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Is what you eat changing your brain? Food for thought, and other NY resolutions

At the risk of being predictable – well it is the time for New Year’s resolutions, and for some unsurprising reason these often involve what goes in our mouths – I’ve gathered a few tasty morsels below that may tempt those with an interest in food and health (as well as good reading).


1. The End of Overeating, Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, by Dr David Kessler (Rodale, 2009)

Kessler is a paediatrician, academic and former chair of the US Food and Drug Administration. He has also battled weight gain and over-eating for much of his life.

This book is a personal and a scientific investigation of the American food industry. The central thesis is that foods high in sugar, fat and salt are rewiring peoples’ brains, so that they cannot control their responses to highly palatable foods. “The food industry is not only generating billions of dollars for itself by designing hyperpalatable combinations of sugar, fat and salt – it’s also creating products that have the capacity to rewire our brains, driving us to seek out more and more of these products,” writes Kessler.

Some of the descriptions of what gets sold as food made me want to puke – such as the double baked mashed potatoes wrapped in fried spring rolls served with cheese and bacon. Sold at one Las Vegas cafe as an appetiser, they come eight to a serving. “That’s a sinple carbohydrate loaded with fat, then surrounded by layers of salt on fat on salt on fat,” says Kessler.

He also has plenty of unappetising descriptions of the use of artifical flavours. There are companies selling just about any sort of flavouring you could imagine – beef, pork, turkey, bacon or fruit. Kraft says its powders and dairy flavours “deliver cheese flavour in any product application”.  What this means is that a topping covering tortilla chips can look like cheese but contain mostly oil and flavouring, while meat that hasn’t been grilled can taste like it has been.

Kessler sets out a “food rehab program” to help overeaters, but it’s only towards the end of the book that he puts on his public health glasses, and provides some bigger picture suggestions.

He draws some strong comparisons between the “big food” and tobacco industries, and calls for food marketing to be monitored and exposed. Just as we’ve moved from glorifying to demonising tobacco, so should there be public education campaigns to change the way we think about “big food”.

“People need to hear repeatedly, from many sources, that selling, serving and eating food layered and loaded with sugar, fat and salt has negative unhealthy consequences,” he says. “We need to look differently at the people and the places that serve it.”

This book is well worth a read but for my money it’s only part of the equation. It is so focussed on junk food (and fair enough perhaps, as this is what Kessler set out to investigate) that it quite overlooks the pleasure to be found in food that is both healthy and delicious. Maybe Americans just don’t know what real food is. That’s certainly the suspicion that this book arouses.

You can see a short promotional video featuring the author here. (And thanks to Simon Chapman for giving me this book).

***

2. In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan (Penguin Books, 2008)

This book, if you haven’t already found it, is a good antidote to Kessler’s. Pollan’s critique of the big food industry is no less damning, but he brings the added advantages of being a fine writer with a holistic appreciation of food and food cultures.

His central thesis is that “nutritionism”, the reductionist approach which focuses on particular nutrients in foods, may have been a very useful tool for the food industry, but it has been to the detriment of public health.

I had always thought Pollan invented this term, as he has been so widely associated with it, but in his book he credits an Australian sociologist Gyorgy Scrinis for coining the term in a 2002 essay published in Meanjin. So there you go!

Professor Kerin O’Dea is the only other Australian whose work I noticed getting a plug – for the research she conducted in the 1980s showing the health benefits for Aboriginal people of a traditional diet and lifestyle.

There is much to enjoy in this book, and I particularly liked its ending tips for good eating. These include:

• Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.

• Avoid food products that make health claims. This might sound counterintuitive but the least healthy foods are often those making health claims, while there is not so much commercial interest in promoting the true health benefits of good old fruit and veg.

• Eat mostly plants, especially leaves. There is a double health whammy here – these foods are both nutrient rich and calorie poor.

• Eat more like the French, or the Italians, or the Japanese, or the Indians, or the Greeks. People eating according to a traditional food culture are generally much healthier than people eating a contemporary Western diet.

• Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.

• Cook and, if you can, plant a garden. Then you will be so busy trying to make use of  your harvest that there won’t be any space on your plate for the rubbish.

(And thanks to Ray Moynihan for introducing me to Pollan’s work.)

***

3. Marion Nestle’s predictions for food in 2010

One reason that a luddite like me has evolved into a fan of new media is the leading public health nutritionist Marion Nestle.

In the days before Twitter and blogs, and when specialist journals were locked up in libraries for a select readership, I could only read Nestle when she published a new book. It is now so much easier to stay in touch with her work, and you can read her predictions for the coming year here, at her blog.

Many of the issues she raises – high levels of salt in processed foods, the revision of dietary guidelines, food safety, obesity, and the environmental impact of livestock industries – are as relevant for Australia as the US.

