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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Red Meat Is Killing Us All! Or not…

by | Mar 14, 2012

Photo by Irwin-Scott

I’ve had about a zillion people ask me about a new study that came out in the Archives of Internal Medicine this week linking red meat consumption to increased mortality.

Naturally some people are afraid their carne asada habit may be dooming them to an early death, and who could blame them with headlines like these?

On the other hand, I suspect many of you have dismissed the study out of hand because it conflicts with your world view that animal foods only make good things happen.

But in the interest of science and being grown ups, let’s take a look at the study and see what we can learn.

First, it is worth mentioning that the study was fairly well-designed and conducted by a respectable team of scientists at Harvard. They reanalyzed data from two large prospective cohort studies: The Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS, 1986-2008) and the Nurses Health Study (NHS, 1980-2008).

Both cohorts were large groups of health care professionals, which would presumably limit differences in education and income that can often confound health studies. The participants filled out regular food frequency questionnaires that have been previously validated as decently reliable (though food frequency questionnaires are notoriously unreliable).

Importantly, all the participants were eating Western diets during what have come to be known as the least healthy decades in US history. Also important, during the course of the study both red and processed meat consumption declined in both men and women.

“The mean daily intake of unprocessed red meat dropped from 0.75 to 0.63 servings from 1986 to 2006 in men and from 1.10 to 0.55 servings from 1980 to 2006 in women.”

The authors never comment on what this reduced consumption means for their analysis, however, since they “created cumulative averages of food intake from baseline to death from the repeated food frequency questionnaires.”

According to the report, people who ate the most red meat were more likely to smoke, drink, eat far more calories and be overweight. They were also less likely to exercise and eat healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish. Basically they were less healthy people with less healthy habits.

The authors claim to have controlled for such lifestyle factors by doing statistical corrections for these variables, which is the industry standard for this type of analysis. They also performed a sensitivity analysis to see if any other dietary variable (including glycemic load) may have impacted their results. They did not detect any significant differences when controlling for these factors, which I admittedly find surprising.

To their credit, the authors made an effort to distinguish between processed and unprocessed meats. Given the time during which the study took place, however, it’s unlikely that any of the participants were eating non-industrial, grass-fed and pastured meat. I think this is an important point, particularly when considering cancer mortality, since toxic compounds tend to accumulate in the fat of animals.

In their analysis the authors estimated that for every one serving of red meat per day (defined as 3 oz), total mortality risk increased by 12% (20% for processed red meat alone, 13% for unprocessed). Heart disease risk increased by 16% for total red meat (21% for processed red meat, 18% for processed), and cancer risk increased 10% for total red meat (16% for processed, 10% unprocessed).

To help put this in perspective, in the Nurses Health Study (the larger of the two) the group that ate the least meat consumed about a 1.5 oz (half a deck of cards) of meat per day and the group that ate the most consumed around 6.5 oz of meat per day (here’s the data I’m pulling from, using the 3 oz serving size for conversion).

Remember, these numbers are for daily consumption. For the highest group, that’s nearly 3 pounds per week (45.5 oz). For the lowest group, under 1 pound (10.5 oz). Realistically, the lowest group probably ate red meat 1-2 times per week, while the highest group ate it once or twice a day. How we got from here to “all red meat will kill you” isn’t exactly clear.

Interestingly, when they did an analysis to see the specific effect of saturated fat in meat it accounted for only 4% of the 16% estimated risk. This is fairly low considering that saturated fat is supposedly what makes meat so bad for us by raising cholesterol. But since the authors say that saturated fat could account for some of the increased risk, can we at least assume that those eating the most meat were more likely to have higher cholesterol? Not so fast. It turns out that in both cohorts, those in the lowest group of meat consumption were the most likely to have high cholesterol. (Thanks Denise Minger for making this astute observation).

So what about the meat is killing us exactly? In addition to saturated fat, the authors also estimated that heme iron in meat (assumed to be a risk factor for some diseases) can account for another 5% of the risk, but they do not elaborate on how this might work. It is unclear what else about red meat may be increasing mortality risk, though preservation methods are suspected for the higher risk associated with processed meats.

The authors also used some fancy statistical magic to estimate what would happen if the participants theoretically replaced one “daily” meat serving with an equal portion of either fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy or whole grains and determined that mortality risk would decline 7%, 14%, 19%, 10%, 10% and 14%, respectively. It is important to remember though that *ahem* these are not real experiments but merely estimations based on the numbers and statistical models used in this study. At best an analysis like this can generate a hypothesis that could then be tested in a controlled trial.

