Friday, December 25, 2015

Food, Glorious Food

If you're anything like me and my family, chances are you're going to be slumped in front of the TV at some point during this holiday season, watching some version or other of Charles Dickens' classic, "A Christmas Carol." Whether it's the 1970 musical "Scrooge" starring Albert Finney, or the creepy black and white one with Alastair Sim, or any of the dozens that have been made through the years, they all tell the same story: one miser, three ghosts, 'nuff said.

First published in 1843, it, like most of Dickens' work, paints a picture of, we've come to assume, the typical mid-Victorian life, filled with squalor, disease, hunger, and untimely death. Indeed, one of the most recognizable features of the Victorian period (named for Britain's Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 until 1901) was the incredible pomp of their burial rites, and seemingly endless appetite for the trappings of grief.

Going in style, courtesy The Victorian Mourning Blog.
So it came as a surprise to me when I read this articleIts authors claim that, based on a study they conducted in 2008 for the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, there was a period in Britain from 1850 and 1872 where even the poor lived as long as we do, and were, overall, healthier than we are, because of their diet.

Really? Oliver and I would like some more information on this, please.

From the article:
Our study … shows that the majority of the Victorian urban poor consumed diets which were limited, but contained extremely high nutrient density. Bread could be expensive but onions, watercress, cabbage, and fruit like apples and cherries were all cheap and did not need to be carefully budgeted for. Beetroot was eaten all year round; Jerusalem artichokes were often home-grown. Fish such as herrings and meat in some form (scraps, chops and even joints) were common too. All in all, a reversion to mid-Victorian nutritional values would significantly improve health expectancy today.
They go on to say that:
Charting public health from the mid-Victorian era, our worldview changes dramatically. Mid-Victorians lived without modern diagnostics, drugs, surgery or contraception. Despite that, and because of the high nutrient density of their diet, their life spans were as good as ours and their health spans significantly longer. The dietary advantages of the mid-Victorian period have been lost to us because of our more sedentary lifestyles and over-consumption of processed and nutrient-depleted foods and beverages.
Earlier in the article, a word is used that I had never read or heard before: dysnutrition. I suspect it won't be the last.
It becomes clear that, with the exception of family planning, the vast edifice of post-1948 healthcare has not so much enabled us to live longer but has merely supplied methods of controlling the symptoms of non-communicable degenerative diseases, which have become prevalent due to our failure to maintain mid-Victorian nutritional standards. Dysnutrition is arguably the largest cause of ill-health today.
I had to do a little bit of Googling, but I was able to find out what "dysnutrition" means: 
For years, we have used "malnutrition" to describe a situation where someone does not receive sufficient vitamins and nutrients. In the past, however, that lack came from a lack of something else: sufficient calories. While a lack of calories still creates malnutrition in many Third World countries, the Western hemisphere and most definitely the United States face another problem.
 Many people now eat foods so devoid of nutritional value and loaded with sugar and processed flour that they can lack sufficient vitamins and minerals despite ingesting enough calories to become overweight. Hence, the need for a new term, dysnutrition.
The prefix "dys-" means bad, impaired, or abnormal, so you can see the logic behind the new word. Dysnutrition occurs because people make poor food choices and because food manufacturers make a conscious decision to "devolve" foods, [a] term for when food manufacturers make foods nutritionally worse to make them look more appealing, last longer, or taste better simply to increase profit margin.
"Increase profit margin"--at the expense of people's health? Big mistake!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Top Five Books for Eaters of Food

'Tis the season for list making. The "best" of this, the "worst" of that. Usually about events, products, and personages pertaining to the year that's on its way out; in this case, 2015.

This is not one of those.

My list is for all of you who are in the midst of holiday shopping, and maybe you've got someone in your life that has an interest in health and nutrition, weight loss, or just weight management. Now buying diet books as gifts is tricky; you don't want to be like, "Here, I thought you could use this to HELP YOU LOOSE WEIGHT!" That would go over like a lead reindeer, wouldn't it? The cool thing about my list is that these books are tools for learning about more than just dieting. For instance, you won't find a single "21-Day Diet!" type thing here--and there's just one cook book (sorry!). Instead, your friend or relative or co-worker (or, let's be honest, you--you're going to get at least one Barnes and Noble gift card, you know you will) will get a lot more than that.

From each of these five books, you'll learn something new about food, its history, its incredible diversity, and its ever-changing role in culture and health.  And a thing or two about how to eat the right stuff, for you, your family, and your budget.

I didn't pick these books because they are the very best books of their type on the market (though I think they'd easily make that list). I picked them because they are the best books I've read on the subject of food (so far). They influenced me to start this blog, and to be "tuned in" about what I think is the main problem with food today--that it has become "product", and whatever gets that "product" to market looking the best, at the lowest cost, with the highest rate of return, regardless of whether it is even "food" anymore.  I have listed them in the order that I read them, so it's not a case of one being necessarily better than the other in ranking. 

