slow does not equal pointless

This past week I started my summer internship at my city’s health department. I’m working within the nutrition and physical activity program, which works through policy, media, and with retailers and healthcare providers to reduce chronic disease in our city. I am extremely lucky to have this opportunity to not only get experience in the exact, specific field in which I want to work, but also to actually make some contribution to the betterment of local public health through nutrition. I’m really proud of my city’s commitment to these issues and to making progressive changes. 

But no matter how hard the people in “my” office have worked for the past four years since starting this  initiative, there has been no huge turnaround for people’s health. In fact, I think one of the most frustrating things about the obesity epidemic is that change comes so slowly. Only now, after decades of spreading awareness about this problem, are obesity levels in the U.S. possibly starting to plateau. Sustainable progress often seems to necessitate slow change, on the individual and population level. It takes time to change someone’s mind, and even longer to change their habits. I’m worried that even if the food industry can be reigned in, the costs of reforming the American food system to a more sustainable, organic one will deter legislators from getting on board, because it will take years for the healthcare costs to decrease to make up for it. 

Even I have to remind myself that every little step in the right direction is something to celebrate, whether for my own wellness or for everyone’s. Take my project for my internship–I’m assessing whether vending machines in public places (city agencies and other city-owned facilities) are complying with nutrition standards set forth by the health department. I feel that some of these standards aren’t strict enough; for example, diet soda is classified as a “healthy” beverage. But then I realize how amazing it is that these standards are in place at all. And as tedious as it seems for me to visit hundreds of these machines just to see if they’re complying with the standards, how would we evaluate the policy’s effectiveness without ensuring that it’s being implemented correctly? When I think of it that way, I’m so grateful for the work that these public health officials are doing and that I get to be a part of it. 

 

Weight Loss “Reality” Shows: For or Against?

I just finished watching the season 4 premiere of Extreme Weight Loss (formerly known as Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition). If you’re unfamiliar with the show, world-famous trainer Chris Powell works with 1-2 morbidly obese people per episode. Each episode covers a year, in which that person attempts to lose usually about half their bodyweight. They succeed almost every time, too. Chris gives them a goal for each three month phase. The whole year culminates in a glamorous final weigh-in in front of the person’s friends and family. 

I have heartily enjoyed watching the show since its inception. I’ve even watched some episodes over again. I love The Biggest Loser too, and MTV did a few seasons of I Used To Be Fat about teenage weight loss, which I also watched religiously. I never questioned the premise of weight loss reality TV until Fed Up (the documentary I reviewed here) mentioned it in a negative light. The film implied that it’s unethical to get our kicks from these poor heavy people breaking their backs over losing weight. 

So why do I like these shows so much? Why are they successful? I asked my good friend who is pretty insightful about media what she thinks (she does great reviews of pilots on her blog). Maybe some people think it’s amusing to watch a bunch of overweight people sweat it out to beat each other on The Biggest Loser. Maybe some people like the drama the producers bring out. Maybe thin people just watch these shows just to be relieved they don’t have to go through all that. As for me, I started watching these weight loss shows when I was trying to lose weight, and they gave me motivation and inspiration. It’s amazing to me to see these contestants transform themselves and to see how happy and accomplished and proud it makes them feel. I really feel genuinely happy for them, and they continue to inspire me long after I’ve reached my goal weight. I don’t think I should feel guilty for that! I really believe that these shows inspire some people to lose weight and get healthy. 

Some people think these shows take dignity away from the overweight contestants, but I see them earning their dignity with each pound lost. What do you think? 

 

Viva La Chef

In case you were eagerly awaiting the news of my foray into meatless cooking–well, cooking in general really–it went very well! My mom has this vegetarian Italian cookbook. We picked two recipes from there and made a salad for good measure. I think it’s a good Meatless Monday model to have one legume, one grain or potato, and one non-starchy vegetable. I did a lot on my own, but my mom helped to move things along, show me how to cut things, add more oil and broth and spices when needed. I really want to learn how to do this on my own, but she just knows when to add more of things while I just tend follow the recipe to the letter. I did learn how to cut broccoli, how to mince garlic, and how to sauté things in oil. YAY! These are very useful skills. 

