes than our stomach to gauge how much we eat (for me, what’s on a plate tends to be a serving, regardless of how much there is), I was surprised to find out that eating with a big, heavy fork would cause us to eat less! And that hot chocolate tastes better in an orange mug.

I’m ending this post by pointing out why we can’t always believe what we read in the news about particular foods (which ones are healthy, which ones cause problems and why). I used to think this was strictly because of how often journalists rely on press releases to write an article, instead of actually reading the study and doing research by consulting experts of varying opinions. It turns out that it’s much more complex than that, as even scientific publications are biased in what they publish, going so far as to favor publishing something so surprising that it risks being false. The survival of the wrongest explains it beautifully.


Sylvie said...

Très intéressant car moi aussi j'ai été élevée de la même manière, mais je ne sais pas si mon arrière-arrière grand-mère avait besoin de se faire dire de finir son assiette.

Amélie said...

Peut-être que ça n'existait pas dans ce temps-là. Peut-être que l'hiver, il y avait juste du pain, des patates et du chou, alors tu mangeais ça pour ne pas avoir faim (et il n'y avait pas de dessert). Et l'été, tous les fruits et légumes devaient être frais et super bons (pas comme ce qu'on trouve souvent au supermarché), alors ça devait être meilleur. Peut-être que grand-maman saurait comment c'était pour ses parents à elle?