fat city

In the last post—The Short And Sweet Of It?—we briefly discussed the health consequences of America’s love affair with sugar.  We know we eat too much sugar, it’s likely our biggest health problem, but the sugar habit is hard to break.  So this first step was proposed as Healthy Change #1If you consume sodas or other sugared drinks, limit yourself to one (12 oz.) serving per week.  We’re not done with sugar, we’ll return to reducing sugar intake in later posts.

This post gets after the next unhealthy food we persist in eating:  hydrogenated trans fat.  In the 20th century we abandoned traditional fats like butter and lard in favor of modern factory-made fats, such as Crisco and margarine.  We now know this was a very big mistake.  As our consumption of traditional fats declined in favor of factory fats, there was a parallel increase in cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. 

 In the last 30 years we went on a reduced-fat binge, which meant avoiding animal fats in favor of factory-processed vegetable oils.  Another big mistake; the result was we ate more trans fats and less of the healthy omega-3 fats.  By now, just about everyone knows that trans fats should be avoided.  So here is a good start on doing this (more to come):

This means no French fries, no onion rings, no corn dogs, no donuts, and especially, no deep-fried Twinkies.  The language of this Healthy Change does leave a door open:  you can cook these foods at home, using healthy oil.  Because this is difficult, in our home we replaced French fries with oven-roasted potatoes (recipe coming soon!).

How did trans fats become so entrenched in our diet?  It started with the invention of hydrogenation and the introduction of Procter & Gamble’s Crisco in 1911.  Crisco shortening was followed by the introduction of a butter substitute, margarine.  Both these products are full of trans fats and depleted of healthy omega-3 fats.  Because hydrogenated oils are cheap and have a long shelf life, they also found their way into a multitude of processed foods and fast foods. 

What was most remarkable about Crisco was how easily it replaced a product people had used for centuries—lard.  It happened practically overnight.  A 1921 book, The Story of Crisco, tells how the product was presented:  It seems strange to many that there can be anything better than butter for cooking, or of greater utility than lard, and the advent of Crisco has been a shock to the older generation, born in an age less progressive than our own, and prone to contend that the old fashioned things are good enough.  It was a clever pitch that disarmed the wisdom of tradition and it worked.

As it turns out, the “older generation” was quite wise in preferring olden ways.  The rest of us ate Crisco and margarine for a long time before we learned how harmful trans fats were to our health.  Today the merits of the old fats—butter, olive oil, and lard—are being rediscovered. 

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.


a new year

Healthy Resolutions?  How about 52?

Our family had a wonderful Christmas; we hope you did too.  Now the carols are fading... the New Year is upon us.  Do you make resolutions?  I do, but cautiously; I’ve been burned before.  But change is good and resolutions do make a difference.  They work best when they are:

• well defined
• based on good thinking
• have a system for follow-up
• and are supported by friends. can give you the first three; sharing this blog with your friends can provide the fourth.

Out with the old and in with the new.  That was the motto of the century past.  Olden time foods were boring; a restless nation worshipped newness.  In the case of fats, food traditions like lard, butter and olive oil were abandoned for the unproven inventions of food scientists—Crisco, margarine, and vegetable oil.  And if it wasn’t the best of times it certainly was the sweetest: sugar consumption reached troubling heights.  It took a while to notice, but these changes were followed by a rising epidemic of chronic diseases (heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity and diabetes). 

Now, in the new century, there is an awakening, the beginnings of a food reformation.  Home cooking has been rediscovered and there is newfound respect for olden ways.  Rather than what is new, people ask, “What is good.  How should I eat?  What is best for my health?”  (For more on how these questions are answered, see about.)

