Health/Food Update

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I took a break on this between mid-May and mid-August, but I’m back to reading health books and thinking about what is “healthy food.”

I’m definitely not buying into the main premise of Good Calories, Bad Calories (the last book I made it through in the spring) — that carbs are the problem and a high protein, low carb diet (e.g., Atkins) is the solution — but I think the author makes some interesting points and the book definitely changed how I think about food and what to eat.

One of the things I noticed after the first week or so of my project was that I felt really great, especially in the mornings when I would wake up. I felt like my heart rate was lower and I wasn’t hungry; everything felt calmer.

[Good Calories, Bad Calories Aside #1: This is one of the several significant things I disagreed with in Good Calories, Bad Calories — he has a chapter about calorie reduction and how it doesn’t work for weight loss because people can’t stick to a reduced-calorie diet: it makes them miserable, they think about food constantly, they’re not able to concentrate, etc.

This was not my experience at all, and Taubes’s argument appears to be based primarily on a study of World War II conscientious objectors who agreed to be fed a diet similar to what Europeans suffering through wartime shortages would be eating — three small meals a day consisting of watery soup, one or two slices of bread, potatotes, and similar poor-quality foods.

Taubes described the results of the study and how awful the conscripts reported feeling, that they became obsessed with food, etc.

Uh, yeah.

As I said, I did not have this experience at all, and think the fact that you are looking at draftees in an institutional setting, where I’m guessing most of them didn’t want to be in the first place, and then give them awful food and have them keep a diary of it, are really significantly confounding variables. I’m not sure how much of that study can be transferred to everyone everywhere who tries to lose weight on a reduced calorie diet.]

It’s hard to know how much of how I felt during the project was from my body having adjusted to a very low-calorie diet, how much was from the things I was eating (whole grains, high-fiber fruits and vegetables), and how much was from the things I wasn’t eating (fat, salt, sugar).

And I’m not really interested in replicating the entire project, but I have been thinking about trying to see if I could figure out which parts made the most difference and try to work some of those into my regular life.

The thing that I’ve found is that, for me, limiting salt/fat/sugar/calories is highly subject to disruption.

The reason I was able to do it on the project was because it was part of a larger goal that I was really committed to. I had arranged my entire life around the project (I even skipped a trip to my niece’s birthday, which came right in the middle of the project time frame — I felt badly about that but I think being in People magazine and on Rachael Ray made up for it, my nieces loved having a famous auntie) and if I had work meetings that involved food, I explained what I was doing and why I was drinking water instead of ordering lunch or coffee. That was totally fine in the short term.

But in my normal life, I feel like as soon as I have one high-sugar, high-carb, large-amount-of-food day (for instance when preparing food for 15 people working at the Swap-O-Rama, including making brownies and cookies) I’m completely off track and have to start over from square one. Since it takes a few days for my body to adjust to a new regime, it feels really hard to get into the groove I need to be in, especially since I seem to run into an “exception” at least once a week.

And this is one thing I do agree with about Good Calories, Bad Calories — carbs beget carbs. The more refined sugar and flour you eat, the more you want.

So I’ve realized if I want to make changes, I just have to commit to them and stop making exceptions, because the list of exceptions will be endless.

And that brings me to another concept that I learned about during my research and that, unlike Good Calories, Bad Calories, I can be 100% fully behind — Volumetrics.

This is the term that Penn State researcher Barbara Rolls has come up with based on her decades of obesity reseach — it is the idea of substituting foods with low energy density (low-calorie, high fiber foods like fruits and vegetables) for energy dense food (high-calorie foods like high-fat dairy, meat, refined flour and sugar).

Her research has shown that people are just not very sensitive to calorie intake; rather, they feel full when they’ve eaten a certain volume of food, regardless of the calorie level of the food. So if you substitute high-volume, low-calorie foods, for high-calorie, low-volume ones, you will lose weight without feeling hungry

[Good Calories, Bad Calories Aside #2: this is another one of my huge problems with Good Calories, Bad Calories. In 450 pages of text with hundreds and hundreds of references — and extensive sections about caloric intakes and reduced calorie diets — there is approximately one reference to Barbara Rolls and her research. Taubes criticzes people for selectively using evidence, but as far as I can tell, he does the same thing.]

