Low Fat, High Maintenance: How money buys lean and healthy–plus, an alternative path to both

The 2015[6] Dietary Guidelines are out today. Although restrictions on cholesterol and overall fat [read: oil] content of the diet have been lifted [sorta, not really], the nutrition Needle of Progress has hardly budged, with saturated fat and sodium still lumped into the same “DANGER Will Robinson” category as trans fats and added sugars–and with cholesterol still carrying the caveat that “individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.” The recommended “healthy eating pattern” calls for fat-free/low-fat dairy, lean meat, and plenty of whole grains, plus OIL. In other words, the diet is still low-fat and high-carb–just add vegetable oil [you know, locally sourced, whole-food canola, corn, and soy oil].

However, the most disturbing part of the Guidelines is Chapter 3, which heralds “a new paradigm in which healthy lifestyle choices at home, school, work, and in the community are easy, accessible, affordable, and normative.”  In other words, let’s make what we’ve determined is the healthy choice, the easy–and morally permitted–choice for everyone [read: especially for those minority and low-income populations who insist on eating stuff we disapprove of].

Thus, it seems appropriate that today’s featured post focuses less on nutrition and more on the cultural context in which nutrition happens.  Without further ado:

Low Fat, High Maintenance: How money buys lean and healthy–plus, an alternative path to both

Guest post by Jennifer Calihan at eatthebutter.org

It’s Friday evening. There is a chill in the air. The smell of ‘Walking Tacos’[i] wafts over from the row below.  A rousing, “Give me an ‘S’!” commands my attention. All the cues point to one thing – I am sitting at another high school football game. I’m not really a huge football fan, but my son plays on the team, and I love watching him.

walking-taco

The parents and fans from my son’s school all sit on one side of the field, so the stands are filled with friends and many warm, familiar faces. I am struck, as I always am, by how good everyone looks. I see a lot of grey hair on the men but not much on the women – funny how that works! The adults watching are at least 40, and some are probably mid-fifties. But what is truly striking about this crowd is how trim they all are. Are there some people struggling with their weight? Sure. But the majority of these folks are maintaining a normal weight. No sign of the obesity epidemic on this side of the field. And I wonder what I always wonder – how do they do it – really?

At half time, I take a walk over to the visitor side of the field to stretch my legs. Over here, the stands tell a different story. The parents and fans of the visiting team look…  well, they look like most American crowds. Although this crowd seems a little younger than the home team fans, most of the people here are struggling with their weight. In fact, our national averages would predict about 68% of these adults are too heavy; 38% would be obese, plus about another 30% overweight.  And, based on what I see, that sounds about right. But it is not the weight, per se, that worries me. It is the metabolic disease that often travels with excess weight that is cause for concern. Diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver… a future of pills and declining health.

Experts acknowledge that obesity and the diseases that travel with it are tied to income.  Simplistically, you might think something like, “more money = more food = more obesity,” but that is just not how it works. As most of you know, it is the reverse. “Less money = more obesity.” So it may not surprise you to hear that my son attends an independent school in an affluent area.  And the visiting team is from a less affluent suburb. So, the mystery is solved – skinny rich people on one side, and overweight middle-class people on the other.

What interests me is the, ‘How?’ As in, ‘How do the skinny rich people do it?’

I affectionately refer to my neighborhood, and others like it, as ‘the bubble.’ The bubble is safe… it is comfortable… it is beautiful. But how, exactly, does the bubble protect my family and my neighbors from the obesity epidemic? Just as it is not a happy accident that actresses age amazingly well, it is not a happy accident that the affluent stay lean. Most of them spend a lot of time and money on it. They have to. Our nation’s high-maintenance dietary recommendations require most eaters to invest a great deal of resources to combat the risk of obesity and diabetes that is built into low-fat eating. Unfortunately, this means middle-income and working class families, who may be lacking the resources to perform this maintenance, are launched on a path toward overweight and diabetes. What can be done to level the playing field?

Seven Ways Money Buys Thin

1. More Money Buys Better Food

 For many in the bubble, there is not a defined budget for groceries. And, let’s face it, that makes shopping successfully for healthy food – however you define it – just a tad easier.  To imagine the flexibility that wealth can afford, consider this inner dialog that happens in a Whole Foods aisle near you. In the bubble, a mom might consider: “Should I buy the wild salmon or the chicken tenders for dinner? Hmmm… let’s see here. $28.50 or $8.99? My, that is quite a price difference. But those tenders are pretty processed. And they aren’t gluten-free. I’ll go with the salmon this week – Johnny loves it, and it’s so healthy.”  If it doesn’t really matter if the food bill is $300 or $350 this week, why not buy the wild salmon?

Much has been written about how cheap the processed calories in products like soda and potato chips are, and how tempting those cheap calories are to people who are shopping, at least on some level, for the cheapest calorie. I find it hard to believe that any thinking mother is buying soda because it is a cheap way to feed her family.  My guess is that she is buying soda for other reasons: habit, caffeine, sweet treat, etc. But certainly, refined carbohydrates and refined oils, which I believe are uniquely fattening, are cheap and convenient and are often processed into something remarkably tasty.  So yes, I think small grocery budgets lead to more processed foods and more fattening choices.

way better etbHigher grocery budgets often lead to high-end grocery stores that offer exotic, ‘healthy’ products, which, on the margin, may be healthier than their conventional counterparts.  Quinoa pasta, hemp seed oil mayonnaise (affectionately known as ‘hippie butter’), cereals or crackers made from ancient grains, and anything made with chia seeds all come to mind. Last week, I saw Punkin Cranberry Tortilla Chips on an endcap. Seriously? (Yet, mmmm…  how inventive and seasonal!) The prices are ridiculous, but upscale shoppers snap up these small-batch, artisanal products, regardless. They may not be worth the money, and may not really taste all that good, but they carry an aura of health and make you feel really good about yourself when you put them in your cart.

The idea that money buys better food also rings true when eating out. The cheapest restaurants tend to offer more processed calories with fewer whole food choices. And, even on the same menu, the fresh, whole foods tend to be quite expensive, especially if you look at cost per calorie. Again, in the bubble, a mom might consider, “Pizza tonight? Or should we stop by Cornerstone, the local home-style restaurant, and get grilled chicken with broccoli and a salad?  Hmmm…  $20 or $60? Well, we did pizza last week; I think we should go to Cornerstone.”

The bottom line is that money can buy more choices and some of those choices are less likely to add pounds.

2. More Money Buys More Time to Cook and/or More Shortcuts

Most of the moms (and a rare dad or two) in my circles have time to shop and cook because they are not working full-time. Thus, higher family income can mean more home-cooked meals. Cooking at home gives families more control of ingredients and portions. It also tends to mean more whole food and less processed food, which most agree is better for weight control.vintage ladies AND logo

Of course, affluent working moms are the exception to this, as they have little time for grocery shopping and cooking. But, again, money can help here. Many of my friends who work full-time outsource the grocery shopping and/or cooking to a nanny, a housekeeper, or a personal chef service. Even in a mid-sized city like Pittsburgh, there are boutique, foodie storefronts that deliver healthy, home-made meals for $12-16 (each). Lately, some moms are using the on-line services (like Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Plated, and even The Purple Carrot, which offers a vegan menu) that ship a simple recipe and the exact fresh ingredients needed to make it to a subscriber’s door each day. How convenient! For only $35 or $40, you can feed your family of four AND still get to cook dinner. Perfect. Many skip the whole experience and simply purchase fully cooked gourmet meals at high-end grocery stores, which tend to run $8-15 per person. Fabulous. What a nice option for the health-minded busy mom who is not on a budget. Of course, not all working mothers are quite so lucky.

3. More Money Buys More Time to Exercise And More Access To Exercise

I am a firm believer that one cannot exercise one’s way out of a diet full of nutritionally empty calories. BUT, if people get their diet headed in a decent direction, daily exercise can really help them cheat their way to thin even if they are still not eating right all of the time. So, exercise is certainly a factor in this puzzle, particularly for people eating low-fat diets that seem to require a steady, daily burn of calories. As a committed non-athlete, I am continually amazed by how much my friends exercise. Running, walking, biking, swimming, tennis, squash, paddle tennis – the list goes on and on. Now, small fitness facilities offer pricey, specialized workouts: lifting, yoga, Pilates, rowing, bootcamp, kick-boxing, TRX, Pure Barre, spinning, Crossfit, and the very latest – wait for it – OrangeTheory. These boutique fitness plays are becoming more common, and can run up to $500/month…  not kidding. Here’s more on this trend from the WSJ.

Whew. It is exhausting to even imagine keeping up with most of my friends and neighbors. But I give it a go…  sort of. Devoting an hour or more each day to exercise is much easier for those living in the bubble. Let’s be honest – people with money can afford to outsource some of the busywork of life. If you don’t like cleaning your house or mowing your lawn or weeding the flowerbeds or repainting the fence or doing laundry, don’t do it. Pay someone else to do those things, so you have time for spinning 3x a week plus Pilates (work that core) and tennis. Have baby weight to lose? No problem. Hire a babysitter and a trainer and you will make progress.

Good trainers, although expensive, often deliver more effective exercise, more efficient routines, more entertaining workouts, and better results. Appointments are scheduled and you pay whether you go or not, which makes showing up more likely. You can even find a buff guy who will yell at you if you find that motivating. Personal trainers are just one more way money buys thin.

When I think back to what my mother might have considered doing to stay fit when she was my age, I come up with one thing and one thing only: walking the golf course. And I lived up north, so the golf season was only 18 weeks long. She had no regular workout routine, nor did any of her friends. Did she have cut arms, toned abs, and look great in a bikini? Absolutely not. Was she overweight? Absolutely not. And she had the good sense not to wear a bikini, btw.  It’s amazing that she could maintain her weight without regularly scheduled exercise. Her game plan was old-fashioned: bacon and eggs fried in butter for breakfast, no starch at dinner, very occasional desserts, plus a couple very dry martinis, never before 6pm. She’s a size 10 at age 91, so I’d say it worked for her.

