Food does not equal calories! Putting calories in their place

In the battle to be healthy and maintain a weight conducive to good health (not aesthetics), food is not the enemy. Your basic biological drive to seek out nutrients for survival, a.k.a. hunger is not the enemy! The real enemy in disguise are fast food chains, junk food companies, and…the FDA (I should just rename my blog “I hate the FDA” because I rant about them so much!)

When most people attempt to lose weight, they turn to counting calories. After all, calories are facts. They are quantitative and easy to keep track of thus, the number is in your control. Well, I’m sorry to tell ycount chemicalsou this, but the number you think you know is wrong. A calorie is not a calorie and your body is not a machine. Eating less calories than you expend on a diet consisting of packaged foods is nearly impossible.

2 Reasons why you can’t count calories correctly:

  1. Calorie counts on food labels are incorrect. Under FDA regulations, packaged foods (even diet foods) can be as much as 20% off! The FDA allows this amount of “wiggle room” to account for variations in portions. Food companies mostly operate on the honor system because the FDA lacks sufficient manpower to ensure the accuracy of nutrition labels on all the food products available.* 20% wrong doesn’t seem like much, but in a day or a week, it can really add up…along with the excess sodium, chemicals, and preservatives.
  2. Calorie counts for whole foods are imprecise! Yes, even for whole foods! Whole foods don’t come standard, they vary in weight and nutritional content. Also,the caloric content of foods listed in databases that people rely on are based on a formula that is 100+ years old.** When caloric contents of natural foods were computed, there wasn’t any factoring in of how much of the food is actually absorbed by your body. Components of whole fruits and vegetables, like fiber decreases the absorption of calories by your body, especially when eaten raw. Also, when raw, fibrous foods are eaten, your body has to expend more energy in digestion to break these foods down. Conversely, when you denature or process foods in any way, such as cooking, chopping, blending, or juicing, you make more calories available to be absorbed. You have essentially predigested your food, and thus your body doesn’t have to work as hard to obtain the nutrients, expending less energy. (This is not necessarily a bad thing! Except in terms of counting calories.) So the amount of calories contained in whole foods is pretty variable! Though the volume of fruits and vegetables make it really hard to eat too much of them!

 

The practice of counting calories and eating packaged foods also instills some pretty bad habits. When someone eats from a package, they are more inclined to finish the package. That person may not want to leave just a little bit left, or may feel entitled to eat it all because they are still “safe” in terms of the amount of calories they have allotted him or herself. This teaches you to override your natural feelings of fullness, and eat for a number instead. Most packaged foods are designed to be eaten on the go, and thus promote mindless eating and further takes you out of touch with your natural hunger.

Calorie counting is also stressful! The stress hormone cortisol leads to weight gain around the stomach and also spikes your appetite! When someone is trying to dutifully account for every last calorie, it makes it impossible to appreciate the food for what it is and what it could do for you. It also teaches the person to view themselves as either “good” or “bad”. This creates a slippery slope toward the cycle of restricting and overeating, which characterizes yo-yo dieting.

In reality, a calorie is a number that means nothing. It does not tell you how healthy or unhealthy a food is. It’s a waste of your time and energy that could be better used elsewhere to try to count them. They’re not even accurate anyway!

Packaged food vs. Whole food:
pro bar health food

This is a pretty good example of how whole food vs. packaged foods can create an unhealthy situation. A Pro Bar meal replacement bar is a really good idea for ultra endurance events (think 100 mile runs or 10 hour bike rides), it’s also a good idea for 8 hour plane flights, but it is a really bad idea for everybody else!

These meal bars are marketed as a healthier alternative to replace meals for people on the go. Undoubtedly, their natural ingredients are much healthier than a fast food meal. But the problem comes when people are so blinded by the “health halo” that they don’t realize how energy dense this little bar really is. One bar is 85g, that’s tiny! It’s about the equivalent of one extra small (less than 6″) banana. But it contains 360 calories! The problem is that people eat these packaged foods thinking they are “healthy”. In reality, this bar will not leave you with any feelings of fullness you would have otherwise gotten had you eat 360 calories of fresh, whole plant foods packed with water and fiber as well as the vitamins and minerals that the ProBar claims to contain as a selling point. (I might also add that the calorie equivalent of this bar is 3.5 bananas, which would be cheaper than one ProBar!)
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Eating whole foods in as close to natural as possible makes it much easier to create a situation of good health where you don’t have to count calories to check your weight, you feel full, and you give your body the nutrients it needs in the correct proportions. Since it has gotten a lot colder, and the fruits available have whittled down to the basics (I can’t really afford out of season fruits, and by eating what’s cheap I also eat seasonally!) I have been eating a lot of oatmeal and apples. But this is what I mean by real food:

Whole food oatmeal:

  • 1/2 cup oats, dry (150 cal.)
  • 1 large apple (115 cal.)
  • 1 Tbsp. chia seeds (14g) (68 cal.)
  • 1/2 cup frozen cherries (50 cal.)
  • water, cinnamon, fresh ginger (~0 cal.)