Fortunately controlled studies replacing meats (oh, and all the other crap in the Western diet) with other nutritious, whole foods have already been done. For example, in the Lyon Diet Heart Study (1988) a group of patients who had already had a heart attack were instructed to change their diets. One group went on the low-fat American Heart Association diet, the other group adopted a Mediterranean style diet that included lots of green and root vegetables, fruits, legumes, more fish and poultry, less red meat, olive oil and no cream. After only 3 years the study was stopped by the ethics and safety committee because the Mediterranean diet group had a 70% reduced risk of death compared to those on the low-fat diet.

Studies have consistently shown that replacing some dietary meat with fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids reduces the risk of heart disease. However, replacing red meat with anything else (even olive oil) seems to be pointless. For this reason I’ve always been skeptical that red meat is uniquely bad when the simpler explanation would be that eating more fish is uniquely good. I don’t see how this new analysis of old studies changes anything.

Lastly, although the authors included controls for lifestyle factors I’m highly suspicious that people with so many unhealthy habits are at an increased risk of death primarily because of meat consumption. Consequently, all that I’d feel comfortable concluding from the new analysis is that in the context of a Western diet, eating something other than meat every once in awhile is probably a good idea. Outside of the Western diet? It’s much harder to say.

What are your thoughts on the study?

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For The Love Of Food

by | May 27, 2011

For The Love of Food

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

This week I found a surprisingly in depth and thoughtful piece on genetically modified foods, an even more impressive food commitment by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and a few good signs that the politics of food labels are headed in the right direction—truth.

Also, for you geeks my thesis work is finally published. Here’s the deets.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links at 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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For The Love Of Food

by | Nov 12, 2010

For The Love of Food

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

Next week I’ll be celebrating my 31st birthday. If you appreciate the work I do for this site and would like to give back, I’m donating all cakes, presents and well wishes to Charity Water. Charity Water helps bring clean water to children and families in Africa who desperately need it. Follow the link to learn more.

http://mycharitywater.org/darya

How to make food taste better without cooking skills, the best geek food article of all time and why Twinkie’s won’t make your life better.

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 reading list join me 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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For The Love Of Food

by | May 14, 2010

For The Love of Food

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

Holy smokes was it a great week for reading around the web. Not only should you read all these articles, I strongly recommend glancing through my StumbleUpon and Delicious lists (see below) to browse all the stuff that didn’t make it here today (feel free to ignore the articles about basketball).

In other news I added Facebook Like buttons to my posts this week, so go nuts :)

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).

Links of the week

Enjoy!

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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Foods To Avoid

by | Apr 22, 2009
Junk Food

Junk Food

What truly liberated me from worrying about food all the time was shifting my thoughts and fears away from things I couldn’t or shouldn’t eat and instead focusing on delicious foods–foods I love–that also make me healthy. Changing my relationship with food in this way turned it from something that caused me anxiety to something that brought me pleasure.

One unexpected benefit of choosing healthy, tasty foods over bland diet foods was that many of my old cravings for sugary, unhealthy fare disappeared. While I have not found a clear scientific explanation for this, it stands to reason that a nourished body would be less prone to strong feelings of need toward certain foods. I was amazed how powerful it can be to focus on health instead of dieting. These days, really unhealthy foods barely even tempt me.

(This post is the final post of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry, part two is Essential Groceries, part three is Seasonal Shopping, part four is Stock Your Freezer and part five is Balanced Meals. Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–always free of cost and spam.)

Upgrading your healthstyle will go far in helping you overcome your cravings, but as I much as I would love to tell you that you can eat any foods you want in any quantities you want, we all know this is not true. While you are focusing on eating more of the foods you love there are also foods that are generally worth avoiding as part as your daily healthstyle.

There is room for anything in a healthy life, but here are some foods that DO NOT promote health and can lead to weight gain:

