Health/Food Notes

Saturday, January 23, 2010

I really didn’t expect anyone to be paying attention to the Dollar a Day project last year, and wasn’t fully prepared for the level of scrutiny it received.

One of the more ironic aspects, in my opinion, was the criticism it received for not being healthy, especially given the typical American diet. (As one of my friends noted in an email, “most Americans eat a revolting, nutrition-free diet, and here is a dietitian parsing your diet in great detail.”)

It seemed to me that it would have made more sense to compare the diet to a typical diet rather than an ideal one; I think I actually would have come out okay on that score. The only problem with the diet was that it was limited in calories, which I think is not necessarily a bad thing for most Americans. And one of the reasons it was so low in calories is because of the ridiculous way I set it up, spending only a dollar at a time and not using anything in my pantry, which made it very difficult for me to get any kind of fats or oils, or baking supplies.

But whatever.

All of the criticism got me thinking a lot about what people consider “healthy” and what they consider “unhealthy” and what kinds of foods are available and what people eat and what is expensive and what is cheap.

So I started reading up on that and have been thinking about and researching nutrition issues for the past year or so and it’s all been quite fascinating and I hope to write about much of what I learned over the course of the next few months.

One of the more interesting things I discovered involves the Rice Diet Program.

My interest in the Rice Diet didn’t come directly out of my research on nutrition; it actually came out of a reference in The People’s Pharmacy column in the newspaper.

Someone wrote in with a comment about diets that help lose water weight quickly for people who are having health problems that are exacerbated by water retention. (The specific condition referenced was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).) The Atkins diet is very good at this, and this is what the letter-writer recommended; the expert quoted by the Graedons agreed with letter-writer and also mentioned that the very low-sodium grains and fruit phase of the Rice Diet would have the same effect.

In April/May, I read Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, which more or less says that carbs are the problem and a low-carb, high-protein diet like Atkins is the solution to pretty much everything. I hope to get to a full post on that book at some point because I have a lot of thoughts on it, and I wrote up tons of notes while I was reading it, but for now I’ll just say that the idea that a high-carb diet like the Rice Diet and a low-carb diet like Atkins could be used interchangeably to address a specific problem really jumped out at me.

At the time I was having some back problems that were much worse in the morning when I got up. A physical therapist told me that that was because discs absorb water so they tend to swell overnight, which results in pressure on the nerve. This made sense to me, and I know that when I have a lot of sodium, I really retain water, so the article about how to drop water caught my eye. I’m not at all interested in trying Atkins, but fruit and grains seemed like something I could easily do for a few days.

So I thought about trying it, but for a bunch of reasons didn’t do it at that point, though I did start tracking sodium in an effort to cut back, and was surprised by some of the things that had a lot of sodium in them — Grape Nuts, for instance, and tortillas. Who knew.

I don’t generally experience a lot of food cravings, but a few months later I was having one of those days where I hadn’t eaten and I was out trying to get some work done and thinking about what I was going to eat when I was done. I was trying to decide if I should stop and pick something on the way home or go to the grocery store and get stuff or just go home and eat. It was late — past 10pm — so my options were somewhat limted. And I really needed to work before I could go anywhere, so I decided to write down everything I was thinking about eating in an effort to just get it out of my head. It was sort of a scary list, it was basically all salty or sweet carbs (mmm, Tater Tots….).

I ended up not stopping anywhere and when I got home I fixed a bowl of oatmeal that for some reason I didn’t put salt in. And I ate that and my food cravings pretty much totally went away. It was really striking.

So that made me even more interested in the Rice Diet approach, since that’s one of the points of it. Here’s what they say on their website:

“Within forty-eight hours of eating no-salt-added foods (and usually within twenty four hours) you will marvel at how little desire you have to overeat. In fact, the more overweight people are, the more they seem to experience this change in appetite or perception of hunger. We believe, after hearing this response from thousands of Ricers, that salt can best be described as a “food trigger,” or a food like refined sugar that seems to fuel a desire to overeat. When you hear people over 500 pounds, who you know were typically eating more than 5,000 calories per day to maintain their weight, say after two days on the program that they cannot finish the 1,000 calories they are being served per day and furthermore have no cravings or obsessive thoughts about food for the first time in decades, you know something miraculous is going on and needs to be shared.

