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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

Post-Election: Food and, well, everything else we value

Not a good week. At all. Even Garrison Keillor is jumping in and warning the Rust Belt states that they’ve made an extreme mistake that will keep them down (and they’re probably not listening or aware that he’s even left NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion”) and prevent them from enjoying anything but more Hamburger Helper and Mac ‘n’ Cheese in all its fabulously innovative variations for the next ten years or so.

And how do I explain this development to my daughter, who came home from a high school election night event as ashen-faced as we all were?

Certainly mac ‘n’ cheese, posed in this case along with brussels sprout gratin and leek casserole as fabulous Thanksgiving options (and so transportable!), was at the top of the New York Times food article server to show alongside all the disaster inch-high election result headlines and the not-quite-mea-culpas for having called it wrong for months. I’ve never encountered something so unappetizing in my life–at this point, MnC looks much too much like a certain infamous hair don’t. And despite blog after blog and cookbook after cookbook extolling the midwestern ecstasies of MnCs in every possible not-gonna-happen-because-you-can’t-get-roquefort-or-chervil-in-Middle-America, I find myself in revolt.

Heartened by yesterday’s thousands of young protesters taking to the streets, but in revolt nonetheless because street protests aren’t going to be enough to solve this mess.

So yes, I’m going to be alarmist for a few minutes here. Maybe more if I get on a roll. Every prospect for a decent, diverse, civil and prosperous society is about to be thrown under the bus by Congress and the president in two months, if the bloviators have their way. Mac ‘n’ cheese is the least of it, the most trivial and trivializing point. I’m not trying to be elitist here–more like, why favor what is essentially a flavorless stodgy heart attack on a plate and then whine about high drug prices?

But the anti-trade rants that seem to have won over the red states are a damn good place to start. I’d just like to point a few items out to people who already have a limited selection of food at their local supermarkets because they live in small towns across the country (and that includes plenty of us in California as well).

What the hell are us cooks, foodies or no, wherever we live, going to do? We have two months to stock up on actual spices that didn’t come in a tiny, uptight, never-to-be-used tin box or jar as part of a wedding set from however many years ago. Because most spices come from…overseas. That’s right. Or Mexico.

Thanksgiving, utterly whitebread and middle-American as it so often seems, requires spices. Pumpkin pie is not the same with “pumpkin pie spice” artifices developed in chemistry labs in New Jersey. It needs cloves. And ginger. And cinnamon. And nutmeg or cardamom or both. Also mace, if you can get it. Sweet potato pudding requires crushed pineapple. Which comes from Mexico or worse, in the eyes of our next president, Hawaii.

The last time we were on an hysterical close-the-borders binge, in one of the Bush eras, cloves started to run over $50 a pound. Because they come from places like Iran. For those of you who don’t know, cloves come from a clove tree–hard to find in the gardening catalogs and apparently somewhat tricky to grow in most of the US. Cinnamon, the most “American” of spices, is the bark of one of several trees, either “true cinnamon” or cassia, grown in Vietnam, some places in Latin America, Sri Lanka, etc…

Peppercorns–India, mostly. Limes, Mexico again. Where will all the Margaritas go? Also many varieties of hot peppers.

And don’t forget the two great American drugs–coffee and chocolate. Both imports from countries the newly elected right-wingers would like to ban altogether. African countries. Arab countries. Latin America. Indonesia which is, yes, primarily Muslim.

Recreational marijuana, which almost anyone can grow in the US, pales in comparison and everybody knows it.

More disconcerting to me for most of the year, sesame seeds. Tehina requires them. All Arab and most Israeli and some Caucasus/Persian food requires them (all those amazing cookbooks the past couple of years and this fall season–Zahav, Samarkand, Persepolis, Balaboosta, you name it). Also Chinese food. And Korean. Bagels wouldn’t be the same without them. Sesame seeds are grown primarily in Ethiopia and are traded through a variety of countries on Trump’s bloviating rant list.

There’s more. Cookware–China. Almost all of it at this point, with the exception of Lodge cast iron frying pans and whatever Shinola decides to produce in the way of an orange-and-tan hipster le Creuset wannabe with detachable split calf handle covers or whatever. Wonder how well Shinola’s gonna be selling in Brooklyn now, or whether discerning New Yorkers will cut them a break and realize Detroit voted blue, it was all the surrounding Michigan counties that clutched up.

