diet

Evidence is Piling Up: Marijuana Could Be a Weight Loss Aid

 

image via Cosmopolitan

image via Cosmopolitan

 

“The prevalence of obesity was significantly lower in cannabis users than in nonusers.”
                                       American Journal of Epidemiology, Oxford University Press, August, 2011

So concluded researchers from the first large-scale study of marijuana use and obesity. They analyzed data from 50,000 U.S. adults, controlled for participants’ sociodemographic characteristics (age, education, ethnicity, etc.), and found a marked difference in obesity rates: less than 17% among cannabis users versus 25% among nonusers, and the most frequent smokers (3X per week or more) were the slimmest of them all.

The study pretty much turns on its ear everything you thought you knew about the munchies. And there have been others:

  • a 2013 study from the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the American Journal of Medicine shows that pot smokers, on average, have smaller waists and higher levels of ‘good’ cholesterol than non-pot smokers. Again, the biggest winners were the heaviest users.
  • The research journal Obesity published a study this year linking lower body mass index and lower insulin levels, both markers for diabetes, with cannabis use.
  • The British Medical Journal reports that current abstainers who merely have a history of marijuana use are at a lower risk of contracting type 2 diabetes than those with no history of cannabis consumption.

Can you think of a more counterintuitive diet aid than marijuana?

The munchies are a well-documented phenomenon. Rigorous, double-blind, controlled studies only confirm what generations of stoners and chemotherapy patients know: smoking weed makes you hungry. And not regular hungry but craving food of the sweet, salty, or fatty variety. Marijuana perks up the taste and hunger receptors in your brain and body; flavors are heightened on the tongue as happy-making mood compounds course through your body, and your brain craves more, more, more. It’s why even brownies made from a boxed mix will taste so damn good when you’re stoned.

Actually, marijuana isn’t all that far-fetched as a diet aid.

For starters, obesity researchers know that a diet of foods laden with concentrated sugars and refined starches can act on the brain in much the same way. Chronic overeaters are essentially looking to stimulate the same reward centers as marijuana smokers. Basically, cannabis users are less inclined to overindulge in food in that way because they already have their own high.

An easy benefit to understand is the impact of body temperature on weight regulation. Cannabis elevates the body’s core temperature and increases blood flow. The effect on the metabolism is similar to what happens during exercise—metabolic processes speed up and burn off more calories, and continue to do so for an hour or two after smoking—seemingly enough to counteract the munchies and then some. Less is understood about marijuana’s role in regulating the body’s blood sugar levels and insulin, but trial data has many in the medical community convinced that a marijuana derivative will someday be part of the everyday health regimen for people with diabetes.

Marijuana just might be the antidote to the national obesity epidemic. 
Researchers from San Diego State University and Cornell University, publishing in last month’s journal of Health Economics, found that when a state passes a medical marijuana law, the probability of obesity drops by 2 to 6 percent and generates savings in obesity-related medical costs of $58 to $115 per citizen, per year. As compelling as the evidence might be, it’s nearly impossible to fund and conduct research and drug trials as long as marijuana remains an illegal substance on the national level.

 

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How To Navigate Our Collective Food Anxiety

image via Marie Saba

image via Marie Saba

 

Are hot dogs really as bad for you as cigarettes?
Will coffee send you to an early grave? Is gluten fogging your brain or is it dairy?
There are 40,000 items in the supermarket, but it sometimes feels like there’s nothing safe to eat.

Eat this! Don’t eat that!
There’s a steady barrage of nutritional advice and medical headlines, and they usually contradict earlier messages. We’ve seen good foods gone bad— think of tuna and margarine. Dietary no-no’s like coffee, red wine, eggs, and chocolate are the new health foods, but toasted bread is carcinogenic. Yes to sugar, no to soy. Or is it yes to soy? We’re counseled to eat more fatty acids, except whoops, gotta watch the Omega-6s. I forget, are we eating butter this week?

food-allergyFood avoidance has become a way of life.
We read labels for the un-ingredients, more interested in what’s not in food than what’s in it. The packaged foods industry reports that 52% of consumers are avoiding specific ingredients, up from 26% in less than a decade. Those afflicted with allergies, sensitivities or specific health problems are in the minority. The rest of us are opting out of certain foods and ingredients as a lifestyle choice. And those packaged food marketers love the trend; they get to charge a clean label premium to a larger share of the market than is medically or nutritionally justified. Take gluten-free products: less than one per cent of the population needs to avoid gluten but more than 29 per cent chooses to avoid iteven though it’s estimated that a gluten-free diet can double the cost of groceries (and ironically, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness show that the number one stressor for celiac patients is not the disease itself but the cost of the diet).

We agonize over food in ways that would mystify earlier generations who only worried about getting enough.
It’s been called the gastronomic equivalent of having too much time on our hands, and the abundance has allowed our thoughts to run amok, turning one of our most basic pleasures into a significant source of anxiety. When fear crosses into phobia, it even gets its own clinical diagnosis: Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, also known as Selective Eating Disorder, appears in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Additives, dyes, GMOs, hormones…they give us good reasons to seek out dietary advice.
Recognize that solid, evidence-based advice seldom deals in absolutes. It’s constantly updated and revised as it accounts for the evolving, nuanced landscape of diets and populations. On the flipside are the food marketers, alarmist media, and health gurus whose unambiguous claims are too often ill-informed and lacking context. They escalate our fears and lead us into the kind of avoidance and deprivation that may be unnecessary and unsound, and will certainly be less enjoyable.