The more important thing is that my dad and brother, the usual carnivores, were very satisfied by their meatless meal:

Cannelini beans with tomato, garlic, and sage

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whole wheat spaghetti with broccoli and pecorino cheese

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all served with a caesar salad to start (made with a low cal yogurt based caesar dressing)

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I know those weren’t instagram worthy or anything, but I wanted to show off my handiwork. It was delicious, if I do say so myself. So there–you can have a delicious, healthy, and satisfying meal without any meat and a sparing use of dairy. Next week my dad wants me to make chili, so that’s what you can look forward to! 

Keep in mind that if we all kept Meatless Mondays, we would save the environment from some significant harms due to meat production, and free up a bunch of grain that could be used to feed the hungry. This is besides the health benefits that come from eating less meat, of course. So go forth and veg it up! 

Will you try Meatless Mondays? 

Go See Fed Up!

Last night, I went to see Fed Up, a documentary about the obesity epidemic, and primarily about the food industry’s role in causing it along with the government’s complacency. Obviously, writing this blog I find imperative the need to spread the word to Americans about what goes on behind the scenes in the food world, so I’m very happy a piece like this is in theaters. I was really looking forward to seeing it and had pretty high expectations.

 

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After seeing Fed Up, I was mostly very pleased with it. In my opinion, the film highlighted some of the most important factors behind obesity and diet-related disease, namely:

  • the power of food industry to influence government and scientists
  • aggressive food marketing to children
  • the addictive and toxic properties of sugar
  • ubiquity, convenience, and cheapness of processed foods and limited access to whole foods
  • unhealthy food in schools

These topics were covered by some of the biggest players in the food movement and obesity prevention field, who I consider my role models, and who are excellent at communicating complicated scientific and political matters to the general public. They included Marion Nestle, who I wrote about the other day and Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at Center for Science in the Public Interest, who I was lucky enough to shadow in D.C. over spring break.

The filmmakers also focused on four obese adolescents, along with their families, and how the current food environment has encouraged them to gain weight and has prevented them from losing it. Frightening is the amount of self-esteem problems and physical health problems these kids are already having at 12, 13, 14, and 15 because of their diets and weights. One young man was having bariatric surgery at age 14! That should not be the case. Spotlighting these youth was a good way to put faces on the staggering statistics the film presents.

There was one significant problem I had with the film. The major theme running throughout the documentary was that the idea that calorie imbalance is the root of the obesity problem is hugely misguided, because the food industry and government are essentially promoting and subsidizing the calorie imbalance. I COMPLETELY AGREE with that theme, but the way the film communicated it was also misguided. The film seemed to say that there is nothing to the notion of calorie balance when it comes to weight, which I think would really confuse the average viewer.  It certainly angered my brother, who got very puffed up over what seemed to him a lie. I tried to explain to him why the experts featured in the film would be saying that overconsumption is not the problem, because of course it’s the problem. The direct cause of weight gain is consuming more calories than you burn. But this message has been beaten into the public for decades now, and clearly it is doing nothing for us. That is because it doesn’t address the root of the problem, the indirect causes of obesity, which have everything to do with government policy and food industry business tactics that form the obesigenic ( obesity-promoting) food environment in which we find ourselves. As I’ve said before, the government could reform the food system so that overconsumption is no longer the default. If that were the case, I’m telling you–the need for promotion of calorie balance would gradually disappear on its own.

Anyway, seeing Fed Up definitely inspired me big time. It reaffirmed my assuredness that I am on the right track by studying and preparing to work for the cause that compels me more than almost anything else. I think it can inspire you too.

Here’s the trailer, please check it out!

 

To Do: Learn How to Cook

Today, my mom and I were out running errands so we stopped at a little local market to pick up lunch. They had a deli and a case of prepared food. I was delighted to pick out some marinated beans, a grain and bean salad, and these mouth-watering grilled artichokes (I’m a big artichoke fan). A totally vegan meal, in other words.