Tithe closetmes have changed. In the bubble, 50-year-old upper arms are proudly bared, even in winter, and women walking around in fitness gear is so commonplace that the industry has a term for this fashion trend: athleisure.  If you think I might be making that up, check out this WSJ article, “Are You Going to the Gym or Do You Just Dress That Way?” The fact that Nike’s sales of women’s products topped $5 billion in 2014 is a little startling, no? Some women even need a completely separate closet to house all of their Nike apparel. Khloe Kardashian claims her fitness closet is her favorite closet. Ummm…  not quite sure what to say about this, except that girl has a lot of sneakers.

One doesn’t have to be athletic to exercise, so I am guilty of some of this behavior (although I swear I only have one drawer for my fitness gear). I am sure there are some naturally thin couch potatoes among the parents of the students enrolled at my son’s school, but they are the exception. Most of the lean and affluent are working pretty hard to look the way they look.

4. More Money Buys Access to Better Ideas About What Makes You Overweight

Maybe it is your personal trainer who talks to you about trying a Paleo diet. Or, perhaps your trip to Canyon Ranch exposes you to a more whole food, plant-based, healthy fats approach to eating.  Or, if you prefer to ‘spa’ at Miraval, you might learn about Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory food pyramid. Maybe your friend recommends an appointment with a naturopathic MD who suggests that you try giving up grains. The point is, if you have money, you have a greater chance of hearing something other than ‘eat less, exercise more’ when you complain about your expanding waistline. The affluent have easy access to many different ideas about diet and health, so they can experiment with several and see which one works for them.

Today, one of the most popular alternative ways of eating is a plant-based, ultra-low-fat diet. Books and sites (like the in-your-face, aptly named Skinny Bitch brand) market snotty versions of this blueprint for weight loss to their upscale customers. I see many women in my circles eating this near vegan diet these days: lots of whole vegetables and grains, very little fat, with perhaps a little lean meat, fish or eggs occasionally. Although this is not my chosen approach, as it requires giving up too many of my favorite foods and leaves me perpetually hungry, it seems to deliver some pretty skinny results.  And, since it is in vogue, it is something that will be accommodated at parties in the bubble – plenty of crudité platters with hummus and beautiful roasted beet salads, sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, pomegranate kernels, and just a touch of olive oil. In affluent communities, being among friends and acquaintances who practice an alternative approach to eating means social activities are “safe” places to eat, not minefields of temptation. I don’t mean to suggest that people in less affluent suburbs have not heard of a vegan diet or only socialize around piles of nachos; I would maintain that those communities are as invested in their health as affluent ones. But, if your social circle has access to better food, as well as better information about food, you are more likely to be a part of a “culture of skinny.”

5. More Money Buys a ‘Culture of Skinny’

Living in the bubble means living among the lean. Which, as you might imagine, increases the odds that you will be one of them. There is a lot of peer pressure to look a certain way, and being surrounded by people who look that way certainly gets your attention. It also gives you hope that being thin is a reasonable expectation – as in, “If all my neighbors have figured it out, so can I.”  And, it helps that there will be healthier food at most gatherings. When the trays of cookies do come out, none of your friends will be reaching for more than one, either. So the bubble is sort of a support group for staying lean. As the success of AA can attest, when it comes to habits and willpower, support groups matter.

vintage ladies jane logoThere is even some research to back this up. Did you know that you are 40% more likely to become obese if you have a sibling who becomes obese, but 57% more likely to become obese if you have friend who becomes obese?[ii] It’s a little weird to think of obesity as socially contagious, but it seems that social environment trumps genetics. An article in Time explains it this way: “Socializing with overweight people can change what we perceive as the norm; it raises our tolerance for obesity both in others and in ourselves.”[iii] (Emphasis mine.)

Living immersed in the ‘culture of skinny’ makes the sacrifices you must make to stay that way more bearable. Misery loves company, and I often think that eating way too much kale and being hungry all the time is easier if you are doing it with friends…  Odd to think of widespread hunger in the affluent suburbs, I know, but I think there is a fair amount of self-imposed hunger here. Likewise, on the exercise front, you certainly won’t lack company on the paddle court or walking paths, and exercising with friends can truly be fun. Plus, you can take solace in the fact that you won’t be the only one foregoing the pleasure of lying on the couch with a glass of Chardonnay watching Downton Abby in order to make it to your spin class. In the bubble, the penalty for not keeping up with your diet and exercise regime is higher.  Being the only obese mom or dad standing on the sidelines at Saturday’s soccer game can feel a bit isolating. The ‘culture of skinny’ cuts both ways – it can serve as both a carrot and a stick.

6. More Money Buys Other Ways to Treat Yourself (and the Kids)

I attended a workshop about obesity and food deserts a couple of years ago. It was sponsored by a group of venture philanthropists (think: savvy business people advising and funding fledgling non-profits), hoping to shed some light on the obesity epidemic. One of our assignments was to go into a small market in a blighted urban neighborhood and try to buy food for a few meals for a single mother and two young children. Of course, the earnest healthy eaters (self-included) in our group dominated, and we came back with things like whole milk, regular oatmeal, vegetable soup, and turkey deli meat. Boy, were we – visitors to this world – going to prove that even in a food desert and on a budget, healthy eating was possible if we made wise choices. When we returned for the debrief, another mother said, “You know, we bought all this healthy stuff, but if I were that single mother, wouldn’t I want to bring home some joy? Like, something that would make my kids smile?” And, of course, she was right. If money were tight, would I really buy unsweetened oatmeal, disappoint my kids, and listen to the subsequent really loud whining? Probably not. I think I would bring home Captain Crunch and see some joy.vintage ladies eat it logo

In the bubble, breakfast does not have to be a treat. Like all mothers, I have to pick my battles, but breakfast can be one of mine. Would I be as likely to refuse to buy sweetened cereal if there were more important battles to fight? No. And, for the adults, maybe the food-reward cycle becomes less important when there are so many other ‘treats’ coming… the manicure, the tennis lesson, the new jeans… whatever it is that makes food less important.

7. More Money Buys Bariatric Surgery

If all else fails, people with resources have a surgical option. This is, of course, a very invasive approach to the problem – surgically altering the human anatomy to suit the modern diet rather than altering the modern diet to suit the human anatomy. But type 2 diabetes remission rates as high as 66% have been reported (two years post-op)[iv], so bariatric procedures offer more than just a cosmetic result.  Our health care providers love this option. (How exciting: a new profit center!) Expensive bariatric procedures are actually available outside the bubble because insurance will cover most of the costs. How interesting that this somewhat extreme solution is the tool that is subsidized enough to bring it within reach of our middle class citizens. But, of course, those without the means to fund the deductibles, out-of-pocket costs, and time off work cannot afford even this option.

Another Inconvenient Truth

Here’s the thing. As a nation, we have (perhaps inadvertently) chosen to push, EXCLUSIVELY, a very high-maintenance diet. (And I know high-maintenance when I see it.) A diet that requires most of its eaters to either perform hours of exercise each week, or endure daily hunger, or both, in order to avoid weight gain and/or diabetes. A diet that has taken us down the tedious path of measuring portions, counting calories, and wearing Fitbits. This is far from ideal, and has left too many of us hungry, tired, crabby, and sick, not to mention pacing around our homes at night in our daily pursuit of 10,000 steps. Yes, there are those genetically gifted people who can eat low-fat, not be chained to a treadmill, and remain skinny – ignore this irrelevant minority. Yes, there are neighborhoods of affluent people where most seem to make it work – ignore them, too. We should not let the success we see in privileged communities give us hope that our current low-fat dietary paradigm is workable. The bubble is a red herring; it telegraphs false hope.

Our nation’s overall results speak for themselves. Low-fat diet advice will never work for most Americans. Never-ever. Sticking, stubbornly, to our high-maintenance food paradigm is especially harmful for our working class and middle-income citizens; people who don’t have the time, money, or resources required to make the low-fat diet work, but care just as much about their health as those in the bubble. For them, we must move on.vintage ladies bathing suit logo

I am proposing that our obesity and diabetes epidemics reveal yet another inconvenient truth: our official dietary advice sets most people up for failure. Perhaps Jeb Bush could take a page out of Al Gore’s playbook and put himself on a post–campaign mission to shine a spotlight on this issue.  Jeb! has access, he has public speaking skills, he has bank, and, believe it or not, he’s Paleo. Who knew?

If Jeb! were to spread the word, what solutions could he promote?  What can any eater do to level the playing field a bit – to have a shot at vibrant health minus the prohibitive price tag of high-maintenance routines?

The Vintage Alternative

I run a small non-profit, Eat the Butter, that is all about real-food-more-fat eating. The main idea behind the site is that the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines have created many of our health problems, and going back to eating the way we used to eat, before they were issued, is a workable solution. The tagline is ‘Vintage Eating for Vibrant Health.’ Specifically, my site suggests some simple ideas about healthy eating. Eat real food. Unrefined. Whole food that has been around for a while. And don’t be afraid to eat more natural fat. To follow this advice, an eater must ignore some of the USDA’s guidelines. vintage ladies phone logoAnd there are millions of Americans doing just that. (Many of these rogue eaters are affluent, by the way.) I am trying to reach out to more – to every mother. It pains me that millions of mothers are teaching their kids to eat in a low-fat way that is likely to lead, when their kids reach their 30’s or 40’s, down the path of metabolic syndrome, just as it has for us. It is time for a different approach, informed by vintage, time-tested ideas (often backed up by thoroughly modern science) about the basic components of a healthy diet.