As the late, great Julia Child used to say:
“If you’re afraid of butter, just use cream.”

julia-child-kitchen-425tp0901092

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Read ’em and Weep: 100 Salads that are Worse than a Big Mac

 

 

CCF_BarbequeRanchChickenSaladimgresimagesimages   images-3images-2

Just a few members of the salad hall of shame

Salad is never going to win a popularity contest against a hamburger.
Or a burrito or a plate of pasta or a waffle. There’s really only one reason to order an entrée salad at a burger chain or a pancake house or a Mexican restaurant—because it’s healthier than the fat and calorie-laden specialties of the house.

Of course salad has its faults. Everyone knows to look out for cheese and croutons and to go easy on the creamy dressings. But worse than a Big Mac in terms of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories? The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine analyzed the nutrition data for salads at popular chain restaurants like Applebee’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Denny’s, and IHOP. The group chose the Big Mac as a nutritional yardstick believing it’s a kind of shorthand for everything that’s wrong with the American diet. They found more than a hundred salads, both side and entrée-sized, that are worse for you than McDonald’s iconic sandwich. You could even top off the burger with a couple of donuts and still not come close to the dietary damage done by some of these seemingly good-for-you choices.

Here are some of the worst offenders according to PCRM data:

Applebee’s Grilled Shrimp ‘N Spinach Salad
Applebee’s describes it as: Tender spinach, crisp bacon, roasted red peppers, red onions, toasted almonds and hot bacon vinaigrette topped with grilled shrimp.
PCRM defines it as a sodium disaster.

California Pizza Kitchen’s Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Salad
CPK says it’s: One of a kind, with roasted butternut squash, dates, avocado, toasted almonds, beets, red peppers, chopped egg and cranberries. Tossed with housemade Champagne vinaigrette.
PCRM says it’s more like three of a kind, if the three are the calories in a Big Mac.

IHOP’s Crispy Chicken Cobb Salad
IHOP dubbed it: The most satisfying salad. With crispy chicken, smoky bacon, hard-boiled egg, juicy tomatoes & tangy blue cheese crumbles all tossed in a tasty buttermilk ranch dressing.
PCRM calls it the most cholesterol—more than eight Big Macs put together.

You’ll find the complete list at the website of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Maybe you’d like a side salad with that burger? See why salad is just a gateway to french fries.

 

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Eating Your Way to a Good Night’s Sleep

 

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Forget that glass of warm milk at bedtime.
It might feel as cozy as a tuck-in from Mom, but it’s doing more harm than good when it comes to falling asleep.

The right foods before bed can contribute to restful sleep. Sleep-friendly foods are rich in tryptophan, the notorious nap-inducer found in Thanksgiving’s turkey dinner. The wrong foods have amino acids that keep the tryptophan from crossing into the brain where it’s converted into the sedatives serotonin and melatonin.
A glass of warm milk is one of those wrong foods.

Ideally you’ll start a good sleep diet hours before bedtime. 
The best begins as soon as you wake up in the morning when a little protein in your breakfast kickstarts your blood sugar levels, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Regular meals throughout the day, each including some more protein, keep things on an even keel and have you reaching less often for afternoon pick-me-ups like coffee and candy, which can have lingering stimulative effects up to 12 hours later.

When nighttime rolls around, a well-chosen bedtime snack can help you get a restful, restorative night’s sleep. According to the sleep specialists at the Mayo Clinic, you want to avoid garlicky, spicy, fatty foods before bed. Here are the three most highly recommended bedtime snacks:

  • Popcorn, preferably air-popped, washed down with cherry juice
  • Oatmeal with sliced banana and just a splash of nonfat milk
  • Low- or nonfat yogurt with a sprinkle of almonds or sesame seeds

The meal of your dreams:
Monastrell Restaurante in southern Spain serves a special “sleep menu” that is purported to cure insomnia. The chef claims knowledge of a secret ingredient prized during the Roman empire for its soporific qualities. Courses include grilled octopus, pumpkin lasagne, turbot with lemon calamari, lemon sponge cake, and olive oil sorbet.

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He’ll Look at Your Kitchen and Guess Your Weight

Weight_guesser_on_the_Pay_Streak_01,_A-Y-P,_1909

[Image by Frank H. Nowell via University of Washington Libraries]

Brian Wansink is on a mission to change the way we eat.
As the director of the famed Cornell Food and Brand Lab he’s given the world the 100-calorie snack pack and the Ig Noble Award-winning Bottomless Soup Bowl Experiment. He’s scrutinized centuries of Last Supper paintings to track the evolution of portion sizes, and knows just how many more people will order mac and cheese if you add the descriptor ‘creamy.’ Wansink is pretty much the foremost authority on why we make so many bad food choices, and he’s concluded that most people basically have no idea how much they’re putting in their mouths or why.

Your tastebuds and appetite aren’t calling the shots.
Of the 220 or so food-related choices you face in an average day, Wansink has found that maybe 15 of them lead to conscious, active decision-making based on health, hunger, and taste. The vast majority are of the mindless variety—when you help yourself to seconds because the bowl is right there or take a gulp of orange juice because you saw the carton when you opened the refrigerator. Your kitchen is leading you—even tricking you—into mindless eating.

There are fat kitchens and skinny kitchens.
Wansink’s research determined that easy access to certain foods predicts the weight trajectory of a kitchen’s denizens. Occupants weigh nine pounds more than the norm when a box of cookies or bag of potato chips is sitting on the counter. A visible box of cereal correlates to an extra 21 pounds. Soda is the most dangerous countertop fixture—even when it’s diet soda—associated with 25 extra pounds, while a filled fruit bowl predicts that the occupant will weigh eight pounds less than the norm.

