Posts Tagged ‘nutrition’

Posted on June 3, 2011 - by

The New Food Pyramid: Where’s the Spark?


Perhaps the lush infographics I’ve been enjoying lately thanks to have me spoiled, but I was distinctly underwhelmed by “My Plate,” the USDA’s latest attempt at a visual representation of a balanced diet. The graphic, released yesterday, replaces the oft-maligned food pyramid,  which was introduced in 1992 as a way to get Americans to eat healthier food but instead became a symbol for much of what is wrong with the American diet: too much grain and carbohydrate, not enough fresh produce.

I understand that the designers were trying to simplify the image as much as possible. It’s meant to be a quick and memorable reference for the population at large, not a definitive guide for food dorks like me. And simplify it they did, to the extent that fats are not shown, sugars are absent, and instead of a recognizable fifth food group, we get the nebulous “protein.” How are we supposed to interpret this category, given that many vegetables, grains, and dairy products are great sources of protein? Where do beans and nuts fit in?

I’m sure the USDA carefully considered these questions and many other nitpicky details in their search for the “right” image, but with simplicity as their guiding principle, opted to focus on pounding a single message home: fruits and vegetables should make up half of what you put on your plate. I love the choice of a plate here (not to be confused with a pie, of course), which people already associate with food, serves as an easy reference point for proportional portion size, and doesn’t place food groups in a hierarchy like the original pyramid did.

Despite its elegance as a symbol, the plate image leaves me cold. It may be easily memorizable, but it isn’t memorable in the way that might inspire healthier, more balanced cooking and eating. It calls to mind math class rather than the dinner table. Until we as a nation stop thinking of healthy eating as a chore and begin to understand it as a source of pleasure, we’re not likely to trim our collective waistline anytime soon.

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Posted on April 8, 2011 - by

Straight Talk About Food in Low-Income Communities

The sustainable food movement is teeming with buzzwords: “farm to table,” “locavore,” even “sustainable” itself. Despite their relative youth, they’ve already become cliché.

That’s why listening to Louise Thundercloud, an advocate for low-income people in Washington, DC, is so refreshing. “If I go up to somebody hanging out on 7th Street and say, ‘Here’s some sustainable food for you,’ they’re gonna look at me like I’m crazy,” she says.

Thundercloud, who was once homeless in DC herself, shared her thoughts on how to teach vulnerable populations about nutrition and food skills at a discussion on food justice hosted this week by Bread for the City, a local social services center that houses a food pantry, medical and legal clinics, and a soon-to-be-completed rooftop garden.

The key, she says, is using language people can understand and identify with: “’This is food that tastes good, that will make you feel good, and that will fill you up so you won’t be hungry all night.’ That’s what’s going to resonate.”

It sounds so natural, but this isn’t the kind of talk most of us are used to hearing—or using—when we speak about the virtues of fresh, natural foods. Over the past decade, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Whole Foods, and other major cultural forces have drawn an unprecedented amount of attention to our food and where it comes from, and in the process they have deeply shaped the language we use to discuss it. That language is largely abstract, policy-oriented, and flowery—not the kind that appeals to someone struggling to put dinner on the table.

When she talks to people about food and nutrition, Thundercloud (whose ancestors hailed from various Native American tribes, West Africa, Jamaica, and Northern Ireland) stresses the connection between fresh foods and improved health. “A lot of folks don’t know that they can improve their own health just by changing how they eat,” she says. “They’re interested when I tell them that eating this food can help prevent diseases or slow their progress.”

She stresses the importance of “meeting people where they’re at” when helping them make changes in their diets. “If they want to stick with canned produce, then I teach them to rinse the salt or sugar syrup off it. If they’re ready for frozen vegetables, I teach them how to cook those. And if they can afford some fresh stuff, then we talk about preparing that,” says Thundercloud. It’s an incremental approach that frustrates some proponents of local and organic agriculture, who would rather leave industrially-produced canned and frozen goods out of the picture.

“I’m a practical, on the ground-type person,” Thundercloud says, and it’s clear that she’s not one to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. She recommends simple steps like compiling a resource list of places to find fresh food nearby and how to access them.

There’s a time and a place for theoretical discussion and debate within the food movement. But, Thundercloud reminds us, there’s also a time to leave it aside.

