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FOR THE LOVE OF FOOD: How liquid calories can keep you full, why suffering is your default, & not all processed foods are created equal

by | Mar 17, 2017

For the Love of Food

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

Next week’s Mindful Meal Challenge will start again on Monday. Sign up now to join us!

This week how liquid calories can keep you full, why suffering is your default, and not all processed foods are created equal. 

Too busy to read them all? Try this awesome free speed reading app to read at 300+ wpm. So neat!

I also share links on Twitter @summertomato and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

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For the Love of Food

by | Apr 4, 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 low-fat diets get the boot, calorie restricted monkeys are vindicated, and morning sunshine keeps you slim.

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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Don’t Eat This, Don’t Eat That: How To Eat Healthy Without Fast Food

by | Jun 9, 2010
Quarter Pounder

Quarter Pounder

Last week in For The Love of Food I called out Men’s Health as B.S. of the Week for their article, “Eat healthy at the airport.” There seems to be a growing trend in the number of weight loss programs that support eating fast food. The idea is that some menu items have slightly fewer calories than others and do not contribute (as much?) to weight gain.

It is true you can lose weight eating anything (so long as you do not eat very much of it), but that does not make eating fast food a good idea. What is misleading about these programs is the grossly inappropriate use of the word “healthy.”

Credit the book Eat This, Not That for this special brand of quackery on which Men’s Health bases their article. They begin with the example of McDonald’s (because, you know, where else are you supposed to go eat?) and suggest you order the Quarter Pounder without cheese (and without fries and soda) over the Premium Grilled Chicken Club.

The reason?

The Quarter Pounder has only 410 calories compared to the 570 calories of the chicken sandwich, a 30% reduction.

To me this sounds the same as saying 7 cigarettes is healthier than 10 cigarettes.

Sure it might be “better” to smoke a little less, but do you really believe you are doing yourself any favors? You’re still ingesting something toxic. Would you be happy if China promised to put a little less melamine in your child’s baby formula?

After decades of consuming slightly smaller doses of poison is it logical to think you’d be a more sprightly 80 year old than you would have been eating full dose poison? I don’t think so.

Rationalizing

Rationalization is the name of the game here:

“Some people are going to eat fast food no matter what, it might as well have fewer calories.”

“It’s impractical to not eat fast food. What if I’m in a hurry?”

“There’s nothing else to eat at the airport, do you want me to starve?”

“I cannot afford to eat anything healthier. Value meals are the best!”

“I just eat crap then spend extra time in the gym, so it balances out.”

“I love junk food and could never stop eating at McDonald’s.”

*shiver*

The problem with all these faux arguments is that they are based on the assumption that fast food is an inevitable part of life, too powerful to resist or avoid. My guess is we can thank the McDonald’s marketing team for this twisted bit of psychology, but that does not mean we have to accept it.

Here is why those arguments don’t hold water:

  • The “fact” that some people will continue to eat fast food does not preclude the need to have a diet that endorses it.
  • There is always something to eat besides fast food. In fact, there was actually a time when Burger King didn’t exist!
  • A few healthy-ish options can be found at the airport, but if you do a tiny bit of planning beforehand you don’t have to be stuck eating there in the first place. Another thing to consider is that starving would be healthier, since caloric restriction has been consistently shown to improve health, prevent disease and extend life. (But don’t worry, going hungry isn’t necessary.)
  • The organic kale and tempeh I ate for dinner last night cost the same (~$3.50) as that flaccid Quarter Pounder in the photo, and smelled 1000% better (yeah, I actually bought one). [For the record: I did ask for it without cheese and they just botched my order–can you imagine it looking even more tasteless? Blah. So much for tricking yourself into eating fewer calories.]
  • Working out is very important for your health, but it does not give you essential vitamins, minerals and all the other wonderful things offered by whole foods–exercise cannot substitute for a healthy diet.
  • There is room in your healthstyle for any food on special occasions. Personally I prefer to use my occasions for exquisite (rather than cheap) meals, but for some of you special may mean going out with the guys for game night or a road trip from L.A. to S.F. (i.e. the In-N-Out in Kettleman City). What is important is that you make sure foods that do not contribute (or are detrimental) to your health make up an extremely small proportion of your diet.

