Category Archives: Diet and Nutrition

Whole Food Plant Based Diet Boosts Immune Function

covid-19This week’s reporting on COVID-19 tells us that over 1.5 million US residents have tested positive for the disease and over 90,000 have been confirmed to have died from it. Such figures fail to count those who have not presented symptoms sufficient to warrant testing nor those whose deaths fell outside the net of COVID-19 tracking. The elderly and those who are immunocompromised represent a disproportionate percent of deaths. And there is no end in sight.

As a member of a household with above-average risk of severe infection, I’m paying close attention to actions we can take to help our bodies prepare for the “fight of their lives” should it come to it. A prime focus centers on our diet. Here’s why…

Scientists tell us that the COVID-19 virus enters the body principally through the nose and mouth; it uses lung tissue as its initial breeding ground. So, the first line of defense against the invader must be the mucosal membranes of the oral cavity and respiratory tracts. These membranes fight infection by secreting Type A antibodies (called secretary immunoglobulin A or SIgA). According to a study published by the University of Western Sydney, we can boost our SIgA response by consuming mushrooms. Healthy volunteers who added one cup of mushrooms to their daily diet showed 50% more Type A antibody secretion than the control group. [See Note 1.]

Should a virus break through mucosal membrane fortification, the body’s innate and adaptive immune responses go into action. Our innate immune response avails itself of natural killer cells that target pathogens, including viruses responsible for common respiratory infections. The adaptive immune response designs and produces antibodies that are custom-tailored to combat specific invaders. For proper functioning, the adaptive response must be sufficiently nimble to ramp up production during the window of opportunity in which the infection can be contained without going on overdrive and recklessly attacking its own vital tissues.

I used to think that the immune system was something that was genetically pre-determined. You either had a good one, or you didn’t. But it turns out that its functioning has a great deal to do with the quality of the microbiome in our intestinal tract. As discussed in a prior post, the microbiome plays an active role in digestion, vitamin and amino acid production, and metabolic regulation. With advancing technology, scientists can now trace the extent to which the microbiota and immune system work symbiotically to provide for the body’s response to microbial threat and maintenance of overall health. [See Note 2.] In short, a well-functioning microbiome provides the means for favorable gene expression and serves a crucial role in immune homeostasis. To that end, we must pay close attention to what we eat.

vegan dietHere are a handful of evidence-based recommendations:

Eat 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. While immune function tends to decline in older adults, one study considered the possibility that older adults are simply getting too few servings of fruits and vegetables daily. It traced the efficacy of vaccine-induced antibody response in two groups of older adults: one ate 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and the other only 2. The former demonstrated a 2.5x boost in immune response versus the latter. [See Note 3.] Word to the wise: Eat a colorful assortment of produce to maximize phytonutrient diversity and make your meals interesting.

Make sure your diet includes plenty of fiber. Undigested complex carbohydrates elevate production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that serve as energy sources for the gut microbiota and intestinal epithelial cells. Epithelial cells serve as gatekeepers that permit absorption of healthy substances into the body and block entrance to harmful ones. To that end, load up on whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

Add immune-boosting superstars to your diet, notably mushrooms, bitter greens, garlic, green tea, and kiwifruit.

Add a tablespoon of ground flax seeds to your daily regimen. They’re loaded with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D and E, all of which are crucial for immune health.

Avoid highly processed and fried foods as they increase inflammation, deplete nutrients, and dampen immune response.

Finally, a study published through the CUNY School of Public Health explored the health advantages of a strict vegan diet over vegetarian or healthy omnivore alternatives. [See Note 4.] It found that the vegan microbiota showed reduced levels of resident microbes with pathogenic potential and a greater abundance of protective species. The vegan microbiota was also associated with reduced inflammation and lowered the risk of arteriosclerosis.