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Posted on February 28, 2011 - by

Chunky Monkey: Obesity Research on the Modern Diet

Photo: Barbara C. Hansen, University of South Florida via NYT

Meet Fat Albert. Like many in contemporary society, he is overweight, enjoys indulging in a sugary treat or two, and does not get much exercise. Unlike many, he is a lab monkey—living a lifestyle designed to induce weight gain and obesity.

At the Oregon National Primate Research Center, scientists have developed a colony of overweight monkeys to study the effects of diet on weight gain and diabetes (NYT). Director Kevin L. Grove explained, “We are trying to induce the couch-potato style. We believe that mimics the health issues we face in the United States today.”

The monkeys are used to gauge the effects of high fat and sugar diets on health, along with experimental drugs used to treat related illnesses. Studies are being conducted on appetite suppressants and hormonal mechanisms that can be used to treat diabetes. In addition, it is much easier to monitor a monkey’s dietary intake, compared to relying on surveys of human subjects who may fudge their numbers.

To fatten the monkeys, they are fed dried chow pellets with a high fat content contributing to one-third of caloric intake. (This is comparable to the level of fat in the average American diet.) Peanut butter, popcorn and peanuts are also given to the monkeys as snacks, along with a fruity punch that contains as much fructose as a can of soda. To limit movement, the animals are kept in individual cages without access to swings or climbing equipment.

Surprisingly, about 40% of the primates do not gain a lot of weight. Researcher Barbara Hansen suggested that caloric intake was more influential on weight gain than fat. “To suggest that humans and monkeys get fat because of a high-fat diet is not a good suggestion,” Hansen said. Other results hinted that it is the combination of high fructose corn syrup and calories that leads to obesity and diabetes. “It wasn’t until we added those carbs that we got all those other changes, including those changes in body fat,” said Anthony Comuzzie, scientist at the Southwest National Primate Research Center.

Is this research providing valuable insights on diets high in calories, fat and carbohydrates? Or do you think this is a form of animal abuse? Is it any worse than the average confined factory farm operation?

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Posted on February 3, 2011 - by

Nutrition Keys: Full Disclosure in Labeling?

Last week, major U.S. food manufacturers unveiled new, self-imposed labeling requirements for processed foods. The “Nutrition Keys” would be placed on the front of packages, and feature the number of calories, and the amount of saturated fat, sodium and sugars contained in each serving of the product. Manufacturers would also have the option of highlighting additional “nutrients to encourage,” by including two of the following items: potassium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, iron and protein. The changes will be rolled out over the next few months.

The labeling changes were developed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute in response to pressure from the F.D. A. and the Obama administration, who wanted more prominent displays of nutrients that consumers may want to avoid. However, in a point of disagreement with the White House, manufacturers also wanted the option to emphasize other potentially beneficial nutrients on the front of the package.

Are these labels truly an advance in clarity for consumers, or simply another method of subterfuge for junk foods? There is concern that drawing attention to the “nutrients to encourage” could make unhealthy foods look healthier, by highlighting the calcium content in ice cream, for instance. Or, manufacturers could be encouraged to add vitamins and unnecessarily fortify products to make them more label-friendly. The label also doesn’t indicate which nutrients are positive and which are negative for your health, so consumers would have to know that beforehand.

Another point of contention is the inclusion of protein under “nutrients to encourage.” Marion Nestle at Food Politics writes, “Since when does protein need to be encouraged in American diets? We already eat twice the protein we need. The rationale? Vegetarians.  I repeat. Since when don’t vegetarians get enough protein? Never mind, protein makes the products look better.”

If this sounds like a familiar story, that’s probably because it is. Toward the end of 2009, the food manufacturing industry was forced to drop their Smart Choices labeling system after the F.D.A. criticized it for potentially misleading customers into buying processed products over fresh, unprocessed foods. Nutritionists had lambasted the program for being too lax nutritionally, awarding foods like sugar-heavy Fruit Loops and fat-laden mayonnaise the Smart Choice designation.

In the U.K., labels are given a red, yellow or green coding akin to the colors of a traffic light. This allows you to tell at a glance whether the product contains low, medium or high levels of sugar, fat or sodium. So, if the colors are mostly red, then you should enjoy the food once in a while, and if the colors are mostly green, then you can consider the food a healthy choice.

The F.D.A. is considering mandating a similar system for U.S. manufacturers, but the industry is resisting, fearing that the labels will malign food products and drive away business. To which I say, that is the point.

Do you pay attention to nutrition labels? Will these Nutrition Keys will help discourage unhealthy eating habits? What other labeling measures can we use to inform people about what’s in their food?

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