Back to School and the Freshman 15

Hey readers! As you may have noticed, I’ve been posting less frequently for the past few weeks, due to the stress and bustle of getting ready and getting settled back at college. From now on, though, I hope to post at least once a week. At it seems like I’ll have a lot of material to work with this semester. I’m taking some really interesting classes on food and nutrition, so I hope to be able to pass on some of what I learn and discuss any questions those courses bring up for me. 

So for this post, it seems appropriate that I address the “Freshman 15,” as many freshmen are presently beginning their four years of college. There is a common perception that many people gain as much as fifteen pounds during their first year of college. Is this really true? If so, why does it occur, and how can you prevent it?

Conveniently enough, the research group I work with has actually explored and is currently exploring this topic. While they have found that the average freshman does not gain fifteen pounds, the average freshman does gain close to four or five pounds. 

So why does this happen? I can think of a few things. The major one is all-you-can-eat dining halls. No longer is your mom or dad preparing food for you, maybe even portioning it out on your plate, hopefully considering the healthiness of what you’re eating. You can pick from a variety of options and eat as much as you want of oftentimes not the healthiest food. This includes unlimited dessert, of course. If your parents have always determined what you eat and you’ve never had to worry about over consuming, then you could easily overeat enough on a meal plan to gain four or five pounds in your first year. 

Another big reason is alcohol. Let’s not pretend that freshmen don’t drink underage. If you go from partying only when one of your high school classmate’s parents are out of town to partying and drinking every weekend at Greek houses, you’re adding hundreds of additional empty calories to your diet in the form of, typically, cheap beer. And I would bet you’re not compensating for those calories by eating less before or after. 

A lot of people blame late night eating in college for weight gain as well. If you keep snacks in your dorm room and you’re up late studying, it’s very easy to mindlessly snack on processed foods like chips and candy, and end up overeating and gaining weight.

I don’t think decreasing activity could be responsible, because most people become more active in college as they go from driving or being driven to and from places to walking everywhere.  But please comment if you can think of any other reasons!

The next question is what can we do about this? The professor whose research I assist believes that daily self-weighing and, even better, having your weight plotted on a graph so you can see the trajectory, prevents weight gain. The study I’m working on has produced data that, so far, pretty convincingly show that this is the case for college students. The control group of students who don’t weigh themselves daily have gained weight over the last two years, while the experimental group who do weigh themselves daily have gained no weight over the last two years. I’ve been doing since last fall as well, and haven’t gained any weight, but that might just be because I’m so health-conscious.

Another thing I’ve found helpful is only keeping single-serve snacks in my dorm. I have fruit and nut bars, individual bags of microwave popcorn, packets of instant oatmeal, and individual yogurt containers. The exceptions are cereal and peanut butter, which I probably wouldn’t munch on at random, and fruit and baby carrots, which I purposefully have so I can nibble on them as I please. I’m not tempted to eat half a bag of chips or chocolate, because I don’t have them around. It works, I swear.

Just paying attention to your portion size in dining halls should help as well. If you think you’re gaining weight, eat more of the healthy stuff (salad, fruit, vegetables) and less of the cheesy, fried, calorie-dense junk. Also find time to fit in exercise; it has plenty of health benefits besides losing weight, and is a proven stress-reliever. 

What are your thoughts? Why do college students gain weight and what should they/we do about it?

 

The most or least guilt-ridden animal eating experience?

I’m sorry my posts haven’t been as frequent this week, and they probably won’t be for another week or so. I’m heading back to school next Sunday, so it’s been a very busy time getting ready. But I really wanted to post about this trip my family and I took this past weekend, because it’s prompted some contradictions for me in relation to how I feel about food, and it’s sort of appropriate for this Meatless Monday. We took a road trip to National Harbor, MD for its annual Crab and Beer festival.

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You see, my dad’s favorite food is hardshell crabs. They are quite delicious when they are good, but he (and I) really likes it for the experience, I think. When you eat crabs, you sit there with the whole crab, in its shell, and crack it open with your little mallet and have to dig the meat out with your fingers. It’s thus different from other eating experiences because it takes so much longer and involves working for your food. It leaves a lot of time for talking while your hands are working as well, so it’s a very communal activity, no question about it. It’s also very messy, as you can imagine. I think I still have Old Bay under my fingernails.