But can vintage eating be done outside the bubble – even on a budget? It worked pretty well in the 1950’s…  why not now?

Sometimes, back-to-basics can actually be pretty affordable… what could be more inexpensive and vintage than a glass of water out of the tap? Think of the groceries you would no longer need: almost all drinks – soda and Snapple and Gatorade and fruit juice (… alas, you might still ‘need’ your coffee and that glass of Chardonnay…); almost all packaged cereals and crackers and chips and snacks; almost all cookies and cereal bars and – God forbid – Pop Tarts. These products all contain highly processed ingredients and are relatively expensive for what you are getting. By buying whole, unprocessed food, the middleman is eliminated and so is his profit margin.  Whole foods are usually devoid of packaging or minimally packaged, and don’t typically require an advertising budget. So there are meaningful savings here, especially if you can buy in bulk and shop the sales.

I have lingered in the bubble long enough that saving money in the grocery aisles is not exactly my expertise.  My husband, much to his chagrin, can attest to this. I won’t insult you by offering second-hand tips, but there are plenty of smart women blogging about their take on buying high quality food on a budget. By mostly ignoring the packaged goods in the middle of the store, my hope is that you can offset much of the incremental spending you will do on the store’s perimeter: in the produce, dairy, and meat departments. These foods may be somewhat more expensive in general, but offer more nutrition for your food dollar and are more filling in the long run.

ETB_Postcard_Back_Cropped_900x900Can vintage eating be easy? Yes… perhaps not as easy as a drive-thru, but how long does it take to fry a pork chop? Scramble a couple of eggs? Open a can of green beans? Throw sweet potatoes in the oven? Vintage doesn’t have to be fancy. I bet you cannot drive to pick-up take-out in the time it takes to make a quick vintage meal. Simple vintage meals are the original fast food. Saturated fat is the original comfort food. If only we would give everyone permission to fry up some meat or fish and melt butter on their frozen peas. What a relief it would be for those who have very little slack in their lives and just want easy, satisfying meals that nourish them rather than fatten them.

The goal, after all, is not perfection. It is to move in the general direction of whole foods… not to be confused with Whole Foods, the grocery chain, which is definitely not where you want to go if you are on a budget ;-). Give up as many modern, food science inventions as you can stomach, replace them with vintage, whole food, and I bet you will see the ‘always hungry’ status that the processed stuff drives fade. Travel towards vintage eating just as far as your time, tastes, and budget will allow.  Then, see how you feel. Even if it doesn’t get you all the way to lean, it might just get you to healthy, which is really what this is about.

References

[i] ‘Walking Tacos’ are a high school snack stand special: open a snack-sized bag of Fritos and toss a couple of spoonfuls of taco meat, shredded lettuce, and grated cheese on top. Yum! Although initially put off by the idea of serving tacos in a foil bag of chips, I have made hundreds on my snack stand shifts and now marvel at the efficiency of this ingenious suburban housewife creation.

[ii] Christakis NA, Fowler JH. The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years. New England Journal of Medicine, July 26, 2007. 357-370-9.

[iii] Abedin S. The Social Side of Obesity: You are Who You Eat With. Time, September 3, 2009.

[iv] Puzziferri N. Long-term follow-up after bariatric surgery: a systematic review. JAMA. 2014 Sep 3;312(9):934-42.

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Figures from the author’s comments in the comment section below:

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As the Calories Churn (Episode 3): The Blame Game

In the previous episode of As the Calories Churn, we explored the differences in food supply/consumption between America in 1970 and America in 2010.

We learned that there were some significant changes in those 40 years. We saw dramatic increases in vegetable oils, grain products, and poultry—the things that the 1977 Dietary Goals and the 1980 Dietary Guidelines told us to increase. We saw decreases in red meat, eggs, butter, and full-fat milk—things that our national dietary recommendations told us to decrease. Mysteriously, what didn’t seem to increase much—or at all—were SoFAS (meaning “Solid Fats and Added Sugars”) which, as far as the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are concerned, are the primary culprits behind our current health crisis. (“Solid Fats” are a linguistic sleight-of-hand that lumps saturated fat from natural animal sources in with processed partially-hydrogenated vegetables oils and margarines that contain transfats; SoFAS takes the trick a step further, by being not only a dreadful acronym in terms of implying that poor health is caused by sitting on our “sofas,” but by creating an umbrella term for foods that have little in common in terms of structure, biological function or nutrition.)

Around the late 70s or early 80s, there were sudden and rapid changes in America’s food supply and food choices and similar sudden and rapid changes in our health. How these two phenomena are related remains a matter of debate. It doesn’t matter if you’re Marion Nestle and you think the problem is calories or if you’re Gary Taubes and you think the problem is carbohydrate—both of those things increased in our food supply. (Whether or not the problem is fat is an open debate; food availability data points to an increase in added fats and oil, the majority of which are, ironically enough, the “healthy” monounsaturated kind; consumption data points to a leveling off of overall fat intake and a decrease in saturated fat—not a discrepancy I can solve here.) What seems to continue to mystify people is why this changed occurred so rapidly at this specific point in our food and health history.

Personally responsible or helplessly victimized?

At one time, it was commonly thought that obesity was a matter of personal responsibility and that our collective sense of willpower took a nosedive in the 80s, but nobody could ever explain quite why. (Perhaps a giant funk swept over the nation after The Muppet Show got cancelled, and we all collectively decided to console ourselves with Little Debbie Snack Cakes and Nickelodeon?) But because this approach is essentially industry-friendly (Hey, says Big Food, we just make the stuff!) and because no one has any explanation for why nearly three-quarters of our population decided to become fat lazy gluttons all at once (my Muppet Show theory notwithstanding) or for the increase of obesity among preschool children (clearly not affected by the Muppet Show’s cancellation), public health pundits and media-appointed experts have decided that obesity is no longer a matter of personal responsibility. Instead the problem is our “obesogenic environment,” created by the Big Bad Fast Processed Fatty Salty Sugary Food Industry.

Even though it is usually understood that a balance between supply and demand creates what happens in the marketplace, Michael Pollan has argued that it is the food industry’s creation of cheap, highly-processed, nutritionally-bogus food that has caused the rapid rise in obesity. If you are a fan of Pollanomics, it seems obvious that food industry—on a whim?—made a bunch of cheap tasty food, laden with fatsugarsalt, hoping that Americans would come along and eat it. And whaddaya know? They did! Sort of like a Field of Dreams only with Taco-flavored Doritos.

As a result, obesity has become a major public health problem.

Just like it was in 1952.

Helen Lee in thought-provoking article, The Making of the Obesity Epidemic (it is even longer than one of my blog posts, but well worth the time) describes how our obesity problem looked then:

“It is clear that weight control is a major public health problem,” Dr. Lester Breslow, a leading researcher, warned at the annual meeting of the western branch of the American Public Health Association (APHA).
 At the national meeting of the APHA later that year, experts called obesity “America’s No. 1 health problem.”

The year was 1952. There was exactly one McDonald’s in all of America, an entire six-pack of Coca-Cola contained fewer ounces of soda than a single Super Big Gulp today, and less than 10 percent of the population was obese.

In the three decades that followed, the number of McDonald’s restaurants would rise to nearly 8,000 in 32 countries around the world,
sales of soda pop and junk food would explode — and yet, against the fears and predictions of public health experts, obesity in the United States hardly budged. The adult obesity rate was 13.4 percent in 1960. In 1980, it was 15 percent. If fast food was making us fatter, it wasn’t by very much.

Then, somewhat inexplicably, obesity took off.”

It is this “somewhat inexplicably” that has me awake at night gnashing my teeth.

And what is Government going to do about it?

I wonder how “inexplicable” it would be to Ms. Lee had she put these two things together:

(In case certain peoples have trouble with this concept, I’ll type this very slowly and loudly: I’m not implying that the Dietary Guidelines “caused” the rise in obesity; I am merely illustrating a temporal relationship of interest to me, and perhaps to a few billion other folks. I am also not implying that a particular change in diet “caused” the rise in obesity. My focus is on the widespread and encompassing effects that may have resulted from creating one official definition of “healthy food choices to prevent chronic disease” for the entire population.)

Right now we are hearing calls from every corner for the government to create or reform policies that will reign in industry and “slim down the nation.” Because we’d never tried that before, right?

When smoking was seen as a threat to the health of Americans, the government issued a definitive report outlining the science that found a connection between smoking and risk of chronic disease. Although there are still conspiracy theorists that believe that this has all been a Big Plot to foil the poor widdle tobacco companies, in general, the science was fairly straightforward. Cigarette smoking—amount and duration—is relatively easy to measure, and the associations between smoking and both disease and increased mortality were compelling and large enough that it was difficult to attribute them to methodological flaws.

Notice that Americans didn’t wait around for the tobacco industry to get slapped upside the head by the FDA’s David Kessler in the 1990s. Tobacco use plateaued in the 1950s as scientists began to publicize reports linking smoking and cancer. The decline in smoking in America began in earnest with the release of Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General in 1964. A public health campaign followed that shifted social norms away from considering smoking as an acceptable behavior, and smoking saw its biggest declines before litigation and sanctions against Big Tobacco  happened in the 1990s.

Been there, done that, failed miserably.

In a similar fashion, the 1977 Dietary Goals were the culmination of concerns about obesity that had begun decades before, joined by concerns about heart disease voiced by a vocal minority of scientists led by Ancel Keys. Declines in red meat, butter, whole milk and egg consumption had already begun in response to fears about cholesterol and saturated fat that originated with Keys and the American Heart Association—which used fear of fat and the heart attacks they supposedly caused as a fundraising tactic, especially among businessmen and health professionals, whom they portrayed as especially susceptible to this disease of “successful civilization and high living.”  The escalation of these fears—and declines in intake of animal foods portrayed as especially dangerous—picked up momentum when Senator George McGovern and his Select Senate Committee created the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans. It was thought that, just as we had “tackled” smoking, we could create a document advising Americans on healthy food choices and compliance would follow. But issue was a lot less straightforward.

