Let’s get something out of the way.
I love Doritos and ice cream.
I’ve long known that I eat too much of both of them. So you can imagine how my spirits fell when I read the articles this week, about how sugar and processed foods lead to obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
I’m not ready to go cold turkey, but this info is going to change the way I think about my diet, and hopefully, it will actually lead me to change my diet as well.
This Weekend Reader is nutrition, and why sugar is so bad for you.
- Death of the Calorie – 1843
- Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong – Highline
- How I Saved My Kids From Sugar – The Walrus
- Here’s How A Colorado Dentist Became Big Sugar’s Worst Nightmare –BuzzFeed News
- The Startling Link Between Sugar and Alzheimer’s – The Atlantic
Read widely. Read wisely.
1. Death of the Calorie
1843 Magazine (29 minutes)
If you want to know if you are eating healthy, you can’t simply count calories. Many of us believe “a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.” That’s isn’t right and that oversimplification may be a contributing factor to our obesity epidemic.
The calorie as a scientific measurement is not in dispute. But calculating the exact calorific content of food is far harder than the confidently precise numbers displayed on food packets suggest. Two items of food with identical calorific values may be digested in very different ways. Each body processes calories differently. Even for a single individual, the time of day that you eat matters. The more we probe, the more we realise that tallying calories will do little to help us control our weight or even maintain a healthy diet: the beguiling simplicity of counting calories in and calories out is dangerously flawed.
A US Senate committee report in 1977 recommended a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet for all, and other governments followed suit. The food industry responded with enthusiasm, removing fat, the most calorie-dense of macronutrients, from food items and replacing it with sugar, starch and salt. As a bonus, the thousands of new cheap and tasty “low-cal” and “low-fat” products which Camacho used to diet tended to have longer shelf lives and higher profit margins.
But this didn’t lead to the expected improvements in public health. Instead, it coincided almost exactly with the most dramatic rise in obesity in human history. Between 1975 and 2016 obesity almost tripled worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO): nearly 40% of over-18s – some 1.9bn adults – are now overweight. That contributed to a rapid rise in cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke) which became the leading cause of death worldwide. Rates of type-2 diabetes, which is often linked to lifestyle and diet, have more than doubled since 1980.
Highline (42 minutes)
Argues that weight loss plans often don’t work, and that overweight people can still be healthy.
Years from now, we will look back in horror at the counterproductive ways we addressed the obesity epidemic and the barbaric ways we treated fat people—long after we knew there was a better path.
About 40 years ago, Americans started getting much larger. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 80 percent of adults and about one-third of children now meet the clinical definition of overweight or obese. More Americans live with “extreme obesity“ than with breast cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and HIV put together.
For 60 years, doctors and researchers have known two things that could have improved, or even saved, millions of lives. The first is that diets do not work. Not just paleo or Atkins or Weight Watchers or Goop, but all diets. Since 1959, research has shown that 95 to 98 percent of attempts to lose weight fail and that two-thirds of dieters gain back more than they lost. The reasons are biological and irreversible. As early as 1969, research showed that losing just 3 percent of your body weight resulted in a 17 percent slowdown in your metabolism—a body-wide starvation response that blasts you with hunger hormones and drops your internal temperature until you rise back to your highest weight. Keeping weight off means fighting your body’s energy-regulation system and battling hunger all day, every day, for the rest of your life.
The second big lesson the medical establishment has learned and rejected over and over again is that weight and health are not perfect synonyms. Yes, nearly every population-level study finds that fat people have worse cardiovascular health than thin people. But individuals are not averages: Studies have found that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of people classified as obese are metabolically healthy. They show no signs of elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance or high cholesterol. Meanwhile, about a quarter of non-overweight people are what epidemiologists call “the lean unhealthy.” A 2016 study that followed participants for an average of 19 years found that unfit skinny people were twice as likely to get diabetes as fit fat people. Habits, no matter your size, are what really matter. Dozens of indicators, from vegetable consumption to regular exercise to grip strength, provide a better snapshot of someone’s health than looking at her from across a room.
