Monday, February 10, 2014

"Why Nutrition Is So Confusing"

Yesterday's New York Times included an opinion piece by Gary Taubes, a science writer who's written extensively on food and health, titled Why Nutrition Is So Confusing. He provides scary statistics about the increase of obesity and diabetes and asserts that the nutrition research community has failed to establish what actually causes them. At least he's doing something about that by helping found an initiative to provide for more research on this issue.  And, don't get me wrong, more research is a good thing.

But while I agree that figuring out how to eat right is surprisingly confusing (See f.n. 1- haha maybe you've never seen a footnote in a food blog before) and deserves much more well funded and thorough research, I'm not sure it matters whether it's sugar and white flour that's causing our ills or if it's saturated fat. Taubes is very focused on finding out which it is we Americans are eating too much of.

My guess as a non-expert, but intelligent and self-aware person who primarily cooks and eats at home, exercises, eats the right foods most of the time, limits saturated fats, white carbs and sodium and still grapples with weight, is that we are eating too much of everything.

For me, a person privileged enough to be able to buy whatever healthy food I desire, to still be grappling with maintaining a healthy weight means that I have to watch the amount of everything I eat, not just the bad stuff.  Though I definitely think that eating a selection of healthy foods, mostly cooked at home, is the way to go, even too much whole wheat pasta will pack on the pounds.  Other than, perhaps, kale, this is true for most foods (see f.n. 2 - and here, my friends, is your second footnote in a food blog!). I'm guessing this is true for some of you as well.

So then it is particularly galling to have this already really, really hard thing made even harder by restaurant chains where a single plate is delivered to the table towering with enough food for two and at fast food chains where the menus are replete with choices containing a day's worth of fat and calories and a week's worth of sugar and sodium.  I choose to avoid those places and cook at home more often with as few packaged items as possible. When I eat out, I choose places that share my food choices.

But I pay a premium for this.  Fresh vegetables, fish, and grass fed beef and milk, and healthier style restaurants are expensive and unhealthy packaged foods are not. When one shops with a limited budget, it can be challenging to pass up quantity, albeit unhealthy quantity.  When one is at the poverty line, the choice becomes even more Hobson-like. Many items in the grocery store are, much like the dishes at many chain restaurants, full of more fat, calories, sugar and sodium than we should eat in a day let alone in a single serving.

This is not just a matter of personal failings by all these people battling obesity and disease. We are being sabotaged in our efforts by restaurant and food corporations who try to deflect attention from what they're really doing by making donations to schools to renovate playgrounds or gymnasiums.  These corporations need to be forced to really partner in this fight, not just with their token donations, but by cutting out the extra sugar, fat, sodium and additives they add to junk food (and regular food for that matter) to make it so appealing to the kids who attend those schools. And by not targeting their advertising of that junk food directly to those same kids.  And by not insulting and endangering the families of those kids when they have a meal out at one of their establishments.

Willpower can only go so far, people, in the face of food-like substances that have been expressly designed by scientists to get us to eat more (f.n. 3 - yes, one more!) and are only going to make us sick if we do so. Let's demand better for ourselves and our communities.

f.n. 1  Five or six years ago I began reading all I could on food and health and concluded that it just wasn't clear, at least as far as avoidance of heart disease and diabetes, who to listen to.  Most experts advise the avoidance of saturated fats.  Others, including Taubes, believe that the culprits are sugars and processed white grains.  Most agree that we should eat less salt, but there's even some controversy on that.  Throw in the wild card diets gluten-free, dairy-free, Paleo, and vegan and it's like the Tower of Babel out there. There's even some research indicating that the right way to eat might vary from person to person based upon stomach bacteria.

f.n. 2 This is just a mild exaggeration.  I am, of course, including other vegetables in the category of what we can eat in an unlimited way, but even here the discussion is complicated.  Some would argue that starchy vegetables should be limited as well as potatoes.

f.n. 3  Please see The End of Overeating by David A. Kessler, MD.  It is quite shocking what games some corporations are playing with our tastebuds…and our health.

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