The goal of this blog is to help you answer these questions, week-by-week, all year long.  We offer 52 Healthy Changes—one for each week of 2011—that can transform your diet, as well as your health.  The first, “The Short And Sweet Of It?” is found here.  A goal for the year is to reduce consumption of added sugar to the American Heart Association’s guideline of six teaspoons daily for women, nine for men.  Our major source of sugar is soft drinks, so this is our starting point: 

Later we’ll get to diet drinks, also unhealthy though for different reasons.  (Diet drinks, for example, seem to reinforce the desire for sugar resulting in consumption by other forms.)  So you can get a head start on better health by also reducing diet drinks to one or less per week.  It’s a healthy change, one you can live with.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.


healthy recipe #1: breakfast compote

Eating those commercial breakfast cereals is as American as, well, dental cavities.  Sorry, it’s a sad analogy.  Being a cost-conscious guy, over the years I have fumed at paying dollars per pound for store-bought products made of grains costing pennies per pound.  But my greater concern had to do with the unhealthiness of those products.  So I created a breakfast we call Breakfast Compote.  Composed of whole grains, nuts, and fruits, it’s not only healthier; it’s cheaper than the store-bought junk.  And it’s pretty quick; our compote can be made in less than 10 minutes (with a little practice).  This recipe is for two hungry people:

1. Prior day: To 1-1/4 cups hot water, add ¼ cup of cracked whole grains in a pan.  Soak over night.  (Our local whole foods store offers a nine-grain mixture, mostly cracked wheat.  After finishing breakfast, I prepare the mixture for the next day and place it on the back of the stove to soak.  For busy people, this saves drying and putting away the pan.)

2. Next morning: Bring the pot to a boil, add ¼ cup of rolled oats, and a similar amount of dried fruits, if desired.  Turn off the heat and let sit for five minutes.  (I buy my rolled oats from the same store.  Cranberries are the dried fruit we mostly add.  When fresh fruits are scarce, dried fruits can substitute.)

3. While the oats and dried fruits are cooking, prepare two bowls by adding to each:

-1 heaping tbsp of freshly ground flaxseed.  (I get the flaxseed from the same store as the grains.  Originally I ground it with a hand grinder, a good source of exercise, but now use a low-cost Cuisinart Spice and Nut Grinder for a finer grind.)

-2 heaping tbsp of crumbled pecans, or any freshly chopped nuts.

-A little honey, brown sugar, or grade B maple syrup, depending on the natural sweetness of the fruits added in step #4.  (Or a few drops of stevia.)

-Season to taste with cinnamon, cardomon, or nutmeg.  A few drops of vanilla works also.

4. Wash and prepare fruits in season, adding to each bowl:
-1/4 cup of berries.  (Blueberries mostly, but using all the berries in their season.)

-1/4 cup chopped apple or peach.  (Apples are available all year, peaches in summer.  We love the peaches, but nectarines are good too.) 
-1/2 orange, freshly juiced.  (I use an old hand juicer, also good exercise.  The orange juice provides a citrus fruit, while reducing or avoiding the need for milk, per your taste.)

5. Combine all ingredients into the bowls and enjoy. I like to add a little cream; it tastes good and can improve absorption of fat-soluble nutrients.  (I would love to find a source of unpasteurized cream from pasture-fed cows.)  If we have good whole-grain bread I also have some as toast with butter.  

We enjoy this breakfast on weekdays then have a special breakfast on Saturday for variety.  If you think of a way to make this healthier, tastier, or cheaper, please leave a comment. Or share your own ideas for a healthy start to the day.


Best Nutrition Blog #1

It caught me by surprise, but the first decade of the 21st century is over.  What most surprised in those 10 years?  For better or for worse, it was the explosive emergence of the blogosphere.  The blogosphere is galactic in size, but there is one tiny corner I am learning to love: blogs that write about nutrition without selling a product.  Here I write about noncommercial posts that merit your attention.  If the blog is really good, I will add a link in our “best nutrition blogs”.

Stephan Guyenet has a great blog titled Whole Health Source; it is the first blog to make our “best” list.  Guyenet is an interesting and thoughtful guy, a biochemist with a PhD in neurobiology.  His posts include articles of interest from AJCN (the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.)  Recently (Nov. 20, 2010) he wrote about sugar, and blood sugar levels around the world.