Notes:

  1. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/boosting-immunity-while-reducing-inflammation/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5541232/
  3. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/boosting-immunity-through-diet/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4245565/

How I Learned to Love Cooking

In my last post, I talked about our recent decision to buy a share in Community Supported Agriculture. It’s something we’ve been wanting to do, and it’s a good year to do it. But, of course, when you get all that fresh produce, you’ve got to figure out something to do with it!

i love cooking

I wasn’t born a cook and was never much interested in it. I took up the mantle as a teenager to help my parents. They both worked full time, so I pitched in and got dinner on the table as they returned home from their days’ labors. But it was all pretty mundane stuff, and Mom did all the grocery shopping and planning.

My cooking and eating habits stayed pretty basic throughout college and grad school, and I became a frozen dinner, fast food, and dining out aficionado during my working years. I was really, really busy and didn’t want to spend much time in the kitchen. Now and again I’d build up a head of steam and prepare something amazing. But the day-to-day grind of meal preparation just didn’t interest me.

In summer 2015, I read Chris Guillebeau’s book entitled The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose To Your Life. In it, he reflects on his 10-year quest to visit every country in the world and encourages readers to identify adventures that will enrich their lives and satisfy inner longings. I took his advice and opted to prepare every recipe in the most challenging cookbook on my bookshelf.

In truth, I didn’t have inner longings around cooking. But I’d just seen the movie Julie & Julia and figured this quest would be something that I could manage on top of all my other responsibilities.

I’m proof positive that gourmet cooking takes a LOT of time in the kitchen. Mercifully, Spike provided able assistance and saved my proverbial bacon on numerous occasions. (Of course, he had a vested interest in food getting on the table!) But it turned out to be a lovely way to spend our evenings together. We spent more time talking and less time vegging out in the front of the TV.

I learned that cooking from scratch was far more flavorful than cooking with short-cuts. There is a material difference in taste between fresh herbs and dried herbs and between bottled garlic and fresh garlic – well worth the incremental food preparation time. Moreover, those complex recipes turned out to be mouth-wateringly flavorful, and it wasn’t as hard to prepare them as I feared they might be.

The quest has introduced Spike and me to several new ingredients – e.g., celery root, chanterelle mushrooms, spaghetti squash, calvados, gruyère cheese, to name a few. By stretching our boundaries, we became much more familiar with the inventory at our local grocers and in the farmer’s market. I’m awestruck by the bounty of food that we enjoy in the Pacific Northwest!

We realized early on that the quest would go slowly if we had to eat all of the food that we prepared. So, we started inviting people to dine with us, given fair warning that they’d be noshing on food we’d never made. Suffice it to say, the fellowship was even better than the food, and the food was really good. In the process, I’ve gotten over my fear of being a sub-par hostess. No one judges me. They’re just happy to eat, drink, and be merry!

I’ve learned to suspend my tendencies toward perfectionism and beating myself up when things don’t go well. We had a few mishaps in the kitchen, and we sampled a few recipes that didn’t send us over the moon. Oh well! No big deal! I have confidence in my ability to improve on my technique and the discernment to know when it’s not worth the effort.

I’ve since worked my way through 8 other cookbooks and am closing in on 1,400 total new recipes sampled. Being a “test kitchen” takes the drudgery out of meal preparation and helps turn ordinary evenings into date nights. Spike still helps me in the kitchen, and we still enjoy a good chat while we’re cooking.

I’ll look forward to the day when our social distancing restrictions get lifted, and we can have friends over for dinner again!

Community Supported Agriculture

As noted in an earlier post, my husband and I are dedicated locavores who regularly patronize the Beaverton Farmer’s Market. I love milling around the fruit and vegetable stands, and it is great fun to interact casually with all the other locals who share our enthusiasm.