  • Sugar In any form, sugar wreaks havoc on your health and metabolism. Two keys to protecting yourself from sugar damage are quantity and timing. Do not eat too much sugar at once (stick to small desserts) and do not eat sugar very frequently. I try to limit real desserts to once or twice per week (max) and satisfy all other sweets cravings with fruit. Eating whole grains is particularly effective at reducing sugar cravings.
  • Refined flour Processed grains (all flour) are almost as bad as sugar in their effect on your metabolism. In fact, your body processes them exactly the same way. Generally look for alternatives to breads, pastas and other foods made with flour. Instead focus on getting carbohydrates from intact whole grains. Try to limit refined flour foods to less than once per day. If you are actively trying to lose weight, I would make an effort to cut these out completely.
  • Trans fat Twenty years ago scientists believed they had solved the problem of saturated fat by replacing it with an artificial solid fat made from plants. It turned out these processed fats, trans-fats, are one of the most dangerous foods you can put into your body. Not only do they raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol, they also contribute to lowering your “good” HDL cholesterol–a double whammy for your health. No amount of trans-fat is considered safe in the diet (the data is striking), and you should avoid these processed fats completely. Better to eat foods made with real butter. Better yet, choose healthy fats from vegetable sources like coconut oil, olive oil and canola oil.
  • Anything processed It is worth emphasizing that nothing processed has ever proven to be healthier for you than real whole foods–even foods with fantastic health claims on the package. In fact, as Michael Pollan points out in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, a health claim on a package is a pretty good sign that a food is bad for you. There are no stickers for “Whole Grain” or “Low Carb” on your vegetables, and those are what you should be eating.
  • Red meat As I discussed earlier this week, red meat is probably not good for you. Some people argue that it is really bad for you, and some people think it is not so bad. It appears to not be quite as bad as processed foods, but there are plenty of compelling reasons to limit how much red meat you eat. For myself personally, cancer is a bigger fear than heart disease. But there is also some data that saturated fat plays a role in insulin resistance. I recommend less than one (4 oz) serving of red meat per week. The same can be said about poultry with skin.

I do not recommend completely eliminating foods you love–even if they are bad for you–because this is not something you can maintain forever and it strips some of the joy from life. Instead I suggest trying a few customizable strategies to be sure that the less healthy foods you love bring you happiness, but do not damage your body:

  • Reduce, Don’t Eliminate Simply being aware of how often you eat these foods and trying to stick to the guidelines above can drastically improve your healthstyle. If you currently eat a lot of sugar, processed foods or red meat, do not attempt to completely overhaul your diet overnight. Make changes gradually or it will be very difficult to make them permanent.
  • Be Picky When you first start to upgrade your healthstyle, identify foods you can do without and those you can’t live without. Some changes will be easier for some people, while others are nearly impossible. Focus on the easier changes and do not beat yourself up over things that are difficult for you. Every little change you make will add up to a healthier you.
  • Set Up Simple Rules It is often hard to keep track of everything you do or do not eat. A food journal or Twitter can help with this, but the simpler your healthstyle the better. Setting up simple, easy to remember rules for yourself can help you make healthy changes. The guidelines above are a great place to start. For example, if you decide in advance you can only have one dessert per week, you can be sure that the one you choose is well worth the wait. Use simple rules to both increase your good habits and decrease your bad ones. Experiment to find simple rules that work for you. For example, if you love to eat pizza make a deal with yourself that if you have it you must have a big pile greens on the side–this may also help you eat one less piece.

Please share with us the strategies and rules you use to upgrade your healthstyle!

This is the final post in the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Much thanks to those of you have shared your tips and insights in the comments so far. Summer Tomato will continue to build upon these ideas and help make it easier for you to upgrade your healthstyle. If you have specific questions, concerns or even an idea for a future post please submit them in the Ask Me section.

Read more How To Get Started Eating Healthy:

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Vegetables, Nuts and Overall Healthy Diet Protect Against Heart Disease

by | Apr 20, 2009
Vegetables

Vegetables

Most scientists agree that diet plays an important role in heart disease, but until now there has been no comprehensive analysis of which dietary factors most strongly affect disease outcome. A new meta-analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine reviews six decades of research (1950-2007) to assess how different dietary factors affect heart disease. Vegetables, nuts, “Mediterranean” and high-quality dietary patterns are strongly protective, while trans-fat, foods with high glycemic index or load and a “Western” dietary pattern were shown to be harmful.

The Study

This new study is unique for several reasons. First, the authors were only interested in factors that influenced heart disease directly, not simply heart disease risk factors such as cholesterol levels. Also, emphasis was placed on high-quality studies designed to identify strong dietary associations (cohort studies and randomized controlled trials) with long periods of follow up (at least one year). They asked whether the studies they reviewed were consistent with other data such as epidemiological reports, and sought to establish a causal link between diet and heart disease outcomes. Another important goal of the analysis was to identify factors that lack sufficient evidence to be conclusive and require further research.

Results

In addition to identifying vegetables, nuts, high-quality and Mediterranean dietary patterns as being strongly protective against heart disease, they also found monounsaturated fats (e.g. olive oil), dietary folate (e.g. whole grains, not supplements), dietary vitamins C and E (not supplements), alcohol consumption (in any form) and omega-3 fatty acids from fish (not plants, e.g. flax) to be moderately protective.

Factors that were not associated with heart disease in this study were dietary supplements (e.g. vitamins C and E), total fat, saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats (from plants), meat, eggs and milk. It is important to note, however, that negative findings in this analysis are not necessarily indicative of a lack of causality. Rather, it may indicate insufficient data to observe a significant positive association.