Later, I got to thinking about how much cheaper that meal would have been if I’d made it myself. The artichokes were especially pricey. They were amazing, so it was worth it, but that’s not the point. I won’t always be able to go out and purchase prepared healthy foods like delectable grilled vegetables all the time. Those things tend to cost way more per calorie than less healthy choices like fast food. And I won’t always have my mom or dining hall chef around to cook for me.

It might surprise you that someone who loves food so much and wants to be a nutritionist actually knows very little about cooking. I can make scrambled eggs, toast, macaroni and cheese, and I recently learned how to prepare rice. I’ve actually made pizza from scratch with my boyfriend, but I don’t think I could manage it alone. I think I have good instincts about what flavors are good together–I come up with great combinations of ingredients for salads, sandwiches, wraps, you know, things that don’t require cooking. I’ve also got microwaving popcorn down to a science. But I don’t know what to do to cook with meat or vegetables really, at least not instinctually. I could follow a recipe without burning the house down, I think. But why would I bother when I have a meal plan or when my mom is around, who is so instinctual about how much longer to cook something, how much more spice to add,  and who can grate and chop circles around me.

The fact that I can’t escape though, is that sooner than I’d like I’ll be in a position where I’ll have to prepare a lot of my own food, when I move off campus. I can’t just eat popcorn for dinner or make myself salads with canned beans everyday. I need to vary up my skill set. I want to learn how to make soups, sauces, pasta dishes, fish dishes, how to sauté, bake, steam, and roast things. I’m actually taking a cooking lab at school next semester that everyone raves about, so I’m super excited for that. In the meantime though, I want to get started this summer. I told you that I’m getting my family to adopt Meatless Mondays. Well, my idea is that I’ll also cook dinner those days, under my mom’s supervision at first. I want to get to a place where cooking doesn’t seem so intimidating.

I hope you’ll root for me as I give this a try. The first Meatless Monday in my house is actually going to be on Tuesday, because apparently we simply have to have meat on Memorial Day. Anyway, look out for my post!

Do you have tips for a cooking beginner? How about healthy meatless recipes that would satisfy a couple of carnivores?

Political? Who, me?

I have officially returned home for the summer. I was sad to leave school, but I’m excited for what’s to come. Hopefully I’ll have even more time to write! What I have had time to do so far is finish up an excellent read, Food Politics, authored by one of my idols of the food movement, Marion Nestle. An esteemed professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU, she is famous for being able to translate the complex nutrition messages bombarding us into usable advice, and for being an outspoken critic of food industry tactics to influence government to increase their sales at the expense of public health. The latter is the subject of the aforementioned book. I highly suggest you give it a read; Nestle gives a detailed and compelling summary of the history of food industry’s influence on government in the U.S. But if you won’t get a chance to read it, here are the important points from the book I took away:

  • A food company is a business. Its priority is to sell its products, and, if it is a publicly shared company, to increase sales of its products constantly to satisfy investors. The rest of the points follow from this.
  • Food companies spend a shocking amount of money on marketing–or perhaps it is not so shocking, when compared with how much more profit is earned as a result of marketing. This marketing, without exception, encourages the public to eat more of whatever it is that the company is selling, regardless of the health consequences of consumption of the product. Marketing obviously has a huge influence on sales, whether you the consumer realize it or not–otherwise, industry wouldn’t spend so much money on it. 
  • The food industry will do whatever it takes to ensure that the government’s dietary guidelines (think the Food Pyramid and MyPlate) steer clear of directly advising the public to eat less of their products. 
  • But how can the food industry be able to influence nutrition education, you ask? Remember that food companies have a TON of money and power that they use to:
  1. Lobby to influence legislators to pass policies favorable to the food industry and reject policies unfavorable to it.
  2. Form or fund political action committees that donate large sums of money to legislators’ election campaigns.
  3. Sponsor scientific research on the effects of consumption of their products. Though there is usually no way to prove that this biases the results, research sponsored by industry is statistically much more likely to find favorable effects or minimize unfavorable effects of a product than independently funded research. 
  4. “…befriend federal officials, develop legislation in their own self-interest, and use public relations to create a positive image for their activities…”
  5. Sue their critics, who usually back off, given the whole money and power thing. 
  • A substantial portion of major food companies’ obscene marketing budgets fund advertising to children, who are much more vulnerable to the influence of advertising than adults. The industry has also historically exploited children by advertising in schools (IN SCHOOLS, FOR PETE’S SAKE!). And of course food companies will also do whatever it takes to ensure that government won’t restrict their marketing practices.
  • Food companies use potentially misleading health claims to promote sales, and petition the FDA to allow them to make these claims. They also add nutrients to otherwise unhealthy foods in order to be able to make those health claims. 