Our favorite weekly pastime has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. The usual crowds will not allow for a safe distance to prevent viral transmission. We don’t want to roll the dice and hope that we’ll avoid infection or weather it successfully should we succumb. Since we’re still committed to supporting local farmers, our next best strategy is to buy a share in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

community supported agriculture

Farmers create CSAs to establish patronage for their wares. In return for advance payment for a season’s worth of produce, they provide a weekly allotment of fruits, vegetables, flowers, or other items at designated pick-up locations. This arrangement helps them manage their cash flow and handle marketing efforts before spending really long days in the field. Their shareholders get ultra-fresh, ultra-healthy, chemical-free food along with exposure to new vegetables and new ways of cooking. They also develop relationships with the farmers who grow their food.

In the best of all worlds, farmers receive a great income for their labors, and shareholders reap the bounty of a delicious harvest for however long the season lasts. Should nature conspire against the farmers and yields run lower than anticipated, shareholders agree explicitly to get a little less value for their dollars. That’s where the “support” comes into community supported agriculture. It’s a commitment to support local farmers in plenty and in want. I think it’s a fair and reasonable deal. They put themselves on the line every year to provide for our bodily nourishment. It’s only right that we put our dollars on the line to provide for their financial security.

Whether you are a patron of a farmer’s market or a CSA shareholder, you are in partnership with Mother Earth and the future generations that she’ll support. By purchasing organically grown, locally produced fruits and vegetables, you’ll contribute to:

Attentive care of the soil on which life depends: According to a Cornell University study, it takes 20 years for less than a millimeter of soil to replenish itself naturally. Organic farmers help Mother Nature along by ensuring that they do not needlessly deplete the soils’ nutrients and by planting nutrient-rich cover crops to replenish this living organism. Cover crops also protect the land from top soil run-off. According to the United Nations, poor soil management globally accounts for loss of a third of the world’s arable land and could reach a point of crisis within the next few decades.

Protection of our groundwater and marine habitats: According to the US Geological Survey, roughly 25 metric tons of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium flood U.S. soils annually to boost yields. The excess leaches into the soil and contaminates our groundwater. Moreover, the runoff contributes to algae blooms in our major waterways, oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico which disrupt our marine ecosystems.

Reduction in use of pesticides and herbicides: According to the NIH National Library of Medicine, the U.S. consumes ~1 billion tons of pesticide annually, and in 2014 alone, farmers sprayed enough glyphosate to apply 0.8 pounds per acre of cultivated cropland. While these products boost yields, they carry a hidden cost in the integrity of our natural resources and our health.

Reduction in CO2 emissions and their attendant impact on global warming: Food travels within 50-100 miles of your table, not hundreds of miles by plane, train, or automobile.

Tens of thousands of families have joined CSAs over the past few decades. In fact, they’re so popular in the Pacific Northwest that I had a difficult time finding a farmer who had available shares for purchase. Suffice it to say, I’m glad that I finally got off the dime and signed up for a June through October season. It does the planet, the farmer, and my household good!

Harvard Weighs in on Nutrition

I just finished reading an article1 about Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He and his colleagues created the following Healthy Eating Plate based on the best available scientific evidence:

healthy eating plate

Vegetables: Eat lots of them – the greater the variety the better. Potatoes, French fries, and tater tots don’t count.

Fruits: Eat plenty of fruits of all colors.

Whole Grains: Eat a variety of whole grains; limit refined grains (e.g., white rice, white bread).

Healthy Protein: Choose fish, poultry, beans, and nuts; limit red meat and cheese. Avoid bacon, cold cuts, and processed meats.

Water: Drink water, tea, of coffee with little to no sugar. Limit milk/dairy and juice. Avoid sugary drinks.

Healthy Oils: Use modest amounts of olive oil or canola oil for cooking and in salads, as needed. Limit butter. Avoid trans fats.

Unlike the U.S. Government’s Eating Plat, the Harvard version does not have a specific provision for dairy, and it places far greater emphasis on vegetables.

