Saturday, September 26, 2009

Expectant Eating

The reason for the long pause between posts is that I'm .... pregnant! As I'm learning, pregnancy has a way of completely changing your relationship to food. First there's morning sickness accompanied by alternating bouts of nausea and starvation. Then you soon find out that the foods that you previously loved now cause you to wince. (While I stopped drinking coffee a few months before pregnancy, I have always loved the smell of a freshly brewed cup. Now, that same smell can repel me from 15 feet away.) My love for chocolate, sweets, and quinoa have been denounced. I find that I will love a brand of crackers one week and deplore it the next. While I know that this fickleness is rooted in hormone fluctuations, I can't help but think it's my babies' (yes, there are two in there) way of telling me who is now boss.

As if navigating your own appetite wasn't enough, there's all of the unsolicited advice you get from others, especially the media. You are told to gain weight, how many grams of protein, fat, carbs to consume. There are "good" foods: milk, fruit, vegetables. And "bad:" lunch meat, sprouts, sushi. And, of course, what and how much of anything you should eat is a moving target. Not that any of this is new. We live in a culture that thinks there can only be one answer to the question "what should I eat?"; where our appetites are controlled by our minds not our senses. What makes this feel much more ominous during pregnancy is that moms-to-be are already feeling vulnerable since they are wanting to do the best for their babies. So listen up well meaning friends, family and pregnancy book authors: women have have managed to nurture generations of babies on every imaginable diet you can think of and somehow the race has continued. There are enough stressors in pregnancy. How about if eating wasn't one of them?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Are Americans Fat?

"Though weight-loss books will doubtless always be more popular, what might be called weight-gain books, which attempt to account for our corpulence, are an expanding genre," writes Elizabeth Kolbert in a recent New Yorker. She then expounds upon our increasing waistlines by quoting from some of the more provacative books on the topic.

According to Kolbert, men and women are now on average of 17 and 19 pounds heavier, respectively, than they were in the late seventies. And there is no shortage of explanations to tell us why. Evolutionary theorists explain that, due to the unpredictability of food supplies during primitive times, the body was designed to hoarde calories during times when food was accessible. While, for most Americans, food is as near as the closest vending machine, our bodies are still operating under a mentality of scarcity. Meanwhhile, economists postulate that the cheap cost of calories -- in the familiar forms of soda, cookies, and triple-burgers -- encourages people to consume more.

Citing from “The End of Overeating” by David A. Kessler, Kolbert talks about food as entertainment and the fact that by rewarding ourselves with Cheetoes and Cinnabons we reinforce the ongoing need for these treats, also known as “conditioned hypereating." Finally, the elasticity of the human appetite is the subject of Brian Wansink’s “Mindless Eating” tome. Kolbert recounts several experiments where Wansink was able to demonstrate that the amount of food we eat is related to portion size vs. internal cues about hunger.

Lest we feel alone, by the end of the article we discover that in Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Malta, and Slovakia, the proportion of overweight adults is actually higher than in the U.S. Whatever the root cause, obesity is definitely an epidemic that's spreading.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Warning: Please Exercise Caution When Eating this Food

During a recent trip to France I noticed something new while standing in the Metro station. Billboards for foods like cereal, ice cream, and candy drew me in with clever tag lines and mouth-watering photos, just as they do in the U.S. But what was starkly different was the cautionary advice that was slapped on the bottom in easy-to-read print: "For your health, avoid eating too much fat, too much sugar, too much salt."

Initially, I thought this was geared to only a certain group of foods deemed unhealthy. But, throughout the course of my stay, I came to see similar subtitles nearly everywhere I looked. "For your health, eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day," commanded a billboard for a popular line of frozen entrees. "For your health, avoid snacking between meals," advised a poster of a McFlurry in front of a Parisian McDonalds.

I later learned that the taglines are a requirement of the French government in an effort to curb the growing problem of obesity. Currently over 9 percent of French qualify as obese. While that may not sound like a lot compared to the 32 percent of Americans who currently earn that distinction, the French aren't waiting around for things to worsen. France’s recommendation affects advertisements on television, radio, billboards and the Internet for processed, sweetened or salted food and drinks. Advertisers who refuse to run the mandated messages are reportedly fined 1.5 percent of the cost of the ad.

