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March 17th, 2008

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07:05 pm - Food A to Z
I'm allergic (or sensitive, or whatever) to all dairy, and specifically to milk protein, which appears in a wide variety of products, most especially commercial baked goods. Thus, I have learned to find alternatives. I make a lot of my own baked goods, but occasionally I like to buy snacks or on rare occasions, various sorts of dodgy baked goods that are bought in tubes (like biscuits or cinnamon rolls).

What has been fascinating is finding out what sort of brands I can and can't eat. Essentially, the middle range is out. There is some gourmet baked goods that are filled with natural dairy "goodness", that I can't have, but there are also many that are made with various forms of non-hydrogenated or otherwise altered vegetable oils, that are quite good. There are also vegan baked goods worth eating. About half of all vegan baked goods taste like sawdust or have the texture of half-dried oatmeal, but the other half range from good to excellent, including some very nice locally made vegan donuts (the same place also makes non-vegan donuts). Similarly, many cheap store brands and Z-grade unknown brands do not contain dairy. Some are chock full of partially hydrogenated oils and a variety of other equally scary things. However, others are surprisingly fine, with their primary fats being beef tallow and other equally reasonable fats that are vastly more like food than anything in any product made by Pillsbury (whose entire product line I can no longer eat), and few generally fewer ingredients to boot. The oddest packaged baked goods are the ones made by tiny (and often upon doing a bit of research) fairly old companies, who are using recipes that have not changed since before the days that massive additives became the norm in cheap convenience food. I've also noticed that most of these foods are not only cheaper, they taste better or at least most of them do – never even consider eating anything labeled a honey bun.

On a related note, a few days ago, dancinglights posted a link to this wonderful article about nutrition, health and the modern US diet by journalist Michael Pollan. In addition to both his now famous basic advice Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants, this article also contains the advice
If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.
I find that both quotes contain vastly more wisdom that the entire US diet and nutrition industry combined (including everything from the fringe health-food diets to the highly processed diet foods and everything in between). In addition, this article he also discusses the history of US nutrition over the past 30 years.

There is a key moment that he mentions, and that I also remember, but had not realized how important it was at the time:
No single event marked the shift from eating food to eating nutrients, though in retrospect a little-noticed political dust-up in Washington in 1977 seems to have helped propel American food culture down this dimly lighted path. Responding to an alarming increase in chronic diseases linked to diet — including heart disease, cancer and diabetes — a Senate Select Committee on Nutrition, headed by George McGovern, held hearings on the problem and prepared what by all rights should have been an uncontroversial document called “Dietary Goals for the United States.” The committee learned that while rates of coronary heart disease had soared in America since World War II, other cultures that consumed traditional diets based largely on plants had strikingly low rates of chronic disease. Epidemiologists also had observed that in America during the war years, when meat and dairy products were strictly rationed, the rate of heart disease temporarily plummeted.

Naïvely putting two and two together, the committee drafted a straightforward set of dietary guidelines calling on Americans to cut down on red meat and dairy products. Within weeks a firestorm, emanating from the red-meat and dairy industries, engulfed the committee, and Senator McGovern (who had a great many cattle ranchers among his South Dakota constituents) was forced to beat a retreat. The committee’s recommendations were hastily rewritten. Plain talk about food — the committee had advised Americans to actually “reduce consumption of meat” — was replaced by artful compromise: “Choose meats, poultry and fish that will reduce saturated-fat intake.”

The linguistic capitulation did nothing to rescue McGovern from his blunder; the very next election, in 1980, the beef lobby helped rusticate the three-term senator, sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who would challenge the American diet, and in particular the big chunk of animal protein sitting in the middle of its plate. Henceforth, government dietary guidelines would shun plain talk about whole foods, each of which has its trade association on Capitol Hill, and would instead arrive clothed in scientific euphemism and speaking of nutrients, entities that few Americans really understood but that lack powerful lobbies in Washington.
As Pollan mentions, and as we can clearly see, government advice no strictly avoids mentioning eating less of any particular sort of food. We occasionally get advice about eating less of some obvious dubious chemical like trans-fats, but never of any actual food. The result has been that Americans are eating more carbohydrates and less fat, not because they are eating any less fat – on average Americans are eating more fat, but because they are eating even more carbohydrates, and from massive increases in the amount of food people eat, combined with more crap in food we get all of the various food-related health problems that are now common in the US, such as serious obesity and diabetes.