To begin with, when smoking was at its peak, only around 40% of the population smoked. On the other hand, we expect that approximately 100% of the population eats.

In addition, the anti-smoking campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s built on a long tradition of public health messages—originating with the Temperance movement—that associated smoking with dirty habits, loose living, and moral decay. It was going to be much harder to fully convince Americans that traditional foods typically associated with robust good health, foods that the US government thought were so nutritionally important that in the recent past they had been “saved” for the troops, were now suspect and to be avoided.

Where the American public had once been told to save “wheat, meat, and fats” for the soldiers, they now had to be convinced to separate the “wheat” from the “meat and fats” and believe that one was okay and the others were not.

To do this, public health leaders and policy makers turned to science, hoping to use it just as it had been used in anti-smoking arguments. Frankly, however, nutrition science just wasn’t up to the task. Linking nutrition to chronic disease was a field of study that would be in its infancy after it grew up a bit; in 1977, it was barely embryonic. There was little definitive data to support the notion that saturated fat from whole animal foods was actually a health risk; even experts who thought that the theory that saturated fat might be linked to heart disease had merit didn’t think there was enough evidence to call for dramatic changes in American’s eating habits.

The scientists who were intent on waving the “fear of fat” flag had to rely on observational studies of populations (considered then and now to be the weakest form of evidence), in order to attempt to prove that heart disease was related to intake of saturated fat (upon closer examination, these studies did not even do that).

Nutrition epidemiology is a soft science, so soft that it is not difficult to shape it into whatever conclusions the Consistent Public Health Message requires. In large-scale observational studies, dietary habits are difficult to measure and the results of Food Frequency Questionnaires are often more a product of wishful thinking than of reality. Furthermore, the size of associations in nutrition epidemiological studies is typically small—an order of magnitude smaller than those found for smoking and risk of chronic disease.

But nutrition epidemiology had proved its utility in convincing the public of the benefits of dietary change in the 70s and since then has become the primary tool—and the biggest funding stream (this is hardly coincidental)—for cementing in place the Consistent Public Health Message to reduce saturated fat and increase grains and cereals.

There is no doubt that the dramatic dietary change that the federal government was recommending was going to require some changes from the food industry, and they appear to have responded to the increased demands for low-fat,whole grain products with enthusiasm. Public health recommendations and the food fears they engendered are (as my friend James Woodward puts it) “a mechanism for encouraging consumers to make healthy eating decisions, with the ultimate goal of improving health outcomes.” Experts like Kelly Brownell and Marion Nestle decry the tactics used by the food industry of taking food components thought to be “bad” out of products while adding in components thought to be “good,” but it was federal dietary recommendations focusing above all else on avoiding saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt that led the way for such products to be marketed as “healthy” and to become acceptable to a confused, busy, and anxious public. The result was a decrease in demand for red meat, butter, whole milk and egg, and an increase in demand for low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol, and “whole” grain products. Minimally-processed animal-based products were replaced by cheaply-made, highly-processed plant-based products, which food manufacturers could market as healthy because, according to our USDA/HHS Dietary Guidelines, they were healthy.

The problem lies in the fact that—although these products contained less of the “unhealthy” stuff Americans were supposed to avoid—they also contained less of our most important nutrients, especially protein and fat-soluble vitamins. We were less likely to feel full and satisfied eating these products, and we were more likely to snack or binge—behaviors that were also fully endorsed by the food industry.

Between food industry marketing and the steady drumbeat of media messages explaining just how deadly red meat and eggs are (courtesy of population studies from Harvard, see above), Americans got the message. About 36% of the population believe that UFOs are real; only 25% believe that there’s no link between saturated fat and heart disease. We are more willing to believe that we’ve been visited by creatures from outer space than we are to believe that foods that humans have been eating ever since they became human have no harmful effects on health. But while industry has certainly taken advantage of our gullibility, they weren’t the ones who started those rumors, and they should not be shouldering all of the blame for the consequences.

Fixing it until it broke

Back in 1977, we were given a cure that didn’t work for diseases that we didn’t have. Then we spent billions in research dollars trying to get the glass slipper to fit the ugly stepsister’s foot. In the meantime, the food industry has done just what we would expect it to do, provide us with the foods that we think we should eat to be healthy and—when we feel deprived (because we are deprived)—with the foods we are hungry for.

We can blame industry, but as long as food manufacturers can take any mixture of vegetable oils and grain/cereals and tweak it with added fiber, vitamins, minerals, a little soy protein or maybe some chicken parts, some artificial sweeteners and salt substitutes, plus whatever other colors/preservatives/stabilizers/flavorizers they can get away with and still be able to get the right profile on the nutrition facts panel (which people do read), consumers–confused, busy, hungry–are going to be duped into believing what they are purchasing is “healthy” because–in fact–the government has deemed it so. And when these consumers are hungry later—which they are very likely to be—and they exercise their rights as consumers rather than their willpower, who should we blame then?

There is no way around it. Our dietary recommendations are at the heart of the problem they were created to try to reverse. Unlike the public health approach to smoking, we “fixed” obesity until it broke for real.

As the Calories Churn (Episode 2): Honey, It’s Not the Sugar

In the previous episode of As the Calories Churn, we looked at why it doesn’t really make sense to compare the carbohydrate intake of Americans in 1909 to the carbohydrate intake of Americans in 1997.  [The folks who read my blog, who always seem to be a lot smarter than me, have pointed out that, besides not being able to determine differing levels of waste and major environmental impacts such as a pre- or early-industrial labor force and transportation, there would also be significant differences in:  distribution and availability; what was acquired from hunted/home-grown foods; what came through the markets and ended up as animal rather than human feed; what other ingredients these carbohydrates would be packaged and processed with; and many other issues.  So in other words, we not comparing apples and oranges; we are comparing apples and Apple Jacks (TM).]

America in 1909 was very different from America in 1997, but America in 1970 was not so much, certainly with regard to some of the issues above that readers have raised.  By 1970, we had begun to settle into post-industrial America, with TVs in most homes and cars in most driveways.  We had a wide variety of highly-processed foods that were distributed through a massive transportation infrastructure throughout the country.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, availability of calories in the food supply, specifically from carbohydrates and fats had begun to creep up.  So did obesity.  It makes sense that this would be cause for concern from public health professionals and policymakers, who saw a looming health crisis ahead if measures weren’t taken–although others contended that our food supply was safer and more nutritious than it had ever been and that public health efforts should be focused on reducing smoking and environmental pollutants.

What emerged from the political and scientific tug-of-war that ensued (a story for another blog post) were the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans.  These goals told us to eat more grains, cereals and vegetable oils and less fat, especially saturated fat.

Then, around 1977 – 1980, in other words around the time of the creation of the USDA’s recommendations to increase our intake of grains and cereals (both carbohydrate foods) and to decrease our intake of fatty foods, we saw the slope of availability of carbohydrate calories increase dramatically, while the slope of fat calories flattened–at least until the end of the 1990s (another story for another blog post).

[From food availability data, not adjusted for losses.]

The question is:  How did the changes in our food supply relate to the national dietary recommendations we were given in 1977?  Let’s take a closer look at the data that we have to work with on this question.

Dear astute and intelligent readers: From this point on, I am primarily using loss-adjusted food availability data rather than food availability data. Why? Because it is there, and it is a better estimate of actual consumption than unadjusted food availability data. It only goes back to around 1970, so you can’t use it for century-spanning comparisons, but if you are trying to do that, you’ve probably got another agenda besides improving estimation anyway. [If the following information makes you want to go back and make fun of my use of unadjusted food availability data in the previous post, go right ahead. In case you didn’t catch it, I think it is problematic to the point of absurdity to compare food availability data from the early 1900s to our current food system—too many changes and too many unknowns (see above).  On the other hand, while there are some differences, I think there are enough similarities in lifestyle and environment (apart from food) between 1970 and 2010 to make a better case for changes in diet and health being related to things apart from those influences.]

Here are the differences in types of food availability data: 

Food availability data: Food availability data measure the use of basic commodities, such as wheat, beef, and shell eggs for food products at the farm level or an early stage of processing. They do not measure food use of highly processed foods– –in their finished form. Highly processed foods–such as bakery products, frozen dinners, and soups—are not measured directly, but the data includes their less processed ingredients, such as sugar, flour, fresh vegetables, and fresh meat.

Loss-Adjusted Food Availability: Because food availability data do not account for all spoilage and waste that accumulates in the marketing system and is discarded in the home, the data typically overstate actual consumption. Food availability is adjusted for food loss, including spoilage, inedible components (such as bones in meat and pits in fruit), plate waste, and use as pet food.

The USDA likes to use unadjusted food availability data and call it “consumption” because, well: They CAN and who is going to stop them?

The USDA—and some bloggers too, I think—prefer unadjusted food availability data.  I guess they have decided that if American food manufacturers make it, then Americans MUST be eating it, loss-adjustments be damned. Our gluttony must somehow overcome our laziness, at least temporarily, as we dig the rejects and discards out of the landfills and pet dishes—how else could we get so darn fat?

I do understand the reluctance to use dietary intake data collected by NHANES, as all dietary intake data can be unreliable and problematic  (and not just the kind collected from fat people).  But I guess maybe if you’ve decided that Americans are being “highly inaccurate” about what they eat, then you figure it is okay be “highly inaccurate” right back at Americans about what you’ve decided to tell them about what they eat.  Because using food availability data and calling it “consumption” is to put it mildly, highly inaccurate, by a current difference of over 1000 calories.