Some of my French friends thought this campaign was utterly laughable as a means of helping individuals make better food choices. But for an American who feels no protection from her government when it comes to regulating what we eat, this feels like a hopeful first step.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

101 Cookbooks

A friend recently turned me onto and it's now my favorite recipe website hands down. Have I cooked any of the recipes yet, you ask? Err ... eh ... no. But the photos and ingredient lists have inspired improvisations of standards in my weekly repertoire. And I have bookmarked a few to prepare on the fabled weekend that I imagine will give me the time I need to make the mouth-watering "Basic Chocolate Cake" or "Ginger Poached Noodles," both of which have been featured in recent weeks. Click over to the website by clicking the headline above if you want to start fantasizing about your next meal.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Detox Diets: More Hype than Health

As a nutrition counselor, I often have requests from clients who want assistance launching an intense detox diet ... they inquire about "The Master Cleanse" or a "Fat Flush" they read about in a magazine. After acknowledging the allure of these much-hyped "cleanses", I typically guide them toward making holistic changes that involve a greater commitment of time but are much more likely to yield true health changes. It seems that, finally, I'm in good company. According to a recent article in The New York Times "many Western doctors question the legitimacy of these regimens and their claims of promoting good health, believing detoxification does little to no good, and is possibly harmful."

Unfortunately, we live in a society that thrives on instant gratification and drama (hence reality TV shows). As a result, extreme two-week diets trump months of day-in-day-out healthy eating. But, in the same way that you can't cram for the SATs or GREs by condensing years worth of knowledge into two weeks of study, you can't take the place of ongoing healthy eating habits with a two-week detox.

While it's true that our environments are certainly more toxic than they used to be, what seems to be most effective in combating these toxins is a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, water, exercise and other seemingly boring things that we all know we ought to be doing. Alas, preserving our health isn't really about magic tricks, it's about common sense. “People are selling a product," explained one of the doctors interviewed by The Times. "There’s a difference between selling a product and practicing good medicine.” Let the buyer beware.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Stuffed and Starved

Last weekend I heard Raj Patel discuss the world's not-so-ironic, simultaneous surge of both obesity and starvation -- there are currently a billion people on the planet who are overweight and another billion who are starving. Patel is an economist turned academic who is passionate about ending the disasterous effects that globalization has had on the way we eat. Formerly with the World Bank, Patel is currently a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. The guy makes a persuasive case for how converting the production and dissemination of food over to "the free markets" has done everything BUT ensure food security. Instead, we have created a relatively new phenomenon whereby farmers around the world can't afford the food they grow.

Meanwhile, consumers are being fed foods that would have previously been deemed unfit for human consumption. Factory farms are turning out soy and corn to be processed into the myriad packaged foods we now find ourselves eating. "We are being made for our food," Patel muses, explaining how capitalist culture has turned us into the type of people who value convenience over taste. According to Patel, the only entities that gain from the "free market" are the six wealthy corporations that control the distribution of food around the world. To learn more, read Patel's new book, Stuffed and Starved; to do more, make choices that support local, independent farms and petition the new administration to create policies that support these farmers over corporate food conglomerates.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Did the Obesity Epidemic Predict the Economic Crisis?

For the past decade, pundits have obsessed over our increasing waistlines. An understandable concern given that, as our nation grew more obese, significant health issues -- diabetes, heart disease, cancer -- snowballed. Meanwhile, we heard far less about the dangers of increased (non-edible) consumption in the form of SUVs, homes, and high-tech goods. One is now left wondering how things might have gone differently for the economy had the press spent as much time analyzing our collective pocketbooks as they did our grocery carts.

Similar to the commercials for Coke that promised us giddy joy in each can of soda (never mind the high-fructose corn syrup content), we were made to believe that owning more things was our ticket to happiness, our American-earned right. Unfortunately, as with any decadent treat -- be it cookies or beach homes -- moderation is key. This is not to say that the complex issues of obesity or the current economic crisis can be reduced to a simple matter of gluttony. It is equally about misinformation -- people lacking adequate information to act in their best interests, long-term. Both the obesity and economic crises were exacerbated by industries that profited enormously by misleading individuals ... or at least not giving them all of the facts. Food manufacturers made hefty profits by promoting high-caloric foods in huge quantities. And banks made staggering sums by extending credit for real estate transactions that were beyond the means of their buyers. Whether we've overextended ourselves calorically or financially, we can relate to wanting to have our cake and eat it too ... but since that's no longer an option, many of us may be left feeling like we are on a globally-imposed diet.