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(In case you were confused, I have still been including some fish in my diet, so I refer to myself as a pescatarian (vegetarian+fish). I think when I go back to school I will lay off the fish, though, because the dining hall’s fish is nothing to write home about. )

I’ve always liked the taste of crabmeat, but actually didn’t warm up to the whole hardshell experience until recently. I was pretty averse to the mess before, but for some reason now I don’t mind. Anyway, so we got to our tent at the festival, and our platinum VIP tickets (thanks Dad) got us unlimited crabs. However, they served them 6 at a time, so I got my tray. They were really good crabs–not as large as advertised, but what can ya do?

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That’s my brother and me enjoying our crabbies. I only got through one tray before feeling satisfied. I think my dad had 3 or 4! It took us all probably an hour and a half to eat, just to give you an idea of the length of this process. Anyway, the whole thing was really fun–there was live music and lots of cool vendors selling clothes, jewelry, and souvenirs. If you’re into crabs, I’d recommend it. I’d love to do something like that again with friends.

So what does this have to do with food movement issues? Well, as you might imagine, this experience brought up a question of animal rights for me–that is, whether animals have the right to life. When eating crabs whole, as opposed to in the form of a crab cake, for instance, it is impossible to separate yourself from the notion that this was once a living creature. When I bring up the subject of eating hard shells to other people, some say they don’t like it for just this reason, even though they will eat crab meat other ways. It reminds me how far away we have been removed from the food system. Whether or not you believe that animals may be morally hunted or bred to be eaten, most people don’t like to think about the death of the animal on their plate. If the system were more transparent, perhaps this consciousness would occur more frequently, and perhaps people would be less inclined to eat meat, which would be a welcome change, in my opinion. Please know this: whether you crack the crab open yourself or eat a crab cake, a crab (or more) has died to be your food. 

Now, for some twisted reason, I actually feel better about eating crabs whole than eating crab meat, or any meat, that has been processed so as to be unrecognizable from its live origins. I think it’s because it feels more honest to me, while so much about animal agriculture is hidden from consumers. That sounds really weird, I know. But think about it–if you always had to pluck your chicken before eating it, wouldn’t you eat chicken less often? Is that even an appropriate analogy? How can we make people more conscious of the consequences of their food choices?

 

I’ll take soy over salmonella

Another successful Meatless Monday in my casa has come and gone. My mom really engineered this one. The last time she was at Trader Joe’s the store was sampling a vegetarian faux chorizo mixed with salsa as a meatless taco filling, and she thought it was excellent, so she bought some. So we had taco night! She whipped up a modification of the Trader Joe’s recipe, and I made Mark Bittman’s recipe for Chunky Corn Guacamole. I’ve gotta say, I was so proud of m yself for making guacamole, because it’s one of my absolute favorite things in the world, and it was quite tasty. I guess guacamole isn’t really very complicated, but it’s sure a crowd pleaser. I made another Mark recipe to have as a supplement to the meal/possible taco filling: Brazilian Baked Black Beans. As written, this recipe turned out way too soupy. It was a nice addition to the faux-rizo in the taco, but wasn’t satisfying on its own. I’m going to try it really hot as a soup tomorrow–I think that will save it, or add a LOT of rice. Luckily there was enough other food on the table that the weakness of the black beans didn’t really matter. I’ll let you know how the soup turns out. But check out the beautiful, colorful table!

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The tacos really were yummy. I insisted on corn tortillas, of course, and my mom got this really awesome tortilla warmer on sale today at William Sonoma. The faux-rizo REALLY tasted like taco meat. I was so impressed.

Having just read Fast Food Nation, I wanted to spotlight the acute dangers of eating meat this week, as opposed to the chronic ones which I usually chronicle. I am referring to foodborne illness. This can be split into three important categories, I think.

  1. Food poisoning caused by contact of an animal’s intestinal contents (read: shit) with the meat at some point during slaughter and processing. This poisoning may include sickness that lasts for a day, a week, or ends up killing you. The statistics regarding cases of food poisoning and resulting deaths are astonishing. “CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.” Consuming industrially farmed and processed animals puts you at much higher risk for poisoning by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli 0157:H7 and salmonella. Safety regulations in meatpacking facilities are nowhere near where they should be to keep people safe, largely because of lobbying by the industry to keep regulation minimal. Animals that are too sick to walk into the slaughterhouse (“downers”) will be slaughtered and packed for sale anyway. Meat isn’t tested at regular intervals for dangerous pathogens. Companies will recall tainted meat once it’s already made people sick, but usually it’s too late to prevent serious problems and usually they don’t recall enough. By the way, safety regulation for meat served in schools isn’t any better than meat sold to the public. 
  2. Infection caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the meat. As I explained in a previous post, the typical continual dosage of antibiotics in livestock’s feed encourages breeding of antibiotic-resistant bacteria which can be terrifyingly unstoppable if and when they cause disease in us. 
  3. Viruses that travel between species as a result of humans interacting with sick animals. For instance, swine flu was so named because it was originally confined to pigs.  Close interactions of pigs, poultry, and humans can encourage multiple mutations of a virus to survive between species. What is humans’ number one interaction with pigs and poultry? Animal agriculture! The way factory farms are set up, it’s impossible to keep disease from spreading and causing an epidemic. And I know this really isn’t an category of food borne illness (I don’t think you can get the virus from eating the meat?), as it’s caused by humans contact with live sick animals, so this would be a political reason not to eat meat, as opposed to an acute health one. That is, unless you work at a factory farm. 