I also ate 3 tangerines before my oatmeal (170 cal.) this brings my total calories to 553 calories for my breakfast. Is that a lot or a little? The answer is that it is completely subjective. To a female dieter trying to restrict their calories to a tiny amount, they might have already “blown it” by consuming that many calories so early in the day… When I look at this breakfast I see: vitamins and fiber from the fruit. Oats have fiber, protein, and complex carbs to help my muscles recover from a run. Chia seeds are a source of Omega 3 fats and are filling as well as satiating because they bulk up my oats. Cinnamon is great for regulating blood sugar. Cherries are amazing for antioxidants, they are anti-inflammatory, and can speed up muscle recovery in endurance athletes. Ginger is also nature’s medicine, great for overall health including indigestion, GI distress, nausea, and inflammation. These are only the known benefits of these foods…scientists haven’t identified all the compounds inherent in fruits and vegetables, and they definitely don’t understand the symbiotic processes that occur when someone consumes a whole food.

I see this bowl of whole foods, not as a bowl of calories, but as a breakfast that will fill me up, taste amazing, and allow me to recover from my morning run optimally so that I can run again tomorrow. My main goal in life is not to see how few calories I can eat in a day, my goal is to push my body to the limit in terms of miles run and speed sustained.

The main message is to eat whole, fresh foods: fruits, vegetables, grains, and some nuts and seeds. Our reductionist scientific understanding of things has enabled people to view food as nothing but calories and macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins). The reality is that no one really knows all the magic contained in fruits and vegetables that allows them to unleash their nutrition on our metabolism (all the chemical reactions that take place in the body). The best bet for better health is to stop eating for a number (that’s arbitrary anyway) and eat whole plant foods till you are full!

Sources:

*Jeff Rossen, Robert Powell, NBC News: Today Show Rossen Reports: Can you believe diet frozen dessert labels?” Aug. 20, 2012.

**Sass, Cynthia, Health News & Views Why Calorie Counts are Wrong: 6 Diet Myths, Busted” Feb. 7, 2013.

 

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Get antibiotics without a prescription! Just eat some meat!

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I wasn’t sure that the meat and dairy industry could do anything more to wreck human health, but I was wrong. If there was an award for creative ways to ensure human extinction is an imminent threat, the meat and dairy industry would take the cake. They already do their darnedest to contribute the most greenhouse gas emissions to climate change as well as cut down large swaths of forests to compound the effects. The meat and dairy industry uses as much fresh water as possible, and they make sure to pollute the water they don’t use as well. Meat and dairy products are implicated (if not the major cause) of major chronic conditions like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis, to name just a few. But it seems they’ve become dissatisfied with only contributing to the ill-health of meat consumers…they’ve now widened their net to afflict everyone, even those who do their best to abstain from meat, dairy, and eggs.

How has the meat and dairy industry contributed to antibiotic resistance, a problem so serious that the World Health Organization declared it “threatens the achievements of modern medicine”?* According to the FDA, animal agriculture consumes 80% of all antibiotics administered in the U.S.**** In 2009, it was reported by the FDA that farmers used 30 million pounds of antibiotics, and the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 24 million pounds are used simply to make the animals grow faster…and so are used unnecessarily.**

In factory farm settings, animals (cows, pigs, chickens) are crowded into filthy conditions. In some cases they aren’t allowed to move to keep them from burning calories, and they stand in their own fecal matter. The close quarters create an ideal breeding ground for diseases, which spread rampantly between animals.** Chickens frequently share cages with their dead brothers and sisters who couldn’t survive the suffering. The chronic stress and fear that these animals endure 24/7 compromises their immune system, just like in humans. Farmers have to keep animals on a feed laced with antibiotics, or administer multiple vaccines to keep them alive long enough to get big enough to slaughter. Their lives are already much shorter than they would be in nature, but the poor animals can barely live for the months it takes to reach slaughter weight.