Pollan also neatly refutes the Atkins diet fat = good carbs = bad idea equally well
But there are a couple of problems with this revisionist picture. First, while it is true that Americans post-1977 did begin binging on carbs, and that fat as a percentage of total calories in the American diet declined, we never did in fact cut down on our consumption of fat. Meat consumption actually climbed. We just heaped a bunch more carbs onto our plates, obscuring perhaps, but not replacing, the expanding chunk of animal protein squatting in the center.

How did that happen? I would submit that the ideology of nutritionism deserves as much of the blame as the carbohydrates themselves do — that and human nature. By framing dietary advice in terms of good and bad nutrients, and by burying the recommendation that we should eat less of any particular food, it was easy for the take-home message of the 1977 and 1982 dietary guidelines to be simplified as follows: Eat more low-fat foods. And that is what we did.
The article contains various other bits of obvious and sensible advice that is too often forgotten.
We have barely begun to understand the relationships among foods in a cuisine. But we do understand some of the simplest relationships, like the zero-sum relationship: that if you eat a lot of meat you’re probably not eating a lot of vegetables. This simple fact may explain why populations that eat diets high in meat have higher rates of coronary heart disease and cancer than those that don’t. Yet nutritionism encourages us to look elsewhere for the explanation: deep within the meat itself, to the culpable nutrient, which scientists have long assumed to be the saturated fat. So they are baffled when large-population studies, like the Women’s Health Initiative, fail to find that reducing fat intake significantly reduces the incidence of heart disease or cancer.
He then ends with an appeal to what I consider most important in food, actual cuisine. While I have snack food on a regular basis, I make most of my own food at home, from scratch, which beats the heck out of the standard US diet and is vastly healthier. Of course, it helps that I love to cook and enjoy trying out new and exotic recipes.

In any case, my only criticism of the article is that he doesn't mention something that I've found to be true, but which is rarely discussed - people's needs for and reactions to food are far from identical. For example, I'm perfectly healthy eating moderate (but not high) amounts of sugar. I enjoy it and as long as I keep brushing my teeth, all is well. In contrast, teaotter has strongly negative reactions to sugar, having a form of hypoglycemia whose symptoms mimic some of those associated with diabetes. Her whole family has this (and most of them eat far more sugar than I do, resulting in all manner of health problems). Of course, it makes sense that her whole family has this, since they are all 5/8th Native American, with most of that being Comanche, a desert-adapted people who have serious problems with sugar due to several genes that help adapt them to desert life and desert food.

From what I've seen, less examples of this sort of variation are exceptionally common. Our ancestry and our individual genetics has a profound affect on what foods are good and bad for us. For example, I used to think the "sugar high" was a myth, just as the symptoms I heard associated with low blood sugar take a very long time to appear in me and do so only mildly. To my knowledge, no one in my family has ever had diabetes or hypoglycemia; we all metabolize sugar quite well. Similarly, my friend Aaron needs to eat a fairly low fat diet, because too much fat makes him sick, which is also true of his mother. Some of these traits are genetically inherited, others are presumably the result of genes being turned on or off by early exposures to various foods, but regardless it's fairly clear that there is also nothing remotely resembling a universally good diet other than Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Current Mood: hungryhungry

(10 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2008 03:24 am (UTC)
I am allergic to soy, which makes biscuits in a can a difficult thing for me to acquire, as well.

I generally do not tolerate large amounts of vegetable oil of any kind. Even canola margarine can make me slightly ill in large doses. I have never had a problem with olive oil. Eating a single giant soft pretzel is often enough salt to make me nearly vomit.

I tolerate and enjoys sugars well. In fact, drinking Cokes in reasonable amounts seems to moderate my cravings. On the other hand, lots of flour, especially bleached flour, makes me rather bloated and sluggish. This seems to mitigate with things such as a tortillas and cookiees that contain shortening or butter, leading me to suspect it is a metabolic difference rather than an intolerance.

I can tolerate more butter than I can comfortably eat. I eat butter all the time, although less than a Tbsp per meal, as a rule.

In general, my ideal diet consists of sirloin, buttered whole wheat breads and pastas, grilled or baked fish, copious amounts of berries, some fruit, a few vegetables.

Did I mention that most green vegetables are not only unappetizing to me, but can give me the runs even in small amounts? Basically, I eat like a grizzly bear.
[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2008 04:41 am (UTC)

On universal diets:

I don't remember who conducted it or where I saw an article about it, but there was a man who actually had excess research money which he applied toward a scientific follow-up to the film Super Size Me.