I of course acknowledge that sometimes raw vegetables spread food borne illness as well, but it’s a much, much lower risk than with industrial meat.

If you are going to eat meat and eggs, please take all safety precautions no matter where it comes from, and know that it’s at your own risk. The food industry has yet to step up and take responsibility for the safety of its product, which I find unacceptable. These are illnesses and deaths that are probably 99% preventable.

Knowing all of this, wouldn’t you go for spicy faux-rizo instead of Taco Bell? 

Vote With Your Fork!

The other day I finished reading another must-read for those interested in the food movement, or anyone who is still eating fast food for whatever reason: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. From all of my previous reading, I was not surprised–though still incredibly dismayed–by most of his revelations regarding the fast food industry (to name a few)…

  • neglecting food safety at almost every level of production, causing unbelievable levels of food-borne illness (will go more in depth in my next post),
  • encouraging factory farming to keep food cheap,
  • neglecting worker safety and welfare at every level of production,
  • spending ridiculous amounts of money to target advertising to children to make them lifelong loyal customers,
  • and developing chemical flavorings to make heavily processed, unhealthy food taste addicting.

What did strike me was his call to action at the end. Schlosser claims that efforts to change policy may be wasted, because it would be much more effective to unleash our powers as consumers. He claims that the actions of legislators will always be tied up in corporate interests, but, more importantly, corporate interests have even stronger ties to consumer interests.  I have always been a proponent of policy solutions to the food system, and I still think that policy is the key to really fix the backwardness of the food system from the ground up with things like agricultural subsidies. But, to get things started, this consumer power thing has so much potential.

Look at what blogger Vani Hari, the Food Babe, who I have mentioned before, has done. She has launched several campaigns targeting specific food companies/restaurant chains involving letters and petitions of hundreds of thousands of consumers to pressure them to chain their own policies, from getting Chipotle to reveal their ingredient lists online to pressuring Chick-Fil-A to agree to go antibiotic free! These changes all happened within a number of days, if not hours, of the campaign’s launch.

The reality is that businesses want to make money, and consumers have to buy their products in order for that to happen. If a million McDonald’s customers insisted that the corporation require rigorous safety inspection from its meat suppliers, McDonald’s would do it, because it can’t afford the bad publicity or to lose the customers. The same thing is true, I would think, for other industry policies like advertising to children and overusing sodium. A chain promising to reduce sodium levels in its meals can happen overnight, whereas a government policy to require such a change could literally take decades. 

The way I see it, there are two huge barriers to widespread consumer uprising to pressure the food industry to change its ways: one is awareness, and the other is organization. Even though awareness of the industry’s abuses is spreading, there are still millions of people who don’t really know what they’re eating or how it is affecting their health and their environment. People have to be aware of a problem to want to change it. As for organization, it takes someone driven like the Food Babe or an organization like CSPI, who have huge followings, to lead the way. Maybe even me someday. The power of the consumer in the food movement has yet to be even close to fully harnessed. To start, subscribe to the Food Babe or check out CSPI’s resources. If a company is doing something you find unacceptable, stop purchasing its products. Your dollar is more influential than your vote. 

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Give me your thoughts! How can we organize consumers to fight back? 

