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Posts Tagged ‘Eating Behavior’

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Happy Independence Day

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, or Independence Day, in the US. I, like many others, attended a BBQ where we ate burgers and hot dogs, drank a few beers, and finished the meal with some homemade pie. This got me thinking about what it means to be independent and to have food independence.

One form of independence is being able to raise one’s own food. Our friends made a delicious pie from cherries and rhubarb that they had grown in their own backyard.

Another form of independence involves having freedom of choice. We were able and chose to drink local beer and bison-beef hot dogs.

A third form of independence involves having a feeling of control over one’s diet and food choices. In this way, I avoided the burger and hotdog buns and loaded up on veggies and coleslaw, which left me feeling satisfied with my food choices afterward.

So, what do you think folks? What does food independence mean to you?

“Eat Less and Exercise More” is Not Good Enough

Monday, June 27th, 2011


(Mozaffarian et al., NEJM 2011)

There is a recent paper out in the New England Journal of Medicine in which the investigators examined relationships between diet, behaviors, and weight over time frames of 10-20 years in over 120,000 adults in the US. The investigators found that people gained an average of 3.35 pounds every four years and that weight gain was significantly associated with higher consumption of potato chips, potatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meats, and processed meats (see figure above). Weight gain was inversely associated (less weight gain with greater consumption) with consumption of vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and yogurt.

So, you might be asking yourself – what’s the big deal? How did this paper get into a top-tier journal by confirming what we all already know – that chips and soda are bad for you and fruits and vegetables are good for you? Well, here are a few additional findings and speculations that I think make the paper more interesting than the “potato chip findings” that have been grabbing the headlines.

One of the strengths of this type of work is that the authors have looked at data for a huge number of people. This increases the likelihood that the findings have external validity or that they will be generalizable to the population at large. However, a limitation to this type of study (observational, not interventional or controlled) is that we can only make correlational inferences or talk about “associations” and not “causes.”

“You want fries with that?”

What is the “that?” It might be the case that certain types of foods are more likely to be eaten together (think burger and fries). The authors reported that there were only a few correlations between food types. For example, people more likely to eat vegetables were also more likely to eat fruit. Likewise, people more likely to eat unprocessed red meat were also more likely to eat processed meats. And, people more likely to consume low-fat dairy were less likely to consume high-fat dairy. These sorts of findings seem to make sense, probably because we largely recognize that meat of one type can often substitute for meat of another type and that dairy of one type can often substitute for dairy of another type. Less clear, however, is which foods might be serving as economic complements. The consumption of a complement is typically tied to something else. For example, you probably eat very few hot dog buns in the absence of hot dogs – the bun is an economic complement. This brings us back to the question of whether you want fries with that and what is the “that?” Chips and fries often accompany burgers, sandwiches, and sodas. Chips make people thirsty and I rarely see chips paired with water, coffee, tea, or milk. So, perhaps what we’re looking at here is clusters of foods or behaviors.

Another way to think about this is to ask yourself what percentage of chips or fries that you have eaten did you make yourself at home? It is likely that fries are often associated with eating on-the-go and chips are often associated with convenience stores and impulse purchases. True, the chips and fries don’t help, but they alone are not the entire story.

So, where do we go from here? It’s an interesting exercise to think about what foods and behaviors in your life tend to be complements or are associated with each other. It is also interesting to think about foods and behaviors that you might be able to substitute for one another to help you achieve your goals (e.g., a piece or fruit or yogurt in place of a sweet or dessert). If certain foods and behaviors are clustered together, a couple of initial substituions could help the whole house of cards begin to fall…  


Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

The USDA is a Department within the US government that oversees agricultural and nutrition policies and programs. Recently, the USDA released a new icon (see above) to replace the older “food pyramid.” The USDA also included several guidelines which are listed below:

Balancing Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less
  • Avoid oversized portions

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks

In general, there is a lot of good stuff here. We like the idea of using a plate (although the size of the plate matters) to depict appropriate serving sizes as opposed to the old pyramid. The plate is easier to understand and is likely more memorable. We also like the idea of using the majority of your plate for vegetables and protein – hard to go wrong there. We certainly agree that folks should enjoy their food – some people could use to eat less, but portion size should likely vary with your activity level. Lastly, comparing sodium in prepared foods might help people avoid overly processed and preserved foods. Avoiding sugary drinks is almost always a good idea.

However, there are also some aspects of this new guidance on which we disagree. First, there is no reason that grains should make up approximately 25% of your diet and in fact grains can be eliminated from your diet entirely. If this statement made you gasp, please bear in mind that although there are essential amino acids (building blocks of proteins) and essential fatty acids (building blocks of fats and triglycerides), there is no such thing as an essential sugar (building blocks of carbs) (“essential” here means something that you have to eat because your body cannot make it). Moreover, there is evidence that grains might actually be unhealthy by interfering with the digestion and absorption of nutrients. Second, individuals who are looking to lose weight might want to restrict their fruit and dairy consumption. A diet consisting of 25%+ of fruit and dairy can add up to a heck of a lot of sugar pretty quickly. Third, and this is a big oversight, we don’t see healthy fats explicitly included anywhere. Perhaps these are implied under protein and dairy, but we feel that healthy fats and oils from beef, lamb, salmon, butter, coconut, and olives, for example, are absolutely critical for good health and for satisfying meals. Science is finally putting to rest the notion that people get fat from eating fat (as opposed to eating excess grains and sugars). As an historical aside, it is interesting to us that the 1943 version of the food pyramid called “The Basic Seven” listed fruits and vegetables as three out of the seven groups, meats and dairy as three out of the seven groups (butter had its own group!), and bread, flour, and cereals as one-seventh of a healthy diet.

So, what has happened in the intervening years to make grains so highly recommended by the USDA? Does it have to do with USDA Agencies such as the Agricultural Marketing Service; the Farm Service Agency; and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration being under the same roof as the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and the Food and Nutrition Service? I don’t know, but recommending so much grain consumption does not appear to be supported by the scientific evidence. Over the next few weeks, we’ll review some of that evidence in detail. In the meantime, we propose the plate below for a modified approach to eating a healthy diet.

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