The worst hit of all, probably, may be for print. As in, cookbooks. It’s well known that our next prez does not like to read much and may find print expendable (and he’s no fan of the free press either). Most American publishers print their hard copy books of all kinds in China and Singapore and ship them back to the US. So do many magazines and brochure and business card companies. DVDs and Blu-Ray. All that stuff–made in China.

Although I would welcome a return to American printing for major publishers, retail prices for everything would probably go up. A lot. And a lot of trees would be killed here unless we can get that elitist tree-hugging recycling thing going properly without sending all our paper waste to China for processing.

And, as I say again, coffee. And chocolate. If there’s a shortage or an embargo, serious chocolate may disappear in this country and be replaced by stuff about the quality of typical Halloween candy, most of which is brown without noticeable chocolate content.

Very depressing.

Well, screw all that. In fact, corkscrew it. (Wine may also end up harder to come by, because it comes from the Blue States–California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Virginia, Maryland…)

The two cookbooks most blogged about this fall are MnC-like in ways I hadn’t expected from either of their authors. Then again. probably both of their authors were looking for a more united state of the Union when the books came out.

Mario Batali has decided he’s the new Jane and Michael Stern and surveyed some regional American recipes he thinks are worth putting in a cookbook. There are, contrary to his Italian-focused cookbooks, almost no vegetables and an awful lot of bland-looking starch dishes. On a quick flip-through, none of it looks exceedingly delicious, to be honest with you.

Then there is the self-consciously infamous Anthony Bourdain doing his Hunter S. Thompson-as-foodie act with Appetites–this one’s also sort of American-ish, and focused on “dad food”. The prose veers back and forth between “still badass in his heart” and handy dad tips you never knew you needed because “it’s all about the little girl,” who’s age nine or so at this point. Things like how to fix a broken hollandaise sauce for Eggs Benedict and not to bother with risotto for birthday parties for nine-year-olds and their friends. A little surreal–what typical American dad really aims for hollandaise sauce, broken or un-?

To make up for the mawkish sentimentality, the photos are unnecessarily aggressive: a combat helmet filled with Korean Army Stew, rice noodles slopped over the side and onto the table (a Lucky Peach original motif). A cotton gi with bloodstains from his boasted-about workout routine. Bourdain, sitting on the seat of a toilet in a stylish and thankfully clean bathroom, and even more thankfully fully clothed and pants zipped, but eating a sausage and pepper sandwich on the pot.

Is it necessary? Is it ornamental? Is it even particularly entertaining? No. It’s overshare and trying a little too hard to stay provocative.

The real puzzler for most food journalists has been how he conned Eric Ripert, head of Le Bernardin in NYC and also the author of the well-received recent memoir 32 Yolks, into posing for the gonzo photographer with pale gravy dribbling down his universally-acclaimed-to-be-handsome chin, like a 6-month-old fed something he or she doesn’t care for. The expression on Ripert’s face tells it all–dismayed, dyspeptic, slightly helpless and trying to be a good sport in the face of his friend’s over-the-top enthusiasm and that of the photographer. It is not a solid advertisement for the supposed deliciousness of Bourdain’s biscuits and gravy recipe on the opposing page.

All of which…doesn’t give you a lot of hope for serious food prospects come January 20.

We have two months to make a point and also put up some reserves so our kitchens don’t devolve into flavorless beige wastelands of mediocrity.

How do you grow sesame seeds in your back yard again?

BMI criticized again…by psychologists?

The International Journal of Obesity has just released a short article by Janet Tomiyama (UCLA) and Jeffrey Hunger (UC-Santa Barbara) et al–a team of psychologists. They analyzed NHANES data from 2005-2012 for about 75,000 individuals, and concluded that BMI status doesn’t correlate well with six concrete markers of cardiovascular and metabolic health–blood pressure, blood triglycerides and cholesterol, blood glucose, insulin resistance, and C-reactive protein. Extrapolating a bit from the NHANES study participant numbers, they conclude that millions of Americans–54 million–have been misclassified as unhealthy due solely to their BMI numbers.

According to their analysis, 47% of the overweight people in the study had healthy status (0-1 of 6 markers) other than their weight. About 30% of obese and even 16% of morbidly obese people had healthy status according to their protocol, whereas about 30% of those in the healthy BMI range had more than one actual cardiovascular or metabolic disease marker that would be ignored if only BMI is considered.

Is this really the death-knell for public concern over weight? Should it be?