The Reuters investigation (cited at end) found that in every instance of antibiotic use they identified, the dosages were sub-therapeutic. Most people are warned by their pharmacist or physician not to use antibiotics extraneously and to take the proper prescribed dose as well as finish the prescription. We know that when we fail to finish the full dose of antibiotics, the strongest bacteria may be left standing at the end of the treatment…ready to multiply and attack with a vengeance! Continually administering low levels of antibiotics, a common practice, is even more conducive to the growth of superbugs: only the stronger, hardier bacteria survive to multiply and give rise to even hardier offspring. Since bacteria have such a short lifespan, their evolutionary timetable is much faster than we realize. It’s survival of the fittest in fast-forward.

How can we have such respect toward doctors and take their advice seriously because we care about ourselves, but not realize we are undermining our efforts toward maintaining good health by consuming meat tainted with drugs, bacteria, carcinogens and dyes (poultry meat frequently gets re-colored to look more appealing)? We are what we eat! Our body metabolizes the components of food, breaking it down into the building blocks that it then synthesizes into our cells. These cells become our muscles, fat, skeleton, organs, everything! The quality of the food you eat is the most important thing that you hold in your control!

You are not simply a chute that passes everything through..your digestive organs are extremely permeable. Digestion actually starts with chewing, and your saliva will be encompassing bacteria that exists in your food as you eat. Just think about the superbugs swimming in your body!

“The use of antibiotics in this context is particularly concerning from a public-health perspective because it has been repeatedly demonstrated that use of these drugs in the animal-production setting speeds the selection for bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics,” explains Keeve Nachman, PhD, assistant scientist and director of the Farming for the Future program at Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.**

SR-ANTIBIOTICS-3

Source: Reuters Investigates, “Farmaceuticals”, Sept. 15, 2014.

Humans are exposed to the antimicrobial chemicals and the superbugs that result from antibiotic residue or superbugs on meat or in milk, runoff from factory farms that contaminate water, and from animal waste that gets pelletized and bagged to be sold as compost or fertilizer.**

The instances of improper handling of meat when cooking, and cross-contamination of vegetables from meat is very common in the ordinary kitchen or food establishment. I worked at Subway a year ago, and I speak from experience when I say that restaurants aren’t as careful as you would hope. I was told to fudge the temperatures I recorded in our food log for the health inspector. Meat, egg, and dairy products breed bacteria when they get too warm, but I’d get fired if I threw out the warm meat or sauces…it would impinge on the profits! According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) 430,000 people in the U.S. become ill from food-borne bacteria that resist conventional antibiotics. At least 23,000 people die annually from infections resistant to antibiotics.*

E. coli is a common food-borne bacteria. I first learned of it from the documentary Food, Inc. which featured Barbara Kowalcyk, a mother who lost her 2 year old son to complications due to E.Coli O157:H7 infection. Like most acute illnesses from bacteria and viruses, the youngest and the oldest are those most at risk of death. Our current cattle raising practices on factory farms promote the growth of this bacteria, according to Science journal, “promote the growth of E. coli that can survive the acidity of the human stomach and cause intestinal illness.”*****Cows are meant to eat grass, but are fed a diet of cheap, govt. subsidized corn, which intensifies the acidity of the cows stomach acids. Like low levels of antibiotics, only the strongest bacteria survive this environment and then go on to infect humans. The stronger strain of E.Coli is now able to survive the strong stomach acids of humans. Though cooking also destroys the bacteria, hamburgers that contain pink meat can contain live E.coli bacteria…*****how many of you love a medium-rare steak? Or a juicy hamburger? A typical ground up hamburger patty can contain flesh from hundreds of cows, increasing your risk of disease!

“In 1976, a  study by microbiologist Stuart Levy showed that potentially deadly bacteria in poultry were developing resistance to tetracyclines and other antibiotics. The resistant bacteria, E. Coli, were then moving from poultry to people.”*

Dieticians from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed data available from a govt. program, The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, which tracks food-borne diseases. Each year, the lesser-known govt. program’s researchers buy samples of meat from supermarkets nationwide and tests them for bacterial residues. According to the dieticians from EWG: 69% of pork samples, 55% beef samples, 39% of chicken samples, and a whopping 81% of turkey samples (think about that this Thanksgiving!) tested positive for antibiotic-resistant bacteria!!!*** I believe data is from 2011, and the article I am referencing (cited at end) was written in 2013. Believe it or not, this is current…and alarming!