Dr. Hu and his colleagues are as concerned about our health as they are the health of the planet (which are, of course, inexorably intertwined). According to the article, food production accounts for 80% of deforestation, 70% of fresh water use, and 30% of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Meat and dairy production account for 80% of the food industry’s GHG. Moreover, it takes 11 times more fossil fuels to produce a single unit of animal protein than it takes to produce a comparable amount of grain-based protein.

If eating meat were deemed healthy, there’d be a painful trade-off between bolstering human health and bearing the environmental cost. But it turns out that meat isn’t that healthy. Findings from the 2012 Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and Nurses’ Health Study revealed that increasing one’s consumption of meat by a single serving per day elevates morbidity risk by 13-20%.

Hu has published several papers on plant-based diets but claims that it does not have to be vegan or vegetarian. As I’ve read elsewhere, meat as a condiment instead of prominent occupant of the plate seems to be alright (though processed meats are not good!)

Hu and his colleagues face an uphill battle in gaining governmental traction on their recommendations. Powerful political and commercial interests stand in their way. And, to be sure, there are still randomized, double-blind studies to be done to solidify their research. But as Hu says: “Globally, if we always just wait for the absolute proof or conclusive evidence, then it’s going to be disastrous. It’s going to be too late for both human health and the environment.”

 

1 See Diet Science: Healthy Humans, Healthy Planet by Jacob Sweet in Harvard Magazine, March-April 2020

Daily “Tricks” to Support Weight Loss

hints and tipsIn my final post on Dr. Michael Greger’s How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss, I’ll cover the a few “tweaks” that he recommends to optimize a diet for weight loss. (He advises a consult with your doctor if you have any medical conditions or have difficulty with any of these recommendations.)

At Each Meal:

  1. Drink 1-2 glasses of cool or cold water before eating.
  2. Start each meal with “negative calorie” foods – e.g., an apple or a very light soup of salad
  3. Flavor meals (or a glass of water) with 2 teaspoons vinegar.
  4. Focus on eating, not the TV, notepad, or smartphone.
  5. Decrease bite size and eat slowly to allow for the 20 minutes necessary for your brain to catch up with your stomach.

Every day:

  1. Take in 1/4 teaspoon black cumin powder.
  2. Use 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder.
  3. Use 1 teaspoon ground ginger or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper.
  4. Eat 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast. (When pre-packaged, it’s usually near the spice section. Otherwise, check out the bulk foods section.)
  5. Take 1/2 teaspoon cumin with lunch and dinner.
  6. Drink water, black coffee, or hibiscus tea during meals. Drink 3 cups of green tea daily between meals, waiting at least an hour after you finish eating.
  7. Drink a glass of water hourly, fitting in at least 8 cups throughout the day.
  8. Eat whole (intact) grains to make your microbiome happy. Flour doesn’t count.
  9. Have your largest meals earlier in the day. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.
  10. Confine your meals to a 12 hour window – e.g., 7:00am to 7:00pm.
  11. Exercise 90 minutes daily. (For optimal results, wait 6 hours after your last meal – e.g., first thing in the morning.)
  12. Weigh yourself regularly.
  13. Work on establishing good habits (and breaking old ones) with a set of intentions – e.g., when I sit down to watch TV, I’ll drink a glass of water and work on a Sudoku puzzle to break the habit of snacking mindlessly. Take stock daily on how you’re doing. Adjust your list every 2 months.

Every night:

  1. Fast after 7:00pm.
  2. Get a good night’s sleep!

If any of these recommendations seems peculiar, I have a suggestion for you. Get a copy of Dr. Greger’s book and read it cover to cover! As I’d mentioned in the introductory post to this series, he provides nearly 5,000 citations of credible (vetted) scientific evidence for each one of his recommendations. And by investing the time to read this amazing book, it’ll hep you reinforce your commitment to a healthier you!

Weight Loss Boosters

In my third installment of findings from Dr. Michael Greger’s How Not To Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss, I’ll briefly summarize his weight loss boosters to help win the battle of the bulge.

diet boostersAccountability: Group therapy, health coaches, and social support produce better results than going it alone. At a bare minimum, weigh yourself regularly to stay focused on your weight loss goals.