Here’s how the UCLA press release puts it (with my emphases in italics):

But a new study led by UCLA psychologists has found that using BMI to gauge health incorrectly labels more than 54 million Americans as “unhealthy,” even though they are not.  […]

“Many people see obesity as a death sentence,” said A. Janet Tomiyama, an assistant professor of psychology in the UCLA College and the study’s lead author. “But the data show there are tens of millions of people who are overweight and obese and are perfectly healthy.”

Incorrectly labels? Perfectly healthy?

The definition for “healthy” used in this study is 0 to 1 known risk factor for CVD and diabetes. But clinically, one risk factor is often enough to be of acute concern, especially if it’s untreated high blood pressure or blood glucose. Those generally need treatment sooner rather than later.

Furthermore, the study as posted on Hunger’s web page excludes obesity and overweight a priori from that count of risk factors for CVD and diabetes. I don’t know the absolute latest research consensus, other than what was in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Advisory Committee’s report last February, but my general understanding is that weight does show some statistically independent influence on CVD at least. That picture may be changing as we learn more about its interactions with other risk factors, but if it’s still valid, weight should have been counted as one of the existing “known risk factors” along with the other markers and that would have skewed Tomiyama and Hunger’s analysis considerably.

Even without those considerations, the different weight groups classified by BMI cutpoints do in fact show a significant increase in health risk from one category to the next. Turn Hunger and Tomiyama’s percentages around and you see that 70% of people in the 18.5-24.9 healthy BMI range have 0-1 risk marker other than weight; 53% in the 24.9-29.9 overweight range have more than 1 marker, 70% in the 30-35 range have more than 1 marker, and 84% in the 35 and over BMI range have more than one marker other than weight.

Plot those crude percentages and you’ll see a very sharp rise in risk incidence between the healthy and overweight categories, a reversal of fortune from “most people healthy” to “more than half at risk,” with further solidification of “most people at risk” as you venture further into obese and morbidly obese. There’s really no debating that trend, even given the narrow way this team has defined “healthy.” To say nothing of “perfectly healthy.”

Researchers in biomedicine (i.e., physical as opposed to psychological medicine) have recently reexamined whether the current BMI cutpoints defining healthy, overweight, obese and morbidly obese are in the right places to describe most people’s 10-year risk of overt CVD events (heart attacks and stroke), diabetes, or all-causes mortality, or whether BMI is just a continuous gradient of increased risk without definable cutpoints. At last count, the conclusion was that the current statistical best-fit cutpoints are pretty much correct, even though the data for individuals have a pretty big spread (and that each BMI step or number still has incrementally higher risk than the one below).

The upshot: BMI categories are still a pretty good marker of the overall health status of Americans when you’re talking about trends. Crude, yes. Exceptions for athletes with much more muscle than fat, yes. But the numbers are still strongly in favor of using BMI as a general warning flag to check for more specific cardiovascular and metabolic disease markers in individuals.

It’s very odd to see a paper like this coming from a team of behavioral psychologists, which Tomiyama and Hunger are. They’re at least nominally outside their field here, doing a statistical analysis on physical health data, and the paper’s methodology and definitions (along with some of their position statements in the American Journal of Public Health and elsewhere) show a specific agenda toward deconsecrating BMI and downplaying overweight and Continue reading

“The Dorito Effect”: Fervor over Flavor

So, the party’s over, the halftime show’s over, Denver won, a variety of pop stars are brushing off media criticism over what they wore, and a nation is figuring out how to deal with the caloric aftermath of buffalo wings and a variety of dips and chips. (My biggest excitement: locating the owner of a red Corvette with a leaking gas tank in time to deal with it and avoid a more dramatic spectacle. Luckily it was mid-afternoon and the owner was alert, sober, and not smoking. She  also wasn’t whining about having to go out to look at the car. As some of the male guests might have been, Corvette or no.)

Mark Schatzker’s recent book, The Dorito Effect, is an energizing read for those of us who aren’t really into the classics of Superbowl Sunday.

Kroger Superbowl recipe booklet

I’ll spare you the inside pages, but the closest to nutritious was Kroger’s own recipe for double-coated baked cauliflower “hot wings”–ingredients: a head of cauliflower, a little flour and water, garlic powder, Kroger’s store-brand hot sauce, and some melted butter to doll up the cauliflower florets before dipping in…ranch dressing. 

Not that it’s really so much about Doritos, but rather that it takes the 1960s invention of Doritos–a “taco-flavored” taco chip without any actual meat, cheese or salsa, just what has become known to all as orange cheez dust–as the first serious divorce between food and intrinsic flavor.

