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For the Love of Food

by | Feb 14, 2014
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

This week processed bread and cheese pretend to be less bad for you, how vitamins sabotage your workout, and the real formula for meaningful weight loss.

Want to see all my favorite links? (There’s lots more). Be sure to follow me on on Delicious. I also share links on Twitter @summertomato,  Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you. (And yes, I took that pepper heart pic myself).
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For The Love Of Food

by | Sep 9, 2011

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

This week’s top 10 require careful reading and a little extra thinking, but it’s worth it. Learn why daily activity is more important than formal exercise, how habits can affect your food intake, some encouraging news from the USDA and more.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links on Twitter (@summertomato) and the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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Office Hours: Sugar Toxicity + The Latest on Saturated Fat & Heart Disease [video]

by | Apr 22, 2011

For those of you who haven’t been following along with the Tomato Slice newsletter, I recently launched a segment called Office Hours where I make myself available to take any questions subscribers may have.

This week I held a special Office Hours to discuss 2 articles from last week’s For The Love Of Food post:

  1. Is Sugar Toxic? by Gary Taubes
  2. The latest scientific consensus on saturated fat and heart disease

Since I had so many questions on these papers, I recorded the session and posted it above.

If you’d like to know more about the sugar article, I also recommend Dr. Lustig’s YouTube video mentioned in the article, as well as his interview this week on KQED which I’ve included below.

Feel free to leave your thoughts or ask questions in the comments.

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Book Review: Why We Get Fat, by Gary Taubes

by | Mar 2, 2011

I hadn’t planned on writing a formal review of Gary Taubes’ latest book, Why We Get Fat, because I already wrote an extensive review of his first book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, and the messages (and my criticisms) are basically the same. But after finishing the book I think Taubes is worth revisiting.

My biggest problem with Taubes’ first book is that it was very difficult to read, and that of course means most people won’t finish it. In Why We Get Fat Taubes repackages the data in a way that is much more logical and easy to digest. The book is substantially shorter, and is mostly free of the rants and tirades that peppered Good Calories, Bad Calories.

Instead, Why We Get Fat takes the reader through a clear and concise explanation of why all calories are not created equal, and that carbohydrates are the reason for the vast majority of the health and weight problems plaguing modern civilization. He also does a fantastic job demolishing the currently prevailing hypothesis that dietary fat and blood cholesterol are the causes of heart disease. They aren’t.

That so few people understand these points is why I recommend everyone read this book. It breaks my heart every time someone writes to me for nutrition advice and proudly points to their butter-less popcorn or baked chips as proof of their already “healthy” diet. Until it becomes common knowledge that fat is good for you and processed carbohydrates are the worst thing you can eat, I think this book is the best resource we have to explain it.

Still I do not agree 100% with Taubes’ conclusions. Though I do think the evidence is overwhelming that all calories are not created equal, I disagree that calories therefore do not matter and cannot be manipulated to help with weight loss. Taubes argues that how much we eat is dependent on our hormone levels (specifically insulin levels) that regulate energy balance, and that depending on this balance we naturally regulate our feeding and energy expenditure (exercise) so that we maintain our weight.

Taubes makes a compelling case that severe calorie restriction is counterproductive in weight management, and I agree. However there is some evidence that a small calorie deficit, on the order of 100-200 calories per day, is within the range of our natural homeostatic mechanisms and can be effective at controlling body weight.

In his book, Why We Eat More Than We Think (another must-read), Brian Wansink explores study after study where environmental cues are manipulated to get people to eat either significantly more, or significantly less than they believed. Importantly, the participants never reported any difference in satiation no matter how much they ate. Wansink argues that people can make small dietary changes resulting in a moderate 100-200 calorie per day deficit that does not affect hunger levels and can be used to effectively control weight.

Similarly, in The End of Overeating (here’s my review) Dr. David Kessler discusses how eating can become uncoupled from hunger when it is associated with external cues, making a strong case that some of us really do eat more than we need to. I think many of Kessler’s points about overeating are valid, particularly for emotional eaters. His argument is further strengthened by individual case studies of people who learn to eat less without experiencing sensations of starvation that are predicted by Taubes. One such example is Frank Bruni’s book Born Round (my review), in which he overcomes his weight struggles by moving to Italy and changing his relationship with food. Bruni is able to maintain his weight even after accepting the job of food critic at the New York Times.

