Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Race To Zero.

This week (Feb. 21 - 27, 2010) is National Eating Disorder week and I thought I would share a concern I had since it goes with that theme.

A few years back, I was one of the first member's of Ohio State University's Campus Dining Services Advisory Council. The council weighed in on issues impacting the food and service there of for the 50,000+ students of OSU. Campus Dining Services had taken in $36 million in revenue for the previous year, so they fed a lot of students in their then 22 facilities. The new Union is set to open if it hasn't already and those numbers are sure to grow.

One item of business at the first meeting I attended was to discuss ways to educate the diners on so they could make responsible food choices. One idea was to post the calories per serving for every item prepared in house(prepackaged items already do this). It seemed very reasonable and I even added that they should also post the amounts of protein, fat, sodium, and carbs.

There was a nutrition student in the group, that had a concern.

'What about people with eating disorders?' She asked.

Her experience was that freshman women were already stressing over their figure and by seeing the calories per serving they'll be less inclined to eat certain foods. Anyone remember the Freshman 15? This seems like a good thing considering American's general over-consumption. She explained that they don't stop cutting calories and the people she worked with as a nutrition major were essentially eating like it was a golf match. Fewest calories wins. So instead of having a caloric goal in mind, for instance 100/200 calories less than they typically consume based on activity and body weight, they try to eat only very low calorie foods in an effort to stay as close to zero as possible. They suppliment their diets with things like mints, cigarettes, and bottled water.

I call this the Race To Zero.

Posting calories makes us feel better, like we're doing what we can in the battle of the bulge. I think that battle we wage makes us unhealthier and endangers those in our society who's minds trick them into seeing themselves as bigger than they really are.

The major problem with solutions that many people post are that they are very narrow minded and not based in science and reason. Yahoo! or: thewebsiteIlovetohate! constantly posts stories about the 'worst foods'. They've had stories about the worst restaurants, appetizers, burgers, breakfast foods, desserts, salads, and the latest is fries. What makes these foods the worst? Calories, according to the articles. Every food that is demonized is demonized on calories.

So now we are posting the calories of everything while simultaneously running stories that demonize foods for how many calories are in them. What are people supposed to take from that? Calories = bad. Less calories = good. Zero calories = perfect.

Folks... Zero calories = dead.

The problem with posting calories for one item is that it doesn't take into consideration everything else the person had or will have to eat that day. The only way this can work is if people understand how many calories they need and how many calories they already had.

A very crude measurement is to multiply your weight by 11(for women) or 12(for men). This gives you a crude measurement of how many calories are necessary to maintain that body weight. So ladies, wanna know what it takes to be 115lbs??
You cannot consume more than 1,265 calories a day without factoring in physical activity.
A 200lb man by comparison can consume 2,400 calories a day and not gain.

As I said, physical activity offsets these numbers. This is why Michael Phelps can consume many thousands of calories a day. He trains in a pool 8 hours a day and his metabolism is extremely high. So there are many factors that affect weight. Girls, if you are 5'10" and at least have an average musculature, then I'm sorry, but you have no business weighing 115lbs. Consuming only 1,200 calories a day can kill you.

The numbers I gave were the absolute bottom for maintaining organ function. Standing burns calories. Sitting burns calories. Sleep burns calories. Obviously, things like; walking, running, swimming, weight training, yoga, and pilates all result in your need for more calories. You have to count the calories spent on every activity and add them up to get a realistic idea of how many calories you need.

Henry Cardello has a book called Stuffed Nation where he offers the solution of incentivizing the food industry to cut the calories in the foods they make. I think it's a novel plan but I also think we have a risk of this biting us in the ass.

Let me paint a not so rosie picture...

This plan works really well. Calories are cut by a lot...maybe 30% or more. Everyone wants the incentives and the reduced calories makes their products more profitable. It quickly becomes an R&D's version of an arms race... a Race To Zero. Tragedy strikes! It could be war, drought, early frost, a new ice age, raised ocean levels driving the populations of the world inland and leaving less farmland, whatever situation you can conjure up.

