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Archive for July, 2010
Michael Pollan’s “In Defence of Food” outlines a very simple strategy for eating - “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants”.
Whilst there are many excellent books on approaches to diet and the dangers of “nutritionism” (such as Gary Taubes’ “Good Calories, Bad Calories”), this is perhaps the clearest, easiest to follow and most balanced – as well as the shortest.
It argues that the nutritional research trend of reducing food to its components (fat, protein, carbohydrate, phytochemicals, vitamins, etc.) is largely unhelpful, citing the case of whole grains as an excellent example. Scientists still do not know what it is about whole grains that makes the people who eat them healthier. It is not due, as initially thought, to fibre, phytic acid or any specific vitamin. However, the general public is now extremely nutrient-conscious, and attentive to fat content, carbohydrate content and vitamin enrichment – the ideal market for the nutrient-adjusted “food-like” substances produced and marketed by food companies.The fact that manufacturers of crisps and desserts can receive a “heart healthy” approval (for a fee) because of their engineered fat content is sickening.
The Western diet, based on refined flour and sugar, is presented as the main cause of the “Western” diseases – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer. Pollan explains how humans can thrive on a variety of diets – vegetarian, high protein, low fat, high fat – but not the Western diet.
The last section of the book gives suggestions for escaping the Western diet.
It is difficult to find real fault with this book. The suggestions for escaping the Western diet will be largely unhelpful for people with limited resources in terms of money and potentially time, though (organic delivery services will help with the time aspect). I wholeheartedly agree with the notion of spending a little more to get good quality meat and vegetables, but this is not an option for everyone.
Also, the focus on eating “mostly plants” is at odds with the fact that there are a number of very healthy human populations who eat little or no plant material, as reported in the book. Pollan does not promote vegetarianism as the only way forward, though, stating that since humans have been going to so much trouble for so long to obtain meat, it probably has a place in the diet. It is also fair to say that eating more plant food would not be a bad idea for most people.
Finally, Pollan dismisses supplements as useless, except perhaps multivitamins for the over-50s and in some cases a fish oil. Fish oil is well researched, with benefits for insulin metabolism, inflammation and cardiovascular health and I would put it ahead of multivitamins in terms of importance – even for people who eat well. I would also advise supplementation with vitamin D3 for most people living in the UK. As for other vitamins, supplementing with B complex may be helpful for improving energy levels and mood, and I suggest a good quality multivitamin as an optional extra for those who place excessive demands on their bodies – such as frequent, heavy exercise, an extremely busy work and travel schedule or an ambitious fat loss plan. It is not yet clear whether multivitamins have significant health benefits, although studies do not generally discriminate between types of multivitamins (and there is likely to be a huge difference in biological activity).
Everyone should read this book! Real food should be easily available and affordable, not an effort to obtain, or a luxury – and perhaps the most likely way to achieve this is through consumer power. If Farmers’ Markets and organic delivery services blossom, and the non-food taking up most of the space in our supermarkets is shunned, producers will have to change their practices.
Sweet potato is generally thought to be a better carb than white potato, as its glycaemic index (GI) value is lower and its orange colour means a greater density of certain phytochemicals. It is ranked as a highly nutritious vegetable. However, the GI values of white and sweet potato are not vastly different (white potato is a little higher), and there may also be little difference in terms of insulin response (insulin index) – has the humble white potato undeservedly got a bad press? The two tubers are actually unrelated, despite their similar names, so could it be unfair to compare them directly?
The GI system, whilst helpful as a broad concept, is a matter of debate. Glycaemic load, satiation value and insulin response may all be more important in predicting what impact a food will have. Also, research into individual foods in laboratory controlled conditions is one thing, but how foods act on the body as part of a composite meal is quite another.
One must also consider that white potato is perhaps associated with chips, crisps and heavy meals, whereas the more exotic (for the UK) sweet potato may be used in a healthier way. Also, in some cultures it is traditional to use potatoes with every meal, or indeed as the basis of a meal – which is perhaps not the best strategy for fat loss.
Overall then, whilst there are some benefits to using sweet potatoes, including the psychological associations, it is not necessary to banish white potatoes from the diet. Serving large quantities of mash with every meal or eating deep fried chips is unlikely to help with weight (fat) loss, but the occasional small portion of boiled, baked or roasted potato should not pose a threat to the goals of many people. People who find their fat loss halts with even small amounts of regular starchy carbohydrate would probably do best to avoid eating either white or sweet potato more than once or twice a week.
Watch out for more information on potatoes!