Most doctors and dietitians, and thus their patients, don’t realize that this significant a reduction in sodium intake, via a no salt-added ‘whole foods’ diet will make as much difference as it does. Not only do all modifiable heart disease risk factors improve faster than any method proven, but there are testimonies of renewed health in every arena imaginable — healing insomnia, daily headaches (that had been suffered for decades despite numerous therapies), psoriasis, arthritis, depression, and general lethargy.”

So I tried it in a more structured way later, and it really does help with food cravings. I felt a lot like I did on the project, never really hungry and never really full, hardly thinking about food at all, and it occurred to me that the low amounts of salt and sugar I had on the project, especially over the first few days, were probably what allowed me to eat so few calories without feeling hungry. I think this is a good thing to have figured out.

However in addition to being low in sodium, the diet is also extremely low in fat, and I found that after a few days I was freezing cold and unable to sleep properly. This is possibly the “have more energy” aspect, and maybe I just didn’t need as much sleep, but sleeping is really one of the highlights of my life (yes, I know that’s sad, but it’s true) and I really wanted to go to sleep and couldn’t. Possibly because my legs and feet felt like blocks of ice, even under a down blanket, shoved in a down pillow, with wool socks on.

So … I remain intrigued by the concept, and it definitely works to kill food cravings and I think it would also work to lose weight, but it seems like it might be a better diet for July than January. Being freezing all the time would actually be great in July. Just not so good right now.

I hope to talk more about the Rice Diet, Atkins, and some of the other books I’ve read but I think this is enough for now.

And I still need to post info on Week Two, now that Week Three is almost over. Will get to that soon. Stay tuned…

6 Responses to “Health/Food Notes”

  1. Carol Says:

    Seth Roberts, like you, self-experiments, and discovers things that aren’t always intuitive or in the line of ‘main stream’ thinking. He has found that fats in general, and more recently, animal fat, fights two things, cravings/hunger, and poor sleep.

    I too have trouble staying warm at night, and wonder if that’s just a symptom of poor sleep, rather than the cause of poor sleep…

  2. Fernando Says:


    I love your topic today. Hope to hear more soon.

    Best wishes.


  3. David Brown Says:

    One thing that can be overlooked is the importance of matching nutrient intake to biochemistry. That’s why self experiments are a good idea.

    If you get cold on a low-fat diet, you probably should be consuming more fat. Keep in mind that muscle tissue normally derives from 60 to 80 percent of it’s energy needs from fat. Every chemical conversion exacts a price. Does it make sense, then, to force the body to dip into its stores of vitamins and minerals just to turn carbohydrate into fat to meet muscle tissue energy needs?

  4. Betsy Says:

    I just finished reading “In Defense of Food,” by Michael Pollan (same guy who wrote “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”). I highly recommend it and think it might add a different dimension to your research if you haven’t already read it. Long story short, he makes a persuasive (at least to me) case against placing any faith in nutritional recommendations. This is partly because nutritional studies have basic (and mostly unavoidable) flaws, and he backs it up by discussing the various conflicting recommendations on fats versus salt versus carbs. His main point is that there’s no silver bullet and, on the flip side, no single villain in terms of healthy eating — you need to look at an overall diet and eat by some basic guidelines, which he sums up as Eat Food. [whole, not processed] Less of It. Mostly Plants. This lets you reap the benefits without having to understand interactions within and among foods, which are hopelessly complex and not well understood, and without having to keep track of a million rules about good fats, bad fats, good carbs, bad carbs and on and on. I found it quite compelling, although maybe not everyone would. And I think you eat a lot closer to those general guidelines than almost anyone I know.

    And seriously, if you really think being freezing is a result of the $1 a day diet, that’s not just a bad diet for January, that’s your body trying to tell you something…

    I am really torn reading your thoughts and research on no salt. I admit, I like salt. Do you, and if so, don’t you miss it? Having fewer food cravings just because my food isn’t as appetizing isn’t really the solution I’m hoping to find… or do you think it’s just a matter of getting used to it?

  5. lessisenough Says:

    I had In Defense of Food on the list but whenever I was at the library it wasn’t available, and I don’t want to buy it because I find Michael Pollan a little bit irritating so I’d rather not give him my money. (I read Second Nature, one of his earlier books, a long time ago and it got on my nerves. Especially the part where he was waxing eloquent about planting a tree, which happened to be a Norway maple, which is an invasive species.) There was actually a hilarious interaction between Paula Poundstone and Michael Pollan on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me concerning Ring Dings that’s probably available online somewhere. Worth a listen.