On the other hand, it does sound waaaaaay more dramatic to say that Americans consumed 152 POUNDS (if only I could capitalize numbers!) per person of added sweeteners in 2000 (as it does here), than it does to say that we consumed 88 pounds per person that year (which is the loss-adjusted amount). Especially if you are intent on blaming the obesity crisis on sugar.

Which is kinda hard to do looking at the chart below.

Loss adjusted food availability:

Calories per day 1970 2010
Total 2076 2534 +458
Added fats and oils 338 562 +224
Flour and cereal products 429 596 +167
Poultry 75 158 +83
Added sugars and sweeteners 333 367 +34
Fruit 65 82 +17
Fish 12 14 +2
Butter 29 26 -3
Veggies 131 126 -5
Eggs 43 34 -9
Dairy 245 232 -13
Red meat* 349 267 -82
Plain whole milk 112 24 -88

*Red meat: beef, veal, pork, lamb

Anybody who thinks we did not change our diet dramatically between 1970 and the present either can’t read a dataset or is living in a special room with very soft bouncy walls. Why we changed our diet is still a matter of debate. Now, it is my working theory that the changes that you see above were precipitated, at least in part, by the advice given in the 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans, which was later institutionalized, despite all kinds of science and arguments to the contrary, as the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 1980.

Let’s see if my theory makes sense in light of the loss-adjusted food availability data above (and which I will loosely refer to as “consumption”).  The 1977 [2nd Edition] Dietary Goals for Americans say this:

#1 – Did we increase our consumption of grains? Yes. Whole? Maybe not so much, but our consumption of fiber went from 19 g per day in 1970 to 25 g per day in 2006 which is not much less than the 29 grams of fiber per day that we were consuming back in 1909 (this is from food availability data, not adjusted for loss, because it’s the only data that goes back to 1909).

The fruits and veggies question is a little more complicated. Availability data (adjusted for losses) suggests that veggie consumption went up about 12 pounds per person per year (sounds good, but that’s a little more than a whopping half an ounce a day), but that calories from veggies went down. Howzat? Apparently Americans were choosing less caloric veggies, and since reducing calories was part of the basic idea for insisting that we eat more of them, hooray on us. Our fruit intake went up by about an ounce a day; calories from fruit reflects that. So, while we didn’t increase our vegetable and fruit intake much, we did increase it. And just FYI, that minuscule improvement in veggie consumption didn’t come from potatoes. Combining fresh and frozen potato availability (adjusted for losses), our potato consumption declined ever so slightly.

#2 – Did we decrease our consumption of refined sweeteners? No. But we did not increase our consumption as much as some folks would like you to think. Teaspoons of added (caloric) sweeteners per person in our food supply (adjusted for waste) went from 21 in 1970 to 23 in 2010.  It is very possible that some people were consuming more sweeteners than other people since those numbers are population averages, but the math doesn’t work out so well if we are trying to blame added sweeteners for 2/3 of the population gaining weight.  It doesn’t matter how much you squint at the data to make it go all fuzzy, the numbers pretty much say that the amount of sweeteners in our food supply has not dramatically increased.

#3 – Did we decrease our consumption of total fat? Maybe, maybe not—depends on who you want to believe. According to dietary intake data (from our national food monitoring data, NHANES), in aggregate, we increased calories overall, specifically from carbohydrate food, and decreased calories from fat and protein. That’s not what our food supply data indicate above, but there you go.

Change in amount and type of calories consumed from 1971 to 2008
according to dietary intake data

There is general agreement , however, from both food availability data  and from intake data, that we decreased our consumption of the saturated fats that naturally occur with red meat, eggs, butter, and full-fat milk (see below), and we increased our consumption of “added fats and oils,” a category that consists almost exclusively of vegetable oils, which are predominantly polyunsaturated and which were added to foods–hence the category title–such as those inexpensive staples, grains and cereals, during processing.

#4 – Did we decrease our consumption of animal fat, and choose “meat, poultry, and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake”? Why yes, yes we did. Calories from red meat—the bearer of the dreaded saturated fat and all the curses that accompany it—declined in our food system, while poultry calories went up.

(So, I have just one itty-bitty request: Can we stop blaming the rise in obesity rates on burgers? Chicken nuggets, yes. KFC, yes. The buns the burgers come on, maybe. The fries, quite possibly. But not the burgers, because burgers are “red meat” and there was less red meat—specifically less beef—in our food supply to eat.)

Michael Pollan–ever the investigative journalist–insists that after 1977, “Meat consumption actually climbed” and that “We just heaped a bunch more carbs onto our plates, obscuring perhaps, but not replacing, the expanding chunk of animal protein squatting in the center.”   In the face of such a concrete and well-proven assumption, why bother even  looking at food supply data, which indicate that our protein from meat, poultry, fish, and eggs  “climbed” by just half an ounce?

In fact, there’s a fairly convenient balance between the calories from red meat that left the supply chain and the calories of chicken that replaced them. It seems we tried to get our animal protein from the sources that the Dietary Goals said were “healthier” for us.

#5 – Did we reduce our consumption of full-fat milk? Yes. And for those folks who contend this means we just started eating more cheese, well, it seems that’s pretty much what we did. However, overall decreases in milk consumption meant that overall calories from dairy fat went down.

#6 – Did we reduce our consumption of foods high in cholesterol? Yes, we did that too. Egg consumption had been declining since the relative affluence of post-war America made meat more affordable and as cholesterol fears began percolating through the scientific and medical community, but it continued to decline after the 1977 Goals.

#7 – Salt? No, we really haven’t changed our salt consumption much and perhaps that’s a good thing. But the connections between salt, calorie intake, and obesity are speculative at best and I’m not going to get into them here (although I do kinda get into them over here).

food supply and Dietary GoalsWhat I see when I look at the data is a good faith effort on the part of the American people to try to consume more of the foods they were told were “healthy,” such as grains and cereals, lean meat, and vegetable oils. We also tried to avoid the foods that we were told contained saturated fat—red meat, eggs, butter, full-fat milk—as these foods had been designated as particularly “unhealthy.” No, we didn’t reduce our sweetener consumption, but grains and cereals have added nearly 5 times more calories than sweeteners have to our food supply/intake.

Although the America of 1970 is more like the America of today than the America of 1909, some things have changed. Probably the most dramatic change between the America of the 1970s and the America of today is our food-health system. Women in the workplace, more suburban sprawl, changing demographics, increases in TV and other screen time—those were all changes that had been in the works for a long time before the 1977 Dietary Goals came along. But the idea that meat and eggs were “bad” for you? That was revolutionary.

And the rapid rises in obesity and chronic diseases that accompanied these changes? Those were pretty revolutionary as well.

One of my favorite things to luck upon on a Saturday morning in the 70s—aside from the Bugs Bunny-does-Wagner cartoon, “What’s Opera, Doc?“—were the public service announcements featuring Timer, an amorphous yellow blob with some sing-along information about nutrition:

You are what you eat

From your head down to your feet

Thinks like meat and eggs and fish you

Need to build up muscle tissue

Hello appetite control?

More protein!

Meat and eggs weren’t bad for you. They didn’t cause heart disease. You needed them to build up muscle tissue and to keep you from being hungry!

But in 1984, when this showed up on the cover of Time magazine (no relation to Timer the amorphous blob), I—along with a lot of other Americans—was forced to reconsider what I’d learned on those Saturday morning not that long ago:

My all-time favorite Timer PSA was this one:

When my get up and go has got up and went,

I hanker for a hunk of cheese.

When I’m dancing a hoedown

And my boots kinda slow down,

Or any time I’m weak in the knees . . .

I hanker for a hunk of

A slab or slice or chunk of–

A snack that is a winner

And yet won’t spoil my dinner–

I hanker for hunk of CHEESE!

In the 80s, when I took up my low-fat, vegetarian ways, I would still hanker for a hunk of cheese, but now I would look for low-fat, skim, or fat-free versions—or feel guilty about indulging in the full-fat versions that I still loved.

I’m no apologist for the food industry; such a dramatic change in our notions about “healthy food” clearly required some help from them, and they appear to have provided it in abundance.  And I’m not a fan of sugar-sweetened beverages or added sweeteners in general, but dumping the blame for our current health crisis primarily on caloric sweeteners is not only not supported by the data at hand, it frames the conversation in a way that works to the advantage of the food industry and gives our public health officials a “get out of jail free card”  for providing 35 years worth of lousy dietary guidance.

Next time on As the Calorie Churns, we’ll explore some of the interaction between consumers, industry, and public health nutrition recommendations. Stay tuned for the next episode, when you’ll get to hear Adele say: “Pollanomics: An approach to food economics that is sort of like the Field of Dreams—only with taco-flavored Doritos.”

As the Calories Churn (Episode 1): Nooooo, not the carbs!!!

Oh the drama!  Some of the current hyperventilating in the alternative nutrition community–sugar is toxic, insulin is evil, vegetable oils give you cancer, and running will kill you–has, much to my dismay, made the alternative nutrition community sound as shrill and crazed as the mainstream nutrition one.

When you have self-appointed nutrition experts food writers like Mark Bittman agreeing feverishly with a pediatric endocrinologist with years of clinical experience like Robert Lustig, we’ve crossed over into some weird nutrition Twilight Zone where fact, fantasy, and hype all swirl together in one giant twitter feed of incoherence meant, I think, to send us into a dark corner where we can do nothing but nibble on organic kale, mumble incoherently about inflammation and phytates, and await the zombie apocalypse.

No, carbohydrates are not evil—that’s right, not even sugar. If sugar were rat poison, one trip to the county fair in 4th grade would have killed me with a cotton candy overdose. Neither is insulin, now characterized as the serial killer of hormones (try explaining that to a person with type 1 diabetes).

But that doesn’t mean that 35 years of dietary advice to increase our grain and cereal consumption, while decreasing our fat and saturated fat consumption has been a good idea.