I haven’t managed to read any of the actual research papers yet, but I was able to get The Volumetrics Eating Plan from the public library, which is sort of the meal plan/recipe version of the book.

It’s basically what I noted in A Few Lessons — you will feel better on fewer calories if you eat high-fiber, high-volume foods (i.e., foods with a lot of water in them, like soup and cabbage).

If you have stored energy to spare (in the form of fat — as I definitely did, and still do) you will most likely feel totally fine, and not excessively hungry, even though you are taking in fewer calories than you might think you need.

I’m not sure what happens if you don’t have stored energy to work from — I suspect you’ll feel hungry eventually if you’re not getting the calories you need and are at or below a weight your body can live with. (If I ever get to that point, I’ll be sure to tell you all about it.)

So that’s what I’m going to work on for now — focusing on high-fiber, low energy density foods and trying to limit sugar and refined flour, and seeing how that compares to how I felt when I was on the project.

If I learn anything interesting, I’ll let you know.

10 Responses to “Health/Food Update”

  1. Betsy Says:

    Have you read Mindless Eating? It discusses loads of interesting research regarding what triggers us to eat at all, to eat more or less, to feel full or not, to judge how satisafied we are with our food. I don’t remember if Barbara Rolls is specifically cited, but if it’s not her, it’s someone who work with her — the book definitely mentions similar research and conclusions.

  2. fernando Says:


    I can say, that this is one of your best readings so far. Or, the most usefull for me (which I know is a little bit egocentric, but go with me, Im trying to pay you a compliment).

    Your experiment was very interesting, but very hard to follow, still It got me thinking a lot.
    But this aproach, I find it much more helpfull… trying to feel better, eat less and avoiding being hungry. Thanks for all the time you take for writing.

  3. lessisenough Says:

    I have not heard of Mindless Eating but it sounds really interesting, I’ll put it on the list. I can definitely say that I find sugar to be a huge trigger for me in terms of making me want to eat just to eat, not because I’m hungry. I feel like sugared drinks especially are the killer — if I’m drinking sugared drinks on a regular basis, my eating patterns completely change. So that’s the thing I’m trying to focus on most, and it really shouldn’t be that hard, since you never actually NEED to drink a sugared drink, there are almost always alternatives (e.g., hot tea, iced tea, seltzer, etc.).

  4. Amy Says:

    Have you read David Kesslers’ An End to Overeating?

    I like how he contrasts eating food that satisfies the appetite vs food that stimulates it. It’s very rare that I eat a meal that satisfies my body. I either want to keep eating, or I feel heavy and bloated. I think flour is the culprit, in most cases. I had a great vegan meal recently, and I felt like I could run a marathon afterward. Pecan crusted tofu, perfectly sauteed vegetables, salad. I don’t know why I don’t aim to eat that well at every meal. I think most eating is automatic and ingrained (no pun intended), its hard to break a new path. I’ve noticed drinking Diet Coke makes me feel sick: I wonder if it raises my blood pressure or something, it feels like drinking salt, although it doesn’t contain ay, to my knowledge.

  5. lessisenough Says:

    I haven’t read David Kessler yet but saw some reviews/news articles and it looked like it has some overlap with Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, and also (it looks like) Mindless Eating, since all of those are essentially about “big food” and food marketing. I might try to get all of them together, since I suspect there’s overlap.

    I think vegan meals are a good option, but I feel like if you’re totally vegan you end up eating weird “fake” foods to simulate things you’re no longer eating — especially eggs and cheese, and baked goods. Though I’ve heard that soy cheese is pretty good. But that brings up another issue, which is that you end up eating a lot of soy, which isn’t necessarily good for you either.