***

In summary, my tip for a healthy New Year’s resolution is to read more. It might even help you derive more health and more pleasure from your food.

Update ( 11 Jan): Have just discovered a new release from Pollan, a pocket-sized book: Food Rules, An Eater’s Manual.

Comments 7

  1. Doctor Whom says:

    Happy New Year Her Croakiness (Crankiness?)

    In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan – was possibly my best food read all year. Highly recommended to have on the shelf.

    The diet delusion / Gary Taubes.

    Taubes is a science journalist – a dying breed and a rare species in the beginning. He spent about 5 years writing this book – not to promote some crank idea or product – but to look at the science of weight loss, obesity and “diet”.

    Unfortunately he is used out of context by some “nutritionists”, but overall I recommend his book as a companion to Pollan on the bookshelf. These are books to own and lend not just borrow.

    From a review of Taubes @http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2584

    The biggest omission in the BMJ version was Taubes’ own ten point summary of his conclusions (on page 454).

    ““As I emerge from this research, though, certain conclusions seem inescapable to me, based on existing knowledge
    1 Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization

    2 The problem is the carbohydrates in the diet, their effect on insulin secretion, and thus the hormonal regulation of homeostasis – the entire harmonic ensemble of the human body. The more easily digestible and refined the carbohydrates, the greater the effect on our health, weight, and well-being.

    3 Sugars – sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup specifically – are particularly harmful, probably because the combination of fructose and glucose simultaneously elevates insulin levels while overloading the liver with carbohydrates.

    4 Through their direct effect on insulin and blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches, and sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease and diabetes.

    5 They are the most likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and the other chronic diseases of civilization.

    6 Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating, and not sedentary behaviour.

    7 Consuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter, any more than it causes a child to grow taller. Expending more energy than we consume does not lead to long-term weight loss; it leads to hunger.

    8 Fattening and obesity are caused by an imbalance – a disequilibrium – in the hormonal regulation of adipose tissue and fat metabolism. Fat synthesis and storage exceed the mobilization of fat from the adipose tissue and its subsequent oxidation. We become leaner when the hormonal regulation of the fat tissue reverses this balance.
    Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels are elevated – either chronically or after a meal – we accumulate fat in our fat tissue. When insulin levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue and use it for fuel.

    9 By stimulating insulin secretion, carbohydrates make us fat and ultimately cause obesity. The fewer carbohydrates we consume, the leaner we will be.

    10 By driving fat accumulation, carbohydrates also increase hunger and decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism and physical activity.”

    It is on these bases that Taubes suggests that the increase in obesity is, in part, a consequence of the recommendation of a low fat, and hence high sugar diet.

  2. Doctor Whom says:

    My other favourite food /cooking book is Harold McGee “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”.

    Now I finally have my own copy instead of borrowing from the library.

    A classic tome of gastronomic science and lore, On Food and Cooking delivers an erudite discussion of table ingredients and their interactions with our bodies. Following the historical, literary, scientific and practical treatment of foodstuffs from dairy to meat to vegetables, McGee explains the nature of digestion and hunger before tackling basic ingredient components, cooking methods and utensils. He explains what happens when food spoils, why eggs are so nutritious and how alcohol makes us drunk. As fascinating as it is comprehensive, this is as practical, interesting and necessary for the cook as for the scholar.

    If you want to know why its complicated to cook a poached egg McGee gives the science and the tips on how to use the science.

    I’ve found I’ve become a better and more relaxed cook by knowing the science – it helps to know the reasons and rules before you cut corners.

    I also just got to re-visit Elizabeth David and have spent a few hot days over summer perfecting her Boeuf Bourguignon. Not rational but hey it was an Oprah type burst of “passion” much valued these days.

  3. Croakey says:

    Happy New Year to you too, Dr Whom, and thanks for your reading suggestions. I am particularly interested in chasing up Harold McGee’s book, as my cooking enjoys all the help it can get. Am especially interested in the eggs issue, having a surplus thanks to productive hens.

    As for “Her Crankiness”, a longstanding contact who has evolved into a good friend recently revealed that he had always assumed from my work persona that I was a “humourless puritannical”. I am still chuckling about this.

    And now Cranky. OK, I shall try to smile more when Croaking..

  4. David Brown says:

    Taubes first point (1 Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease, or any other chronic disease of civilization) is probably not quite true. Excessive omega-6 intake is strongly associated with heart disease and other chronic disorders. I suggest you watch this excerpt from a 37 minute video presentation by Dr. Bill Lands: http://video.aol.co.uk/video-detail/learn-why-omega-6-fat-matters-for-your-health-by-bill-lands-phd/2370016394

    The Full length version can be downloaded here: http://omega-6-omega-3-balance.omegaoptimize.com/2009/11/10/why-omega6-fats-matter-to-your-health.aspx

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