These accounts conflict with Taubes’ argument that people overeat to satisfy a caloric deficit caused by a carbohydrate-induced faulty metabolism. Though there is good reason to believe Taubes’ metabolic hypothesis accounts for a large part of the health issues in today’s society, I think it is premature to conclude that this is the only force at work in why we get fat. Indeed, some research suggests learned feeding cues can directly impact insulin and metabolic pathways even in the absence of food. This data does not refute Taubes’ hypothesis, but rather makes it more complicated than he implies.

Even if we assume Taubes’ metabolic theory accounts for the majority of our health problems, insulin response (the ultimate cause of fat accumulation) should also be affected by eating rate and exercise, and vary among individuals. However Taubes handedly dismisses the possibility that any behavioral modification other than carbohydrate restriction can impact metabolic function because, he argues, we will modify our physical activity to adjust for any nutritional changes. His case is compelling, but not air tight, and my interpretation is that while carbohydrate consumption is clearly very important, there are likely other factors that may also be helpful in controlling metabolism and body weight.

In his book The 4-Hour Body (my review), Tim Ferriss describes how WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg lost 18 pounds by simply chewing each bite of food 20 times. Extra chewing or “masticating” was made popular as a weight loss technique in the late 1800s by Horace Fletcher and is explored in Gina Kolata’s book Rethinking Thin (not a particularly good read). Extended chewing and eating slowly are both effective at inducing weight loss, likely because they slow the glycemic response and almost always result in decreased meal size.

One of the most interesting points made in The 4-Hour Body was Ferriss’ personal glycemic response to a low-carbohydrate diet of just meat and vegetables. He claims that even with this meal he could easily spike his glucose to over 150 mg/dL (this is very high) by simply eating quickly, and that this effect could be controlled by slowing down and taking a full 30 minutes to finish a meal. Unfortunately I could not find a similar experiment in the scientific literature, but Ferriss’ observation suggests that behavioral modification can have a powerful impact on metabolic response independent of diet composition.

My final complaint about Why We Get Fat is that Taubes never considers that individual variation may preclude his theory from applying to everyone. He suggests that while some people are genetically blessed with a higher tolerance for carbohydrates, others will only thrive on an almost zero carbohydrate diet. Unfortunately this is the one part of the book he does not provide data to back up his assertions.

Though Taubes frequently argues the importance of paying attention to outliers, he never explores the possibility that some individuals may actually do better (rather than less bad) on a diet with slightly more carbohydrates. (Let’s assume for now that I mean slowly digesting, natural carbohydrates and not highly processed sugars and grains.) In a healthy person there is no reason to assume that such a diet would induce insulin resistance, and there may be some additional advantage outside of metabolic health for including such foods. I don’t think this is a possibility we should dismiss without solid evidence.

To summarize, Taubes does an excellent job describing the importance of carbohydrates in both weight management and health but oversimplifies the science, particularly neglecting the importance of behavioral factors on metabolism. However, the analysis presented in Why We Get Fat is still the most clear explanation of the relationship between metabolism and health that I’ve found and is an invaluable resource for the general public.

What did you think of Taubes’ latest book?

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For The Love Of Food

by | Jan 14, 2011

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

I found a stellar collection of thought provoking stories this week. Did you know that the HDL story is more complicated than we originally speculated, even Paleo advocates can acknowledge that how you eat is important and that drinking more can be good for you? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I read many more wonderful articles than I post here each week. If you’d like to see more or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. For a complete list of my favorite stories check out my links on Digg. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week

What inspired you this week?

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Book Review: Good Calories, Bad Calories

by | Jan 6, 2010

good calories bad calories cover

Good nutrition advice is not easy to come by, but we have to start somewhere.

It is probably obvious to most of you that public education on diet and health is vastly inadequate. We learn virtually nothing in school, and what they do manage to pass on is less-than-useful or just simply wrong.

