Is all food created equally?

Mark Bittman’s recent column in the New York Times, “Which Diet Works?” asks an unpopular question:  Could the prevailing diet wisdom of the last several decades — ie. to eat low-fat food in order to lose weight — be wrong?  Bittman concludes:

The message is pretty simple: unprocessed foods give you a better chance of idealizing your weight — and your health. Because all calories are not created equal.

Some foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are naturally low in fat.  Other foods, such as nuts, avocados, and most meat and dairy products, are naturally higher in fat.  For decades, food manufacturers have capitalized on the low-fat craze by convincing Americans that they needed them to manufacture healthy, low-fat food.

It seems obvious that altering the natural chemistry of high-fat food — such as milk, cheese, ice cream, etc. — would be harmful to the body.  But that’s been the popular advice for years now.

In reality, science tells a very different story.  Bodies prefer natural foods — whether they are naturally low in fat, or naturally high in fat.  A finding by the long-running Nurses Health Study at the Harvard School of Public Health suggested that women who consumed low-fat dairy products were more likely to experience infertility as a result of lack of ovulation.  The study was published in the peer-reviewed European journal Human Reproduction in 2007.

Fertility has always been one of nature’s markers for whether the environment (one component of which is the availability and quality of food) is hospitable and nutritious enough to support new life. According to the study, women who consumed high-fat dairy products were 27% less likely to experience trouble conceiving — even when all other factors were considered.

A correlation between eating low-fat dairy products and infertility is a pretty convincing one to me!

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Who Loses Weight and Keeps It Off?

I have long been a fan of Tara Parker-Pope’s writing, but her recent article, “The Fat Trap,” published in last week’s edition of The New York Times Magazine, was particularly intriguing. In the days since it’s publication, almost every newspaper and magazine has weighed in (pun intended) to promote or critique the article.  In “The Fat Trap,” Parker-Pope seamlessly weaves personal anecdotes with statistics and studies as she delves into one of the most serious health questions facing America: Why are we failing to lose weight?

Although I’m not overweight, I write “we” because we are all affected by the obesity epidemic.  On a philosophical level, I believe the world’s problems are interconnected and that we solve our own problems when we have compassion for others and work together to solve one others’ problems.  On a literal level, if you are an American taxpayer, obesity is your problem, too, regardless of your weight.

I have always had compassion for overweight people.  First, I feel fortunate for the health education I’ve had in my life, and I feel it’s quite possible I could have been overweight without it.  Second, as a woman, I have certainly felt the shame of feeling fat.  In my opinion, it’s a given that the vast majority of overweight people don’t want to be overweight.  If you desperately don’t want to be fat, and are working as hard as you possibly can not to be fat, is it really your fault that you’re still fat?  Although conventional wisdom takes issue with my premise that most overweight people are working hard not to be overweight,  I believe many are.  And in so many, many ways, I feel that we could be doing more as a nation to help overweight people reach their health goals.

According to the studies referenced in Parker-Pope’s article, once people gain weight, they are statistically unlikely to lose the weight and keep it off.  If they do manage to lose the weight, they will have to work harder — for their entire lives — in order to maintain that new weight than a person who never gained and lost the weight to begin with.  Parker-Pope’s article shadows this select and successful few, and lists their characteristics.  People who maintain a significant weight loss for the long-term share these 5 traits:

  • Eat breakfast every day
  • Exercise daily
  • Weigh themselves daily
  • Eat consistent foods and don’t “cheat” on holidays or weekends
  • Watch less television than the average American (about half as much)

I found this to be one of the most fascinating parts of the article!  Who is winning the weight game?  It’s not people who are dieting in the traditional use of the word — that is, temporary depravation; instead, it’s people who have made positive changes in their lives and are committed to maintaining these changes forever.

(Slate Magazine‘s response to Parker-Pope’s piece pointed out that in normal or underweight people, these behaviors may seem disordered.  You can find Parker-Pope’s response to the Slate piece here.  Eating disorders are a complicated subject, but I mostly agree with Parker-Pope’s response.)

It’s unfortunate news for those hoping for a get-thin-quick scheme — but it’s important for overweight people to know that the only diet that will work is a diet that can be maintained over the course of one’s entire life.  For overweight people, the 3000-calories-to-a-pound rule is a myth.  For you, there may be more calories, or fewer.  The only way to find out is to know yourself, and to work at maintaining a healthy weight — learning along the way — until you succeed.

My only issue with the article is its quiet acceptance of Columbia University researcher Rudolph Leibel’s dismissal that slowing the pace of weight loss could make a difference in the body’s ability to sustain lost weight.  According to Parker-Pope, Leibel claims that “the body’s warning system is based solely on how much fat a person loses, not how quickly he or she loses it.”  I’m interested to know what research Leibel has to back up that sweeping claim.  My understanding is that long-term studies on the subject haven’t yet been completed.  Indeed, anecdotal evidence and expert opinion has historically suggested that slow weight loss is more sustainable than quick weight loss.  Why is Leibel so quick to dismiss a natural, sustainable path to weight loss?

Clearly, permanent weight loss is a complicated task.  Perhaps the real message in this article is the importance of prevention.  Childhood obesity is a preventable condition, and grossly unfair to our nation’s children, who have so little say in the matter.

Regardless of your weight, this article is a worthwhile read.  If you have lost weight and kept it off, what has helped your success?  Please leave a comment and share your thoughts below.

UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic seems to have similiar concerns regarding Rudolph Leibel’s quick dismissal of slow weight loss.  In his brief opinion piece, Coates provides more anecdotal evidence (his own) in support of weight loss at “a glacial pace.”