    And also I think it looks like a lot of work — espeically raw food vegan cooking, which seems to be quite popular on food blogs these days — but that may be because it’s not how I normally cook so I’d have to figure everything out, what works and what doesn’t. Feels kind of exhausting to me.

    The other thing I’ve been thinking about is something that came up on my project. If you’re eating very low on the food chain, a diet of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, with very little fat, proccessed grains (i.e., flour), sugar, meat or dairy, how do you get enough calories without having to eat vast quantities of food? I still haven’t quite figured that out. Most of the books I’ve seen that promote a diet like that are for overweight people trying to lose weight, so the meal plans are for pretty low calorie amounts — for instance one of the books I got from the library was about the Rice Diet program, and the menu plans it gives are for 1200 calories. That fine if you’re trying to lose weight, but what if you’re not? Do you just eat twice as much rice?

  6. April Says:

    I have been following your blog since you did your experiment. Thanks for being a guinea pig for us–the public. If you do come up with a healthy eating plan that can be some what integrated with modern life, please publish it. I have been trying to eat healthier but like you said, disruptions happen (nearly daily in my case). If I stay home on the weekend I can eat really healthy food but as for my regular schedule, I am bombarded with Starbucks, friends who drop by with goodies, meetings which feature breakfasts of pastries, business lunches at restaurants that feature 1000 calorie meals…you get the idea. By the way, I have absolutly no willpower when it comes to food either. Keep up the great blogging!

  7. Sharon Says:

    The other thing that seems to help when eating with a healthy focus is to eat foods that have a high nutrient density per calorie. Most green vegetables are good examples of this. That way the body doesn’t keep trying to get you to eat in hopes of getting the vitamins and minerals it needs.

    Most cultures have a few favorite high calorie dishes that are eaten often such as
    beans in corn tortillas
    shepherd’s pie
    Red beans and rice
    Homemade veggie burgers

    In the book One Circle:How to Grow a Complete Diet in Less than 1000 square feet one of the important issues is how much does the average daily food intake weigh? One of the odd things about trying to juggle the foods for a Complete Nutrition Garden is that often the foods that have lots of calories for their weight produce a low amount of calories per square foot in the garden. Hazelnuts or sunflower seeds or foods that produce cooking oil are an example of this.

    I know you’ve mentioned not being really interested in gardening, but you can use the info in the One Circle book to help figure out a whole foods diet. So far I haven’t found a health oriented cookbook that has this same info. If you want to figure out the footprint of the diet, it helps to have the One Circle book, the latest edition (2006) of How to Grow More Vegetables by Jeavons, and something like the dietpower software to calculate the nutrition in a given set of foods.

    If you have a cup of cooked brown rice and half a cup of cooked beans, you have about 350 calories right there. If you add an ounce of sunflower seeds at 150 calories, then you are at 500 calories. An apple would add another 100 for 600 calories. After that things could vary a great deal though. If you had a cup of cooked greens, that would add only about 30 calories, but if you ate an avocado, that would be 200 more calories. So you could be at 630 or 800 calories for the same volume of food.

    I agree there is a steep learning curve if you switch to vegan or raw food vegan. And even more so if you try to duplicate a meat based diet or faux baked goods on the raw food vegan diet. The easier way is probably to try one new recipe a week and if you like it, add it to the collection for the next week. Over time, you will have a whole new set of recipes that you like. One advantage you have is that you already have a diverse set of cooking skills, so you won’t need to learn that along with new recipes.

    On days where you don’t want to use actual recipes you could try mix and match recipes made using local seasonal ingredients such as:
    –A soup of beans, a grain, and 3 different colors of vegetables
    –A stirfy of cooked beans (or meat), and 3 different colors of vegetables over brown rice or whole grain noodles

    One thing that has occured to me is that on your $1 a day diet, many days seemed to be low in gluten. If you might be gluten sensitive, that could be another reason for feeling better on the $1 a day plan.

  8. Sharon Says:

    Hi, I have a post pending due to putting website addresses in it that follows LessIsEnough’s Sept 19 post.

