For the Love of Food

by | Apr 12, 2013
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 foie gras is more ethical than chicken, paleo diets take some heat, and organic labels change how food tastes.

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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Is It Healthier To Eat Like A Caveman?

by | Mar 7, 2012

Photo by Lord Jim

“What do you think of the Paleo diet which advocates zero grain consumption?”

The Paleolithic diet is one of the most rapidly growing diet trends of the past several years. Followers of the Paleo diet argue that humans have not evolved to eat agriculture-based foods and can only achieve optimal health by consuming a hunter-gatherer style diet. Thus the Paleo diet is completely devoid of grains and legumes, and also shuns dairy, salt, refined sugar and processed oils. The diet is composed primarily of meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, roots, nuts and seeds.

(The Wikipedia article on the Paleo diet is actually pretty good if you’d like to read up on the details. I particularly like the Opposing views section.)

Like most diets the Paleo diet has a little bit of good science behind it, but also a lot of logical leaps and baseless assumptions. The evolutionary argument that humans are somehow maladapted to agriculture-based diets is particularly unconvincing (resting on many unproven assumptions), yet is the fundamental premise on which the Paleo diet bases its recommendations.

The reasoning behind the Paleo diet is less interesting to me, however, than the impact of the diet itself. Will “eating like a caveman” really help you be healthier?

Possibly, but not necessarily.

The most obvious advantage of the Paleo diet is the lack of processed foods. There is ample evidence that societies on traditional diets boast far better health than those on modern, Western diets–and the hallmark of modern diets is food processing. Paleo diets therefore are low in sugar, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, excess salt and pretty much everything else that leads to “diseases of civilization.”

Paleo diets are also abundant in healthy, nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish and meats. I have no doubt that anyone willing to stick to a Paleo eating plan will have a healthy weight and remain virtually free of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and may even have lower rates of cancer.

But the question still remains, is it necessary to eat Paleo to be healthy?

This is where I take issue with the Paleo philosophy. While a diet completely free of processed foods is undeniably healthy, the Paleo diet goes beyond this and demands considerable sacrifice.

Paleo diets do not allow for any grains or legumes. This pretty much eliminates every traditional cuisine on earth including Japanese, Italian, Indian and Greek. Not only is this a culinary tragedy, it ignores the fact that these cuisines feed some of the world’s healthiest and longest-lived individuals.

Traditional, global diets that exclude highly processed foods but also include grains and legumes have been some of the most successful for health. Diseases of civilization are only problematic in Western cultures where processed foods make up a large proportion of the calories and few whole food are consumed.

Proponents of the Paleo diet argue that it is necessary to eliminate grains and legumes because they contain “antinutrients,” substances that can interfere with the body’s absorption of other important vitamins, minerals and proteins. However, well-nourished individuals who eat a varied diet of unprocessed foods (including grains and legumes) are not nutrient deficient and are generally healthy.

Given that it is possible to thrive on a diet that includes some grains, legumes and even small amounts of processed foods, one must question if giving up the culinary joys of travel and global cuisine are really worth the sacrifice.

In my experience, food substitutions and modified recipes designed to mimic traditional meals can sometimes be tasty but can never replace true authenticity.

Another contention I have with the Paleo diet is the assumption that the same eating patterns will work for everyone. People’s lives differ in countless ways. We each have different levels of daily activity, demands on our time and food preferences. We also have different genetic backgrounds, which can result in significant differences in metabolism and hormone levels. These individual variations make dietary needs different for each of us.

Because of our individual differences, there is undoubtedly a percentage of the population that thrives on the Paleo diet and finds it easy to stick to and achieve results. Hooray! However there may also be a segment of the population (myself included) that finds living without grains and legumes to be chronically unsatisfying and unsustainable.

Try telling a foodie they can never eat cheese or drink wine again and see how far you get pitching a Paleo diet.