Dairy products – lauded by some as a fat loss tool or essential for bone health, but considered akin to poison by others. What approach should you take? Here is a quick guide:
Allergies and intolerances
It is possible to have a reaction to milk protein, and/or to be intolerant to milk sugar (lactose). Lactose intolerance is due to an absence or reduced amount of the enzyme required to break down the sugar – in this situation it ferments in the intestine, causing gas build up, bloating, discomfort and diarrhoea. In some populations (e.g. East Asia), lactose intolerance is almost universal, as dairy products are not traditionally part of the diet. Rates of lactose intolerance are generally low in Northern Europe, but there is a wide variation within Europe, with an estimated 70% of Sicilians having some degree of lactose intolerance, for example. This means that whilst needing to avoid dairy may have become “fashionable”, depending on ethnic background, many people may indeed have some difficult processing lactose.
The best way to determine this is simply through trial and error. Some people are able to tolerate almost any amount of dairy foods. Others can tolerate cheeses (where most of the lactose is fermented out), but not cream or milk, or they may have a quantity threshold, above which eating dairy produces symptoms. In others, the ability to break down lactose may fluctuate – so on some occasions you may be able to enjoy ice cream, whereas on other occasions the same dose may have you dashing to the toilet, or feeling sub-optimal the next day. If this is the case be cautious, and avoid large intakes of dairy products around important events or when you want to look and feel your best.
Some studies have suggested that dairy products may improve fat loss – this is thought to be due to the high calcium content – and the Dukan Diet (see Reviews) includes daily dairy. However, whilst being generally low in sugar, dairy products have a larger impact on insulin than would be expected, and can therefore contribute to fat gain!
The fat loss effects may be also partially due to dairy products being quite satisfying – eating a yogurt may mean a person trying to lose fat is less likely to snack on sweets and crisps. If fat loss is your goal, it is unlikely that you will achieve it through consumption of large amounts of cream – but there is no reason to completely avoid occasional good quality dairy products if you can tolerate them and if you enjoy them. They can be useful when viewed as condiments – a little grated cheese or dollop of creme fraiche can add variety to meals and prevent boredom or the feeling of constantly restricting oneself.
Dairy for women
A 2007 study linked intake of low fat dairy products to anovulatory fertility – the effect was not thought to be due to differing levels of vitamin D, calcium or lactose. Conversely, high fat intake from dairy was thought to potentially decrease the risk of anovulatory infertility.
Dairy is promoted as being important for preventing osteoporosis due to its calcium content – but there is not a simple relationship between dairy or calcium intake and decreased risk of osteoporosis or osteoporotic fractures. There is often a variance in what is measured in studies – whether it is bone density or actual fracture, which means it can be difficult to make comparisons. There are a number of studies that report little or no effect of high dairy or calcium intake on the risk of osteoporotic fracture in postmenopausal women, as well as studies that suggest that vitamin D3 may be of great importance for bone health. Many other factors are implicated in bone health, however, including protein intake. Research suggests that rather than causing bone loss through acidification, high protein diets actually improve bone health (J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Dec;24(6 Suppl):526S-36S.), and low protein intakes in the elderly may be a key factor in the development of osteoporosis.
Finally, there are conflicting results from studies regarding dairy intake and breast cancer. Some studies suggest decreased breast cancer risk amongst women who regularly eat dairy products (this may be due to vitamin D content), whereas others propose a link between the hormones and growth promoters in milk and breast cancer. Low dairy intake has been proposed as one reason for low breast cancer rates in Japan (although soy, green tea and mushrooms have also been suggested). Milk is intended as a growth stimulating food, and so the idea that substances within it can stimulate dysregulated growth of dividing cells is logical – add to this the fact that many cows are treated with hormones and antibiotics means that it may be wise for dairy consumption to be limited.
Dairy and mucus
People with asthma and hayfever, or those suffering from temporary respiratory problems such as colds or sinusitis often find relief through avoiding dairy. Dairy products are considered “mucogenic”, although no mechanism has been proposed for this.
What should you do?
There are enough reasons to avoid consuming large amounts of dairy – it may increase cancer risk, can cause fat gain, add to respiratory tract irritation and cause digestive disturbances. Its role in bone health is not as clear as we are led to believe – other foods may be more important.
If you find dairy products difficult to tolerate, it makes sense to avoid them. Do not be tempted to replace with soy – high intakes of soy products can adversely affect thyroid and other hormones. Experiment with oat milk, hemp milk and nut milks instead.
If you can tolerate dairy products to some degree, and enjoy them, consider them to be condiments, or see if you can easily go without them. Avoid large quantities of any dairy product. Using small amounts a few times per week in cooking, or as an occasional snack is a better idea. Choose the best quality products – straight from the organic farm is the best option, and choose full fat, whether fertility is an issue or not, as low fat dairy products are more processed and often have added sugar. Avoid commercial yogurts and other commercial products.
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