Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Demonizing the Food Industry

The Nefarious Scientists of the Food Industry are at Fault

David Kessler MD found himself "powerless to control his own eating" and saw his weight fluctuating between slim and obese. He set out to discover the reason and learned that the "food industry has been able to figure out the bliss point", they have found a way to "activate the neuro-circuits" that make us eat. And so he has written a book The End of Overeating to rally us to do something about this -- WE must stop THEM. It seems that the food industry is no different than the tobacco industry.

At least that is the message I got from a segment on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that aired yesterday, Jun6 16, 2009 (listen to the segment here). The segment features correspondent Betty Ann Bowser speaking with and exploring a mall food court with David Kessler.

Here is an excerpt from what he says on the show: "If we continue to allow the food industry to put fat, sugar and salt on every corner, to load it in our food, to be double-frying our food, to be injecting it with needles, to be bathing it in solutions of sugar and fat, to be pre-digesting that food, adding the emotional gloss, advertising, cueing us, stimulating the brains of millions of Americans, we're never going to be able to get a handle on healthcare and especially the cost of healthcare"

Dr. Kessler must know what he's talking about, as he has quite a pedigree. He served as Commissioner of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Dr. Kessler, a pediatrician, has been the dean of the medical schools at Yale and the University of California, San Francisco.

And yet, this demonization of the food industry doesn't sit well with me.

A Different Take
I find myself much more attracted to the analysis and perspective of Seth Roberts, in his book The Shangri-La Diet. (Coincidentally I had just written about the diet in my previous post). Here is a summary of what he says:

What caused the obesity epidemic? ... What was it? Too little exercise, high-fat foods, soft drinks, and too-large portions are often blamed, but so are many other things. In Food Fight(2004), Kelly Brownell and Katherine Horgen point to several causes: television, video games, personal computers, eating away from home, snacking and the “glorification of overeating.” However, the evidence for most of these causes has been far from persuasive.

The sharp rise in obesity after 1980 is unlikely to be due to lack of exercise. [explanation ... Americans weren’t particularly fit before] ... The obesity epidemic is unlikely to be due to a high-fat diet. [explanation ... low-fat diets don’t make much difference] The obesity epidemic is unlikely to be due to larger portions [explanations ... larger portions as a result of obesity, not vice versa].

So what did cause the obesity epidemic? The theory behind the Shangri-La diet is very clear. The most fattening foods are those that have all four of the following properties:
• [a strong flavor]
• [quickly detected calories, for example carbs]
• [are eaten frequently]
• [have exactly the same flavor each time]

Might the consumption of such foods have greatly increased after 1980s? [that’s when obesity epidemic took off]

Junk food and fast food have these four properties; in fact they have been engineered to have them. ... Has consumption of these foods grown dramatically since 1980? The answer is yes. ... “As much as two-thirds of the increase in adult obesity since 1980 can be explained by the rapid growth in the per capita number of fast-food restaurants and full-service restaurants, especially the former.”

Like David Kessler, Seth points out that these foods that are causing the obesity epidemic have been "engineered" to be attractive. But, then they differ: "In the battle against obesity, big food companies are not the enemy, as many public health advocates seem to think. This belief is counterproductive and unfair."

He goes on to give several examples of the food companies responding with alacrity to the public's demands. We want no sugar, they'll get rid of sugar. We want low-fat, they'll make low-fat foods. We want low-carb, they'll give us low-carb.

Instead of demonizing, Seth concludes with a much more optimistic and productive prediction: "When creative and resourceful people have the right ideas about the causes of obesity, they will begin to change our world in ways that make it much harder to become obese."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Trying the Shangri-La Diet

I have never had any interest in reading a diet book. For one thing, I like the foods I like and I don't have any desire to give them up. For another, on this topic, at least, I do whatever my wife tells me to (it doesn't hurt that she's a fantastic cook). To top it off, these diets, these fads, have always felt to me to be more than a little hucksterism.

