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, 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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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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Kinky Stuff about Fatty Acids

That’s fatty ACIDS. It’s not that kind of site.

I was a young adult in the 1980s, just after the first Dietary Guidelines rocked our world. Yes, I remember the bacon-and-eggs frowny face on the cover of Times. It was in the checkout lane as I was buying my low-fat, fruit-and-sugar filled yogurt. Of course, I would soon come to my senses and switch to fat-FREE yogurt. Why? Because animal fat, including whatever remaining milkfat was in my yogurt, has Very Scary saturated fat in it. Did I know what that meant? Of course not. But I do now.

At my house, we like to joke that fats suffer from a serious PR problem (that’s what passes for humor around here). It’s so easy to think FAT=FAT. And “saturated” fat sounds even more ominous and creepy, saturating our blood with icky gooey . . . um . . . somethingy. Surely those loverly ladies Mona Unsaturated Fatty Acid (MUFA) and Polly Unsaturated Fatty Acid (PUFA)—Moofa and Poofa to friends—are better company to keep.  That seems to be what the folks at Harvard think, anyway.

Enter actual biochemistry.

In biochem class, I found out that “saturated” simply meant that the carbon chain of a fatty acid was fully “saturated” with hydrogen and therefore, there are no double bonds.  That’s not very scary.

Yeah, but my BFF, Polly Unsaturated, as it turns out, was more of a frenemy than I thought.


Kinda cute. Check out those double bonds. That’s what makes Poofa unsaturated.

Turns out, miss Poofa is into some radically kinky stuff.

Just about everyone has heard of antioxidants. They are why we are supposed to eat fruitsandvegetables. The point of antioxidants is to deal with “free radicals,” which sound like some kind of hippie flashback, but is simply a term to describe a molecule with one or more unpaired electrons that reacts easily with other molecules. In cell membranes, they can really cause problems because the long, straight profile of a fatty acid chain can get oxidized by reacting with a free radical, causing it to bend, which weakens the integrity and functionality of the membrane.

Prime targets of free radicals are unsaturated bonds, specifically: Poofas.

Even a middle-schooler can see (I know, I asked one) that this just doesn’t look good for the cell membrane.   It gets worse. The reaction that occurs not only damages that particular fatty acid, but is a self-propagating reaction. It starts and then it doesn’t stop—until an antioxidant comes along. The results: lotsa crooked Poofas.

The academic-industrial complex has recited to us the story that we should increase the consumption of corn and soybean oils—which contain about 60% of these fatty acids—because they are so good for us. They have the population studies to prove it. But this tale is as twisted as an oxidized Poofa. Ever since 1980, when we told people to start eating more Poofas, folks who are concerned about their health have eaten more Poofas. While we don’t really know if consuming corn and soybean oil will make you a healthier person, we do know that caring about your health will.  And even though people who care about their health are generally more healthy than people who aren’t, as a population we are all less healthy.  Could it be the Poofas that have saturated our food supply?

By sheer coinkydink, corn and soybean oils happen to be big moneymakers for food processors. That’s why I really get bent out of shape when we’re told that we grow soy and corn so we can feed it to cows. That’s like saying we drill for oil so we can make lipstick.

We may find out in the long run that it isn’t just our increase in carbohydrates, but our increase in Poofa–and the corresponding decrease in not-so-scary saturated fat–that is truly at the root of our current health crises. In which case, miss Poofa can kiss my butter.

Fat? Blame Mom

“Adverse factors encountered during fetal life have the dual effect of perturbing prenatal growth patterns and establishing a pre-susceptibility to major disease states in adult life”

Langley Evans: Proc Nutr Soc. 2001;60(4):505-13.

Jimmy Moore of Livin’ La Vida Low Carb wrote a great post recently entitled “When Does Being Fat Become Your Fault?”  In it he states that his weight is 295 pounds. I would guess that’s accurate.  I have had the pleasure of meeting Jimmy many times & he’s a big guy. From what I understand, so was Dr. Atkins of the Atkins Diet fame. So is my 18-year old son.

In the past, when people meet some of the vocal and active members of the low-carb community who don’t necessarily match expectations of what a socially-acceptable “healthy” weight would be, I’ve been asked if the whole low-carb thing is a farce. Maybe people feel comfortable posing this question to me because I’m not heavy (anymore). And I think I can say that my weight loss journey was probably a little easier for me than for others, but not because I have more willpower or I just don’t eat that much (I love food!!). It may be because my mother insisted that I eat an egg for breakfast every morning as a child. I wasn’t there to check this out, but I assume that’s how she ate when she was pregnant with me. We were a meat-at-every-meal family. Why am I telling you this? Because it matters.