They also found that rates of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella have increased from 48% in 2002 to 76% in 2011!***
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Beyond the medical emergency that antibiotic resistant superbugs herald, treating antibiotic resistant diseases are a drain on our already strained healthcare system. For example, treating strains of MRSA usually require an additional 14 days in the hospital and cost 5x as much as treating the strain that is treatable with antibiotics.**As of right now, current legislation, “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals” by the FDA suggests voluntary compliance from the industry to limit antibiotic use.**

Right now, the FDA doesn’t plan to gather data about antibiotic use on farms until 2016. Until then, according to a spokesperson from the agency, “none of us have an idea first hand of what’s going on” at the farm-level.*

I apologize for the length of this article, there’s just a lot to chew on (sorry, 🙂 pun intended!) and everyone needs to know!

Sources:

*Grow, Brian; Huffstutter, P.J.; Erman, Michael. Reuters Investigates “Farmaceuticals: The drugs fed to farm animals and the risks posed to humans“, Sept. 15, 2014.

**Zerbe, Leah. Rodale News: “Factory Farms Use 30 Million Pounds of Antibiotics a Year (and You’re Eating Some of It)”, Dec. 21, 2010.

***Main, Emily. Prevention: “How Dirty is Your Meat?“, April 2013.

****Bottemillar, Helena. Food Safety News: “Most U.S. Antibiotics Go to Animal Agriculture”, Feb. 24, 2011.

*****Segelken, Roger. Cornell University, Cornell Chronicle Simple change in cattle diets could cut E.coli infection“, Sept. 8, 1998. (I know this is old, but more current sources corroborate these findings, such as Food, Inc.)

News, Science, Social Media: Only exciting things are worth it?

Everything we see, read and hear is biased. This is an inevitable part of receiving information through the filter of other people, media, and your own past experiences. But what about when people are intentionally biased in order to gain from your unawareness? Or to take advantage of your lack of time of knowledge about an issue? It’s unfortunate that our whole society is based on a capitalistic system, which has led to companies who will stop at nothing to take us for a ride…and we let it happen because we need the excitement.

When what we understand to be true is false:

Source: Hyperbole and a Half

Source: Hyperbole and a Half

One of my biggest pet peeves is bad science. Or should I say, biased science. Yesterday I happened to watch an interesting video (which I linked below) in my Epidemiology class. Our topic was the placebo effect in clinical trials, but what I found more interesting, as well as completely revolting was the way in which publication bias is used to greatly exaggerate the benefits of pharmaceutical drugs.

Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to concern my professor and she didn’t talk about the issue that the FDA allows pharmaceutical companies to discard data from negative drug trials and only publish the findings of successful trials! Well, I’m holding my own class here because I need to discuss this! Thank goodness for the internet!

If you don’t want to watch the whole video clip, relevant parts can be found at 3:45 and 8:40.

The video above, “Treating Depression: Is there a placebo effect?” by CBS News talks about the findings of several studies that show that prescription anti-depressants are not any more effective than a sugar pill (aka placebo) in treating the mild to moderately depressed population. Psychologist and associate director of the Placebo Studies Program at Harvard Medical School, Irving Kirsch obtained unpublished data from drug company clinical trials from the FDA through the Freedom of Information Act and analyzed them along with the published positive findings to discover that antidepressants are no better than a placebo for most of the population. Anti-depressants only show benefits to those who are severely, clinically depressed.

But although there are no actual benefits to taking antidepressants, there has been a rise in prescriptions given out in the last decade, mostly among the mild to moderately depressed! Keep in mind that the pharmaceutical industry is worth $11.3 billion (according to CBS News at the time of the video). What better way to keep profits up than to convince people that something works when it doesn’t?

What is happening is that for the pharmaceutical company to get approval of a drug from the FDA, the company needs to show that their pill is more effective than a placebo in only two clinical trials, even if many other clinical trials failed! The pharmaceutical company is allowed to discard all negative findings and keep testing until they have two positive findings, then the drug is approved! I’m not a statistics major (I’m a Community Health major) but even with my rudimentary understanding of probability, I know that if you repeat a test multiple times,  you do get false results occasionally! Most sane people would conclude that what happens the majority of the time is the true result, and what happens randomly is error!