It isn’t really the first, of course, and Schatzker traces the history of post-WWII mass agriculture as the story of more food, grown quicker, with less and less flavor. Everything from tomatoes to chickens to broccoli to wheat comes under the microscope lens here. Yes, it’s another Michael Pollan-style examination of some familiar complaints about how and why nothing tastes the same anymore.

He collects reactions from champion kvetchers as diverse as Julia Child (she did it first, he claims, calling modern–1960s–American chicken tasteless and with the texture of “teddy bear stuffing”) to the Slow Food Movement (no relation, ahem!) to Michael Pollan himself, to a variety of old bickering couples who remember the flavor of old long-legged breeds of chickens now relegated to the remote gourmet sidelines of the vast factory-farming chicken industry…

Schatzker tells a fairly entertaining version of this tale–how Big Food and Big Agro convened with flavor chemists to alter the course of human gastronomy in the wake of WWII. As we breed livestock and produce to grow more, bigger, faster, he discovers, we lose not only flavor but nutrients and replace them with water and carbohydrate filler even in things like broccoli and tomatoes. And then we try to make up for that by dousing them in ranch dressing and orange cheez dust and artificial flavorings; hence the title of his book.

Coatings, dressings, artificial flavorings, salt, sugar and oils–these, he says, have become the substitute for intrinsic flavor in real foods, and a mainstay of the unsubstantial snack foods–starting with Doritos–that have pushed out bulk produce and unprocessed ingredients in the American diet.

Schatzker takes it a couple of steps further, though, presenting his theory that the loss of flavor in real foods is the key factor to blame for American overconsumption of calories, and that flavor is one criterion we should work to restore at a national level.

Yes, we’ve read much of this before elsewhere, but his interviews are still eye-opening. He interviews flavor chemists at McCormick, which does a lot more of its work behind the scenes of the restaurant and processed food world than you might think. Those little bottles of herbs and spices on supermarket shelves are just the tip of the iceberg.

Schatzker also profiles one of the original breeders of today’s heavy-breasted, fast-grown, efficient-feeding mass market chickens–though the man is still proud of that early work given the economic pressures on postwar America. He gets the inside story on the decline of flavor and nutrition in broccoli, kale, tomatoes, strawberries and other common produce, and learns why some top agriculture researchers eventually quit the corporate world to try and restore some of the diversity and quality that had been lost during the peak years of their careers. Continue reading

Thanks

I want to give a quick thanks to Dr. Marion Nestle, who took the time to let her readers and colleagues know about Sunday’s Dietary Guidelines post in her Twitter feed and on her blog, foodpolitics.com, which I’ve read with interest ever since starting this blog. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and I appreciate it very much.

USDA Dietary Guidelines released…a full year later

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s scientific report, essentially the major draft of the USDA “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” guidelines, was finished last February. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020 has finally been released in its official form to the public–but it’s only available online at health.gov as of this week, with promises of an eventual PDF.

To that end, because the Health.gov site doesn’t yet have a downloadable version, I’ve pulled the text and images of the final “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020” into a quick-and-dirty two PDFs you can download below for free. It’s not perfect–the pages don’t all flow with gorgeous layout and some of the graphics were so oversized I had to kind of select-cut-and-paste them in sections to get the charts to fit. I think I’ve got it all in there, though, including most of the helpful nutrition and diet charts in the appendices (with notes where I didn’t catch on that there was more to a chart than first appeared).

What can I say–“Enjoy.” Ummm….well, anyhow, here they are:

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020–this includes the Table of Contents, Intro, Executive Summary, and body of the report (Chapters 1-3).

USDA DGA 2015-20 Final-IntroandChapters (PDF, 3.4 MB)

Appendices (14 of them) for the Dietary Guidelines –I couldn’t get Adobe to stick this on the end of the document nicely, so it’s separate but useful.

USDA DGA 2015-20 Final Appendices (PDF, 263 KB)

The original Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report from last February is available here.

What was the holdup? What are the differences from the health-basis-only recommendations of the DG Advisory Committee’s version last year?

Given the shoddy job major media gave the advisory committee’s scientific report last winter and spring, perhaps the best thing to do this time around is skip the media coverage hyperbole and compare the two reports directly and see what gives.

Professor Marion Nestle digs in with dissatisfaction as to some of the likely buyoffs this time around–she deems that the big meat, egg, sugar, etc. producing industries have won some victories in what wasn’t said. She also complains, as I do, that the online version is full of stupid bells and whistles. It’s hard to navigate, there are a lot of windows and figures that are actually slide shows and you have to know to click on them to get the rest of the information. Hopefully the PDFs above will be more readable.