You too can have a skinny kitchen:

  • Wrap your ice cream in foil.
    Put the cookies on the highest shelf or the lowest. Turn the pantry into a coat closet and the coat closet into a pantry. Do whatever you have to do so that you’re thinking before you indulge, and even working for it.
  • Add color.
    You eat more in a white kitchen. You also serve yourself more on white plates. The contrast works against you, encouraging you to fill the negative space.
  • Skip the candles.
    You linger at the table when the lights are low. Dim lights lead to second helpings.
  • Think small.
    You’re probably going to eat 90% of whatever is on your plate, so make it a smaller plate. And while you’re at it, a smaller serving spoon can cut serving size by 14% regardless of the plate size.
  • Rearrange your food.
    Mindless Eating 101: if you see it, you’ll eat it. You’re three times more likely to eat the first food you see in the cupboard than the fifth; the same goes for the top shelf of the refrigerator versus the crisper.
  • Check the door swing.
    You’ll cook more vegetables if you give them the path of least resistance. Your refrigerator should open toward the sink where you’ll wash and prep them. It’s about a $40 repair job if you’re swinging the wrong way.

In a perfect world, we would all eat mindfully. In the real world, something like 90% of us are mindlessly ruled by environmental food triggers. In his recently published Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday LifeWansink doesn’t try to fight those tendencies, but helps us understand and manipulate eating environments so that, even when it’s mindless, we’ll eat less and enjoy it more.

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Food Rules to Get You Through the Winter

rules

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Michael Pollan crammed a world of food choices into those seven words. During the summer months of stone fruits and heritage tomatoes we’re all believers. But Labor Day has come and gone, the farmers markets will soon pack up their tents, and Pollanesque choices will start to dwindle. What will we eat then?

Pollan compiled a list of rules to back up his simple edict.
A mention of the project on his blog resulted in literally thousands of reader-submitted suggestions. He culled and compiled to create the easy-to-digest principles and instructions of Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.

It’s no easy feat to navigate the landscape of modern food.
We want our food to be nutritionally sound with no trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, or growth hormone. The sodium should be low and the carbs complex. We want our food growers and manufacturers to trade fairly with their vendors and pay a living wage to their employees. They should conserve energy, limit emissions, and recycle. And somewhere in there we also want our food to taste good.

Ultimately, Michael Pollan settled on 64 food rules.
It’s mostly common sense guidance: Avoid foods you see advertised on television (#11); Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk (#36).
So go aheadEat your colors (#25); treat treats as treats (#60); and best of all, break the rules once in a while (#64).

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Is There Really Always Room for Jell-O?

 

jellowiggle

 

Maybe not so much.
With five straight years of sharply declining sales, the media are having a field day with punny headlines:
Jello-O Sales Just Can’t Seem to Solidify (San Jose Mercury News); Jell-O Can’t Stop Slippery Sales Slide (ABC News); Jell-O Losing Its Jiggle? (WCVB Boston); and J-E-L-L-O needing H-E-L-P (Illinois Herald-Review).

By all rights we should be living in a golden age of Jell-O.
It’s a most modest indulgence, inexpensive and fat-free. It has a nostalgic earnestness, evoking memories of tonsillectomies and Mom’s bridge club, but it can also play the irony card as an amusingly kitschy party dish, all retro-cool atop a Mid Century Modern chrome and glass table. It has a versatility that’s well-suited to our unstructured, small plates style of dining—it can be a cocktail, a salad, or a dessert.

It’s kitchen magic that can be a liquid, a solid or somewhere in between, which should appeal to fans of the modernist style of molecular gastronomy. It’s tailor-made for the DIY homesteader—you can use it as finger paint or hair dye; as a powder it will deodorize the cat’s litter box, and as a paste it’s a household cleanser. It even has off-label uses like Jell-O shots and Jell-O wrestling, and provides timeless entertainment to office pranksters who never fail to be amused by gelatin-encased staplers and cell phones. Plus, it wiggles.
So why is Greek yogurt kicking its flubbery butt?

Consumers are unwilling to forgive the nutritional transgressions of Jell-O.
We give a pass to bacon with its salt and fat and shady nitrates and nitrites; we are charmed by the sugar and white flour-dipped nostalgia of cupcakes; yet we judge Jell-O so harshly. It’s a wiggly, jiggly, gaudy mass of refined sugars, artificial colors, and flavor additives and we just don’t trust it.
The next punny headline you read just might be R.I.P. to J-E-L-L-O.

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Am I Getting Old or is Supermarket Music Getting Better?

image via Northrup Cener at Iniversity of Minnesota

image via Northrup Center at the University of Minnesota

 

The standard easy listening mix of Kenny Rogers and vintage Doobie Brothers always felt like I was being held hostage in a dentist’s waiting room. But not lately. While no one’s going to mistake the deli counter for a DJ booth, the music has gotten decidedly hipper. A recent shopping trip yielded a little Major Lazer, a Warpaint track, and a David Bowie remix tucked between the Whitney Houston and post-Aja Steely Dan.
Who do they think is shopping in my neighborhood supermarket?

Background music can define the experience and influence purchases.
A slow tempo will slow down your trek through the aisles, and if it’s classical you’ll end up spending more. French music gives a boost to the wine department and loud music brings shoppers to the checkout lanes. When a store plays the wrong mix of tunes, customers will over-estimate the amount of time they’ve spent on shopping. But of course right or wrong depends on who’s listening.

