Sunday, May 31, 2009

The End of Overeating

I listened to an audio excerpt of David A. Kessler's book, an End to Overeating, on Simon and Schuster's website today, and I have been reading reviews of his book. His thesis, that the food industry is manipulating our innate preference for salt, sugar and fat to create a nation of "hyper-eaters," to increase and insure their profit, absolutely resonates with me. I do feel driven to seek out food for it's "entertainment" value, rather than being satisfied eating nutritious food. I feel the lure of potato chips, candy and cupcakes, every day. It's exhausting, fighting these urges. And fattening, if I don't!

Dr. Kessler is a former head of the FDA, who revealed to the American public how the tobacco companies capitalized on the addictive nature of their product, to the detriment of the health of the nation. He sees "Big Food" using similar practices, of hooking consumers with food engineered to create a nation of "hyper-eaters," addicted to food that stimulates our desires, rather than satisfying them. This is something the proponents of frugality intuit: how we are being programed to be rabid consumers, spending money we don't have.

Dr. Kessler's book dovetails with research I have read regarding the brain's response to "palatable food." How the reward center of an obese person's brain lights up at the sight of high calorie food, but does not register as much satisfaction on consuming the treat as a slimmer person.

From what I can gather, without actually reading his book yet, the "answer" for the individual eater, (the author has broader prescriptions in terms of public policy), is to create rules for eating, and stick to them. He recommends externalizing the desire to eat junk, the way anorectics are taught to say "it is the disease anorexia which doesn't want me to eat, not ME, not myself." In this way, you say "my conditioned response is to eat candy, but I, MYSELF, do not want the empty calories in my body."

I think the line that sums it up best for me, came from one of the reviews I read, which contrasted food that is designed to stimulate appetite vs food that is designed to satisfy it. When was the last time you ate something that satisfied your body, that didn't provoke you to go looking for something more?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Think like a Researcher

Often, I lose myself in reading nutritional research, searching for clues of how diet affects health. I love reading about longitudinal studies like the Framingham Heart Study that followed a large number of citizens in that town over years, yielding data that showed the connection between cholesterol levels and heart health. The Oslo Cardiovascular Study uncovered a correlation between heart disease and high meat intake, attributing the plunge in heart disease deaths following WWII to a long period of meat abstinence during the war.

I get frustrated, however, because I want to know what the perfect diet is, and how one can achieve it in the town I live in, on my income, in the culture I inhabit.

It occurs to me, one way to figure this out is to think like a researcher. I can learn a lot just by observing my co-workers, my neighbors, and myself. I can test various strategies by eating in certain ways and noticing the results. I am my own, most convenient, test subject.

First, what I notice about the people around me: I work in a building of about 200 people. There are a number of highly obese, unhealthy looking people here. My desk is on the third floor, across from the elevator and next to the time clock. I often see people hold the elevator for their friends while taking turns punching the clock, before going up to their desks on the fourth floor. They take the elevator, instead of walking one floor up, and they influence others to do so.

I literally feel better when I take the stairs, although the effect of watching other people rely on the elevator drains some of my motivation. I can see the effect of exercise avoidance: over weight people take the elevator more, which puts them out of shape, which makes them dependent on the elevator. I know I actually feel better when I take the stairs - funny how that doesn't seem like enough to counter balance seeing elevator riding as the norm. In my office, bad habits have social rewards: smokers take breaks together, elevator riders share a laugh, friends share candy. The other day, however, someone put lilacs on my desk. What a nice gesture! There ARE healthier ways to be socially connected.

Second, what I notice about me: I crave Diet Coke mid morning, probably because I am thirsty and there is a vending machine right across from me. (And the water cooler is broken.) But if I drink a Diet Coke, I get irritable and I also crave another one. One Diet Coke leads to another, or else an inner battle over wanting one. I'm pretty sure the chemicals in that soda are bad for me, and addictive. I would like to make a big refrigerator bottle of homemade ice tea and bring it to work. This requires a certain amount of organization and effort. It seems easier to bring quarters for the machine, but, in terms of health, the Diet Coke habit is so much pricier. How do I make the bring-my-own tea to work idea more attractive than dropping quarters into the machine?

I don't like to think about work when I'm not actually there, so I tend to drop an idea like that the minute I'm not in the office. There is so much stress at work. I was walking around the other day and I noticed how miserable people seem to be. There is only so much flowers, ice tea and stair walking can improve. Work is work. Are some of my co-workers not taking care of themselves because being healthy just means more time at a job they don't like? A greater purpose in life, and the good health needed to carry it out, seem to go hand in hand.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Nutrients interacting with Genes

Reading this information in an American Institute of Cancer research newsletter made me sit up and take notice: "Choline deficiency can cause liver and muscle damage. The nutrient - found in eggs, meat and wheat germ- is also linked to influencing the risks of certain cancers, such as breast and colon." The article goes on to say that people with a certain gene variant are 15 times more likely to develop a deficiency following a choline- free diet as people without the gene. They did a study, putting people on a choline free diet for 42 days, or, until they showed "signs of liver and muscle damage." (Doesn't say how they saw evidence of this damage.)

This astonishes me, just the idea you could potentially damage your body by abstaining from eggs, meat and wheat germ. Does this mean, if you are following a vegan, gluten - free diet, you could be damaging our health? The point of the article is that diet interacts with genes in unpredictable ways - some people can lead long, healthy lives eating junk food, others can't. But what astonishes me is how being deficient in a certain nutrient can affect your body so quickly and raise your risk of developing a disease over the long term. For all the nutritional advice I have read, its still hard for me to wrap my mind around the connection between the food we ingest and the mysterious workings of our tissues, cells and organs. You can go all over the 'net reading recipes and general weight loss advice, but actual information about how specific foods interact with our genes, and influence our health, is harder to find.