The director of the FDA’s division of pharmaceutical products defended the approval process and said, “The data that we have shows that the drugs are effective.” (In reference to the antidepressants). My reply to this is outrage! Of course your data shows the drugs are beneficial, by your own process all negative findings were not published and allowed to be discarded! *Facepalm*

info overload

But we rely on the excitement of new revelations, breakthroughs, and discoveries:

Turn on the news: there’s a murder, an accident, a new scientific medical breakthrough. Scroll through a friend’s Facebook feed: there’s a party, an engagement, a vacation. Everything has to be exciting to register in our brains and stimulate our minds. For some reason, we seek out thrilling stories and sensational pieces of information. News outlets know this, that’s why they report on intensely moving events. Everyone on social media knows this, that’s why we are all either having the time of our lives or depressed as hell in our status updates.

Everything has to be extreme to keep the public engaged.

The form of bias that may be more detrimental than any other is publication bias: is the tendency to publish research with a positive outcome more frequently than research with a negative outcome. Negative outcome refers to finding nothing of statistical significance or causal consequence. (Source: The Skeptic’s Dictionary) This is also called positive-outcome bias, and it threatens the validity of findings in science and medicine.

In order to keep us engaged, researchers only like to publish findings that are positive or exciting. The non-findings, or the negatives, get shoved into a drawer somewhere and forgotten. Thus, the public only gets half of the truth. At worst, we get scenarios like the one detailed above concerning the pharmaceutical approval process of the FDA. The pharmaceutical industry gets to keep making billions of dollars selling drugs to people who do not benefit and may even be harmed.

At best, the public accepts this terribly skewed, biased version of reality as the truth and continues to be taken on the wild ride of false findings and media sensationalization.

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CAUTION: Eat At Your Own Risk! The FDA Fails Consumers

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Source: “There Might Be Dead Animal Parts in Your V8! & Homemade V8 Juice Recipe” by FoodBabe, Aug. 7, 2014.

Two days ago, I was horrified to learn that not a single Campbell soup, juice, or edible food-like product is safe for vegans! I had just plopped down on my couch with my favorite dinner: a HUGE bowl of sliced, steamed sweet potatoes (I’m loving the Japanese ones!) and a head of crispy Romaine lettuce leaves to wrap my potatoes in, when I watched one of my favorite vegan YouTuber’s reaction to learning this shocking information. Needless to say, she was really angry that she had just consumed a soup she made using Campbell’s vegetable broth.
I was angry too. As a fellow vegan, I know how hard we try to read food labels and restaurant menus to make sure we don’t accidentally consume animals products. Finding out that you just accidentally consumed the animals you are trying so hard to protect feels like getting punched in the gut. It feels like finding out someone just lied to your face, or stabbed you in the back. And that is exactly what big food companies are allowed to do to consumers under current FDA food regulations!

FDA Food labeling citation

“The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”

“The label of a food to which flavor is added shall declare the flavor in the statement of ingredients in the following way:

(1) Spice, natural flavor, and artificial flavor may be declared as “spice”, “natural flavor”, or “artificial flavor”, or any combination thereof, as the case may be.

(2) An incidental additive in a food, originating in a spice or flavor used in the manufacture of the food, need not be declared in the statement of ingredients.”

This is EXACTLY why I DON’T TRUST FOODS WITH LABELS. In my opinion, if a food has a label with more than 3-5 ingredients, it loses credibility as food and probably should’t be consumed. If it was produced in a factory, there is no way of knowing what else is produced on the same conveyor belt or packing line. I choose to avoid consuming food-products that have a label with some exceptions (I love Just Veggies brand freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, dried fruit (no added sugar or oil), and occasionally use Vega Protein powder).

I have lost a lot of faith in America’s food system. (For more useful information about the current politics and policies regarding food, visit Marion Nestle’s blog: http://www.foodpolitics.com/) The FDA cannot properly regulate food because of conflicting interests. Example:

FDA conflict of interest

Source: IVN, “The Revolving Door: FDA and the Monsanto Company” Feb. 11, 2013 by Edward Bonnette.

This is information that consumers need to be aware of. We live in a free nation, and I am thankful for people like FoodBabe for reminding us of our responsibility to look into our food and speak out when we see wrongdoing. I advocate for complete transparency in our food system, and I won’t be happy until “health” means what it should and becomes the default desire of our nation. Not profits.

Let me know if this opened your eyes or informed you in any way! You can go to change.org to sign a petition to stop sneaking animal products in Campbell’s products and tell others what you’ve learned here!