Dietary Patterns

The authors point out that “only overall healthy dietary patterns are significantly associated with coronary heart disease” in the controlled trials, while “evidence for most individual nutrients or foods is too modest to be conclusive.” They suggest that the reason an association exists for dietary patterns and not individual nutrients is that patterns “have the advantage of taking into account the complex interactions and cumulative effects of multiple nutrients within the entire diet.” The authors recommend future trials test various dietary patterns for disease outcome, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Taking this further, most dietary factors that were shown to be protective when consumed as part of a healthy diet were not protective when taken in supplement form. This finding bolsters the argument that overall diet rather than individual foods or nutrients are the best strategy for protecting against heart disease. The authors conclude that their findings suggest “investigating dietary patterns in cohort studies and randomized controlled trials for common and complex chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease.”

Based on their analysis, the dietary pattern that best protects against heart disease is rich in vegetables, nuts, fish, healthy fats, whole grains, and fruit. Likewise, the worst dietary pattern consists of refined carbohydrates and artificial trans-fats. The lesson: the best diet consists of plants, fish and whole foods, while processed foods contribute to heart disease.

What about red meat and saturated fats?

Interestingly, there was insufficient data to conclude that red meat or saturated fats are harmful for the heart. This is not terribly surprising, since the data has always been inconsistent. However, I would point out that many studies have looked at the role of red meat and saturated fat in coronary risk and the outcome always shows either harm or no result. And as explained above, no result can be indicative of a lack of statistical power rather than lack of causation. Importantly however, I cannot recall a single study suggesting that red meat and saturated fat is actually good for you.

From this the best we can conclude is that red meat or saturated fat may be involved in promoting heart disease, but if they are the effect is likely to be less harmful than a diet of processed foods. Practically this means small doses of saturated fat may not do much harm when eaten as a part of an overall healthy diet. This is a fairly compelling argument for exercising moderation.

Conclusions

Before you run out and order a ribeye, keep in mind that heart disease is not the only debilitating chronic disease that plagues our culture. Red meat is also associated with several kinds of cancer. Likewise, refined carbohydrates are highly correlated with type 2 diabetes. Vegetables and whole grains are protective against these other diseases as well, and fish may play a role in protecting against neurodegenerative diseases.

The take home lesson is that both diet and disease are complex systems that involve innumerable factors in several different regions of the body. When choosing what to eat it is important that you consider the context of your overall diet and do not get caught up is single foods or a single disease threat.

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Top 10 Food Facts Everyone Should Know

by | Feb 23, 2009

winter vegetablesIn honor of the food issue this week at Synapse, I compiled a list of ten essential diet and nutrition facts you might not know:

  1. “Vitamins” are not the same as whole foods. Instant ramen and a multivitamin is not a healthy meal. There is no substitute for a diet of whole foods rich in vegetables, beans, grains and fish.
  2. A healthy diet can prevent or even reverse four out of the six leading causes of death in the US. Evidence indicates that diet is more important than genetics in the vast majority of heart disease, stroke, cancer and type 2 diabetes cases.
  3. The thinnest, healthiest people in the world eat “high carb” diets. But they definitely do not eat the processed, refined carbohydrates that flood Western culture. If you want to lose weight and live longer without disease, eat more vegetables and whole grains.
  4. You get plenty of calcium. Americans consume more calcium than most countries on earth, yet still sport some of the highest rates of osteoporosis. This debilitating disease is more likely caused by insufficient vitamin D, not enough exercise and/or too much protein. Also, excess calcium is linked to prostate cancer and milk to ovarian cancer. Calcium does not support weight loss either.
  5. “Fiber” is not the same as vegetables and grains. Fiber supplements do not offer the same benefits as fiber-filled foods, and do not help with weight loss or protect against disease.
  6. The best sources of protein are plants and fish. It is relatively easy to get complete protein (i.e., all the essential amino acids) from a diverse diet. Protein from red meat offers more risk than reward. (Yes, pork is red meat.)
  7. Fruits and vegetables protect your vision. Both cataracts and macular degeneration are strongly tied to diet.
  8. Fats from factories are dangerous. Processed oils and trans fats (not total dietary fat) are associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity. Replacing them with natural oils could save your life.
  9. Fats from plants and fish are essential. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and memory loss. In moderation they can also aid in weight loss, since they increase the satiety you feel after a meal.
  10. You can lose weight on any short-term diet, but you will probably gain back more than you ultimately lose. This is often true even if you stay on the diet. Focusing on long-term health is the best strategy for sustained weight loss, but it requires patience.

What are other common myths about diet and nutrition?

UPDATE: For more information on the health value of oils from fish, please read my answer in the comments section.

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