Epigenetics is a new term that gets used a lot without people know just exactly what it means. Simply put, epigenetics is the study of how the environment (especially the prenatal environment) can effect gene expression, as opposed to changing the genetic material itself. This means that certain metabolic features that are controlled by our genetic material—for instance, hormones, enzymes, appetite regulation signaling factors—may be upregulated or downregulated due to influences from our environment.

The effect of prenatal environment—including diet—on how genes are expressed can then in turn effect how we end up interacting with our current environment. Some folks get a “triple whammy”—genes that code for obesity, a prenatal environment that affects the expression of those and other genes, and an obesogenic environment. Can we honestly say that these folks have some character flaw that makes being fat their fault?


There are many things beyond our control, especially intrauterine environment, which have a primary impact on how much we weight as adults–perhaps even more impact than our current dietary habits.  I know this personally because my son, who was born when I was in my most strict vegetarian phase, has had much more trouble with his weight than my son whose pregnancy was one in which the doctor insisted that I eat high quality protein–at every single meal (unheard of for me).  My “vegetarian phase” pregnancy was a difficult one. I was on bed rest or in the hospital most of my last trimester; my son was born 6 weeks early anyway. He was a skinny little kid, but as soon as adolescence kicked in (a hyperinsulinemic phase in general), he began gaining weight.

  • In terms of genetics, he got flat feet and a large build (his father’s side)
  • In terms of epigenetics, he got a vegetarian mother who ate little fat and protein while he was swimming about in utero.
  • In terms of environment, he got a vegetarian mother through his first 6 years of life; now he has a college dining hall to contend with.


His fasting insulin is higher than “normal,” (a likely result of my eating habits, not his), so he has an uphill battle even though he lifts weights, is active, and eats a low-carb diet.  He does pretty well, but imagine if he’d first spent years trying to control his weight with a high-carb, low-fat diet?

That’s just my n=1 perspective. But if what he experienced is a real effect, imagine the population-size effect. It might look a lot like the obesity and diabetes rates we are experiencing now. So what does the science tell us about that possibility? Here’s a brief glance, much of it courtesy of a lecture by Dr. Linda Adair in Fall 2009.

If the mother’s supply of nutrients does not meet the demands of the fetus, there are a few adaptive measures that take place:

  • The fetus will grow less, but maintain head & brain circumference at the expense of skeletal muscle and some other organs.
  • The fetus will become more metabolically efficient as endocrine function is altered to enhance survival.

From animal studies, scientists have seen that, even with normal nutrition after birth, adult offspring of prenatally malnourished mothers have:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Abnormal glucose tolerance
  • Impaired inflammatory response
  • More body fat
  • Eat more
  • Move less

Hmmm. Should we assume that these mice have some sort of lack of willpower or other character flaw?


Vickers, M. H. et al. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol 285: R271-R273 2003;

From epidemiology studies, especially the Dutch Hunger Winter, we’ve seen that exposure to famine during pregnancy results in higher rates of markers of insulin resistance and higher rates of obesity in adults. Note the type of nutrients that were most restricted during the “Hunger Winter” were protein and fat.  In fact, the protein-to-carbohydrate ratio has been shown to be the most predictive marker with regards to some of the negative health outcomes in adulthood.


Calories derived from carbohydrate, protein, and fat in the official daily rations provided between April 1941 and April 1947.  

Follow-up studies for the Dutch Hunger Winter and other famine or near-famine situations show that babies conceived during nutrient-restricted periods grow up to have increased risk of impaired glucose tolerance, obesity, high blood pressure, and other negative health outcomes in adulthood.

Other population studies have shown a consistent association between low weight for length at birth (a possible sign that the body is selectively nourishing the brain rather than the body, see above) and impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.


In the Nurses’ Health Study, smaller babies grew up to have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Other factors, such as environmental toxins may pre-dispose kids to obesity, either as children or later in life.

People who may be affected by these epigenetic mechanisms may be metabolically—not psychologically—inclined to eat more and move less. It’s not a character flaw; it’s a biological imperative. It is what their bodies are telling them to do. At what point do we stop blaming these people (who may now make up a majority of our population) and start trying to figure out how to assist them with their efforts to be healthy?

I don’t want to go all mama grizzly on people, but my blood pressure goes through the roof when I hear my classmates make comments like:

“Well, any diet intervention is going to show an improvement in obese people. They’ve been stuffing their faces with tons of calories before this.”

and

“People are fat because they eat too much. Period.”

I think of all the wonderful people I met at the clinic. Of myself. Of Jimmy. And my son. I can count on one hand the number of overweight/obese people I’ve met whom I think actually fit these generalizations.