Amping AMPK: An AMP-activated protein kinase causes the body to switch from storing to burning fat. It also stimulates production of mitochondria, the energy engines inside our cells. Eat nightshade vegetables (bell peppers, eggplant, tomatoes), barberries, and up to 2 tablespoons vinegar daily.

Appetite Suppression: Ground flaxseed, cumin, and black cumin naturally tamp down our appetites.

Chronobiology: Take advantage of our body’s circadian rhythms by eating when we’re most likely to process food efficiently. The rule of thumb is: Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. And don’t snack at night!

Eating Rate: It takes ~20 minutes after we start eating for the brain to put the brakes on our appetites. Eat slowly. Opt for solid foods that require chewing. Even the sensations in the mouth can translate into the sensation of physical fullness. Ergo, nibble and savor rather than chomp and gulp!

Exercise Tweaks: As noted in a prior post, adjusting one’s diet is a far more effective strategy for weight loss than relying on exercise (although exercise confers many other benefits). Choose activities that you genuinely enjoy so that you will be less tempted to reward yourself with culinary treats for doing it.

Fat Blockers: Thylakoids in greens delay fat absorption and decrease ghrelin, the hunger hormone. Superstars include kale, collards, and arugula.

Habit Formation: Build healthy habits so that good food choices (not bad ones!) become automatic. Be intentional every time you put food in your mouth. Don’t eat on autopilot.

Hydration: Substitute water for sugary beverages. Drink filtered water to avoid impurities.

Inflammation Quenchers: Adopt a whole food plant-based diet to maximize anti-inflammatory food substances. Try goji berries (wolf berries); they have four times the antioxidants as other dried fruits. Add turmeric and nutritional yeast to your diet.

Intermittent Fasting: Front-end load calories every day; “fast” every evening after an early dinner. This practice has been associated with lower inflammation, better blood sugar, and improved weight maintenance.

Meal Frequency: The more frequently people eat, the more weight they tend to gain. Break the snacking habit and/or make it really inconvenient to do so.

Metabolic Boosters: Drinking 2 cups of (plain) water boosts the metabolism; doing so four times daily can wipe out 100 calories! Cold water takes more energy to process than warm water. Limit consumption to no more than 3 cups per hour to avoid overload on the liver.

Mild Trendelenburg: Drinking extra water also causes our blood capacity to expand which induces the heart to release atrial natriuretic factor (ATF), a fat burning hormone.

Negative Calorie Preloading: If you drink 2 cups of water or 1 cup of water-rich vegetables before a meal, you tend to eat less during the meal. Apples and grapefruits can produce the same effect, but other fruits did not pass muster. (The sweetness may be an appetite stimulant.)

Sleep Enhancement: When we sleep too little, we tend to crave unhealthy foods and gain weight. Excess weight can be a deterrent to a good night’s sleep due to indigestion, sleep apnea, or physical discomfort. Aim for 7 hours per night of sleep.

Stress Hormone Relief: Much like sleep deprivation, stress is associated with weight gain. (They don’t call it “comfort food” for nothing!) Stress-induced weight gain tends to lodge in the belly – the worst place for it! Remedies include exercise, laughter, yoga, massage, and mindfulness-based stress relief (MBSR).

Wall Off Your Calories: When eating whole foods and whole grains, calories get trapped in their cell walls. It passes through our elimination channel and never makes it inside us. So, that’s an easy way to limit caloric intake. So, for example, choose raw, unprocessed almonds instead of almond butter, or whole grains instead of a slice of whole wheat bread!

17 Characteristics of a Great Diet

As promised in my last post, I’m going to cover 17 characteristics of a great diet according to Dr. Michael Greger in his latest book, How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss.