Based on USDA data we are each eating about 150 lb. of added sugar a year (less what is spilled or lost in process).  Our biggest sugar intake comes from high-fructose corn syrup in soft drinks and processed foods.  Because sugars are slipped into our diet in a wide variety of processed foods, we are unaware of how much we eat.  Too much sugar is making us sick.  Diseases associated with high sugar consumption include obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, and certain cancers.  We all know people with these chronic diseases.  Maybe it’s us.

Guyenet’s discussion on glucose testing may go beyond the interest of some, but it does confirm the theory that glucose levels in the civilized world are higher than indigenous people eating native diets.  This leads to the observation that eating a healthier diet of natural (rather than processed) foods will lower our glucose levels, and improve our health.  Some call this “low glycemic index” eating.  Others just see it as eating foods close to their natural state.

To live longer, eat less sugar.  We’ll return to this subject in future postings.

Leave a comment telling us about your favorite nutrition blogs.


Journal Studies

Doctors of medicine and science share research findings via the journals of their profession. These journals can be of general interest, as with the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.  Mostly, they are specialized by disease.  Cardiologists contribute to, and read, the journal called Circulation.  Doctors working with cancer read the Journal of Clinical Oncology.  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) is the main journal for nutrition.  (There is also the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and the British Journal of Nutrition with archives dating to 1947.)

Though they can be difficult to read, many journal articles are highly interesting.  Entries are “peer-reviewed”, meaning they have previously been studied and challenged by other professionals in the field.  The journals also provide a forum to debate findings that are controversial.  All in all, journals provide a valued service.

Although journal research is often funded by us, the taxpayers (through governmental bodies, like the National Institutes of Health), access to these journals is difficult.  Subscriptions are too expensive for the ordinary person.  (Some journals are available through the libraries of med schools and larger hospitals, if you have access.) 

There are two limited forms of public sharing:  The more interesting articles are reported in newspapers, and popular health magazines.  Unfortunately these accounts are often sensationalized, to catch the reader’s eye, and may give a distorted view.  (In my experience, the best reporting on journal articles is done by The New York Times, which also provides public access to their archive of past articles.) 

An abbreviated form of public access is through the abstract of an article.  An abstract is a condensed version of several paragraphs that summarizes the objective, design, results and any conclusions from the study.  Abstracts are presented by services such as PubMed and can be viewed at “Goggle scholar”.  So another service of this blog is to report on journal articles of interest.  These may be recent articles or relevant past classics (public access is often available for older articles).  

In this initial posting I suggest you check out a recent summary of the 50 most-read AJCN articles (some of these classic articles are ten years old but still relevant).  You can Google or simply go  I summarized the top 50 for subjects of most interest.   Vitamin D was the most frequent, with nine articles; dietary sugar had six; and there were four articles on obesity.  Pick an article that fits your interest, read the abstract and then as much of the full text as you find interesting.  Enjoy.


Government vs. Nutrition

In the November 6, 2010 New York Times there is an article that reveals the conflicting roles of government in nutrition.  This article, by Michael Moss, is well-written and worth reading. Titled “While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales”, it tells an Orwellian story of how one government agency offered free consultation to Domino’s and helped them to improve the popularity of their pizza by adding more cheese. 

This aid to Domino’s was provided by Dairy Management, a branch of the U. S. Department of Agriculture.  Pizza is high in calories and low in nutrients, just the kind of fast food the USDA is supposed to discourage.  Other fast food companies have also been helped by USDA’s Dairy Management group. 

The USDA has a group charged with encouraging healthy eating—the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.  Unfortunately the center has a tiny budget, much smaller than Dairy Management’s, and is no threat to the fast food companies.  The food environment in America has been described as “toxic”.  All would agree, I think, that we can and must do better.  Unfortunately, as this article illustrates, our government is much less helpful than it could be.  We are on our own here, I fear.

As a point of full disclosure, I enjoy pizza but eat it less than once a month.  If a healthier pizza were available—perhaps with a thinner, whole-grain crust, or more tomato sauce—I would enjoy it more often.  Wouldn’t you?


Nutrition Book #1

In Defense of Food, An Eater’s Manifesto  by Michael Pollan, published 2008.