Nestle’s take is more political than mine (for a change? not really). She notices more of the inconsistencies with naming food categories only when they’re favorable, and using nutrient names (sugar, saturated fat, sodium) as substitutes for the big-business food categories that are poor nutritionally.

I’m less incensed about most of that– and ironically a little more optimistic about what was included. Continue reading

Another reason to avoid processed and fast food

In the past five or ten years, obesity and diabetes researchers have started taking a closer look at environmental factors that have unexpectedly strong disruptive effects on our appetite, food consumption levels and metabolism, even at levels currently deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration. The potential of artificial sweeteners to lower glucose tolerance in less than a week by shifting the balance of gut bacteria is only one unnerving example.

Environmental chemicals like fungicides, pesticides and plasticizers (BPA and the like) have long been of concern for cancer, endocrine disruption and infertility. Some extensive and carefully conducted studies now reveal that some of these chemicals can also increase fat cell development and storage as well as insulin resistance. Low levels of exposure directly increase the rate of obesity in rats, and  population studies, though not as extensive, show that exposure also tracks with obesity in humans.

These common chemicals are now being considered obesogens–chemicals that cause obesity or at least make people more prone to it. And these are effects that may end up being passed down.

In the rat studies, the effects lasted for several generations, and that also seems to tally with earlier findings on environmental endocrine disruptors and male infertility. Some of the tests that were conducted on rats in the obesogen study were too invasive to perform on human subjects, and a human generation is a lot longer than a rat generation–20+ years vs. 6 weeks–so it may be hard to trace inheritance in humans just yet.

Well–so what does it mean for us while we wait for the perfect definitive human study to come along?

To my mind, it means taking a harder look at how we choose the food we eat. We can’t remove all pesticide residues from the environment but we can probably eat fewer things wrapped pristinely in plastic and cut down our reliance on plastic utensils and disposable containers.

As I look around my kitchen, I realize just how often I reach for plastic sandwich bags–daily for lunches, but also for leftovers, herbs, halves of onions or lemons, cheese, vegetables. Stacking plastic storage containers keep soup, salad, rice or beans–or this week, an overload of stuffed shells, since I finally got my cook-once-eat-six-times-or-so batch cooking mojo figured out. And almost everything else in my fridge and on my shelves is in contact with plastic at one time or another.

Plastic wrappings pervade most of the supermarket offerings–overwraps on plastic-coated juice boxes, plastic see-through windows on cardboard pasta boxes, sacks of dried beans and rice, loaves of bread, plastic inner bags for boxed cereals and snacks, and plastic linings on the insides of tin cans. Also, of course, all those bottles of soda and energy drinks and vitamin waters and juices and milk. And yogurt. To say nothing of fast food, vending machine food, and so on.

Plastic is everywhere because it’s cheap, light, flexible, avoids breakage in shipping, and it helps you keep your food dry if you want it dry or moist if you want to keep it from drying out. You can keep everything separate and clean and airtight even when stored side by side. You can store it in the freezer and take some types of plastic containers right to the microwave. If you want to give up plastic, either for health reasons or environmental ones, you have to give up some of those advantages too.

Your next best bets are glass, which is heavy and breakable and no longer reliably tempered borosilicate, at least not in the US. Or perhaps stainless steel, at least for cold containers–maybe a stainless steel kit for lunches? I don’t know–if you don’t take strict care of it, or if it’s in contact with wet or acidic foods for long periods, it may rust. Storing salads or tomato-based items might be a problem. Ceramic bowls and containers–also heavy and breakable, and some of the food-approved glazes still leach measurable amounts of copper and other metals.

I do occasionally see someone from the homesteading and health food store generation, or else in Amish or Mennonite-style dress, loading up on bulk buy drygoods at Whole Foods with their own glass jars and cotton drawstring bags. And I always admire them for it, but I also think that’s an awful lot of stuff to trundle around to the store and get the clerks to okay. It is not easy to do and it’s obvious they’ve saved up for a monthly trip to stock up because you wouldn’t want to have to do it more than that often, especially when you have young children in tow, even very well behaved young children as they often do (another thing to admire them for; my daughter used to go and play hide-and-seek in the corner grocery when she was that young. At least she knew not to take anything).

But back to plastics and food storage. The obesogen phenomenon is intriguing but probably not the main source of the current obesity epidemic. Common sense says people might have slightly more propensity for developing fat cells but they’d still be small cells if people weren’t overfeeding them by eating more calories than they used to. That’s the major trend, by far. It’s still the food itself that matters most.

