Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Food in Modern Times -- Eating Well Without Killing Yourself

Like many Americans, I've done a fair amount of reading about food and wellness. The information usually comes in bits and pieces -- an article here, a scientific study there, and an occasional book. It is challenging to develop a perspective that is truly based on sound principles. Modern nutritional science is marked by contradictory scientific studies, politicization, and a wide variety of competing "expert" opinions on what is truly healthful. The existence of controversy means that people can choose to believe whatever they want, and nothing really changes for the better on a broad social scale. So, I watch people get fatter and sicker, and try to educate myself so I can avoid that path. The core question that motivates my research is: How do I eat in a way that lets me enjoy flavorful and satisfying food, but also safeguards my health? I believe I've come to a reasonable answer. Here is my basic take on food and the maintenance of good health.

Satiety is the feeling of contended fullness that results from food consumption. When the satiety mechanism functions correctly, it will prevent obesity by regulating the amount of food consumed. There is a lot of conflicting research about the specific biochemistry of satiety, particularly as it relates to carbohydrates. Without going into mind-boggling scientific detail, it is important to understand that heavy processing of carbohydrates strips them of their natural fiber and micronutrients. The destruction of the natural whole food fundamentally changes the way the brain responds to it, and alters the brain's signaling of satiety. This can disrupt the body's ability to properly regulate energy intake.

When fiber and micronutrients are removed from natural carbohydrates through industrial processing, the remaining simple sugars and starches do not trigger the satiety mechanism even when sufficient energy has been consumed. This means a person can regularly consume far more calories than needed, leading to weight gain. The absent satiety message is not caused by a deficit in energy intake. Based on the information I have seen, I think it is likely tied to the missing fiber. A person would have to consume four whole oranges to get the same number of calories contained in a bag of Skittles. It's hard to imagine eating four oranges in a sitting, yet easy to down a bag of Skittles. The difference is, an orange contains a large amount of fiber while the candy has no fiber. Without fiber, the brain won't shut down the appetite at the appropriate time, and this results in overconsumption of sugar. A spike in blood sugar results, followed by a dramatic drop that again stimulates the appetite, making it even more difficult to regulate intake.

The problem of absent satiety is exacerbated when fats are stripped from food. Fats add flavor and also help suppress the appetite. Processed foods that are high in added sugar but low in fat leave a person fully vulnerable to blood sugar peaks and crashes. This sets the stage for a cycle of voracious hunger and constant snacking. If food is not flavored by fat, then sweeteners or salt will be added to give it flavor. Excess consumption of salt leads to dehydration and potentially contributes to very serious health problems like heart disease. Excess sugar consumption leads to weight gain and sugar addiction. The low-fat craze in America was arguably the most destructive dieting trend ever. After deleting the fat from processed foods, companies added sugar or salt so their products didn't taste like cardboard. This practice continues to this day, as evidenced by the high fructose corn syrup in nearly every processed product on the typical grocery store shelf.

The human brain has developed a very powerful reward mechanism for sweetness, giving a person feelings of pleasure when sweet foods are consumed. In a natural environment, this drives humans to consume fibrous fruits and vegetables that are loaded with vitamins and minerals. Modern food processing breaks the links between energy, micronutrients, and fiber, and creates energy dense, nutritionally stripped foodstuffs that do not satisfy. The sugar still activates the brain's pleasure mechanism, but even overconsumption of sugar does not create feelings of satisfied fullness. Instead, consuming sweetened products creates a vicious cycle of cravings, binges, crashes, and runaway weight gain. Meanwhile, micronutrient debts accumulate and eventually lead to the deterioration of health.

An industrial profit-driven food model has led much of American society to develop this kind of self-destructive eating behavior. Food companies have economic incentive to sell as much of a given product as possible. From a company's perspective, processed foods are economically optimized. They are cheap to produce, easy to transport, and only a tiny fraction of the chemically-preserved products are lost to spoilage. Missing fiber actually prompts increased consumption of the products. The desire for pleasing appearance can be addressed by flashy packaging and food dyes, flavor added with sugar or salt, and appetizing smells added with chemicals. The consumer's pleasure responses can be cultivated into brand loyalties. Within this system of eating, cheap low-calorie food that activates the brain's reward mechanisms becomes desirable, even if the food is nutritionally worthless. What a perverse approach to eating!

Food cravings are much more complex than simple desires for energy and pleasure. They are also affected by one's overall state of health and previous experiences with food. For example, citrus fruits are immune boosters because they contain large amounts of vitamin C. If a sick person feels somewhat better after eating a grapefruit, that person's body may crave grapefruit during a future illness. This kind of experiential knowledge leads to the development of cultural eating practices, which have traditionally centered around local, natural ingredients. Methods of food preparation that create health, enjoyment, and prosperity become part of a culture, and are transmitted from one generation to the next around the family table.