The Real Problem

I contend that the real issue is not that there is nothing else to eat besides fast food, but that we are not trained to recognize any other option. There is a whole world of food out there that does not include unsanitary chain restaurants.

The little secret those of us who don’t eat fast food know is that this other world is far tastier than the one of processed foods and chain restaurants. Also, the convenience factor is easily overcome if you approach it right.

The Answers

Your first defense against eating foods you didn’t plan for (isn’t that what fast food really is?) is to make sure you have a plan. Always.

Rule #1 is to know what, when and where you are going to eat all your meals throughout the day by the time you leave your house in the morning. Not doing this is setting yourself up for an uh-oh. If you are not able to know for certain the specifics of your meal plans, at least try to envision the most likely scenarios and think of ways to make them as healthy as possible. Trust me, these decisions are a lot easier if you make them before you are starving and willing to eat a deep-fried shoe.

Rule #2 is to always have a back up plan. Is there any chance that your friend will bail on you for dinner? Or that you will get stuck at work so long your neighborhood grocery will close? In cases like this it is best to have a plan B. I keep stuff in my freezer and pantry that can be whipped up at any given moment. I also store food in my desk at work for emergencies.

My go-to back up plan is carrying a small bag of nuts like almonds or cashews around with me where ever I go. That way I have something to snack on until I can get myself into a more favorable eating environment. Keep a small bag of nuts in your purse, glove compartment of your car, gym bag, desk drawer or carry on luggage. Your hidden snack should be in whatever container you will be sure to have with you at all times.

Nuts make a particularly good snack because their high fat and protein content (the super good-for-you kinds) make them very satisfying. One day when you are not starving try eating exactly 8 almonds, take a sip of water and wait half an hour. For me, this usually staves off hunger for at least another 45-60 minutes, and sometimes up to 2 hours.

It is more difficult to restrict your intake to 8 or 10 nuts when you are starving, however. But it is easier to exercise self-control if you believe (through experience) that a certain quantity is sufficient to satisfy your appetite. This is why I recommend you try this once before you find yourself in an emergency situation.

If for some reason you end up hungry and do not have your handy bag of nuts, you still have non-Whopper options:

  • Grocery stores Most grocery stores have fresh sections with cut up vegetables, fruits, hummus, lean meats and lots of other healthy items (nuts included). Pretend like you are having a picnic and nibble on a few of these things instead or resorting to the drive-thru. You will get plenty of calories, I promise.
  • Delis A small sandwich with lean meats and vegetables is a pretty good, easy option if you can find a deli. I would not call this an ideal meal, but it’s better than a BigMac for sure.
  • Non-chain restaurants If I am resigned to eating in a restaurant I haven’t planned on the first thing I look for is a non-chain restaurant, preferably a place that specializes in soups, salads and sandwiches. These places are usually well stocked in vegetables and often boast organic produce. They can be a little pricier than a Happy Meal, but it is worth it if you don’t have to eat a gray colored mystery meat patty, right?
  • Colorful plates Wherever I decide to dine, I search the menu for dishes that sound like they have a high percentage of vegetables, preferably multicolored. Ordering a side salad or vegetables instead of potatoes is an easy way to accomplish this mission.
  • Little bread Giant servings of generic, processed breads made of refined white flour are the biggest problem at most mediocre restaurants. If you can, try to order something that doesn’t require too much bread. This is especially true if you will be sitting on an airplane for the next several hours.
  • Avoid cheese Cheese is delicious and I love to eat it occasionally. However, it is common these days for restaurants to bury plates in cheese to mask the crappy ingredients they used for the rest of the dish. Chili’s low quality cheese is hardly worth the extra few hundred calories being used to cover up the fattening, mediocre food you ordered.
  • No sweets Sugar is one of the most dangerous things you can eat and should always be consumed with caution. We all love desserts, but you will be much better off saving your sweet tooth for truly special occasions. Airport terminals really aren’t that special.
  • Healthy fats I go out of my way to find healthy fats like nuts, fish and salad oils when I am eating solely to satisfy my hunger. These fats will make sure you stay full as long as possible.
  • Lean proteins As far as satisfaction goes, what is true for fats is true for proteins. Because they digest so slowly proteins help you feel full longer. Fish, eggs, nuts, beans and even whole grains like brown rice can give your meal a more satisfying impact.
  • Eat simply When you are eating on-the-go and in restaurants you are unsure about, your best bet is to stick to simple items. Avoid menu descriptors like glazed, gooey, cheesy, creamy, fiesta, piled, smothered, etc. Sauces are really a problem at airport-style restaurants. Stick to predictable items to keep yourself out of trouble. A turkey sandwich or chop salad are usually pretty safe.