If you currently eat a typical Western diet with little variety and many processed foods, tend to have better success following rigid diet plans, and have no qualms about giving up or modifying traditional meals to meet your dietary demands, then you might have luck following the Paleo diet. However there is no reason to believe it is the only path to good health.

The best diet is the one that works for you. Finding a healthstyle you can embrace and enjoy is essential if you want to build a lifetime of healthy habits.

Do you follow a Paleo diet? What do you think?

Originally published February 22, 2010.

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For The Love Of Food

by | Jul 29, 2011

For The Love of Food

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

There were so many awesome stories this week narrowing them down to the top 10 was difficult. Several studies were published on environmental factors that influence healthy food choices, Monica Reinagel shares an interesting method on breaking weight loss plateaus and I found one of the most inspiring videos I’ve ever seen.

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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A caveman and a vegan walk into a bar…

by | Feb 14, 2011

Photo by Andrew Feinberg

Caveman Bob: Wow I’m starving, wanna grab some grub?

Vegan Kate: Sounds great, I wonder if this place has quinoa…

Caveman Bob: What the hell is keen-wah? We don’t have that where I’m from.

Vegan Kate: No way! It’s so awesome, plus it’s a complete protein so if you can’t find beans it’s no problem.

Caveman Bob: Beans? Complete protein? Stop talking crazy. If you want protein why don’t you just eat some delicious cow? Cow is delicious. And it’s chock full of lysine. Beans-shmeans.

Vegan Kate: Oh no, no no no. I could never eat an animal or animal product. Not only is it cruel, it’s unhealthy. Animal fat causes heart disease and animal protein causes cancer. Everyone knows that.

Caveman Bob: That’s silly. I don’t have heart disease or cancer and I eat animals for a living. You should see my blood work, it’s pristine.

Besides, I haven’t even evolved to eat those weird cereals and beans you speak of. I’ve been told they’re the reason people have all these crazy diseases of civilization. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Vegan Kate: What do you mean you haven’t evolved to eat them? We’re physiologically the same and I eat them all the time. I don’t have any of those diseases either, and my blood is also impeccable.

I’m certain it’s because I don’t eat animals.

Caveman Bob: Well I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.

Vegan Kate: And I’m pretty sure you’re wrong.

Caveman Bob: Hmm. Sounds like at least one of us is wrong. Can I get you a drink?

What don’t you eat?

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Intact Grains vs. Whole Grains

by | Nov 29, 2010

Photo by Venex_jpb

Photo by Venex_jpb

If there is a single subject that befuddles the health-conscious eater, it is undoubtedly carbohydrates.

Most of us have seen the impressive results of at least temporarily restricting carbs, but studies examining the long-term effects of carbohydrate restriction are often ambiguous. Also, while some experts argue fervently for a low-carb lifestyle, some nutritionists still warn about the dangers of eating too much fat or protein.

So how do we know what to believe?

A full examination of the science behind carbohydrate metabolism is beyond the scope of a single blog post, and is in fact not entirely understood by the scientific community (for a thorough review of this topic read Gary Taubes’ book Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I have reviewed here).

However, there are a few things we do know about carbohydrates that are worth pointing out.

Lesson 1: Refined grains contribute to nearly every chronic disease in modern civilization.

It is universally agreed in the nutrition community that refined, processed carbohydrates are the worst things to eat on the entire planet.

And it is impossible to overstate how remarkable this is.

The nutrition community is one of the most disagreeable bunches in all of science. But across the board–from vegans like Colin Campbell to carnivores like Robert Atkins–not a single one of them considers processed carbs to be nutritionally neutral. They all consider them dangerous.

Without question, refined carbohydrates contribute to poor health.

Lesson 2: Vegetables protect against nearly every chronic disease in modern civilization.

Where things start to get more complicated is with unrefined carbohydrates, and the various iterations of this definition. There is ample evidence that the carbohydrates contained in vegetables are not harmful, and possibly beneficial.