The food supply is now scarce and we are forced to ration what we have so that everyone may have some food. The problem now is the opposite; people aren't getting enough calories and they're getting sick. People's immune systems start to fail. Common colds are debilitating. Manual labor is something we no longer have the energy for. People are weakened and less able to fight in battle. We are overrun by another country. Some assimilate, many more are massacred.

Ok, so that's a crazy Mad Max extreme, but it illustrates that it's the total diet that matters most and not the calories in Outback's Aussie Cheese Fries.

So let's educate people on a diet of moderation. Stop eating when you start to feel full (not after). Try to eat a variety of things(yes, that includes meat and seafood, hippies). Save the rich foods and desserts for special occasions and spend the rest of the time eating reasonably. Go outside, run around, play a sport, get exercise. If you find you have gained weight, monitor the calories in what you eat for a week and see where you are over indulging. That's it.

So we have two extremes; obesity and dangerously thin that are getting all the attention. I suggest our social policy as it related to food and health be well rounded and based in science and education. But whatever you do, please don't turn our nation's diet into a Race To Zero.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Dear Anonymous...

This post is a response to Anonymous' comment on my blog: The Naked Truth. It became too long to not use as it's own blog post. Please re-read that blog if you haven't already and check out her full comment.

My comment about preservatives being neither good nor bad was not a comment on the functionality of the preservative (good, or else food companies would save money by not using them), but rather in terms of healthy/unhealthy. They aren't specifically bad for you, and not specifically good for you either - other than the fact that they inhibit certain microbial growth, thus making the food safer.

It's interesting how everything is either health food or junk food to some people. How do you define health food. Does one serving have to provide specific quantities of every nutrient? Does it have to be low fat, sodium, calories, sugar? If so, are you prepared to show me sound, peer reviewed science that fat, sugar, sodium, and calories of any quantity are bad? Healthy is another loaded term and very much depends on the person and a tally of everything else they have eaten that day/week. For instance, if you are short by a certain amount of fat, protein, and calories... a Snickers bar could complete your diet. In this case, it would have positively contributed to your health and can be considered healthy.

Today's clickable link will lead you to the American Center on Science and Health and a study/experiment headed up by Dr. Ruth Kava PhD, R.D. which tried to analyze nutrient intake, and in one instance, see if weight loss was possible on a McDonald's only diet for 30 days.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Naked Brain: activism minus science.

The winner of the 2010 TED gift is Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver. TED stands for Technology Entertainment Design and is a nonprofit foundation that features lectures and presentations by many of our species greatest minds. TED presentations focus on science, technology, and humanity. I love their site and have spent entire days watching people demonstrate cutting edge technology. I watched Bill Clinton give a very inspiring speech as he accepted his TED gift. The TED gift is a financial award that the winner can apply to their research or cause.
"I wish for your help to create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity"

OK. This sounds great, right? Everyone wants families to cook more and everyone wants little kids to not be so fat, and everyone wants to be sustainable. Whew! I feel all warm and bubbly inside already.

But what does that actually mean?

Sustainable is the most loaded, overused term in the modern era(2nd only to 'fresh'). It should mean that what you do(grow, produce, manufacture) is used in such a way that the component parts that make up what you do are replenished at a rate that keeps pace with what you are doing.

Sustainable logging means that you plant trees to replace what you cut and more trees are ready to harvest before you run out of trees.

Sustainable manufacturing is a little more tricky: I think it's using sources of renewable energy to produce items that are made with recyclable materials.

Sustainable food should mean that, like trees, you are planting what you take. But then people say, 'Well, fertilizers can pollute, so it can't be sustainable if you use those.' Then other people say, 'Hey, this food is trucked 500 miles, so it isn't sustainable.'

It's such a loaded term and what I think people really think it should mean is this: Sustainable means I don't feel guilty anymore.

Jamie Oliver also says he wants to create a movement to educate children about food. His wish is for a movement. His goal is more activism. His wish isn't that children get educated about food, his wish is for a movement. That is fairly important.

Jamie Oliver is a brand. You can assign a value to him as an entity, based on ratings for cooking shows, endorsement deals, cookbook sales, etc. What a brand such as him really needs is a cause... a movement.

My original intent was to separate fact from fiction concerning his movement, but as I investigated, I noticed that there aren't really facts involved, so I will consider the actual idea and theme of his movement.