Until I became familiar with the work of Marion Nestle, I knew I wanted to make an impact on the obesity epidemic, but I was very iffy about the political side of things–I didn’t want to touch it. I had never been interested in government, politics, or current events before. I took AP U.S. Government in high school and didn’t retain any of it because I thought it was boring. I held very few strong opinions.

But when I learned that the food industry’s political tactics are hugely to blame for the poor health of U.S. citizens, I became much more interested, informed, and quite passionate about political issues related to food and health. I now know that there is no way to reverse the doomed dietary trends of this country without getting political. It will take a lot of time and effort for the government to rein in the food industry like it did the tobacco industry, but it is worth the time and the cost; if obesity keeps rising the way it has been, the outlook is very grim for the American public. 

This post is especially relevant right now because there is a bill being put up for vote in the House of Representatives that would roll back the extremely needed new, healthier standards for nutrition in schools. You can read about it on Marion Nestle’s blog. You can sign a petition in protest here. Don’t be afraid to get political if you care about these issues! 

Let’s start a dialogue! What should or shouldn’t the government be doing to reduce obesity and chronic disease?

A Chobani Dilemma

There was a time, not so long ago, when I would tell people that I could be a spokesperson for Chobani Greek Yogurt–that’s how much I could kvell about it. I would eat two to three of them a day at home. I’m fairly certain that making the yogurt a part of my diet helped me lose and maintain my weight. I love Chobani because it 

  • is thicker and creamier than regular yogurt
  • is way more protein than regular yogurt
  • has less added sugar than regular yogurt
  • is a good source of calcium
  • is a good source of probiotics
  • is low to non (saturated) fat
  • offered a variety of delicious flavors
  • made for a very filling breakfast component or snack
  • has a relatively short and unthreatening ingredients list
  • could replace a much less healthy treat as dessert

These things are all still true, and I still enjoy a Chobani yogurt about once a day. The thing is, this year I’ve learned a few key things that make me uneasy about eating it, especially so often. This “con” list is shorter than the “pro” list, but these are some heavy cons. One is that I don’t know if I should be eating so much dairy in the first place. That’s not really a Chobani issue, but a yogurt issue at large. Greek yogurt has a lot of animal protein, which I believe we should try to replace with mostly plant protein in our diets. The health consequences of animal protein are questionable at best. The other issue, and this one is Chobani-specific, is that Chobani products are not organic and provide no information about the treatment of their cows. They say their products are not genetically modified, but all they say is that their cows have not been treated with the growth hormone rBST. They don’t say that their cows haven’t been fed GMO grain, and if they have, the company may be contributing to some icky environmental problems. The feed is also most certainly laced with antibiotics, which contributes to antibiotic resistance in the individuals who consume the product and among the public at large if the antibiotics show up in the milk. This all seems to conflict with Chobani’s “all natural” claims. They also make no claims, authorized or unauthorized, that their cows are raised humanely. Chobani is claiming that “how matters.” Well yes, how does matter, but Chobani has not been walking the walk.  

I feel a bit silly, because I am just now noticing on their website that they will soon be offering a line of certified grass-fed organic yogurt. This cheers me up quite a bit, but it still doesn’t solve my dairy issue and doesn’t completely solve the cow treatment issue, certainly not for the products that will remain non-organic. I would be extremely disappointed to give up eating Chobani for all the reasons on my “pro” list, but do I want to be consuming this product and supporting this brand who certainly cares way more about making money than my health or the environment? I think this is a dilemma a lot of health conscious people may have about many products as they come to discover the abuses of the food industry. It makes you want to give up packaged food all together, but for most of us that would be inconceivable at this point.

I’m still quite unsure whether I should indulge or refrain–what do y’all think?