    In the meanwhile, I wanted to ask April and anyone else with similar dilemmas: Have you had any luck talking with people at work about going places where healthy meals can be gotten or requesting that healthy meals be ordered in for business functions? If so what sort of requests worked best?

    I have had some luck with suggesting restaurants that offer both healthy and unhealthy meals, very beginning levels of luck with ordering in, and some really good success with potlucks in volunteer organizations. Most of the volunteer organizations are oriented in a green or healthy way to start with though.

  9. April Says:

    We always tend to go to nice restaurants for business lunches which do offer choices such as salads, but I think it has just become habit to pick what sounds good instead of what is good for you. This group also has the habit of ordering dessert (these are expense account lunches) so when the waitress asks if we want the double Kahlua fudge brownie with whip cream AND ice cream, we say yes. I think there are always healthy choices, we just need to get out of the habit of “treating” ourselves because we feel like we deserve it when in actuality we are “treating” ourselves to the potential for diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart attack. Life would be easier without peer pressure!

  10. lessisenough Says:

    Sorry about the hang-up with your comment, I’m trying to make sure I check regularly to approve stuff and clean out the spam but sometimes I get caught up in other things and I’m off for a day or two.

    Thanks for your input, One Circle sounds interesting. Volumetrics is mostly focused on energy density (calories per weight or volume) but I think nutrient density is equally important, and seems to be more or less ignored in calculations of how “cheap” or “expensive” food is. For instance one of the widely referenced studies I looked at a few months ago focused solely on calories-per-dollar as the metric for determining what kind of value a particular food offered. If I ever get through the other 8 million things that keep coming up in my life, I hope to make it back to that study and put some thoughts together.

    In the meantime, I totally get your point about nutrient- and calorie-dense foods like nuts and avocados, but that’s also where my question is coming from. I’m not an anti-fat person at all, I’m totally on board with the “good fats” idea (and, honestly, I don’t think “bad fats” are all that bad as long as your overall diet is good — I’m a big fan of eggs and butter eating chicken with the skin on).

    My question is more from a theoretical perspective, since I’ve been looking at the different schools of thought on what is “healthy food.”

    If you look at the Rice Diet/Dean Ornish folks, they advocate no more than 10% of calories from fat. (And I know this diet is designed for people with heart disease, and has mostly fallen out of favor as a mainstream solution, but it is one that actually has some science behind it in terms of how “healthy” it is — at least for people with heart disease. Though I think compliance is low because it’s so hard to eat that little fat.)

    The reason avocado and sunflower seeds give you a lot of calories in a small amount of food is because they’re high in fat. If you eliminate all high-fat foods from your diet in an effort to reduce your fat intake to less than 10%, where do the calories come from? If you’re trying to eat 1800 or 2000 calories a day, it seems to me that you have to eat a lot of food in order to get that.

    And I think this is where the idea that eating “healthy” foods costs a lot more than eating “unhealthy” foods — because you have to eat so much more in order to get enough. But it also seems like this whole argument depends on what is defined as “healthy” and what is defined as “not healthy.” And much of that discussions comes down to how fats are viewed. Are boneless, skinless chicken breasts healthy and chicken legs unhealthy? If that’s the perspective, I think it probably does cost a lot more to eat “healthy” foods than “unhealthy” foods. But I think the problem there is with how you define healthy and unhealthy foods. I’ll take chicken legs over boneless, skinless chicken breasts any day — though I’m not particularly overweight and I don’t have heart disease, so maybe that skews things.

    So these are the kinds of things I’m thinking about, and hopefully at some point I’ll be able to put something together that’s comprehensive and that makes sense. In the meantime, it’s interesting getting input from people, so thanks for taking the time to write.

    Also interesting thought about gluten, though even on the project, I had a fair amount of wheat — pasta, wheat berries, Jiffy muffins, Jiffy biscuits, etc. And it doesn’t seem to me that I felt better or worse on those days, but I won’t rule it out. I’m leaning toward doing some kind of elimination diet over the next month or two to see if I can figure anything out, so I’ll probably throw that into the mix.

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