So, under normal circumstances, I would never have picked up the book "The Shangri-La Diet" by Seth Roberts PhD. With a subtitle that claims "The No Hunger, Eat Anything, Weight-Loss Plan", how could this be anything be fantasy?

But, I had gotten to know the author over the past several months as we both attended meetings of the Quantified Self group, and he seemed to me to be very thoughtful, an innovative and careful scientist. (See for yourself on Seth's blog.)

When I learned he'd written this book, I just had to see what it was about. And, once I read it, I just had to give the diet a try! I'm happy to report that it's working!

The "Diet"
You'll just have to read the book yourself, or check out the website, to learn the details, but here's the gist.

The "diet" consists of drinking 1-2 tablespoons of flavor-less oil (such as extra-light olive oil) each day. You can supplement this with 1-2 tablespoons of sugar dissolved in water (that's right -- simple sugar-water). You need to drink these things away from other foods -- at least an hour before and after other foods. Other than that, eat what you want! That's it, no more to know. Sounds crazy, no?!

The research and science behind this is, however, quite thorough. The basic notion is that your body has a "weight set point", a weight it would like to be at. If your actual weight is below your set point, you will feel hungry more quickly and it will take more food before you feel full. And, if your actual weight is above your set point, it will take longer before you feel hungry and you will feel full more quickly. It turns out that your set point can change, and it is influenced by the food you eat. Certain foods raise your set point, others (such as flavor-less oil and sugar water) lower it. If you want to lose weight, without driving yourself crazy with hunger pangs, you need to lower your set point. Again, read the book to get more details about the science.

My Results To-Date
To keep things simple, I have been drinking 2 tablespoons of extra-light olive oil (ELOO) each day. One tablespoon about an hour after breakfast, and another an hour after dinner. Other than that, I have made no other changes. As I describe below, I am eating less, but that's happening naturally.

This chart shows my progress. The blue circles are weight measurements, taken every day just before going to bed. I was out of town a few days in early May -- no measurements, and no ELOO either. As you can see my weight fluctuated quite significantly every day. This was a big surprise to me, but apparently is quite normal. To get a sense of how I am doing despite these fluctuations, I calculate a "Trend" that is plotted as the green line. (For those who care, the Trend is an exponentially smoothed moving average with 10% smoothing.)
Looking at the trend, you can see that over the past six weeks I have steadily lost three pounds. Not spectacular, but definitely in the right direction. And, it has been painless! I could benefit from losing a lot more than just three pounds, so I'll keep doing this and see what happens.

In addition to losing weight, I've also learned a few other things from this experience.

Need a scale that works I actually started this effort a week earlier than what is shown on the chart above. Those daily weight fluctuations made me suspect that my scale was no good, and so I tested it. Though I learned that those daily fluctuations were to be expected, I also found out that my scale was adding an additional ~5-10 pounds of variation! I could step-on, step-off, step-on and get very different numbers. So, I got a cheap new scale. This one is nice and steady.

What does hunger feel like? Since I had read the book, understood the theory, and was trying the diet, I just naturally started paying attention to feelings of hunger. I discovered that I was never really hungry. Apparently I had been eating whatever I'd been eating and whenever I'd been eating for reasons other than hunger. I eat breakfast when I wake up, lunch when it's lunch time, dinner when it's dinner time, and have various other snacks during the day when it's time for a break. None of this is due to hunger! Even now, after several weeks of paying attention to my hunger and my eating, I am hardly ever hungry before I start eating.

How much to eat? If hunger wasn't in the picture, how did I decide when to stop eating? I had never thought about this, so I had to start paying attention. As far as I can tell, the amount I had been eating before had been whatever "seemed" right -- a sandwich should be about this big, the dinner plate (at least the first helping) should be about this full, and so on, just because that's what looked right. And, finishing whatever was on my plate was just the right, proper thing to do. Now that I'm paying attention to feeling hungry/full, I find that I am eating much less than before. I still find it impossible to fight the habit of finishing my plate, so I try to take smaller portions.