There are four generations all pushing shopping carts through the same aisles.
The Millennials, born between 1982 and the early 2000′s, are now reaching the age of paychecks and shopping lists. 
They follow the solidly adult Gen Xers, born between 1961 and 1981, the middle-aged Baby Boomers, and the retired seniors known as the Silent Generation.

As an added twist, life stages are not as linear as they used to be.
Life stage and generation used to be pretty much the same thing. Milestones like marriage and buying a first home were fairly constant events that marketers could count on. Today you’ll find new parents in their 40′s and young adults still living at home long after the traditional age of household formation. Juice boxes and jars of prune juice, diapers and denture cream—they’re all commingling in shopping carts. There are spending differences between age groups, but they matter less than they used to.

Supermarkets brand themselves with their playlists. 
They know that store atmospherics matter, especially when it comes to differentiating themselves from the competition. Music is a fast, cheap, and flexible way for a store to distinguish its environment. But it’s a delicate balance: with so many generations in the shopping mix, the stores are challenged to find the right music mix. The trick is to appeal to one age group without alienating the other three.

My neighborhood supermarket has clearly put the Millennial Generation in its crosshairs.
I live in the big college town of Boston, with BU dorms just down the block from the market, so that comes as no surprise. How about you? Listen up. You’ll learn who’s shopping in your supermarket.

 

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Is Junk Food the New Tobacco?

via US Department of Health & Human Services

image via US Department of Health & Human Services

 

Junk food is the new tobacco: that’s the takeaway from The World Health Organization’s Assembly that’s taking place right now in Geneva. The U.N.’s Olivier De Schutter opened the summit with this statement:

Unhealthy diets are now a greater threat to global health than tobacco. Just as the world came together to regulate the risks of tobacco, a bold framework convention on adequate diets must now be agreed.

If only. Regulating junk food will make the tobacco battle look like a walk in the park.

Here’s how they’re the same:
We all know that both are bad. It’s a universally-accepted truth that tobacco and junk food are implicated among the leading causes of premature death and chronic disease.
Both are incredibly addictive. Last year the American Medical Association officially classified food addiction as a disease. Eating junk food triggers physiological changes and neural responses; in the food -addicted (estimated to be one of us in twenty) the brain’s response is virtually indistinguishable from that of smokers, alcoholics, and drug addicts when they’re given their drug of choice.

Here’s why junk food is more perilous:
Tobacco is sabotage, and every smoker knows it, but food is supposed to be good for us.
Tobacco is a binary choice—to smoke or not to smoke. Eating is not a discretionary activity; food is sustenance. While cigarettes can be avoided, food addicts are forced to confront their demons three times a day. How long do you think abstinence would last if former smokers were offered a pack of cigarettes at every meal?

You can argue that junk food is a choice, but is it really?
There’s no scientific or nutritional standard to separate the junky stuff from the healthy foods. Junk food has no official classification or designation in the food industry, the medical community, or governmental agencies. 
Some say that if you have to ask it’s probably junk. Or they’ll point to the classic pornography definition that relies on prevailing standards: you know it when you see it. Until there’s an acid test or even basic agreement on a simple definition, we can’t be sure of our choices, and more importantly, there’s no way to regulate it.

It’s not as simple as avoiding the unholy trinity of salt, sugar and fat.
You can’t just draw a line in the sand. Pixie Stix and Doritos are easy, but most foods–even those with a surfeit of the reviled ingredients–have some redeeming nutritional value. Rarely are calories truly empty. There are also plenty of foods–think of nuts, olives, and dark chocolate–that could qualify as junk food for their salt, sugar, or fat levels but are decidedly healthy. Truly dangerous ingredients and additives like artificial trans fats, nitrites, and food dyes should be banned, but mostly we just need to know what’s in our food; we don’t want to be told what we can eat.

The World Health Organization gets it right when it argues for the highest level of global agreement and collective action in dealing with junk food.
It’s also right that there are lessons to be learned from the world-wide effort to reduce smoking like warning labels, stringent advertising guidelines, and limited access to child-oriented media. Like tobacco, taxes should be hiked on unhealthy food products with the revenue funding healthcare and health education, and agricultural subsidies should be distributed to align with our nutritional goals: cheap broccoli and pricey high-fructose corn syrup.
Where the WHO gets it wrong is comparing junk food to cigarettes. Junk food is so much worse.

 

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I’m Stuffed. What’s for Dessert?

Rabelais's Gargantua

Rabelais’s Gargantua

 

Full or satisfied: How do you know when the meal is over?
There are foods that fill you up with their sheer physical bulk and some that satisfy with taste and texture. Then there are the physiological consequences of different foods—they trigger receptors in the digestive tract or send signals to the brain that carry their own messages about appetite. Foods like oatmeal and legumes will fill you up without much textural gratification, while candy and chips provide satisfaction with little filling power. A high satiety food will give you both.