The basic message is to find fresh foods and eat as balanced as possible. No matter what you order this is probably not going to be the most delicious meal of your life, so you may as well try to make it as healthy as possible. A little planning–like eating before heading to the airport–can go a long way in saving special occasions for food that is truly special.

What are the biggest obstacles you encounter when stuck somewhere without food?

Article was originally published June 3, 2009.

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Calorie Restriction and Quality of Life

by | Jul 20, 2009
Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin Madison

Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin Madison

Last week The New York Times published a story on the life prolonging effects of a low calorie diet in primates. The study in question found that like other organisms (from yeast to worms to mice), rhesus monkeys that eat 30% fewer calories age more slowly and develop fewer diseases than animals on a traditional diet. Those of us who follow the scientific literature on nutrition and aging are not surprised by this at all.

A few days after the story was published The Times published an op-ed questioning the value of the research. Roger Cohen argues that Canto, the healthier monkey, has suffered tremendously as a result of his restricted diet. He contends that it is far better to be fat and happy (and dead?) than thin and miserable.

To me it seems questionable why Cohen believes Canto is unhappy. If he is making his judgment solely on the image above, I must respectfully disagree with his assessment. To me both monkeys appear relatively miserable.

However, Cohen brings up a crucial question about diet and health. How far are we willing to go–how much are we willing to change our diets–in order to extend our lives?

Quality of life is a very important question.

To me one of the most interesting things about calorie restriction is that life extension is only one of many health benefits. Calorie restriction literally slows down the aging process. As a result the animals subject to a limited diet are able to maintain a high level of physical activity into old age. They are also relatively free of age-related diseases including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases.

Extended life would arguably not be as desirable if these diseases maintained the same progression as they do in those with normal diets. But freedom from these diseases and preserved physical and mental capacities may indeed be worth some dietary alteration.

The next question is how must the diet be changed?

In the monkey experiment, the calorie-restricted group received 30% fewer calories than the control monkeys, who were allowed to eat what they wanted. It is still unknown if a 30% reduction in calories will extend human life in a similar manner, but short-term experiments have indicated that at least some benefits are immediately apparent when calories are limited, such as lower triglycerides, body fat and blood pressure.

Interestingly, however, there may be alternatives to a strict low calorie diet. Cynthia Kenyon, a scientist at UCSF, was the first to show that the key to the life extending properties of calorie restriction is the insulin signaling pathway. A decrease in insulin signaling slows the aging process and extends life.

In the laboratory, organisms like worms, mice and monkeys always receive a uniform diet that has a consistent effect on insulin signaling. But humans do not eat lab food (at least not usually).

Extensive research over the past several decades has made it clear that different foods impact insulin signaling differently in humans. For example, refined carbohydrates have a large, rapid impact on blood sugar, insulin secretion and insulin signaling. By contrast, fat, protein and fiber have next to zero impact on blood sugar and subsequent insulin signaling.

The implication of the diverse human diet is that we are able to alter insulin levels and signaling in our bodies without undergoing severe calorie restriction. Whether or not a diet that promotes less insulin signaling can slow aging in humans is still unknown, but there are many other benefits associated with a diet that lacks refined carbohydrates.

Insulin signaling is not only tied to the aging process, it is also the primary cause of metabolic syndrome–high triglycerides, insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, abdominal obesity, low HDL cholesterol and high blood pressure–as well as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

A diet that improves these symptoms may or may not slow the aging process directly, but it can certainly promotes a higher quality of life by lowering the risk of many debilitating and life threatening diseases.

Going to farmers markets and eating delicious meals isn’t so bad either.

What are your thoughts on health, diet and quality of life?