The title of this blog is a clickable link that goes to Oliver's site where you can see this all for yourself.

So here is what I get from his movement:
Nutritious School lunches using local, sustainable, real food.
Families that prepare meals at home.
Educating kids about food.
Fighting the scourge that is obesity [grrr!]

First off, I'm a little confused by the school lunch program to be honest. Is the goal to provide food since the kids are stuck there for 6-8 hours? Or is the goal to provide complete nutrition, as if the only food they get is at school? This makes a huge difference, by the way. If the idea is that this has to be enough food in case they aren't fed at all at home, then you need much more calorie dense and nutrient dense foods. If you're just providing food to as one meal out of several then you don't need as many calories and it can be just enough to satiate hunger without making the kid tired after lunch.

Jamie Oliver takes several shots at processed foods. The following is from his School Food Charter:
"Don’t just look for the USDA symbol. How many ingredients do you recognize? How many are adding nutritional value to the food? Remember, real food, cooked fresh, doesn’t need additives, preservatives, or anything artificial. Processed food is often full of these things."

Oh boy... First off, he equates the goodness of food with the number of ingredients. Then he makes a statement about real food being fresh(another loaded term) which means that processed foods aren't real. His line of logic then concludes with a statement demonizing preservatives. He's also playing on people's lack of education about food science. It would be impossible to make this arguments stick if people knew what the preservatives were for and that they really are harmless.

These are old, tired arguments from the food hysterics. Processed food is bad and it isn't real, and there are things in it we don't immediately understand, so that makes it bad. Preservatives are neither good nor bad. They're preservatives.

Processed food is real and uses the same methods you would use in the kitchen, just mechanized for mass production. Example: instant mashed potatoes.

What do you do when you make mashed potatoes? Peel and cut potatoes, boil potatoes to cook them, mash the potatoes, and mix in seasonings and cream.

What does a factory do to make mashed potatoes? Peel and cut potatoes, boil potatoes to cook them, mash the potatoes, and mix in seasonings and cream. They just go the additional step of drying the mashed potatoes and packaging the powder.

Do you test your mashed potatoes for micro organisms? Do you have others thoroughly inspect your kitchen for cleanliness and safety every day? No? The factory does.

I'm concerned that Jamie Oliver is simply taking old arguments that weren't based in science and is repackaging them to help sell his brand. After all, a family learning to cook, is going to need cookwear, and a cookbook or an instructional dvd. Mr. Oliver takes digs at processed foods, but look what he has on his site here: http://www.jamieoliver.com/cupboard

Hmm.. That stuff looks familiar. Can't quite put my finger on it, but I feel like I've seen that before. I don't see how he has the time to cook all of this food at home and package it for sale. Surely, he doesn't use contract food manufacturers(private labels) to make a product line and put his name on it.

Hypocritical and completely tone-deaf.

He also advocates eating on plates and using metal utensils. Who's going to pay for this?
His plan would essentially turn school cafeterias into 3 star restaurants for children that eat there for a half hour and usually at around 10AM. You want proper table settings? Fine. You will also need to hire additional personelle and you'll need to buy a Hobart C-line dishwasher to accommodate the volume of dishes. You'll need more staff to work longer hours chopping, sauteing, simmering, and roasting food. These are real culinary skills, so you'll need to bump up the pay to attract the talent that can actually pull this off. You want local, raw ingredients? Then you need to contact local purveyors and get more deliveries, more often, and you will pay a premium for it.

Not only does Mr. Oliver not consult food science and nutrition experts on his plans, but check out the people on his must see list.
He lists Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, the movies Food Inc. and Two Angry Moms, and The Centre For Science In The Public Interest (not really science).

What I gather from all of this is that Jamie Oliver is at the very least, misguided about food issues and falls into the same trap many other well intentioned, misinformed folks fall into. More than that, Jamie Oliver is more concerned about his brand than children, evidenced by his TED gift acceptance speech where he states that his wish was for a movement...not for specific changes. This gift coincides perfectly with his new ABC series Food Revolution and compliments his books, dvd's, cookware, and yes, even his line of processed foods.

Can we please return to science and reason as a means to shape policy?