The satiety index tells you about food’s bang for the buck.
The satiety index takes into account the combination of physical, psychological, and physiological factors that contribute to a sense of fullness, and then it factors in the calories. It rolls all of that into a single number that is a simple tool for evaluating and comparing foods. A high satiety food will satisfy hunger better and for a longer time than the same number of calories of a low satiety food. The SI is full of surprises:

  • While all energy-dense foods pack a big calorie wallop in a little package, calorie-for-calorie, beef and chicken are better protein sources than eggs.
  • It makes no difference if a man (but not women or children) drinks full-sugar soda, sugar-free soda, or bottled water. Lower satiety beverages have him seeking out other treats, and at the end of the day the total calories consumed will be the same.
  • Steamed white potatoes rule the satiety index. Their stuffy blandness gives four times the bulk and three times the filling power of the average food.
  • Jelly beans can curb the appetite. Their nutritional profile should score low on the SI, but a handful of jelly beans leaves dieters feeling so queasy that they’ll eat less afterward.
  • Apples and oranges—actually you can compare them, and oranges have a slight SI edge. Both are more satisfying than grapes and bananas.

Here is the satiety index of common foods, adapted from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

satietyindex

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The Food Avoiders

 

food-allergy

Contemporary eating habits have given rise to a whole new segment of the food market. The industry is calling them food avoiders.
These are people who read labels for the un-ingredients. They’re more interested in what’s not in their food than what’s in it.

Food avoidance is way of life for tens of millions of American consumers.
Some avoid certain foods because of allergies and sensitivities or specific health problems like celiac disease, diabetes, or lactose intolerance, but they’re in the minority. Most are opting out of certain foods and ingredients as a lifestyle choice.

Eat this! Don’t eat that!
There’s a steady barrage of nutritional advice and medical headlines, and they usually contradict earlier messages. Should we drink red wine for heart health or avoid it because of liver disease? Are eggs high quality protein or little cholesterol bombs? Are we eating butter this week? Additives, dyes, GMOs, gluten; we eye our plates warily, shunning those foods that make us most anxious.

Marketers love the food avoiders.
They get to charge a clean label premium to a larger share of the market than is medically or nutritionally justified. Take gluten-free products: less than one per cent of the population needs to avoid gluten but more than 29 per cent chooses to avoid it even though it’s estimated that a gluten-free diet can double the cost of groceries. Surveys conducted by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness show that the number one stressor for celiac patients is not the disease itself but the cost of the diet.

It’s a fine line between food avoidance and food fear.
Americans have a love/hate relationship with food based on an eating history full of pesudo-scientific trends that emphasized discipline over pleasure. Now the American Psychiatric Association is considering recognizing Selective Eating Disorder as a medical condition. A task force has been convened to study and categorize finicky eating in adults (known as the Food F.A.D. Study). Researchers at Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh have launched the first public registry of picky eaters that has already attracted thousands of respondents.

The late, great Julia Child had some advice for food avoiders:
“If you’re afraid of butter, just use cream.”

julia-child-kitchen-425tp0901092

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Money to Spend and a Full Set of Teeth: Eating with the Baby Boom Generation

tabasco bottle

 

Baby boomers are rekindling the fire in their bellies, and it’s changing the way America eats.
Take a quick stroll down any supermarket aisle and you’ll see how manufacturers are amping up the flavors with mintier chewing gum, darker chocolates, fruitier juice drinks, and spicier chips.  Iceberg lettuce has given way to arugula, mayonnaise to garlic aioli, yellow mustard to dijon.

Why is hot so hot?
Some of the new-found love of big and bold tastes come from societal changes that have broadened America’s definition of the mainstream. Immigrant populations have introduced complex, high-octane flavors like wasabi, chili-lime, and ancho and chipotle peppers. As a nation, we travel more, eat out often, and have a slew of new food media that have informed the tastes of recent generations.

Food scientists and marketers acknowledge the immigrant influence, but they point to another demographic shift. 
The baby boom generation is getting old. Some time around age 40, the nerve receptors in the nose and tongue begin to diminish in number and sensitivity. Smells are muted and flavors are less distinct. That means that 80 million boomers are demanding that flavors be torqued so they can recapture the taste sensations of their younger days.

Unlike previous generations, the baby boomers have reached middle age with their teeth intact, broadened appetites, and the wealth to indulge the demands of their tastebuds. They are by far the single largest and most influential demographic group in history, and they have the spending power to disrupt the entire food market.

The boomers’ shifting preferences are also being passed down to children and grandchildren, shaping the tastes of younger generations. Growing up with pesto and peppers, even very young children are demonstrating a yen for boldly pronounced flavors. The under-13 set cites Chinese food as its favorite, followed by Mexican, Japanese, Italian and, in fifth place, American food. Quesadillas have replaced grilled cheese sandwiches on restaurant kiddie menus. Sushi is the new fishsticks.

Sweeter, spicier, bigger, bolder: it looks like the new flavor profile is here to stay.

 

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Should You Just Say No to Kale?

nutellaneedle

 

You know by now that food can be addictive.
Studies have even shown that certain foods can light up the same region of the brain as heroin and cocaine. We’re told to stay away from things like chips and cookies because they’re loaded with the kinds of processed and refined carbohydrates that trigger our junk-food cravings. But other studies show that choosing healthy foods—leafy greens, fruits, and salads—can promote something called ‘vicarious goal fulfillment’ that convinces us to eat even more junk.

Picture two menus.
One menu offers burgers and fries. Some people will choose a burger only; some add fries to their burger orders.
The other menu has the same burgers, same fries, but it also offers a side salad. It seems logical that there are still some burger-only orders; some of the burger-only folks will now add a salad; some of the burger-with-fries will stick with fries; and some will switch from fries to a salad. You’d figure that the orders would go up by a few salads and down by a few fries.

It doesn’t work like that.
When a salad option is added, french fry orders actually increase. In fact three times as many diners will go for the fries when a salad is on the menu. Apparently the mere presence of healthy options encourages us to make unhealthy choices. The findings were the same, whether it was Oreos or fried chicken, salad or veggie burgers.