The thing about the low-carb approach is that it attracts people who have been unsuccessful any other way–for a good reason.  A highly dysregulated system needs a stronger intervention.  It isn’t going to turn someone with a dysregulated system into a model-thin person, but it will often allow them to lower insulin levels to the point where good health is an achievable goal, even if it doesn’t come with a socially-approved weight. Let me emphasize: I do not think low-carb is the only way to do this, but it certainly should be considered as an option.

Until we can move past our “calories-in, calories out,” preconceived notions about what constitutes “healthy” food and what makes people fat, we are doing much of the population a tremendous injustice. Our refusal to entertain any other theories besides the current high carb/low fat dietary regime (which is still, after all, a theory although it is treated as a fact) is possibly the worst failure in public health since the rejection of germ theory in the 19th century. My son is the funniest person I know, and he doesn’t hate me for my very-likely part in mucking up his metabolism. He deserves better.

References:

de Rooij SR, Painter RC, Holleman F, Bossuyt PM, Roseboom TJ. The metabolic syndrome in adults prenatally exposed to the Dutch famine. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Oct;86(4):1219-24.

Heijmans BT, Tobi EW, Stein AD, Putter H, Blauw GJ, Susser ES, Slagboom PE, Lumey LH.Persistent epigenetic differences associated with prenatal exposure to famine in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Nov 4;105(44):17046-9. Epub 2008 Oct 27

Langley-Evans SC. Fetal programming of cardiovascular function through exposure to maternal undernutrition. Proc Nutr Soc. 2001 Nov;60(4):505-13. Review

Painter RC, de Rooij SR, Bossuyt PM, de Groot E, Stok WJ, Osmond C, Barker DJ, Bleker OP, Roseboom TJ. Maternal nutrition during gestation and carotid arterial compliance in the adult offspring: the Dutch famine birth cohort. J Hypertens. 2007 Mar;25(3):533-40.

Rich-Edwards JW, Colditz GA, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC, Gillman MW, Hennekens CH, Speizer FE, Manson JE.Birthweight and the risk for type 2 diabetes mellitus in adult women. Ann Intern Med. 1999 Feb 16;130(4 Pt 1):278-84.

Vickers MH, Breier BH, McCarthy D, Gluckman PD. Sedentary behavior during postnatal life is determined by the prenatal environment and exacerbated by postnatal hypercaloric nutrition. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2003 Jul;285(1):R271-3

Healthy Food? No Such Thing

A word about “healthy” food. I have no idea what that means. To be honest, I’d love for that term to disappear altogether. The World Health Organization describes health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” If “being healthy” is the equivalent of “being well,” then it is easy to see that the phrase “healthy food” makes little sense. It’s hard to be “well” and be “food” at the same time!

Think about it for a minute from your own perspective in the food chain. Becoming food is not a healthy thing to have happen to you. This is why the antelope runs away from the lion and why many plants, which can’t run away, have developed a number of biochemical toxins to defend themselves.

This looks like healthy kale:

This looks like yummy kale:

But this is not “healthy” kale; it’s dead kale. It might be delicious, and it might help make you a healthy person, but it definitely not “healthy” kale. It isn’t going to grow or propagate. It is—I hope–going to get eaten.

The term “healthy” is appropriately applied to things that live and grow: people, plants, animals, environments, communities, economies. Food—i.e. something about to be eaten—isn’t living and growing. The things we consume as food may or may not allow us to become healthy (well) people in a healthy community with a healthy economy and environment.

Why am I splitting hairs over an over-used term like “healthy food”? Why does it even matter whether or not we refer to food as “healthy” or not? And aren’t some foods always “healthy”—for everyone? Y’know, like spinach, and chocolate?

To answer the first two questions: How we speak reflects how we think. When we use the phrase “healthy foods” there is an underlying assumption that

1) we know and are in agreement about how to define “healthy” foods

2) there exists a specific set of foods that fit this definition, while the rest do not.

Which brings me to the last question, aren’t some foods always “healthy/unhealthy”? Hmm. For someone whose current health status requires a low-fiber diet, kale is not “healthy.” For a kid surviving on a subsistence diet who needs the calories and the 8 essential vitamins and minerals in a bowl of Lucky Charms (not to mention the marshmallow surprises!) cereal is “healthy” (not optimal, not perfect—but better than nothing).

Note that I am not saying “Everything in moderation.” I am saying “Everything in context.”

I can tell you what foods contain the nourishment that humans require; I can tell you what foods frequently create health problems for many people. I can look back on our recent history and tell you what has happened in our food system that has not worked to create a healthy environment, economy, or society. But I cannot determine what foods or what lifestyle will create a state of health or wellness for you right now and certainly not 30 years down the road—no one can but you, and you can really only do that through educated guesswork and listening to the expert within. Nutrition experts can (if properly trained) help you with both of those things, but they can’t if they’ve already determined that they “know” what “healthy” food—for you and everyone else—is.