The short of it is that the research debunks the movie, not because fast food is good for you, but because individual physiology varies to such a large degree.  While McDonald's food may be horrifically bad for one person, another can eat it daily for a month and suffer no problems at all—no weight gain, heart problems, or anything.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2008 05:09 am (UTC)
*nods* Most definitely. From everything I've read, it looks to me like one of his biggest faults is that he doesn't understand just how variable anything resembling an ideal diet is. Ancestry and history make each of our bodies different, and in terms of diet, these differences are often far from trivial.
[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2008 05:01 am (UTC)
One of the basic concepts of the human genome project - one which hasn't reached fruition but which I hope eventually shall - is the idea of personalized medical care. I'd like to be able to consult a doctor who can look at *my* biology and tell me "Well, in your case I'd reccomend a diet with 200 grams poultry per day, no red meat, 300 g carbs, 600 g frutis ro vegetables. ANd I see you likely have a sensitivity to this, this, and this drug. Oh, and I'll note you're 20% more resistant to sedatives than average, should have that on your record." In other words, have my medical information be about me, not about the population as a whole. A boy can dream, right?

I'm a big fan of making your own - of most things, really - but I'll admit I do it for the personal satisfaction of doing so, rather than any dietary or health reasons.

I think much of the current confusion about diet has to do with our desire for a magic bullet. It's hard to change your lifestyle to where you're just eating less and exercising more, and the transition is exceptionally difficult.
[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2008 05:06 am (UTC)
One of the basic concepts of the human genome project - one which hasn't reached fruition but which I hope eventually shall - is the idea of personalized medical care.

Gods yes. They're already starting to personalize choices for anti-cancer drugs and anti-depressants, and I'm betting that within a decade this will be far more widespread. I'm really looking forward to it.

I think much of the current confusion about diet has to do with our desire for a magic bullet.

Very, very true. This seems especially to be the case with both weight loss and health - most people want to add one thing to their diet and from there magically lose 20 pounds and reduce their risk for all diseases.

[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2008 06:49 am (UTC)
As a side note, what I'm really excited about with personalized medicine is in addition to being able to read the active and inactive genes, after that they'll start being able to use DNA methylation to activate and inactivate genes, which will allow all manner of medical wonders.
[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2008 11:26 am (UTC)
I can eat anything except cashews and pistachios, both of which I am allergic to.

Oddly, other people worry more about my allergies than I do. Twice I have casually asked "What kinds of nuts are in the cookes/cheesecake?" and have suddenly found myself surrounded by a crowd of worried people. This was before I had eaten the substance in question. Once was at the blood bank, where I scared a bunch of old ladies to death. Finally, someone verified that the nuts were macadamia, which I can eat. The other time I was at a Greek restaurant where the waiter spoke little English. He got someone else, and finally brought out the manager, much to my bewilderment, because I had not asked for the manager. They didn't know what kind of nuts were in the cheesecake, because the dessert was prepared elsewhere. I finally ordered the plain cheesecake instead, which was very good.

I still found all this to be rather weird. My allergies are nowhere near life-threatening. I can kiss people who have eaten cashews. I can stick my hand in the cashew bowl and I don't get sick. It's only when I eat the damned things by mistake that things happen.
[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2008 12:50 pm (UTC)
Well, considering that there are a bunch of people who are very allergic to nuts (I personally know one who'd risk her life if she ate something that even had traces of nuts, let alone kissing someone who'd eaten them), I wouldn't consider it that surprising that people might assume your allergies to be worse than what they are.
[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2008 12:46 pm (UTC)
I wish I would have the energy to prepare my own food, instead of just going out or buying preprocessed meals. I know it'd be both healthier and cheaper, but I can't even get around making any meals that require more than about five to ten minutes of preparation (I do buy them at times, but never get around eating them)...

Lately, I also got a diagnosis of being allergic to wheat. This makes things kinda frustrating, as my primary diets so far (instant noodles and pizzas) both contain wheat.
[User Picture]
Date:March 18th, 2008 02:57 pm (UTC)
He does discuss varying food needs/reactions a bit, with lactose intolerance as a given case, but not nearly enough to balance the focus of the article. That and overlooking the few but deeply important cases of scientific accomplishments of the decried "nutritionism" like vitamin C/scurvy, were my only real gripes with the whole thing.

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