The Walrus (12 minutes)
One parent shares how she’s fighting an uphill battle against sugar in her kids’ diet.
What I can say with certainty is that the world has become one giant candy store. Its sugar “pushers”—a term generally associated with those who encourage the use of recreational drugs, and which I am using intentionally—are everywhere. There are pushers in schools, hawking candy as a reward for good behaviour. There are pushers in our parks, slinging sport drinks as a reward just for showing up to play. There are pushers in our grocery stores, selling chocolate bars to support local charities. There are pushers in our friends’ homes, handing out loot bags and just because treats. At family gatherings, sugar pushers are often better known by the names Grandma and Grandpa (or, in my kids’ case, Bubbie and Zaidi). However, unlike drug pushers, sugar pushers hawk their wares out in the open, and their offers are considered fun and normal. And that’s the problem.
BuzzFeed News (16 minutes)
The “Big Sugar” lobby may be just as powerful, and duplicitous, as “Big Tobacco.” Profile of Cristin Kearns, a dentist-turned-investigative-researcher, who is making the case that sugar producers have long known how bad sugar is for us, but have covered it up.
By combing through thousands of pages of internal documents, Kearns and her team have gained unprecedented clarity into the machinations of the sugar industry during the mid-20th century.
They’ve found, for example, that a trade group knew as early as the 1950s that sugar caused tooth decay. But when the group went on to work closely with the federal government on a program about strategies to fight decay, it downplayed the most obvious, cutting out sugar. Another time, the group funded research that inadvertently linked sugar with bladder cancer, then killed the research. Then there was a 1967 paper — secretly funded by that same trade group — that blamed fat and cholesterol for causing heart disease, but minimized data showing sugar’s risks.
The Atlantic (9 minutes)
A high-carb diet, and the attendant high blood sugar, are associated with cognitive decline.
A longitudinal study, published Thursday in the journal Diabetologia, followed 5,189 people over 10 years and found that people with high blood sugar had a faster rate of cognitive decline than those with normal blood sugar—whether or not their blood-sugar level technically made them diabetic. In other words, the higher the blood sugar, the faster the cognitive decline.
I confess I didn’t really know what a calorie was until this week’s reading:
A calorie is a measurement of energy. The calorie – which comes from “calor”, the Latin for “heat” – was originally used to measure the efficiency of steam engines: one calorie is the energy required to heat 1kg of water by one degree Celsius. Only in the 1860s did German scientists begin using it to calculate the energy in food.
I had heard that somewhere before, but couldn’t have told you about it.
My rudimentary approach to a healthy diet has been “Burn as many or more calories as you consume.” I’d wager I’m not unique in having my nutritional sophistication trail off there. Our widespread failure to control our diets suggests we might not know enough. Today 1 in 11 Americans has Type II diabetes.
Growing up, I thought that fat was the thing to avoid if you didn’t want to become fat. But now we know that a certain amount of fat is good for you. What isn’t good for you is sugar.
I know that isn’t exactly a mind-blowing revelation.
But this week’s articles (and I especially recommend reading the first two on calories and obesity) put things in a whole new light for me. They caused me to realize how little I really know about nutrition. And from what they argue, most of us know very little.
Given how much time and money we spend eating, it’s funny that most of us spend so little time learning about nutrition. Nutrition classes we optional in my high school. I guess we assumed that kids would learn good nutrition at home. But if your parents aren’t eating healthy, they won’t be good at teaching you to eat healthy.
I have long argued that we need to re-think educational priorities in high school and college. If I were in charge, I would have students spend time studying nutrition, in addition to personal fitness, personal finance, friendship, neighboring, dating & marriage, and parenting. After all, these topics are far more correlated to our levels of happiness than the traditional curriculum. I would include lessons in these areas along with more typical studies in English, biology, or trigonometry.
In lieu of that, here’s my cliff’s notes version of good nutrition, borrowing heavily from Michael Pollan:
Eat real, whole food, but not too much. And avoid sugar.
Have a good start to the week and happy eating!