Researchers confirm that this ‘vicarious goal fulfillment’ happens when a person feels that a goal has been met if they have taken even a teeny, tiny step towards it. It’s like joining a gym you never get to, or buying an important book that sits on the shelf.
The fleeting thought of ‘Hmm, I could have a salad,’ is enough to satisfy dietary goals.

It’s an ironic kind of indulgence.
There is a certain logic to it. The researchers contend that the virtue conferred by the salad gave diners license to lower their guard. And the more self-disciplined an individual is, the more powerful the effect—the healthiest test subjects were actually the most likely to add fries from the second menu.

Kale as a gateway drug?
I’ll bet it’s news to you. But you can bet it’s not to the fast food industry.

 

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Reports of Holiday Weight Gain Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

image via Shelton Crossfit

image via Shelton Crossfit

 

Holiday weight gain is a bit of a myth.
The perception is that we really pack on the pounds. According to a classic study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Americans vastly overestimate how fattening the holidays are. We think we’re likely to gain at least five pounds, while the reality, according to the National Institutes of Health, is a typical weight gain of between 0.4 and 1.8 pounds. That’s an average gain of just about one pound despite six weeks of free-flowing eggnog from Thanksgiving through New Years.

That’s the good news.
The bad news is that over the years, the weight adds up. 
It’s just one extra holiday pound, but most people hang on to it. Weight is on an upward creep throughout most of our lives, from early adulthood to the peak of middle-age spread. We tend to accumulate about two pounds during each of those years, and half of that can be traced to holiday indulgence.

Another myth: you’ll lose the weight at the gym.
Every January millions of Americans pat their soft little holiday bellies and vow to get fit in the new year. It’s one of the most common resolutions, and health club rosters overflow with well-intentioned new members. Gym owners are all too happy to offer January deals and promotions because they know that the overflowing yoga classes and treadmill lines will be gone before the end of the month. A full 60% of annual gym memberships go unused after the first six weeks of every new year. Our collective failure to keep our fitness resolutions is the easiest money those gym owners see all year.

We don’t fare any better with a January menu of cottage cheese and green tea. 
40% of all New Year’s resolutions relate to diet and weight loss, but women typically revert to old eating habits by January 6th, with men holding out for another week. Men are more weak-willed about cutting out alcohol, usually making it only as far as the first weekend of the new year, while women abstain for two weeks.

Dogs and cats pack on the pounds too. 
We’re just as indulgent with our pets at holiday time. The average dog gets an extra 500 calories worth of table scraps from a single holiday dinner and cats get 200 extra calories. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, pets, like their owners, pack on the human equivalent of around two pounds by year’s end.

 

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What Is a Calorie and Why Should We Be Skeptical?

Brancas_Aeolipile_1
calorie

It’s a household word but still a mystery to many.
Ask ten people what a calorie is and at least nine will tell you ‘It’s the stuff in food that makes me fat.’ Calories are one of the most commonly counted things on the planet, but how many people know what they’re really counting?

 

calorieThe calorie is a unit of heat energy.
It was originally developed as a way to measure the efficiency of fuel burned in steam engines. When scientists turned their attention to humans, they borrowed the concept of the calorie as a way to quantify food as fuel for the human engine. In theory, the amount of heat that can be provided by any particular bit of food is the same whether it’s burned in a steam engine or a human body. More edible calories mean more energy for work, like coal in a human stove.

To measure the energy in various foods, early 20th century nutritionists burned small amounts of each inside a bomb calorimeter—a lab tool that surrounds a food-filled capsule with water. They assigned caloric values by calculating the different amounts of heat given off by different foods—one calorie for each one degree increase in the temperature of the surrounding water. These calculations are what we still use today; the calorie count on a box of Honey Nut Cheerios is calculated in 100 year-old Atwater units.

A calorie is a calorie is a calorie? 
Scientists are just now teasing out the nuances of the calorie. Advances in understanding were presented at this year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and it’s clear that all calories are not created equal.

451343 (1)Raw and unprocessed foods have fewer calories than we thought; or at least fewer than we are able to digest. The more a food is handled the more calories it gives up in digestion, and it can mean a swing of 30 or 40%. Most foods keep the calories contained inside their cell walls, so you have to do something to rupture the walls. The chopping, mixing, and heating of cooking might be enough to crack open the cells for some foods, but if you really want all the calories, you just need to eat factory-processed foods.

We’re also learning more about the body’s mechanism during digestion. Digestive tracts and their microbes are determined by genetics and cultural factors so you see big variations, like people of Russian descent with five more feet of intestines than the rest of us, and Japanese citizens with marine bacterium in their gut that help digest sushi. The old Atwater bomb calorimeter can’t even come close to figuring calories for these populations.

We understand enough to know that traditional calorie counts don’t apply to every food and every body. 
Ironically, this understanding comes just as the federal government is getting ready to launch a nationwide requirement for posted calorie counts in restaurants. The labeling, based on out-dated Atwater units, might not be accurate, but for now it’s the best method we have for quantifying calorie values, and one worth paying attention to as a defense against obesity.

In 2013, these were the most-searched calorie terms on Google:

  1. Egg
  2. Banana
  3. Beer
  4. Oatmeal
  5. Sugar
  6. Sushi
  7. Wine
  8. Popcorn
  9. Coffee
  10. Avocado

 

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It’s Official: Food Addiction is a Disease

image via Health Freedoms

image via Health Freedoms

 

The American Medical Association has officially classified food addiction as a disease.
This summer’s designation was championed in certain clinical quarters but derided in just as many. One thing is clear on both sides of the debate: in this era of fat taxes, soda bans, and school lunch reform, obesity is high in the consciousness of both the public and the medical community.