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Body Fat Is Healthy Now? Fat Chance

by | Jun 29, 2009
1 lb Fat

1 lb Fat

Last week the New York Times and many other reputable news sources reported on a Canadian study that claims people with a normal body mass index (BMI) had a slightly increased risk of dying over a 12-year period than those with a BMI in the overweight range (25-29).

The use of the phrase “overweight was protective” landed this article just a hair’s width from being labeled Summer Tomato’s B.S. of the week on Friday. An observational study cannot determine cause and effect, as implied by the word “protective.” This study does not prove that extra body weight protects against all cause mortality, and saying so is irresponsible.

Studies (and reporting) like this have instigated wide-spread confusion about health and body weight. First people are told they are too heavy and should lose weight for health, then in the same breath they are told a little extra weight might not be so bad.

What is the average person supposed to believe? How should we act?

If you want to understand the facts it important to know exactly what the data does and does not say. Indeed, some studies (including one on Japanese men reported in the same issue of Obesity) have reported lower or equal risk of mortality for people with an overweight BMI compared to people of normal BMI (18.5-24). However, this is not the whole story.

First, the alleged benefit of being overweight has only been found in older individuals and does not apply to healthy, young people. Second, although it appears in some cases that overall mortality may be reduced, disease incidence is notably higher in overweight individuals compared to people of normal weight.

bmi-and-chd

To point, a study in the most recent issue of Obesity (same journal, 2 weeks later) examines the relationship of BMI with many measures of cardiovascular disease in healthy, athletic men. In this study, those on the lowest end of BMI in the normal range (18.5-22.5) had a much lower risk of dying from or developing cardiovascular disease than normal weight men with a slightly higher BMI (22.5-25).

Men with the lowest healthy BMIs also had lower risk of hypertension, lower cholesterol and half the risk of diabetes. While the length of this study was only 7.7 years (compared to the 12 years reported in the Times story), there were more than double the number of participants (28,776 vs. 11,834).

(Why did this story not make the news? My guess is that it makes for a less compelling storyline and people would rather not hear it.)

Mortality is certainly an important measure in any study, but it is arguably not the most relevant endpoint. Disease and excess body weight can severely impact quality of life, particularly for older individuals (as illustrated by another study in the latest issue of Obesity). While I cannot speak for everyone, it seems probable that quality of life is equally if not more important than longevity alone. Thus it is questionable how much stock to put into studies that ignore these other factors.

It is also critical to remember that BMI is a measure that was designed to describe people at a population level, not as individuals. While large cohort studies can tell us useful things about relative risk, they are not directly applicable to individual people.

The inconsistency of the data related to BMI and mortality may in fact be an indication of its inadequacy as a general measurement. Remember that BMI represents a ratio between height and weight, making it possible to compare people of various body sizes. Normalizing for height may, however, be deceptive.

Decades of data on caloric restriction consistently show that smaller body size (irrespective of body fat levels and, possibly, BMI) is associated with longer life and decreased risk of nearly all diseases. This is true in all animals from yeast, to worms and flies, to mice and monkeys. While humans are certainly different from all these model organisms, there is tremendous evolutionary precedent indicating smaller body size as the best for health.

The principle of parsimony tells us the simplest hypothesis–that smaller body size is beneficial–is probably correct. Substantial evidence must be accumulated before this hypothesis can be rejected, and I have yet to see that data.

Furthermore, while the research on the risk of overweight may be slightly ambiguous, the data on obesity is not. It is painfully clear that the dangers of obesity are profound and on par with those of smoking cigarettes. Overweight is a necessary step to becoming obese, and according to the National Population Health Survey nearly a quarter of Canadians who were overweight in 1994/1995 were obese by 2002/2003. Since overweight is still a substantial risk factor for becoming obese, misleading public health messages about the benefits of body fat are especially dangerous.

As a consumer of information, the most important thing you can do is be skeptical of what you read. Just because something is printed in the New York Times does not make it true. In fact, many of our most trusted sources of health information do not base their recommendations on rigorous scientific thinking, which is probably the reason for the health disaster we are currently facing.

Thanks to Jan from Quest for Health for sparking this discussion.

What does your gut tell you about the relationship between health and body fat?

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