Advice changes from year to year, sometimes drastically.

Everyone claims to be a nutrition expert, but very few people are actually trained enough to understand the complex and sometimes contradictory findings made by scientists in the field.

But although there are few sources you can trust, some books do stand out as valuable for understanding the basics of health and nutrition. Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes is by far the most thorough I’ve found, and is essential reading for anyone who has an honest desire or need to understand how diet impacts health.

Taubes makes a detailed and compelling case that refined carbohydrates are the primary cause of weight gain and “diseases of civilization” such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. In my view, any honest and opened-minded scientist would have to largely agree with him.

GradeAGood Calories, Bad Calories is 468 pages and contains over 100 additional pages of references, which is nothing short of astonishing. Taubes explores every aspect of the science behind weight control including the most puzzling and frequently ignored evidence, which he argues is the most important.

Scientists depend on statistics, but have a tendency to ignore outliers which can make data difficult to interpret. Taubes instead points to these anomalies as evidence of flawed or incomplete theories, and suggests that isolated populations (outliers) such as the Inuit and Maasai tribes actually help the most in explaining diet-related health patterns.

Taubes argues extensively (sometimes a bit heavy-handedly) against lazy scientific thinking that relies too heavily on conventional wisdom and the appeal of simple ideas. This point is a major theme of the book and is exemplified by chapter 2, “The Inadequacy of Lesser Evidence.” He goes to great lengths to explain how our tendency not to scrutinize established theories breeds scientific closed-mindedness and can perpetuate flawed ideas for decades.

Ultimately Taubes uses this argument to directly challenge one of the most prevailing health theories in Western civilization: the cholesterol–heart disease hypothesis.

Taubes provides hundreds of pages of data and analysis to make the point that total cholesterol is not a good predictor of heart disease or mortality. Specifically LDL cholesterol is only loosely associated with heart disease (at best) and HDL cholesterol (the higher the better) is a much better indication of vascular health. (Read more: How To Raise Your HDL Cholesterol)

Once this basic premise of health is thrown into question, Taubes carries you through the logic of why a high-fat diet cannot be responsible for heart disease (remember the Inuit) and instead presents why quickly digesting carbohydrates are the most likely culprit.

Fundamental to this argument is the tie between heart disease and type 2 diabetes (along with other “disease of civilization” or metabolic syndrome), which are both inextricably linked to carbohydrate consumption. The logical conclusion from his analysis is that all calories are not created equal, despite what we are told daily by the nutrition community and the media. Understanding the logic behind this argument can fundamentally change the way you approach food and is the best reason to read Good Calories, Bad Calories.

Despite this, Taubes’ book is rarely the first I recommend to people who come to me for nutrition advice. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that Good Calories, Bad Calories is not an easy read. I’m a scientist and nutrition data junkie, and this book still took me months to get through (I normally read 4-5 per month). For your average eater, a book like this can quickly become a burden and many people will give up before getting to the good part (about half way through it starts to pick up substantially).

In the first few chapters I was put off by the book’s almost defensive tone. A large part of the first section is dedicated to discrediting the character of a pioneering scientist and father of the dietary fat–heart disease hypothesis, Ancel Keyes. Presumably this depiction is intended as background so the reader understands why Keyes so aggressively disseminates a theory that isn’t fully proven. However, I found the extensive character attack unbecoming for a book espousing science and experimental data, and it seemed unnecessary.

Another reason I resist recommending this book as nutrition advice is that it doesn’t offer much in the way of actual advice. Taubes certainly provides compelling evidence that carbohydrates are best avoided and that dietary fat is safer than presumed, but how much of this knowledge can be translated directly to daily life isn’t clear. For practical advice, I prefer Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food (based largely on the same data).

Scientifically I also have a few issues with Good Calories, Bad Calories. First, the vast majority of the experiments Taubes cites are early diet studies, many from the turn of the century. While these experiments are clearly important, most of them do not reflect long-term (more than 6 months), real life dietary habits. These studies were also almost entirely dependent upon self-reported dietary intake, which is known to be quite inaccurate.