Most researchers rely on the Yale Food Addiction Scale to separate the addicts from run-of-the-mill foodies.
One particularly revealing study from Yale University measured the brain activity of subjects- both addicts and standard eaters- as they were tempted, and then rewarded, with a chocolate milkshake. PET scans and brain MRIs showed that for all the participants, sipping a milk shake caused a surge of neural activity in the brain’s regions that govern cravings. The response was virtually indistinguishable from the neural response of alcoholics and drug addicts when they’re given their drug of choice. But in the truly food addicted, there was a drop of brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s center for self control. It points to real, physiological reasons why some people are unable to muster the willpower to make good decisions about food and eating. The findings suggest that setting a chocolate milkshake down in front of the food addicted is just like dangling a dime bag of heroin in front of a junkie.

Nearly 1 in 20 people meet the Yale criteria for food addiction.
According to David Kessler, a biostatistician and a former commissioner of the U.S Food and Drug Administration, there are more than 70 million food-addicted adults in the U.S, and they’re sick of being a pop culture punchline. To them, willpower is not enough to just say ‘no’ to french fries; they hope the biological basis of the Yale findings will bring understanding and compassion to their plight.

Food addicts are forced to confront their demons three times a day. Every meal challenges them to resist the pathology of the brain’s reward center. They reel from the constant temptations on the calendar—Halloween candy gives way to Thanksgiving dinner followed by Christmas and New Years feasts. Just when they’ve made it through the back-to-back candy holidays of Valentines Day and Easter, the doorbell rings and it’s the Girl Scouts hawking those damn Thin Mints cookies. How long do you think sobriety would last if a glass of whiskey was placed in front of an alcoholic as often?

Then there’s the pervasiveness of foodie culture, which runs amok on dedicated cable channels, in the food porn everyone is snapping, and in countless tweets and food blogs. For too many, food appreciation has become an obsession. While some of us feel food fatigue, for the food addict it’s a constant, punishing minefield of temptation.

Foodies have created an environment in which celebrations of narcissism and gluttony are socially acceptable, blurring the line between preoccupation and pathology. Disordered, compulsive eating can be hard to spot. It rarely has the rock-bottom, aha moment of other addictions, but instead tends to be a slow, chronic creep of abuse of a substance we’ve indulged in our entire lives.

Are we all food addicts waiting to happen?
Check your own propensity with this online test of addictive behavior based on the Yale Food Addiction Scale.

 

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How Many Ways Can You Say Sugar?

image via Dumbink

image via DumbInk

 

The Harvard School of Public Health identifies 23 different names for added sugar on food labels.
The consumer advocacy site Consumerist calls them ‘code words’, and names 30 of them. Robert Lustig raised the number to 56 in his current bestseller Sugar Has 56 Names, and the American Institute for Cancer Research puts the total closer to 100.

All the synonyms, euphemisms, and turns of the phrase make it difficult to figure out just how much sweetener is in there. And that’s no accident.

Food manufacturers are required to label a product’s ingredients in descending order by weight.
The most abundant ingredient is listed first, the next appears second, and so on. Manufacturers have figured out that if they spread the total amount of sugar among several different sweeteners instead of using just one type, each of the sugars is weighed separately. A whopping dose of added sugar might be the number one ingredient, but it could show up far down the list divvied up between fructose, glucose, corn syrup, and fruit juice concentrate. Strictly speaking, they’re all different additives, but sugar is sugar is sugar.

Sugar assumes many guises.
Some of the tip-offs are ingredients ending with -ose, most syrups, and anything with malt in its name. It can come from sugar cane, corn, beets, coconut, dates, and a slew of grains and fruits. Commonly used forms that can be tricky to identify include dextrose, dextrin, maltodextrin, glucose solids, maltose, galactose, diastatic malt, molasses, sorghum, cane juice, cane crystals, barley malt, brown rice syrup, turbinado, demerara, muscovado, rice bran syrup, agave, panocha, ethyl malto, sucanat, rapadura, panela, and jaggery.

Consumer groups have pressured the FDA to close the labeling loophole by creating a single line for ‘added sugars.’ Until then, the major ingredient on nutrition labels is confusion. You need to be a chemist, a detective, and a mathematician to hunt down all the sugars, add them all up, and turn them into information in a form that you can use to make educated decisions about diet and nutrition.

The USDA Supertracker analyzes the nutritional content of just about every product sold in U.S. supermarkets.
Its database is unavailable during the government shutdown but will become available again when our country comes to its senses.

 

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We Have It Backwards. Eat Dessert First.

 

cupcake breakfast via Saucy Sprinkles

cupcake breakfast via Saucy Sprinkles

 

We have it all backwards.
A slew of new research has come out telling us to eat more desserts. It’s good nutrition, good for your teeth, and even good for weight loss.
It’s like a childhood dream come true.

A little dessert does a lot of good at mealtime.
The problem with a very low-fat diet is that many nutrients can’t be adequately absorbed. Vitamins A, D, E, and K, and the carotenoids in green, leafy vegetables are examples of fat-soluble nutrients; they’re virtually useless if they land in the digestive tract without some fat. That’s where dessert comes in—eggs, butter, creamy fillings—we can always count on desserts to provide the fat.