Let’s call it what it is

In June 2013, the American Medical Association announced that it was officially updating its classification of obesity; the most prominent organization of physicians in the U.S. designated obesity as a disease. This was a controversial move for many reasons. For some reason I was thinking about this lately, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

There were a few primary reasons for this new classification. For one, calling obesity a disease would encourage insurance companies to cover treatment for obesity, including perhaps nutritional counseling and other weight loss programs (good), but also weight loss drugs (bad). This makes a lot of sense from a public health as well as an economic standpoint, because it’s less expensive and much healthier for someone to lose weight than to let their weight make them sicker until they need drugs and/or surgery for heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, which insurance already covers. Ironically, labeling obesity as a disease might encourage a prevention focused course of action as opposed to an unsustainable treatment one, even if the label is encouraging doctors to “treat” obesity. However, while I definitely think insurance should cover counseling for weight loss and dietary intervention for overweight and metabolically unhealthy individuals, the most sustainable way to reverse the obesity epidemic lies in the reform of the food system. So I’m not sure if this label matters in this respect.

Another pro to this disease label is that it may lessen the stigma towards the obese, who are typically considered to be at fault for being lazy and overeating the wrong foods. Weight stigma is a huge issue, definitely, and doctors should be aware that people can be overweight for many complex reasons. If you have read my other posts, you probably know that I believe a substantial portion of obese individuals are victims of the food system, which values corporate wealth over public health at every level. But the idea that your behaviors (namely, your diet) influence your health can actually be very empowering in the right context; I worry that telling an obese patient they have a disease might make them feel like their weight is out of their control, so they might as well throw up their hands. But again, I’m not sure if this designation will actually have enough of an impact to change the stigma. On a related note, a potential con of labeling obesity as a disease is that doctors may be more likely to promote weight loss through drugs and surgery as opposed to diet and physical activity, the former of which is much more dangerous and drastic. 

Another important consideration is that obesity is “diagnosed” according to a person’s BMI, which doesn’t take into account body composition. Also, some people are healthier than others at a given BMI, depending on their genes, diet, activity levels, and especially where the fat is distributed. Subcutaneous fat (the fat on your arms, hips, and thighs) is, as far as I’m aware, not strongly associated with chronic disease, while visceral fat (fat in your abdomen) is known to be very dangerous. Just being technically obese doesn’t necessarily mean one has any of the associated pathologies, although the risk is definitely higher. 

So maybe it is misleading to call obesity a disease, when it is more accurately (in my opinion) a risk factor or cause of disease. And of course excess weight is not always present in patients with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and the like. There are people who are “normal” weight with bad eating and exercise habits who get the same illnesses as the obese people. 

I guess I think that calling obesity a disease just reinforces the disease management mindset of the current healthcare system (instead of a disease prevention mindset). The reclassification might not make anything worse, but I can’t see how it could help either.

What do you think? Is obesity a disease? 

 

 

 

A Bittman Beginning

This week I got an awesome early birthday present from my aunt, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman, who I’ve mentioned before. He’s a very well-known food journalist and author. He’s apparently “just a home cook,” but he’s mastered everything your average or even some ambitious home cooks would want to know.

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He’s written cook books like my new one, and he also writes very eloquent op-eds in the New York Times on matters of food politics, which I now read religiously. Anyway, if you want to learn how to cook, and want to make meatless meals (which I highly suggest), this book is amazing and will probably become my bible. Its recipes don’t get incredibly sophisticated, but that’s kind of the point. I used the book for the first time on Friday night. I bought fresh string beans from the farmer’s market where I volunteer, and my mom had wanted to make a three-bean salad (usually has string beans, chickpeas, and kidney beans tossed in a vinaigrette). I found a recipe for a broiled three bean salad in Bittman’s cookbook, which is basically the traditional recipe but you broil the beans first. It was quite tasty and easy, pictured below next to salmon and couscous.

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Tonight for Meatless Monday, I chose a recipe from this really cool Mediterranean cookbook of my mom’s for a summer vegetable risotto with green beans, peas, and summer squash. I used farro (a tougher grain like barley) instead of rice to make it a little more nutritious, but with 6 tablespoons of butter and half a cup of parmesan cheese it was still quite decadent. My mom thought risotto and a vegetable might not seem like enough food, so I made Mark’s recipe for marinated tofu and my mom grilled it. The marinade was very simple, and the tofu could have been a lot more flavorful. Oh well–we’ll do better next time. My mom also roasted asparagus with garlic–I don’t know how she does it, but it comes out amazingly crispy, so good it’s like candy.