I have gotten rather tired of seeing this graph used as a central rationale for arguing that the changes in total carbohydrate intake over the past 30 years have not contributed to the rising rates of obesity.


The argument takes shapes on 2 fronts:

1) We ate 500 grams of carbohydrate per day in 1909 and 500 grams in 1997 and WE WEREN’T FAT IN 1909!

2) The other part of the argument is that the TYPE of carbohydrate has shifted over time. In 1909, we ate healthy, fiber-filled unrefined and unprocessed types of carbohydrates. Not like now.

Okay, let’s take closer look at that paper, shall we?  And then let’s look at what really matters:  the context.

The data used to make this graph are not consumption data, but food availability data. This is problematic in that it tells us how much of a nutrient was available in the food supply in any given year, but does not account for food waste, spoilage, and other losses. And in America, we currently waste a lot of food. 

According to the USDA, we currently lose over 1000 calories in our food supply–calories that don’t make it into our mouths.  Did we waste the same percentage of our food supply across the entire century? Truth is, we don’t know and we are not likely to find out—but I seriously doubt it. My mother and both my grandmothers—with memories of war and rationing fresh in their minds—would be no more likely to throw out anything remotely edible as they would be to do the Macarena. My mother has been known to put random bits of leftover food in soups, sloppy joes, and—famously—pancake batter. To this day, should your hand begin to move toward the compost bucket with a tablespoon of mashed potatoes scraped from the plate of a grandchild shedding cold virus like it was last week’s fashion, she will throw herself in front of the bucket and shriek, “NOOOOOO! Don’t throw that OUT! I’ll have that for lunch tomorrow.”

You know what this means folks: in 1909, we were likely eating MORE carbohydrate than we are today. (Or maybe in 1909, all those steelworkers pulling 12 hour days 7 days a week, just tossed out their sandwich crusts rather than eat them. It could happen.)

BUT–as with butts all over America including mine, it’s a really Big BUT: How do I explain the fact that Americans were eating GIANT STEAMING HEAPS OF CARBOHYDRATES back in 1909—and yet, and yet—they were NOT FAT!!??!!

Okay. Y’know. I’m up for this one. Not only is problematic to the point of absurdity to compare food availability data from the early 1900s to our current food system, life in general was a little different back then. At the turn of the century,

  • average life expectancy was around 50
  • the nation had 8,000 cars
  • and about 10 miles of paved roads.

In 1909, neither assembly lines nor the Titanic had happened yet.

The labor force looked a little different too:Labor force 1900 - 2000

Primary occupations made up the largest percentage of male workers (42%)—farmers, fisherman, miners, etc.—what we would now call manual laborers. Another 21% were “blue collar” jobs, craftsmen, machine operators, and laborers whose activities in those early days of the Industrial Revolution, before many things became mechanized, must have required a considerable amount of energy. And not only was the work hard, there was a lot of it. At the turn of the century, the average workweek was 59 hours, or close to 6 10-hour days. And it wasn’t just men working. As our country shifted from a rural agrarian economy to a more urban industrialized one, women and children worked both on the farms and in the factories.

This is what is called “context.”

In the past, nutrition epidemiologists have always considered caloric intake to be a surrogate marker for activity level. To quote Walter Willett himself:

“Indeed, in most instances total energy intake can be interpreted as a crude measure of physical activity . . . ” (in: Willett, Walter. Nutritional Epidemiology. Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 276).

It makes perfect sense that Americans would have a lot of carbohydrate and calories in their food supply in 1909. Carbohydrates have been—and still are—a cheap source of energy to fuel the working masses. But it makes little sense to compare the carbohydrate intake of the labor force of 1909 to the labor force of 1997, as in the graph at the beginning of this post (remember the beginning of this post?).

After decades of decline, carbohydrate availability experienced a little upturn from the mid 1960s to the late 1970s, when it began to climb rapidly. But generally speaking, carbohydrate intake was lower during that time than at any point previously.

I’m not crazy about food availability data, but to be consistent with the graph at the top of the page, here it is.

Data based on per capita quantities of food available for consumption:

1909 1975 Change
Total calories 3500 3100 -400
Carbohydrate calories 2008 1592 -416
Protein calories 404 372 -32
Total fat calories 1098 1260 +162
Saturated fat (grams) 52 47 -5
Mono- and polyunsaturated fat (grams) 540 738 +198
Fiber (grams) 29 20 -9

To me, it looks pretty much like it should with regard to context.  As our country went from pre- and early industrialized conditions to a fully-industrialized country of suburbs and station wagons, we were less active in 1970 than we were in 1909, so we consumed fewer calories. The calories we gave up were ones from the cheap sources of energy—carbohydrates—that would have been most readily available in the economy of a still-developing nation. Instead, we ate more fat.

We can’t separate out “added fats” from “naturally-present fats” from this data, but if we use saturated fat vs. mono- and polyunsaturated fats as proxies for animal fats vs. vegetable oils (yes, I know that animal fats have lots of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, but alas, such are the limitations of the dataset), then it looks like Americans were making use of the soybean oil that was beginning to be manufactured in abundance during the 1950s and 1960s and was making its way into our food supply.  (During this time, heart disease mortality was decreasing, an effect likely due more to warnings about the hazards of smoking, which began in earnest in 1964, than to dietary changes; although availability of unsaturated fats went up, that of saturated fats did not really go down.)

As for all those “healthy” carbohydrates that we were eating before we started getting fat? Using fiber as a proxy for level of “refinement” (as in the graph at the beginning of this post—remember the beginning of this post?), we seemed to be eating more refined carbohydrates in 1975 than in 1909—and yet, the obesity crisis was still yet a gleam in Walter Willett’s eyes.

While our lives in 1909 differed greatly from our current environment, our lives in the 1970s were not all that much different than they are now. I remember. As much as it pains me to confess this, I was there. I wore bell bottoms. I had a bike with a banana seat (used primarily for trips to the candy store to buy Pixie Straws). I did macramé. My parents had desk jobs, as did most adults I knew. No adult I knew “exercised” until we got new neighbors next door. I remember the first time our new next-door neighbor jogged around the block. My brothers and sister and I plastered our faces to the picture window in the living room to scream with excitement every time she ran by; it was no less bizarre than watching a bear ride a unicycle.

In 1970, more men had white-collar than blue-collar jobs; jobs that primarily consisted of manual labor had reached their nadir. Children were largely excluded from the labor force, and women, like men, had moved from farm and factory jobs to more white (or pink) collar work. The data on this is not great (in the 1970s, we hadn’t gotten that excited about exercise yet) but our best approximation is that about 35% of adults–one of whom was my neighbor–exercised regularly, with “regularly” defined as “20 minutes at least 3 days a week” of moderately intense exercise.  (Compare this definition, a total of 60 minutes a week, to the current recommendation, more than double that amount, of 150 minutes a week.)

Not too long ago, the 2000 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recognized that environmental context—such as the difference between America in 1909 and America in 1970—might lead to or warrant dietary differences:

“There has been a long-standing belief among experts in nutrition that low-fat diets are most conducive to overall health. This belief is based on epidemiological evidence that countries in which very low fat diets are consumed have a relatively low prevalence of coronary heart disease, obesity, and some forms of cancer. For example, low rates of coronary heart disease have been observed in parts of the Far East where intakes of fat traditionally have been very low. However, populations in these countries tend to be rural, consume a limited variety of food, and have a high energy expenditure from manual labor. Therefore, the specific contribution of low-fat diets to low rates of chronic disease remains uncertain. Particularly germane is the question of whether a low-fat diet would benefit the American population, which is largely urban and sedentary and has a wide choice of foods.” [emphasis mine – although whether our population in 2000 was largely “sedentary” is arguable]

The 2000 DGAC goes on to say:

“The metabolic changes that accompany a marked reduction in fat intake could predispose to coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus. For example, reducing the percentage of dietary fat to 20 percent of calories can induce a serum lipoprotein pattern called atherogenic dyslipidemia, which is characterized by elevated triglycerides, small-dense LDL, and low high-density lipoproteins (HDL). This lipoprotein pattern apparently predisposes to coronary heart disease. This blood lipid response to a high-carbohydrate diet was observed earlier and has been confirmed repeatedly. Consumption of high-carbohydrate diets also can produce an enhanced post-prandial response in glucose and insulin concentrations. In persons with insulin resistance, this response could predispose to type 2 diabetes mellitus.

The committee further held the concern that the previous priority given to a “low-fat intake” may lead people to believe that, as long as fat intake is low, the diet will be entirely healthful. This belief could engender an overconsumption of total calories in the form of carbohydrate, resulting in the adverse metabolic consequences of high carbohydrate diets. Further, the possibility that overconsumption of carbohydrate may contribute to obesity cannot be ignored. The committee noted reports that an increasing prevalence of obesity in the United States has corresponded roughly with an absolute increase in carbohydrate consumption.” [emphasis mine]

Hmmmm. Okay, folks, that was in 2000—THIRTEEN years ago. If the DGAC was concerned about increases in carbohydrate intake—absolute carbohydrate intake, not just sugars, but sugars and starches—13 years ago, how come nothing has changed in our federal nutrition policy since then?

I’m not going to blame you if your eyes glaze over during this next part, as I get down and geeky on you with some Dietary Guidelines backstory:

As with all versions of the Dietary Guidelines after 1980, the 2000 edition was based on a report submitted by the DGAC which indicated what changes should be made from the previous version of the Guidelines. And, as will all previous versions after 1980, the changes in the 2000 Dietary Guidelines were taken almost word-for-word from the suggestions given by the scientists on the DGAC, with few changes made by USDA or HHS staff. Although HHS and USDA took turns administrating the creation of the Guidelines, in 2000, no staff members from either agency were indicated as contributing to the writing of the final Guidelines.

But after those comments in 2000 about carbohydrates, things changed.