To call these vegetable carbohydrates “fiber” is to oversimplify the science, but suffice to say that vegetables are good for you and contribute to your good health.

This is also generally agreed upon.

Lesson 3: Whole grains are different from intact grains.

Few people will argue against my first two points. But bring up whole grains and you will unleash a fury of controversy. Some people believe whole grains to be the cornerstone of any healthy diet, while others consider them superfluous and possibly detrimental to good health. You can find dozens of PhDs and MDs to back up your claims no matter what camp you align with.

So why is there so much disagreement? What does the science say?

The problem is that nutrition science conducted in free-living humans is virtually impossible to interpret. This is largely because the studies are so difficult to control and people’s behavior and self-reporting are so unreliable. Another problem is that the definition of “whole grains” has been watered down to a point where it is virtually meaningless.

One reason whole grains are hard to identify is because the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has created a definition that is friendly to food companies, but not to consumers.

The FDA requirements for a manufacturer to use the term “whole grain” on its label (along with the respective health claims) are as follows:

“Cereal grains that consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis, whose principal anatomical components – the starchy endosperm, germ and bran – are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact caryopsis - should be considered a whole grain food.” (emphasis added by me)

Get it? To be considered “whole,” grains do not actually have to be intact.

Thus food manufacturers create products using this loose definition to their advantage, demolishing grains as normal, then adding back the required ratios of grain parts (germ and bran) to meet the standard.

This is how products like Froot Loops get spiffy health labels claiming they lower heart disease when any unbiased nutrition scientist would agree that, with 41% sugar by weight, Froot Loops almost certainly contribute to heart disease.

On the other hand, there is compelling data that intact whole grains contribute to better health.

Lesson 4: Eating grains is a personal choice, not a nutritional imperative.

The good news is that it is really easy to tell the difference between fake “whole” grains and intact whole grains. If a food actually looks like a grain (i.e., it retains its original form and bran covering), then it is an intact grain. If it looks like a Cheerio, chip, loaf of bread or pasta with a “whole grain” label, then it is a fake whole grain.

People following a primal or paleo diet will argue that this difference is irrelevant and that all grains (and legumes?!) are unnecessary for good health. Personally I disagree, but remain fairly neutral on the personal choice of removing grains from the diet entirely.

Grains do not appear to be necessary for survival (Inuit tribes survive without them), but optimal nutrition may require slightly more effort than would be necessary following a traditional balanced diet.

This is generally how I feel about all healthy, restrictive regimens such as vegetarian, vegan and raw diets. You can make it work for yourself if you are willing to make sacrifices and put in the effort.

However you should be aware that for many people, myself included, cutting whole grains out of your diet completely is extremely difficult and, if you ask me, unnecessarily painful.

Conclusion

When making food choices about grains, the critical question is not whether or not a food is “whole” grain but whether the grain is intact. For this reason, it matters very little if you substitute “whole grain” products for regular refined products such as pasta.

Examples of intact grains are oats, barley, brown rice, whole wheat, quinoa (sort of) and faro. White rice is not a whole grain, and is closer to a refined grain than a whole grain.

For optimal health, processed and refined grains should be eaten very sparingly. Small amounts such as those eaten in traditional cultures can be part of any healthstyle, but including them is a personal choice that will depend on your own goals and preferences.

The irony is that if you are able to remove processed foods from your diet, the way you eat could probably be described as low-carb. But this label really undermines a healthstyle based on real food.

Though I eat relatively few grains compared to most Americans, I cringe when I see the shining example of low-carb living, The Atkins Diet website, with images of fake pancakes and pasta plastered all over it. If that is what low-carb is, I want nothing to do with it.

Processed food is still processed food, whether the carbohydrates have been synthetically removed or not. Stick to eating real food and you’ll never have to worry about carbs.

Do you count your carbohydrates?

Originally published November 25, 2009.

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