Perhaps the industrial food model's greatest crime is its assault on this traditional approach to food. The industrial model does not value locality, and therefore destroys respect for the local farmlands, water sources, animals, and farmers. This damages the integrity of the food. Fresh fruits and vegetables can't be harvested at optimum ripeness if they are to be shipped thousands of miles. This means most produce tastes much blander than it should, meats and dairy products are not optimally fresh, and much of the food has had nutrient-destroying pasteurization or chemical preservatives added to prevent bacteria growth and spoilage. Meats and dairy products are compromised through mistreatment of farm animals, as well as their injection with artificial growth hormones and antibiotics. Furthermore, the explosion of convenience foods has sidelined culturally-informed food preparation. The family dinner has been replaced with individualized, pre-cooked portions that may be heated and consumed at a person's own convenience. This kind of "food" has produced an American population that is not only grossly overweight, but also nutrient-deprived and sickly.

Many people who struggle with obesity are actually starving for micronutrients despite their overconsumption of processed foods. If balanced quantities of micronutrients are not consumed, the body racks up nutrient debts that will eventually cause core biological processes to break down and malfunction. Toxins will accumulate in the colon, liver, and fat cells. Free radicals will damage DNA. Cells will not regenerate properly. The reproductive system will go haywire. Bones and muscles will deteriorate. A weak immune system will leave the body vulnerable to foreign pathogens. Eating a diet of nutrient-stripped processed foods not only makes a person gain weight, but also guarantees the development of chronic health problems and disease.

Those who are "health conscious" but who still operate within the industrial model often advocate the use of vitamin and mineral supplements to repay some of these micronutrient debts. This approach has some value, but still does not address the problem of proper micronutrient balance and absorption. Vitamins and minerals do not operate in a vacuum, but work together with the body and each other in a wide variety of biological processes. Increased consumption of certain nutrients demands increased consumption of others to allow absorption and proper use within the body. Overconsumption of certain compounds can produce unintended consequences, including acute toxicity and severe illness. Even with all our scientific knowledge of human biochemistry, we still don't know enough to produce guidelines for achieving optimum health through the use of vitamin pills.

The best defense against obesity and an onslaught of health problems is to eat a variety of fresh, whole foods that are prepared at home, and minimize or eliminate intake of processed foods. The most flavorful and healthy produce is grown locally and harvested near peak ripeness during the proper growing season. Mealy fruits and flavorless vegetables that have been cooked into oblivion should not be consumed by anyone, and particularly never served to a child. That method of eating is torturous and has dubious health benefits; it will likely drive a person to binge on sugary processed foods. Whole grains, dairy products, and animal or vegetable protein sources are also key components of a healthy diet. When simple or refined sugars are consumed, they should be eaten in conjunction with fiber or fat to activate the brain's satiety response and help regulate intake.

A diet of dissatisfying food and calorie-counting is completely unsustainable, and will produce constant battles with hunger and weakness. This will lead a person to self-tortuorous crash diets and draconian exercise routines that produce fleeting results. And, this approach does nothing to address missing micronutrients, which means chronic health problems may still emerge even if weight is kept in check with calorie restriction. Clearly this method of dieting does not work for the vast majority of people. Exhibit A: modern America, which is arguably the most diet-obsessed country on Earth, yet also one of the fattest and least healthy.

What's my final conclusion on food? Don't wreck your body by eating nutritionally worthless processed food. The industrial model of eating is fatally flawed, and reliance on it will destroy health. We would all benefit from taking a page out of great grandma's book:  eat seasonally, emphasize fresh local foods, and cook meals at home. There is an abundance of delicious, wholesome food provided by nature, and many centuries of culinary knowledge from a wide variety of cultures to help you prepare it. View good-quality food as an investment in your health and happiness. Both your present and future selves will thank you for it.


  1. What about root crops like carrots, potatos, and onions? I assume that those (because they keep so long) would not be harvested early. Am I correct?

  2. There's a much larger harvest window with root veggies than most other kinds. An earlier harvest produces smaller but more tender veggies, while a late one will produce firmer but larger veggies. Usually it's the latter kind that you'll find in a grocery store.

    Root veggies absorb and concentrate whatever happens to be in the soil where they are planted. It's all good if the soil is nutrient rich. However, if conventional cultivation methods are used, fungicides and herbicides are dumped onto the soil too, and then concentrated inside this kind of plant (particularly potatoes). So, I feel it is safer to buy organic root vegetables, since washing will not remove the internal chemicals.