    So I don’t disagree with Michael Pollan’s advice or his approach, but the thing that threw everything off for me a little bit on this project was reading Good Calories, Bad Calories first. (Totally randomly, too, I just went to the library with a big list and whichever was there I checked out.) That book basically says that meat is all humans need, that the evidence for the saturated-fat-will-kill-you hypothesis is somewhere between scant and nonexistent, and that the true problem is carbohydrates.

    One of my problems with Good Calories, Bad Calories, as I may have mentioned already, is its tendency to lump all carbohydrates together — white rice and brown rice and carrots and Ring Dings — which as far as I’m concerned raises serious questions about big chunks of his argument. Also I feel like the author criticizes people (especially Ancel Keys, one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of the Saturated Fat Bad hypothesis) for cherry picking evidence, but then it seems to me that he does the same thing himself.

    However I also have to agree with the main idea, which is that high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets cause problems of their own and are not the solution to America’s current “obesity crisis.”

    At the same time, I’m not going to go to an all-meat diet, but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with eating animals — even animals that were not lovingly raised in two-parent households, by those who only wanted the best for them. (Here’s one of my favorite recent quotes, in a piece by Jennie Yabroff in Newsweek “Buying only grass-fed, sustainably raised (and incredibly expensive) meat allows former vegetarians to maintain the same sanctimony they expressed with their old ‘I don’t eat anything with a face’ T shirts.”) So that whole part of the Michael Pollan/locavore thing gets on my nerves too.

    As I said, I had a lot of notes about Good Calories, Bad Calories while I was reading it and hope to pull that together at some point, but it first requires a post about The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and I haven’t been able to get everthing figured out for that.

    So even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything in Good Calories, Bad Calories, it did really stand a lot of things on their head, and it made me think about things differently, including Michael Pollan’s advice.

    In terms of the Rice Diet (which is not necessarily a $1/day diet but is definitely really cheap and easy), it was designed for very overweight people with significant health problems and it’s possible that if you have two- or three-hundred extra pounds needing to come off, your body responds different physiologically than if you have 10 or 15. And honestly, I do think it would work better in July. I don’t have air conditioning in my office; if I can drop my body temperature, that sounds like quite a benefit.

    In terms of salt, I do like salt. I didn’t necessarily feel like I was not eating things because they didn’t taste good, it’s just a different feeling. You feel satisfied with smaller portions. It’s like you can listen to your body better, and when your body says it’s full, you stop. Also salt is so overwhelming that you miss a lot of tastes. Having food with no salt lets you taste things differently. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do it forever, but eliminating it for a time allows you readjust, and you can then use much less and have things taste just as good. Also I found that my sense of smell seemed better after a few days with no salt. I noticed this on the $1/day project but thought it might because I was eating fairly small quantities of things. But I noticed it again when I was testing the Rice Diet, so I think it was more related to the lack of processed foods than limited calories.

  6. Betsy Says:

    I hope In Defense of Food shows up at the library soon, because I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. I’ve heard other people who have some of the same objections to him that you mentioned and I imagine there will be some things you find irritating, but at the same time a lot of it seems really in line with how you think about food and diet (and btw, he cites Good Calories, Bad Calories quite a bit, giving it quite a lot of credit in debunking the bad fats theories, but with the same criticism you have about cherry picking re: the carbs theory).

    In terms of grass fed animals and eating locally, he has some interesting data about the relative nutritional content of foods grown (or fed) in different ways. He definitely is evangelical about feeling a connection to where your food comes from which grates after a while — although I think I’m more sympathetic to this after living in France, because the French have a similar romantic notion about knowing your food and I think it really does have practical implications for how people here eat.

    But these are actually pretty minor points and the crux of his argument is hard to disagree with (and actually not terribly far off from Good Calories, at least from how you describe it) — that whereas there’s a wide range of diets that can be healthy, there’s overwhelming empirical evidence that eating a diet consisting mainly of highly processed grains and sugars is one of the most unhealthy.

    Another really interesting book is “Mindless Eating” by Brian W…. something or other. It’s more concerned with the (unconscious) factors that affect how much you eat and how much you enjoy it and has some really fascinating research.

    OK, gonna stop dominating the comment board now…

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