Dessert can help you stick with a diet. 
A diet is a constant tug-of-war between desire and will power. Studies show that dieters who ease up a little will have greater self-control in the long run, while a single-minded focus on the effort to avoid sweets entirely can create a psychological addiction to the very foods they want to avoid.

Eat dessert first.
The best compliance came from dieters who had dessert before dinner. The gratification comes first, making it easier to stick with the healthy foods that come later. Dessert first also causes you to feel full more quickly, and the sense of satiety lasts longer. It’s no illusion: the denser, fattier dessert will settle heavily in the gut and stick around longer than the diet foods that follow.

Dessert for breakfast. 
The old adage instructs us to eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dine like a pauper. That’s because a big and balanced breakfast fires up the metabolism for better fat burning throughout the day. Add a dessert to the meal and it seems to give the metabolism an extra boost. It also suppresses the production of ghrelin, the hormone that increases hunger, and less ghrelin means fewer late-day cravings.

Sweets for breakfast, dessert before dinner—some rules really are made to be broken.

Summaries of both the ‘dessert first study‘ and the ‘dessert for breakfast study‘ can be found in Science Daily.

 

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Wanna Bet? Online Gambling Meets Weight-Loss

 

dietbet-3

 [a few examples of current DietBet challenges–the stakes are getting high]

 

What are the odds that your diet will work?
DietBet
 challenges you to lose 4% of your body weight in four weeks and has you put your money where your mouth is. The service sets up a weight-loss competition, everyone throws money into the pot, and at the end of the 28 days it’s split among the players who reached the goal.

The obvious question: How do you verify?
48 hours prior to the scheduled start of the game, all participants have to upload two photos to DietBet: one full-body shot of the user standing on a scale and one showing the scale’s weight readout. The photos are reviewed by a team of DietBet referees. If they suspect foul play, they’ll request a video weigh-in, a Skype video chat, or a verifiable live weigh-in at a location like CVS or Walgreens. Authentication is repeated at the closing weigh-in, and if a participant doesn’t agree to the audit, the bet is forfeited to the rest of the dieters.

Next question: Isn’t this gambling?
Gambling involves betting on a game of chance or a future contingency—a horse race, a football game, the spin of a roulette wheel—events that are fundamentally beyond our control. DietBet is not viewed as illegal gambling because your weight is considered to be entirely under your control. Some might say that’s debatable, but the outcome of a diet is definitely not left up to chance.

Money and peer pressure are powerful motivators. 
They’re what’s behind employer-sponsored wellness programs, when coworkers work out together and track progress by corporate departments. DietBet brings the combination to online social networks. Users can post weight data and photos, updates and comments about their progress, and link it to their Facebook and Twitter accounts. And it works. DietBet claims that 90% of participants slim down, even if they don’t always reach the 4% target, losing an average of 5.4 pounds.

The money talks but the public shaming is viral. 
Recent studies at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Michigan Health System both confirm the motivating effect of financial incentives on dieters, and the five- and six-figure pots that DietBet attracts can go a long way toward strengthening resolve. The group dynamic can be equally powerful, and it provides both carrot and stick. The platform offers positive motivation and a supportive community with dieters sharing workout tips and recipes, and forums where participants can get advice from nutritionists, fitness coaches, and physicians. But the very public nature of a dieter’s progress can also lead to a failure that’s broadcast throughout their social networks. DietBet reports that the most socially engaged players are also the most successful, perhaps fearing public humiliation, losing an average of 20% more weight than those who don’t post to social networks.

DietBetters ante up with a bet from $1 to $99, and the service keeps 20% of the total as an administrative fee. More than 250,000 pounds have been lost through the application and total winnings are in the millions, with many dieters signing up for multiple rounds. To keep things friendly and safe, the pot is always split equally among all players that hit the 4% mark, and anyone who loses more than 12% of their body mass is disqualified.

 

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The 10 Most Hated Foods (and how they made the list)

broccoli

It’s not true that everything’s better with bacon.
There are foods that we simply loathe.

Some tastes are hardwired at birth for our protection and survival. We like sweet and dislike bitter— sugar means energy and bitterness can be a warning sign of toxicity. Savoriness signals protein, and an appealing saltiness helps our bodies get necessary sodium. Your genetic makeup plays a role in taste: everyone perceives flavors a little differently, with different levels of intensity.

That’s the nature; then there’s the nurture.
Context and experience influence how we taste by shaping how we feel about what we eat. Our perceptions and biases are influenced by sociological and cultural factors like ethnicity and economics, and there are also the psychological associations we make with foods that are based in our personal histories and memories of meals gone by.

Flavors can be polarizing, like blue cheese and black coffee—they are as beloved by some as much as they are detested by others. There are foods like spinach and brussels sprouts that elicit a child’s knee-jerk response, and many will carry it into adulthood. And then there are foods that are just plain difficult, like organ meats and odd sea creatures. It’s not that the taste is so objectionable, but the texture, aroma, or even the mere thought of these foods can cause queasiness in a wide swath of eaters. The Journal of Psychology surveyed more than 75,000 participants to come up with a list of the most hated foods in America, and they found that polarizing tastes, childhood prejudices, and the odd, nasty bits are all represented.

Disgusting or delicious? These are the 10 most hated foods (in order of revulsion):

      • Liver
      • Lima beans
      • Mayonnaise
      • Mushrooms
      • Eggs
      • Okra
      • Beets
      • Brussels Sprouts
      • Tuna
      • Gelatin

 

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