Much of Taubes’ argument about calories is based on the premise that overweight people eat the same amount or less than lean people. This was once thought to be the case, but recently more thorough studies have shown that overweight and obese people do indeed eat more. The problem is that all people (both lean and obese) are poor judges of food intake, and this discrepancy is largest with the biggest meals consumed. This means people who eat the largest meals tend to underestimate their calories the most, and meal size is correlated with body weight.

This does not mean that I disagree entirely with Taubes’ theory on calories. I was more convinced by the rodent studies he presented where dietary intake was tightly controlled and measured. In some of these, obese animals did seem to eat the same or less than leaner animals (always be careful reading too much into rodent data). Interestingly, the difference in body weight was always accounted for by differences in physical activity, a point I find extremely fascinating.

Since mice obviously do not exercise for the purpose of fitting into skinny jeans, the activity differences observed between obese and lean mice is clearly a fundamental change in metabolism (balance of energy use and intake). If this is true and can be manipulated by diet composition rather than voluntary exercise (which causes overeating), as Taubes suggests, this has tremendous implications for treating obesity and disease through selective diets and metabolic manipulation. I think Taubes makes a strong case for this and it is a point that should be taken very seriously by the scientific community.

My final issue with the book is how the data was presented to seemingly support a diet of almost entirely meat and animal products. While Taubes does not come out directly and say “the healthiest diet is 100% meat,” people without a knack for thinking like a scientist can easily come away with this impression (I’ve seen it).

[note: My guess is this is why I get so many emails from people asking me to help them choose between this book and The China Study (click for review), which both come off as scientific but also as diametric opposites. Personally I do not see a huge conflict between the data presented in the two books, but see it as an issue of interpretation. On this point, my vote goes to Taubes for his superior logic and reasoning.]

My own interpretation of the data presented in this book, however, is not that all carbohydrates are the enemy, but rather that quickly digesting (processed) carbs are the real problem. Taubes never refutes this as far as I could tell, though he does glorify meat-based diets (again remember the Inuit) as the best for optimal nutrition, while belittling the case for a balanced diet. But there is an important difference between saying “meat is good” and “all plants are bad,” which he never directly asserts.

Yet many people still take from this book that a protein and fat-based diet is the healthiest option, which is a flawed interpretation. Vegan diets with no animal products whatsoever can be perfectly healthy, as can largely meat-based diets, and that both are perfectly legitimate is a point that is easily forgotten by the end of Good Calories, Bad Calories.

But while the value of eating plants is an important question for the practical implications of Taubes’ theory of calories, it is not fundamental it.

Summary

Taubes’ meticulous research and overly-thorough analysis represent both the strengths and weaknesses of this book. His case for the role of metabolism in health and obesity, and against the dogma that “a calorie is a calorie” is a tremendous contribution to the field of nutrition. However, this depth can make Good Calories, Bad Calories cumbersome and difficult to read.

Final Grade: A

What did you think of Good Calories, Bad Calories?


You may also enjoy:

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For The Love of Food

by | Oct 9, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

I had a hard time narrowing down articles this week with the New York Times Magazine Food Issue so full of deliciousness. Meat and food safety seem to be on everyone’s mind, and that’s a good thing. Definitely read up if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Also, Michael Pollan’s rules to eat by is worth flipping through, and a new chapter of Good Calories, Bad Calories has been unveiled.

Summer Tomato reader and famous dead head, David Gans, sent me his CD this week titled The Ones That Look The Weirdest Taste The Best. Vegetables of course! Track 6 is about a trip to the farmers market near his home. You can also check out his photos of odd looking vegetables on Flickr. I love this CD and David kind of reminds me of my rockstar hippie dad, which  makes me smile. Thanks David!

I read many more wonderful articles than I post here each week. If you’d like to see more or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page. For complete reading lists join me on the social bookmarking sites StumbleUpon and Delicious. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you there. (Note: If you want a follow back on Twitter introduce yourself with an @ message).

For The Love of Food

What are you reading?