Beginning with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, HHS and USDA staff members are in charge of writing the Guidelines, which are no longer considered to be a scientific document whose audience is the American public, but a policy document whose audience is nutrition educators, health professionals, and policymakers. Why and under whose direction this change took place is unknown.

The Dietary Guidelines process doesn’t have a lot of law holding it up. Most of what happens in regard to the Guidelines is a matter of bureaucracy, decision-making that takes place within USDA and HHS that is not handled by elected representatives but by government employees.

However, there is one mandate of importance: the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990, Public Law 445, 101st Cong., 2nd sess. (October 22, 1990), section 301. (P.L. 101-445) requires that “The information and guidelines contained in each report required under paragraph shall be based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared.”

The 2000 Dietary Guidelines were (at least theoretically) scientifically accurate because scientists were writing them. But beginning in 2005, the Dietary Guidelines document recognizes the contributions of an “Independent Scientific Review Panel who peer reviewed the recommendations of the document to ensure they were based on a preponderance of scientific evidence.” [To read the whole sordid story of the “Independent Scientific Review Panel,” which appears to neither be “independent” nor to “peer-review” the Guidelines, check out Healthy Nation Coalition’s Freedom of Information Act results.]  Long story short:  we don’t know who–if anyone–is making sure the Guidelines are based on a complete and current review of the science.

Did HHS and USDA not like the direction that it looked like the Guidelines were going to take–with all that crazy talk about too many carbohydrates – and therefore made sure the scientists on the DGAC were farther removed from the process of creating them?

Hmmmmm again.

Dr. Janet King, chairwoman of the 2005 DGAC had this to say, after her tenure creating the Guidelines was over: “Evidence has begun to accumulate suggesting that a lower intake of carbohydrate may be better for cardiovascular health.”

Dr. Joanne Slavin, a member of the 2010 DGAC had this to say, after her tenure creating the Guidelines was over: “I believe fat needs to go higher and carbs need to go down,” and “It is overall carbohydrate, not just sugar. Just to take sugar out is not going to have any impact on public health.”

It looks like, at least in 2005 and 2010, some well-respected scientists (respected well enough to make it onto the DGAC) thought that—in the context of our current environment—maybe our continuing advice to Americans to eat more carbohydrate and less fat wasn’t such a good idea.

I think it is at about this point that I begin to hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth of those who don’t think Americans ever followed this advice to begin with, because—goodness knows—if we had, we wouldn’t be so darn FAT!

So did Americans follow the advice handed out in those early dietary recommendations? Or did Solid Fats and Added Sugars (SoFAS—as the USDA/HHS like to call them—as in “get up offa yur SoFAS and work your fatty acids off”) made us the giant tubs of lard that we are just as the USDA/HHS says they did?

Stay tuned for the next episode of As the Calories Churn, when I attempt to settle those questions once and for all.  And you’ll hear a big yellow blob with stick legs named Timer say, “I hanker for a hunk of–a slab or slice or chunk of–I hanker for a hunk of cheese!”

A beautifully-written summary by Emily Contois regarding the recent Critical Nutrition Symposium held at UC-Santa Cruz. Organized by Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In, this symposium brought together food scholars from around the country (plus me) and invited us and the audience to participate in a thought-provoking and nuanced conversation about food, nutrition, culture, and ways of knowing.

Emily Contois

On March 8, 2013, I had the pleasure of attending the Critical Nutrition Symposium at UC Santa Cruz, organized by Julie Guthman, author of Weighing In. The event was spawned from a roundtable discussion at last year’s Association for the Study of Food and Society conference. The symposium brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to critically examine what is missing from conventional nutrition science research and practice, discuss why it matters, and brainstorm how to move forward in an informed and balanced way. What follows are a few of my favorite key ideas from the day’s discussions.

Adele Hite, a registered dietitian and public health advocate who is not afraid to ask big and delightfully confrontational questions regarding nutrition science, began the day by dissecting Michael Pollan’s now famous aphorism—Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Step by step, she revealed the decades of revisionist myth…

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Guest Post: James Woodward on Why Science May Not Be Enough

I’d like to introduce readers to a friend and fellow grad student, James Woodward. His undergraduate work was in economics at Ohio University, and he has a Master’s in public policy from the University of Kentucky. He is continuing at UK as a PhD student in public policy and administration. He and I have had some of the most thought-provoking email threads in any of my correspondence & I give him a lot of credit for helping me think through the economics and policy parts of food-health system reform puzzle. His post will serve as a bridge to my next series on “Eatanomics” which will explore how food, health, and the economy are intertwined. James would like everyone to know that all the disclaimers that appear on this page apply equally to what appears in this post. His views are his own, and as with the best of minds, he anticipates that most are subject to change. But he raises some very interesting questions—he’s nearly as long-winded as I am, but it is worth a read.

Why New Science May Not Be Enough – James Woodward

Before going into my social science background, I thought I would mention my professional background as it relates to food. It’s nearly as extensive as my academic background. I worked in fast food for about two years, a pizza place for about two years, a dining hall for a quarter, and, finally, a pseudo-Mexican restaurant for about two years. As a result, my feelings toward actual food and, especially, its preparation are fairly ambivalent at this point. The fact that I spent large amounts of time working with flour (I made tens of thousands of tortillas over the course of my tenure at the Mexican place) is rather ironic given my recent decision to avoid the stuff as much as possible.

Nutrition Science Initiative founders Gary Taubes and Peter Attia are hoping to give the public some solid science on food-health relationships.

My schooling in economics was concurrent with much of this work and my reasons for working these jobs had much more to do with my own economic situation than with any particular desire to work with food. But my background in economics and, now, public policy, leads to me to view the issue of food and nutrition policy a bit differently than many others writing on this topic. Many approach problems relating to nutrition and health in terms of their public health consequences. Others stress the fact that nutrition policy is the product of bad and/or misinterpreted science. Gary Taubes and Peter Attia just launched their organization, NuSI, to address, and hopefully settle, that particular aspect of this issue. Both lines of research clearly have their merits. Ultimately, though, I think what everyone is most interested in is influencing the behavior of individuals.

Contrary, perhaps, to Peter Attia’s quote from Richard Feynman in a recent blog post, I think there is a role for social scientists to play in understanding the many issues and controversies surrounding diet, health and public policy. Some of us in the social sciences are, in fact, sensitive to the difficulty of establishing real truths from the data available to us. Further, I do not think that social phenomena like behaviors and decision-making are reducible to physical and chemical relationships quite yet. How fitting that nutrition, and especially nutritional epidemiology, often bears more resemblance to bad social science than it does to any sort of ‘hard’ science.

Ignoring the controversy surrounding what it is that makes people fat and what constitutes an ideal diet, it would be hard to argue that people are making “good” decisions about what they are eating, given the high prevalence of (ostensibly) diet-related health problems in the United States, the most visible of which is obesity. Since most people buy their own food rather than growing or raising it themselves, food buying decisions tend to be highly correlated with food eating decisions. So, to me, the ultimate question is: “What influences food buying decisions?” Again, Gary and Peter have, with good reason, chosen to stress the importance of food consumption decisions being driven by good science. But there are clearly more factors that influence food purchasing decisions than a careful weighing of the scientific evidence. I would argue that such an approach to most decisions is, in fact, fairly rare. To the extent that Gary and Peter are ultimately trying to influence public policy, I think it is self-evident based on a reading of the history that policymakers are not that likely to employ such an approach either.

One of the many things besides science that may influence food purchasing and consumption.

This is why I tend to conceptualize the problem in the area of food and nutrition policy as one of bad information rather than attributing it purely to bad science. If one takes the time to dig, there is plenty of science which refutes the conventional wisdom regarding the relationship between diet and health. So, while no rigorous, carefully controlled studies have been performed to refute the conventional wisdom and/or confirm the “insulin hypothesis”, to use Gary’s term, there is already a lot of evidence to suggest that it is valid and plenty of evidence which refutes the conventional wisdom. Performing such a rigorous test of these competing theories is obviously warranted, given the importance of the implications for settling this debate, but there is no guarantee that the results will be convincing to skeptics, policymakers, stakeholders or the public at large.

Thirty-odd years ago policymakers perceived an obvious threat to public health (saturated fat) and saw a clear remedy (tell people not to eat so much saturated fat) which made it more or less a no-brainer to act on that information and tell people to avoid eating saturated fat containing foods. Since then, those original beliefs about diet and health have had time to percolate and become more or less embedded in how most people think about what they eat. Adele and I have talked a little bit about overcoming our own biases when we decided to eat differently, biases that we were not necessarily aware we had in the first place.

How you spend your food dollar may depend on how many food dollars you have to spend.

There are more factors that influence food purchasing decisions than just beliefs about how that food will affect one’s health. Taste, culture, geography, morality, ethics, politics, and socioeconomic status are just a few observable characteristics of an individual that might affect what he or she decides to eat. In many people’s minds, there is very little conflict between these concerns and health-related ones. For example, there is a perception that following a vegetarian lifestyle is good for one’s body, one’s soul, and the environment compared to a diet based around animal products. Upon closer inspection, however, there is a great deal of ambiguity to this belief in all three spheres. Similarly, many athletes seem to be operating under the impression that carbohydrates are required to perform at a high level. Peter’s well-documented experience calls that belief into question. Breakfast is often lauded as the most important meal of the day in the United States yet I frequently snub it to no ill-effect. And so on.