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So tonight, instead of giving you a reason to eat less meat, I thought I’d offer you a great way to eat less meat, a thought child of Mark Bittman’s, since I’m featuring him in this post anyway. Bittman adheres to what he calls the “Vegan Before 6” or VB6 diet. It’s not a diet like how the word has generally come to be used, as in a temporary restriction until you lose however many pounds. It’s a permanent change in your eating pattern. The biggest rule is that you don’t eat any animal products until 6 pm. For some people, I think this would make a lot of sense. It still allows you to eat meat and dairy at dinner, which is in our culture usually the biggest, fanciest, and/or most involved meal of the day. He also stipulates that you eat mostly whole foods and avoid processed foods (THUMBS UP). If it makes more sense for your “free” meal to be a different one, then you work it around your schedule. And obviously if you slip up every now and then it’s no big deal.

If you’re one of those people that thinks “I could never be vegetarian or vegan,” this idea is a great compromise! You could eat meat every day! But by reducing your animal product consumption to once a day, you’re probably removing oodles of animal cruelty and carbon footprint and negative health consequences from your diet. His cookbook Vegan Before 6 gets you started with plenty of vegan and “flexitarian” recipes. I’ve tried to adhere to this idea lately for the most part, and it works out great for me. Of course, if you’re used to eating meat and dairy multiple times a day, it will take some effort and open-mindedness to change, but the benefits are so worth it. 

What do you think? Is this a lifestyle more people could adopt? Would you go vegan before 6? 

Nutrition: a potentially compromising career

Something has been troubling me periodically as I learn more and more about the ridiculousness of our food and healthcare systems. I first learned of this problem when I read Food Politics by Marion Nestle, and was reminded of it as I just read Whole by T. Colin Campbell (who also wrote The China Study). I am referring to the so-called co-opting of nutrition professionals by the food industry.

According to Campbell and Nestle, the latter of whom I consider to be one of the least biased voices in the public health nutrition field, Big Food sponsors a significant portion of nutrition research. Studies that are sponsored by a food company are far more likely, statistically speaking, to find favorable effects or not to find unfavorable effects of consumption of the company’s product. There is also a revolving door of nutrition professionals through academia, industry, and government, making conflicts of interest and bias toward industry profit nearly unavoidable in nutrition research, even when it isn’t directly funded by a food company.

If this weren’t bad enough, food companies also sponsor the activities of nutritionists’ societies and professional organizations. The “largest organization of food and nutrition professionals,” the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is evidently a huge offender in this respect. You have to understand that the Academy is the organization that accredits all registered dietitians. They outline the curriculum requirements for students planning to get certified (including myself), as well as offer continuing education. Most all RDs are Academy members, and the Academy does all they can to discredit self-proclaimed dietitians who are not registered. The Academy provides publications, advocacy, and networking opportunities for its members.

Members pay dues, but the Academy also receives a ton of industry funding from sponsors such as the National Dairy Council, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, and PepsiCo. If you don’t believe me, it’s on their website. The result of all this corporate sponsorship is

  • a PR dream for industry at Academy conferences, including the food expo at the Academy’s biggest annual conference where food companies promote their new products to thousands of dietitians
  • advertisements for all kinds of food products in the Academy’s research journal and magazine

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  • likely bias favoring sponsors’ products in articles published in the Academy’s journal and education material published by the Academy on their website and in handouts meant for dietitians to give to their patients

This is so concerning to me because as I’ve said before, I hope to become a registered dietitian. I’m even a student member of the Academy now! The R.D. license is perceived as an essential credential in order to be hired and credible in the field of nutrition. Now knowing about all this corporate sponsorship and hijacking that goes on, I feel really conflicted! I don’t necessarily want to be a member of an organization that’s supposed to certify scientific professionals and base its recommendations on scientific inquiry whose hands are tied by corporate money. But I have to if I want to make it in this field, even if I want to use my career to silence the influence of some of those sponsors.

Please do not take this to mean that all registered dietitians are minions of the Academy’s sponsors. So many of them are caring, passionate individuals who want the best for public health, and either don’t know about the sponsorship, don’t know how it biases Academy activities, or are unhappy with it.

I sometimes fantasize about rising up the ranks of the Academy and making changes in their sponsorship policies and positions on certain aspects of diet. Because that’s the only way I would know how to reconcile this hypocrisy I feel. I’m joining and supporting an organization that is perpetuating the problem of healthcare professionals supporting profit over health that I am so passionately against.

I still plan on getting certified as a registered dietitian, even though I feel like it implicates me in this system I’m trying to break down. It seems very ironic that it would be very hard for me to contribute to the upheaval of the current food and healthcare systems if I didn’t implicate myself in this way.

Drs. Nestle and Campbell, if you ever read this, please help me reconcile this inner struggle I’m having about my career. How do I become an authority on good nutrition without supporting bad nutrition?