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Who Can You Trust For Diet Advice?

by | May 1, 2009
3D Brain MRI

3D Brain MRI

Last time I gave you a list of 10 people you can’t trust for diet advice, but many of you were left wondering who can you trust? As I alluded to before, it is extremely difficult to give a generic answer to this question because, frankly, there is no single group of people I can point to and say, “These people always do it right.” This is never true.

Where To Start

In the comments on Wednesday, reader Steve Parker M.D. (blogger and author of The Advanced Mediterranean Diet – visit his new Diabetic Mediterranean Diet Blog) said he mostly relies on primary scientific literature for his information. “Primary” literature is the original study where the actual scientific data is published and analyzed. This is very different from a newspaper article or press release (what a newspaper article is based on).

Without a doubt going straight to the source is the best way to get the facts regarding food, health and nutrition, and this is exactly what I do.

The Catch

It would be wonderful if we could all read the science directly and decide for ourselves how to eat for health and weight loss. But unfortunately, most people do not have access to these studies unless you are on a university campus or pay the exorbitant subscription fees (hundreds of dollars) for each individual scientific journal (there are thousands).

Moreover, unless you have extensive training in biological sciences (more than a bachelors degree), these papers will make no sense to you anyway. Some people try to get around this by reading only the abstracts, but reading an abstract to comprehend a scientific paper is like trying to understand a Seinfeld episode by reading the TV Guide (only more irresponsible).

This is the root of the problem.

Scientific experimentation and analysis is incredibly complex and requires decades of training. Therefore the general public needs the data translated into plain English and explained in simplified concepts. It is tempting to believe that anyone with the appropriate education and a knack for writing can provide this service, however the nuances of data interpretation make this very tricky business. It is frighteningly easy to spin ideas and make claims the data does not really support. This is even scarier when you think of health and how many lives are at stake.

The difficulties that arise from this issue are far reaching. At the most extreme, we have seen that research funded by industry is biased toward a favorable result for the company conducting the research.

Another potentially dangerous scenario is the misinterpretation of data by press rooms and journalists, who then translate these false ideas to a wide audience. Finally there are well-meaning people who do their best to alert the public to important health concerns, but simply misinterpret the science for one reason or another.

Who Is Qualified?

Scientists Although I myself may be biased, I am inclined to trust the opinions of well-respected (highly published) scientists in the field of food and nutrition. Luckily, several of these people have written wonderful books clearly explaining the basics of food and health. Although I am probably the only person under 50 to have ever read these books, they are wonderful resources that I recommend whole-heartedly.

Here are my favorites:

Eat, Drink and Be Healthy by Dr. Walter Willett

Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink

What To Eat by Marion Nestle

Smart journalists Despite my tirade above, scientists are not the only ones with good diet advice. Some journalists have the intelligence and tenacity to uncover all the necessary information and convey it to their readers. To know if you have found this kind of journalist you must read their work and make critical judgments about the logic and conclusions drawn from the data provided.

I have read more bad than good books by journalists, so please be skeptical of what you find. Note: extended book reviews are on the future agenda at Summer Tomato (for short summaries please read the captions under the books in the Summer Tomato Shop).

So far the most thorough analyses I have read from any journalist are the works of Michael Pollan. I also think the work of Gary Taubes is essential reading.

These are the best books on food and health ever written:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

Trained nutritionists and dietitians I have also been impressed by many of the nutritionists I have encountered (especially Dinneen at Eat Without Guilt – find her on Twitter @EatWithoutGuilt). Nutritionists and registered dietitians are specialized in nutrition, food and eating. These professionals are skilled at working closely with an individual to develop personal eating plans. Although they are not specifically trained to read and interpret scientific studies, their education ensures substantial familiarity with the literature on nutrition, putting them ahead of most medical doctors.

Conclusion

In general you should be more skeptical than accepting of diet advice–particularly if the recommendations sound very strange or unnatural to you. However there are many good resources if you are careful to choose them wisely.

I am always looking for more book recommendations. See what I have read in the Shop and leave your additions in the comments.

Thanks to everyone who has participated in this lively conversation!

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