Michael Pollan, as you would expect of a U.C. Berkeley professor of journalism, is an exceptional writer.  He not only writes well, he also thinks very well.  Trust me, I’m an omnivorous reader of books on nutrition; you won’t find a better guide (outside of this blog) to healthy eating than In Defense of Food.  

I particularly enjoyed the 24 rules on eating found in the closing chapters.  Pollan has written a more recent book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual that provides 64 rules for food, but In Defense of Food is far the better book because it tells the story behind the rules.  One thing lacking in either book is a guide to implementing these rules, a week-by-week program for achieving such a difficult lifestyle change.  (Fortunately—ahem—you have this blog for such guidance.)

Pollan exposes the problems with modern food.  He soundly condemns the practice of nutritionism, the practice of looking at the nutrients in food individually, thus losing sight of the synergy of nutrients working together in their native milieu.  Taking nutrients out of their natural context has led to the industrialization of food, as well as today’s foolish trend towards functional foods.  (More on this tinkering with foods later.)

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was a footnote found on page 88.  The Nurses’ Health Study (phases I, started in 1976, and II) is our largest observational study of diet and female health.  Such studies often disappoint just because they are “observational”, meaning they follow people living their normal life, rather than testing, say, a diet thought to be more healthy.  Yet a small group of women, just 3.1% of the total, were found within this study who lived an unusually healthy lifestyle. 

This group of women did not smoke, were not overweight (BMI <25), averaged 30 min. of daily exercise, ate a diet low in trans fats and high in polyunsaturated vs. saturated fats, ate their grains whole, had fish twice weekly, got their daily allowance of folic acid, and consumed no more than five grams of alcohol daily, on average.  (More about the wisdom of alcohol later.)

Did this healthy lifestyle make a big difference?  You can bet your life it did.  Over the 14 years studied, their risk of coronary heart disease was reduced 80%, risk of type 2 diabetes was down 90%, and colon cancer risk was 70% less.  It is rare to see such a dramatic protection from the chronic diseases—and a big reason to adopt a healthier lifestyle.


The Short and Sweet of it?

Nice guy that I am, I’ll give you the answer right at the start of this post.  If you want to look better and live longer . . . eat less sugar.  Sugar, whether sucrose (table sugar), high fructose corn syrup, or in some other form, is ubiquitous in our food environment.  So where to start?  Healthy Change #1—the first of 52 small steps that could make a big change in your health—takes a bead on our biggest source of dietary sugar: soda drinks.   

To tell you how I got to this conclusion, here is a brief history.  Sugar, beginning in the Middle Ages, was precious—the food of kings.  The Industrial Revolution changed this, making sugar cheap and plentiful.  Our modern diet contains an amazing amount of sugar.  The 2000 USDA Factbook puts our total sugar supply at a shocking 152 pounds per person per year.  After subtracting for waste, this translates to 30 teaspoons each day, over 20% of our calories.  We actually don’t add this much, most of the sugar we consume is added at a factory, which makes sugar our #1 food additive.  From a clinical standpoint, such a high intake of sugar is an uncontrolled food experiment on us guinea pigs—what happens when a nation get 20% of it’s calories from sugar? 

Our sugar intake is not a new problem.  In 1925 the noted English scientist R. H. A. Plimmer warned: “The Americans, with their love of candy, are the largest sugar eaters in the world.  Incidentally, cancer and diabetes, two scourges of civilization, have increased proportionally to the sugar consumption.”  Plimmer’s genius was to make the connection between sugar and chronic diseases.  His failing was an excess of optimism about our ability to change: “ . . . as we now realize our predicament it should not be a difficult matter to rectify our mistakes.”  Nothing was rectified; our sugar intake grew and grew all through the 20th century.

In 1972 another English scientist, John Yudkin, made shockwaves with his book, Pure, White and Deadly, which linked sugar consumption with heart disease.  In America we (incorrectly, it now appears) had linked coronary heart disease to cholesterol and saturated fat.  So Yudkin’s work was seen as politically incorrect and ignored. 