I think it is important to keep these biases in mind when thinking about we’d like to go about changing behavior. It is tempting to think “if only the science were better” people’s behavior would change. This is clearly not enough, in my mind anyway. It is just as important to be convincing as it is to be right. If/when NuSi successfully settles this debate and has the biggest names in the field to back up its research; there is still the matter of convincing everyone else. NuSi does acknowledge this aspect of the issue, though I am interested to see how it is addressed in practice. There are the cognitive biases of all the other scientists to contend with. There are also the material and non-material incentives that seem to be ingrained in many of the stakeholders involved in this particular area of policy. For example, it has been noted elsewhere that stressing the importance of calories is convenient for those involved in the production of food since doing so means no particular foods (e.g., wheat and sugar) are likely to be admonished against because of their unique effects on the body per se but, rather, because of their caloric content. I have to imagine that such firms will do their very best to refute any evidence that says otherwise and may hire their own experts to do so.

In a “calories in, calories out” world, there’s room for all foods in a “healthy” diet.

Beyond the obvious material costs to stakeholders of changing the current nutritional paradigm are the much more difficult to quantify costs of changing people’s beliefs about such things. Despite taking a nutrition course years ago (for an easy science credit, I will admit), I did not have particularly strong thoughts about nutrition prior to about a year and a half ago. I knew I made less than optimal choices about what I ate (according to conventional wisdom that is) but I mostly ignored those concerns since my health seemed fine (more or less). It was therefore fairly costless for me to change my mind about how I approach my diet after the conventional wisdom failed for me. Physicians and dietitians are not like me, however. Many of them have devoted years of their lives to dispensing information and advice that they believe to be correct and helpful. Faced with an opposing and incongruent view, it is perfectly understandable that they would be very resistant to the implication that they have been misleading their patients. In a less extreme form, I am sometimes asked by friends and acquaintances for my thoughts relating to diet and health and then, after giving them, met with resistance and facts or beliefs that supposedly refute my position(s). Most of these people are not experts on this topic but, like most people, they need some justification for what they believe.

So what is my point in all this? It is probably not breaking news that people’s eating decisions are not purely based on a careful reading of the scientific evidence. Better science is probably a necessary part of making the case but I do not think it will be sufficient to affect the type of change that many people in the ‘Paleo’ or ‘Ancestral Health’ communities (or whatever other term you prefer) would like to see. As mentioned, most people are averse to the notion that their beliefs are wrong and, in my experience, will try to come up with some reason for why that is not the case, sometimes resorting to questionable sources for support. This is human nature, I think– cognitive dissonance perhaps, to borrow a term from the psychologists. Based on what I can see, most people are not even willing to entertain the idea that there is a controversy or room for debate about these competing paradigms. Especially skinny people.

I think this state of affairs needs to change if further research is to bear any fruit in the form of affecting individual behavior and/or public policy. Fortunately, there are many bloggers writing on this topic, all bringing their own perspectives to the table. The challenge will be finding enough common ground to get this message to a larger audience so that we get an actual public debate going. I read the New York Times ‘Health’ section fairly regularly (as a barometer for this type of thing, not necessarily for good information) and I am not seeing it so far. It would be a real shame if all that came of this renewed interest in an old paradigm was a relatively minor reduction in the prevalence of obesity.

Calories? Again? Already?

Are we not sick of this subject already?

There have been some excellent articles and lots of “food for thought” on this topic recently.

Robb Dunn did a guest post at Scientific American about “The Hidden Truths About Calories,” which—to summarize in a way that does no justice to the article at all—basically boils down to the fact that most of the hidden truths about calories are so hidden we simply don’t know much about them at all. (I second this: Why Calories Count Fo’ Shizzle.)

Go Kaleo has a great post on this topic called “Putting the (Calorie) Pieces Together.” 

And Regina Wilshire has a puzzle for us at Weight of the Evidence called “Working Through A Stall.” 

Sooooooo – do calories in general matter, or is only the “kinds” of calories (i.e. the “good” kind vs the “bad” kind) that matter?

I think Go Kaleo said it very well: “All that black and white thinking has got people believing a false dilemma: It’s EITHER ‘calories in vs. calories out’ OR ‘the kind of calories you eat’ that matters!” She’s right in saying that it is a false dichotomy.

Neither approach comes close to acknowledging the complex interplay of factors that is human metabolism. I’m down on the calories in/calories out paradigm because it is so limited in scope, but I am equally down on any paradigm that says they don’t matter at all.

There are far too many unknowns about how the energy content of the food we eat interacts with the energy needs of our bodies to insist upon a singular health-maintenance paradigm based on “calories in, calories out.” At the same time, there are far too many unknowns about insulin metabolism (we currently don’t even have agreed-upon ways to measure and discuss insulin dysregulation) to create a new singular health-maintenance paradigm based on “fat in, carbohydrates out.”

One thing that complicates the picture is that we equate the metabolic situation that causes fat gain with the metabolic situation that will induce fat loss. My understanding of the biochemistry is that there are two necessary aspects to weight gain: excess calories to store (although we seldom know how to measure or even estimate what we mean by “excess”) and the insulin signal that provides the mechanism for storage to take place. Remove one of these factors—again with the caveat that we have a limited understanding of what “excess calories” means—and you won’t have weight gain.

Weight loss may be a different matter entirely. For weight loss to take place, we have to figure out NOT ONLY how to not create a metabolic situation where these two factors are at play, we also have to figure out how to convince our body to reverse the fat-storage process. This may involve processes which go beyond just one eliminating insulin-stimulating carbohydrate foods because—unless someone has Type 1 diabetes—some basal levels of insulin (and we may or may not know what they are or if they are “normal” or how that matters) are always present. This may also involve processes which go beyond just eliminating “excess” calories because, as I hope I’ve made clear, we don’t really even know what that means.

Some people can reduce overall calorie intake and lose weight (this usually also involves a lowering of carbohydrate foods that stimulate insulin release) ; some people can just reduce their carbohydrate food intake  and lose weight (this usually also involves lowering calories available for storage); some people have to do both–deliberately and carefully—in order to lose weight. The trick is how to do this without

  1. inducing willpower-withering hunger pangs
  2. depriving the body of essential nutrition
  3. creating other metabolically-unfortunate side effects/consequences.

The answer will not be the same for everyone. Reducing the number of nutritionally-empty carbohydrates gets at both the calorie and the carbohydrate issue–so that’s sort of a no-brainer, but carbs and calories are not all that matter.

Like what?

Metabolism matters. Nourishment matters. Information signaling—provided by your body’s encounters with the environment, including food encounters–matters.

Do calories affect these things? YES!!! Do carbs affect these things? YES!!! Are there about a bazillion other things that affect these things? YES!!!

When the clinic doors at the Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic open, the first two patients through those doors were both very much alike and radically different.

Both were “obese” adult white males, but that’s about where the resemblance ended. One gentleman, who was almost as big around as he was tall, was actually pretty healthy. Most, if not all, of what we think of as meaningful or predictive health biomarkers (blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, etc) were normal. His problems were primarily orthopedic; i.e. his weight was impacting his hip and knee joints.

The other gentleman was far less obese, but his weight (as you may guess) was concentrated in his abdomen, his predictive health biomarkers were in the toilet, and he had a bag of prescriptions meant to normalize those biomarkers to prove it.

I (now) think of the first gentleman as having “simple” obesity and the second gentleman as having “metabolic” obesity. Such fat patterning has also been referred to as gynoid obesity (“pear”) and android (“apple”) obesity, and the different health consequences of each have been recognized, but even these differences are over-simplified concepts.

Android obesity (Gentleman #2) has been associated with excess insulin and with more metabolic derangement than gynoid obesity. It has been fairly well explained at this point that, aside from its role as a fat storage mechanism, excess insulin causes other metabolic problems.*

Is gynoid obesity (Gentleman #1) primarily associated with “excess” calories or “excess” storage of calories, rather than insulin dysregulation? We don’t know. Can “excess” calories cause other problems besides those leading to fat storage? We don’t know that either. One of the problems with asking these questions is—again—how we define “excess.”

Either way, the next step is to recognize that how we address different types of obesity may also need to be different. One type of obesity may be best addressed by a focus on reducing carbohydrate intake. The other type could be addressed by a focus on decreasing calories in and increasing calories out—however you want to do that. (As above, either approach involves some aspects of the other.)

But even differentiating dietary approaches based on fat-patterning must acknowledge that if there is a spectrum—with simple obesity on one end and metabolic obesity on the other—that any individual can be located anywhere along that spectrum and thus a combination of approaches would have to be used to address the needs of the individual, which may need to go beyond both carbs and calories.

It is crucial to remember that our bodies not really designed to either “gain”or “lose” weight, but to respond to our environment by small shifts in– up-regulating and down-regulating—the production of proteins, enzymes, and other biomolecules to meet the pressures of the environment. We are adapted to adapt. Food is one of the primary signals our bodies get about our environment. Food lets the body know what the conditions are like “out there” so that we can make appropriate adjustments “in here.” These adjustments, we know now, can be passed on from one generation to the next, so that our offspring are also prepared for what is “out there.”

What the body is looking for—all the time, without exception—is essential nourishment and adequate energy (and again our definition of “adequate” is as problematic as our definition of “excess”).  Note to paleo-thinking readers:  the origins of the paleo diet emphasize acquiring essential nutrition, rather than forbidding non-essential foods. This point may be the most important aspect of ancestral nutrition. (And thanks to Katherine Morrison for calling this to my attention.)

An eating pattern that conveys to our body that the environment is lacking in either of these things is going to result in metabolic adjustments to this information. What the adjustment looks like is going to depend on genetic factors (What food environment were your ancestors adapted to?), and epigenetic factors (Did you have an adequately-nourished mom?), and previous adaptive adjustments (Does your body regularly have to respond to caloric highs or lows? to regular bouts of intense energy expenditure? to reduced nutrition?), in addition to those other bazillion things we don’t know about yet.

So what are we going to do about it? I am so glad you asked. I’ve been trying to work my way to a blog post about n of 1, or individualized nutrition, for weeks now. I think I’m about there.

*See the work of Gerald Reaven and Wenhong Cao, for example.