Biology in the News Explained

Calories and Bad Food

There was an interesting juxtaposition a couple of days ago in the large and varied world of dysfunctional eating. Published the same day in the same section of the New York Times were separate articles that together demonstrate once again how screwed up Americans (mostly) are about food – Michael Pollan aptly refers to this in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” as our “national eating disorder.”

The first article reveals a purported “healthy food” eating disorder among children. Whether this is new or at all widespread remains unclear, but it’s a classic demonstration of yet another way that parents (and schools) can bring up kids to be stressed out about food – and once embedded during childhood, views on food are difficult to overcome. Here’s what a rational dietitian points out:

The problem, according to some nutritional experts, is that many teachers [and parents] don’t understand nutrition well. “We’re driving our kids absolutely crazy,” said Katie Wilson, president of the School Nutrition Association. “All the stuff about preservatives and pesticides. All an 8-year-old kid should know is that he or she should eat a variety of colors, and don’t supersize anything but your water jug.”

Instead, between some homes and most schools, kids are often being told that because some foods are less healthy than others, they should be avoided like the plague. At the same time, of course, the kids are assaulted with marketing telling them just how good to eat those unhealthy foods are. This has resulted in our national paradox of huge numbers of overweight, unhealthy eaters in a country obsessed with nutrition.

The best way for your kid to be a healthy eater is for his or her parent to provide healthy food – but without an accompanying dissertation of value judgments decreeing why the food provided is good while other foods are bad. A little bit of junk food now and then isn’t going to kill anyone, but forbidding it makes it all the more tempting. Anyone who has tried dieting knows this to be true.

Which brings us to the other story, which refers to a new research project in which taxpayer money was actually spent to define calories as… calories. The researchers compared diets of equal numbers of calories, but with emphasis on different food groups. Essentially, they asked the question, do diets that emphasize one food group, such as the Atkins diet, work better?

The results of this study were roughly as predictable as those of the “scientific” study on whether your prayers help other people. Surely any metabolic specialist could point out that excess calories in the diet end up stored as fat, no matter their original form – carbohydrates, fats, or proteins. Only in a diet-obsessed culture would this be funded (as the other study could only be funded by a religion-obsessed culture).

The doctors who wrote the paper seem well meaning enough. They come to the happy conclusion: diet however you’d like; it’s all good. The variable that actually affected weight loss? It was attendance at support groups.

Another obvious result was that although it was a two-year study, most of the weight loss occurred in the first six months, and there was significant backsliding after:

…trials of low-carbohydrate diets have reported a very low incidence of urinary ketosis [an indication of low carbohydrate intake] after 6 months, suggesting that in most overweight people, it is futile to sustain a low intake of carbohydrates. Overall, these findings with respect to adherence to macronutrient goals suggest that participants in weight-loss programs revert to their customary macronutrient intakes over time but may nonetheless be able to maintain weight loss.

Maintain for how long? Without a five- to ten-year followup (which is not planned), one should remain skeptical. Diets do nothing to help people stop obsessing about food, which more often than not is responsible for the physical state that makes them want to diet. They encourage people to obsess more. But although the authors clearly have the intention here of using science to show people that some diets may be harder to maintain than others, dieters are not making rational decisions in the first place; they are looking for an easy formula for happiness instead of having the pain of significant lifestyle changes. Fad diets will not disappear as a result of this paper.

Being focused on healthy food doesn’t seem so bad on the surface; won’t that keep us out of the diet-weight yo-yo cycle? Certainly it could, if the focus does not become an obsession. When it does, the results can be as bad as for compulsive fast-food eaters. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which it has become almost impossible to control where much of our food comes from, and to obtain information about its nutrition and safety. We rely for this on government agencies that are controlled by people that want to facilitate large agribusiness, not regulate it. The increasing incidence of Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks attests to this.

We need to accept the world we live in today. In some ways our food supply is much safer than it used to be, in other ways, it’s less safe. There’s nothing wrong with making an honest effort to eat and feed your family local food, organic food, or minimally processed food. But obsessing about every bite you or your kid eats will just make eating stressful, instead of pleasant, for you both.

Of course, teach your kids what real food is, by serving it to them. Certainly, take the time to explain why processed, fast, etc. food does not fit your definition of real food, but refrain from portraying all food choices as black and white, because they aren’t. Tasty calorific foods that are not good for us in large quantities make us happy for a time; regularly eating food that is good for us makes us feel better day in and day out. Informed but relaxed eating habits will be self-reinforcing.

Kids learn a lot from their parents that stays with them for life, good and bad. Try not to pass along dysfunctional eating.

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One Response to “Calories and Bad Food”

  1. Brad Johnson says:

    Great post again mate. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. Losing weight doesn’t have to be hard ywet mose people fail to realize the basics

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