Fortunately, a possible cause of a disaster like coronary heart disease cannot be ignored forever.  In 2007 Gary Taubes published a fascinating critique of our sugar intake, based on seven years of research, titled Good Calories, Bad Calories.  Taubes’ carefully documented conclusion links our high consumption of sugar to the rise of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers.  You can throw in dementia and accelerated aging also.  I highly recommend Taubes’ book, though it’s strong emphasis on science makes for heavy reading.  For an easier-to-read but no less macabre book, try Suicide by Sugar.  The shared message of these books: If you depend on sugar to make life sweet, your life will be shorter, perhaps much shorter.

So how much sugar should we eat?  There is no recommended daily amount—the body has no need for the simple sugars.  (The complex sugars contained in natural foods as carbohydrates, however, do provide needed energy and nutrients.)  The USDA, not known for going against the interests of the food industry, calls for reducing our sugar consumption by about two-thirds, to 10 teaspoons daily on a 2000 calorie diet.  This approximates the sugar in a can of soda, or a large bowl of breakfast cereal.  There does not appear to be any hard science behind the USDA recommendation.  The American Heart Association has recommended no more than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) daily for women, and 37 grams (about nine teaspoons) for men. 

The AHA sugar limits are a good place to start: 25 grams or 6 tsp. daily for women, 37 grams or 9 tsp. for men.  This is a limit we can live with.  Beverages like sodas and energy or fruit drinks are a major source of sugar.  (Fruit juices may be OK, check the ingredients for added sugars.)  Breakfast cereals are also highly sweetened.  Candy, bakery goods, and snack foods—heck, nearly all processed foods—are typically loaded with added sugars.   Today, let’s start with drinks.

One confession:  I enjoy Pepsi Cola and, no surprise, so do my kids.  Seeking a workable balance between healthy diet and guilty pleasure, I decided to limit sugared drinks like Pepsi to one per week.  After one year, this seems a workable solution.  Funny thing—my desire to drink sodas has diminished.  Side note:  my wife prefers diet drinks, also unhealthy but for different reasons.  We’ll get to those in a later blog.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.


a new conversation

To be honest, my health goal is quite modest.  I accept dying; my goal is to hold off the grim reaper until I’m done living.  There is, ahem, one other goal:  to look good, even in death. 

I’m not counting on modern medicine to save me (nor does this blog take the place of doctors, who we sometimes need).  In truth, the killers who stalk us—heart disease, cancer, stroke, and so on—are mostly incurable.  So here is an idea that has been largely ignored:  prevention!   Prevention is about lifestyle, mostly diet, but also work and rest (more about these later).  We all know we should eat better but there is a mountain of confusion about what to eat.  And old habits resist change.  Saying is easy; doing is hard.

In the last century there was a great respect for science.  Perhaps it was a misplaced trust because on subjects like eggs, or butter vs. margarine, the advice kept changing.  To be blunt, science has over-promised and under-delivered.  Important questions, like what to eat, still remain a puzzle.

So this blog offers an integrated approach we can use today:  Combine incomplete science with knowledge from two venerable but neglected sources—tradition and scripture.  Taken together, these three offer our best chance.  In later postings we will dig into tradition and scripture.  And we will share ideas on good-for-you food.  As you will appreciate, this is a profoundly American approach.

So let the discussion begin.  I will write twice a week, raise topics and offer ideas.  You, the reader, can improve them with your comments.  Together we will learn.  If we learn well, I will publish it in a book. Question for today:  Please share your biggest questions about health and nutrition.

One other request, share this with a friend.  In the beginning we said changing one’s diet is hard.  It is hard, but we are more likely to succeed if joined by our friends.

Note:  This is a nonprofit blog; there will be no ads and nothing is for sale.  Though an avid student of nutrition, I am neither doctor nor scientist and don’t pretend to be.  In fact, that is my credential: I’m a private person studying a public puzzle: how to live.  In my search I have read over a hundred books, plus many, many articles and studies.  Whatever I have been able to learn, I freely offer for your consideration and comment.

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