Processed and fast food still dominate as popular items of diet, and they’re very high-calorie-density compared with most nonstarchy bulk vegetables, which never seem to be recommended first on any popular weight loss and fitness show anymore (cough–Dr. Continue reading

Lackluster “Secrets” from the Eating Lab

I’ve just read Dr. Traci Mann’s popular book, Secrets from the Eating Lab, which came out in April (and is hence a “new book” at my library at the moment…). I had some real hopes for this book on dieting, obesity, and the psychology of eating. Mann has some fame in behavioral psychology, and her lab at the University of Minnesota is influential. Plus she just wrote an op-ed that Oprah Winfrey’s investment in WeightWatchers is a smart business move because diet failure, which leads to repeat customers, is a built-in and stated profit strategy for the company. Mann points out it’s the same logic that runs casinos. Big revelation? probably not, but still a good point and illustrative of the circular logic in popular American diet culture.

So about Secrets from the Eating Lab. The tone of the book is personable and it’s a quick read–a couple of hours will cover it. But…it’s not really a very good book and it makes Mann look a little like the huge parade of airheaded “pundits” who show up on Fox News and Good Morning America and Dr. Oz to talk about emotional eating right before presenting a plate of “healthy treats” that turn out to be brownies.

OK, it wasn’t quite that brainless. I even liked a lot of what Mann had to say about how to live an integrated life and not obsess over weight. But the book is a very good example of why someone who’s reasonably expert in one facet of diet research may not be the right person to interpret other areas for the public.

The behavioral studies are interesting and entertaining. Although the findings are not altogether news anymore, the lab setups she and her team used to demonstrate them are fun to read about. A sample of the psych experiment findings, which are the strongest part of Mann’s book:

  • The eating style of your companions is likely to influence you pretty strongly when you eat as a group. Her lab tested this in an entertaining series of experiments.
  • “Determination and willpower” is more wishful thinking than a successful diet strategy for a lot of people, and structuring your environment is more effective.
  • Keeping a bowl of treats even more than arm’s length away from you reduces your likelihood of grazing, and if you actually have to get up and walk to get more, you probably won’t.
  • People eat more when distracted with screentime or eating while driving or whatever than when focusing on their food.
  • Smaller plates lead to greater satisfaction with less food.
  • Offering vegetables at the school cafeteria before serving the rest of lunch, and without competition from french fries, gains a much higher rate of takers than when there are other foods available.
  • Announcing foods as “healthy” is a turn-off.
  • Most intriguingly, “comfort food” is no more effective than any other food, or even no food, for recovery after an emotional shock.

All of these findings mesh with common sense, and few of her recommendations are implemented as regularly as one would like in daily life at school or work. But the behavioral studies from her lab are only a small part of the book, one or two chapters in the middle. Where Mann runs into trouble is nearly everywhere else. Put bluntly, she’s way out of her depth in the larger world of academic obesity research, and neither she nor most of her readers or even, crucially, her book editor seem to know it.

The main themes of Secrets from the Eating Lab are 1. that diets don’t work, 2. obesity is not the deadly killer everyone assumes it is, and 3. therefore you should stop obsessing and be healthy in other ways, for example by exercising to relieve stress.

These claims are stated as blanket facts rather than opinions she wants to explore, even when she bolsters them with studies. Outside of her own lab’s experimental framework she makes fundamental and glaring mistatements and assumptions of fact that can easily be disproven. The result is not markedly better than what you might expect from a modestly competent high school debate team’s background prep for the season topics, “Do Diets Work?” and “Does Obesity Kill?”

In the “diets don’t work” chapter, Mann scours the literature for a largeish number of diet studies in which subjects attempted to lose weight, then winnows the 300 or so studies down to about 26 that meet her criteria of a randomized controlled study with reasonable participant recruitment and retention. Although some studies demonstrated short-term weight loss or differential success between two test diets over the course of weeks, months or a year, longer followup revealed no net loss and a large degree of regained weight among participants, and most of the studies had a lot of dropouts before completion. Moreover, most were less than carefully conducted and relied on self-reported weight and diet recall from the subjects rather than weigh-ins and so on.

Well, fair enough. But she doesn’t look at more recent and stringent work, as a nutrition researcher would be expected to. And she doesn’t really explore what the behavioral environments of the experiments might have contributed–something she might have been able to lend better insight into. Continue reading

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