Sick of the preamble? Let's get to the list!

by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding
Why I like it: This is part of a very popular series that I'm sure everyone is familiar with, being, as they are, so ubiquitous that they are for sale in my local Kinkos (??). I like this one in particular because of the simple, easy-to-follow recipes that break down not just the calories, but compare the home made version to what you'd be consuming by having the same meal in a restaurant.

Who it would make a good gift for: A young person, maybe just starting college, or moving out on their own, or anyone who needs a little jump start to stop eating out and learn the benefits of kicking' it in the kitchen. It can guide a beginner through the process of cooking, give tips on how to prepare all the meals of the day including snacks, as well as the aforementioned calorie comparison--a kind of "scared-straight" of calorie counting!
Click here for details.

by Michael Pollan
Why I like it: This book can fit in your pocket, for one thing. It's a handy-dandy little guide, a "commonplace book," if you will, for the eaters among us. Author Michael Pollan is much more famous for writing probably the seminal work in the world of food and health, "An Omnivore's Dilemma," but I haven't read that yet, so I can't recommend it personally. I can recommend this, though, as a great introduction to healthy eating habits, broken down into quick, bite-sized morsels (natch!). 

Who it would make a good gift for: Someone who is just getting interested in how diet affects health, and wants tips to eating (and feeling!) better.
Click here for more details.

by Robert H. Lustig, M.D.
Why I like it: I first learned Dr. Lustig's name watching the documentary "Fed Up!". He impressed me as the person talking who was making the most sense, and who seemed the most knowledgeable about the topic of obesity, its causes, and its dangers. This book follows his experiences as a pediatric endocrinologist and how that led him to, unexpectedly, to become a healthy diet champion. It is a very readable book, written in a warm, self-deprecating yet serious tone. I highly recommend it.

Who it would make a good gift for: If there is someone in your life who has an interest in learning about how food affects health and chronic diseases, this would be a great choice for its in-depth, and possibly life-changing, information.
Click here for more details.

by Jo Robinson
Why I like it: This book has it all. Explanations of the origins of the plants we eat, why some plants are better for us than others, and, most helpfully, how to select the best quality fruits and vegetables in the market and how to store them for maximum freshness at home. And, for you gardeners out there, Ms. Robinson supplies lots of info on what seeds to buy and how to cultivate them. This is probably my favorite book on this list.

Who it would make a good gift for: Someone who is ready to dive into the deep end of food, serious about wanting to shop smarter and eat healthier. Also, as mentioned, a good choice for the gardeners in your life.
Click here for more details.

by Mark Schatzker
Why I like it: This book is like a culmination of all the others on this list and then some, though it has most in common with "Fat Chance," in that it is focused on the science behind food today (and why that can be a bad thing). It is a great, easy to read examination of that stuff on our grocery shelves, how it got that way, and why we as consumers should be running in the opposite direction.

Who it would make a good gift for: The person who has had enough of commercialized food "product", who no longer accepts that a calorie is a calorie, or who thinks that meals should never come in through the window of a car. With this book, this person is about to achieve a black belt in consumer wisdom.
Click here for more details

That list again:

Cook This, Not That!
by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding

Food Rules, An Eater's Manual
by Michael Pollan

Fat Chance
by Robert H. Lustig, M.D.

Eating on the Wild Side
by Jo Robinson

The Dorito Effect
by Mark Schatzker

That's it! I hope this has been helpful--happy shopping! 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Better Luck Next Time, Coke

Earlier this year, we talked about  The Global Energy Balance Network, a group organized to praise the benefits of exercise, and to assure us that sugary drinks such as Coke have nothing to do with the world's growing obesity problems. This group denied it had any connection to Coca-Cola. 

An investigation by the Associated Press proved otherwise:

The emails obtained by the AP through a records request showed Coke executives and the group's leaders held meetings and conference calls to develop the group's mission. A proposal circulated via email at Coke laid out a vision for a group that would "quickly establish itself as the place the media goes to for comment on any obesity issue." It said the group would run a political-style campaign to counter the "shrill rhetoric" of "public health extremists."

"Public health extremists?" Ouch. Wonder how that worked out for them?

(Following revelations about Coke's involvement with the group), The Global Energy Balance Network said on its website Monday night that it is "discontinuing operations due to resource limitations." The decision was effective immediately.
As much as I'd like to think that this would be the end of this particular tactic, if history has taught us anything, it's that there is no bad idea that won't be used again. I'm sure it won't be long before Coke thinks they've perfected a new strategy to spread their not-calories-exercise gospel.

How's that for "shrill rhetoric", Coke?