Anti-Inflammatory: Inflammation is our immune system’s response to unhealthy elements that invade our bodies. Processed foods and animal products are pro-inflammatory; whole plant foods, fiber, and phytonutrients are anti-inflammatory. Anti-inflammatory superstars include turmeric, ginger, raw garlic, green or black tea, and fiber.

Clean: Research connects chemical pollutants with obesity. The meat, poultry, and seafood industries have been plagued by obesogenic pollutants. Harmful substances can be present in canned goods and certain plastic containers. Pesticides also affect the obesity rate. The solution? Go organic, get to know the people who make your food, and learn to cook from scratch.

High in Fiber-Rich Foods: High fiber diets make us feel full by distending our bellies and delaying emptying into the intestines. Upon reaching the intestine, they block absorption of carbs and fats into the bloodstream and help curb our appetites. And, to top it off, the good bacteria in our gut biome love to feast on fiber!

High in Water-Rich Foods: Water adds bulk to what we eat without adding calories. Water-rich foods take more chewing action and have a dampening effect on stomach emptying. These built-in delays provide much needed time for our body to signal to our brain that we should stop eating!

Low Glycemic Load: These foods avoid sugar spikes in our bloodstream and the associated activation of the reward/craving centers in our brains. They help us burn more fat and result in less of a metabolic slowdown as we lose weight.

Low in Added Fat: Naturally low-fat foods encourage a higher burn rate in resting calories, and a higher percentage of their intake gets flushed down the toilet. Don’t be fooled by processed foods claiming “low fat” as they frequently contain extra sugar!

Low in Added Sugar: Sugar amps up our caloric intake, triggers an addictive response, and delivers no material nutritional value. What’s the number one strategy to avoid added sugar? Stop eating processed foods!

Low in Addictive Foods: The combination of sugar, fat, and salt revs up our craving engines and compels us to overeat nutritionally vacuous foods. Better to train our brains to enjoy healthy foods.

Low in Calorie Density: We’re designed to eat about 4-5 pounds of food per day. The body principally registers satiety by volume, not calories. So, it may be that obese individuals eat the same relative weight of food but simply ingest substantially more calories per mouthful.

Low in Meat: According to Dr. Greger, the odds of being obese increase by 18% for each 1% intake of calories by meat. This weight gain tends to settle in the abdomen.

Low in Refined Grains: Ultraprocessed food account for 58% of our daily intake. These refined grains contribute to weight gain far more than any other dietary and lifestyle factors. By contrast, whole grains increase satiety, increase our metabolic rate, and increase caloric loss via stool.

Low in Salt: Like sugar and fat, salt has an addictive quality that stimulates appetite and may encourage ingestion of sugary drinks.

Low Insulin Load: Sugar and meat protein cause insulin surges which, over time, result in cellular insulin resistance. High fat meals also diminish insulin sensitivity.

Microbiome Friendly: Our microbiome regulates our immune system, balances hormones, improves digestion, and makes life-sustaining vitamins. Every food choice affects our gut flora. A diverse gut flora supports lower body fat. Eat fiber-rich food (the real stuff, not fiber supplements).

Rich in Fruits and Vegetables: Such diets yield 17% lower odds of weight gain or abdominal obesity. Plant cells also affect gene expression in a way that promotes weight loss.

Rich in Legumes: The more beans you eat, the lower your body weight, waist size, saturated fat, and cholesterol intake. Beans also slow digestion and delay the return of hunger. And beans are packed with protein and fiber.

Satiating: We are built for gluttony. Our survival mechanisms were fine-tuned through thousands of years of scarcity. To keep our brains and hormones appropriately regulated, opt for fiber-rich, water-rich whole foods that suppress appetite. Make sure there’s ample variety in food selection to keep the mind and body happy.

Diet Beats Exercise for Weight Loss

I’ve been watching videos from Dr. Michael Greger’s nutrtionfacts.org website for the past two-and-a-half years. As noted in an earlier post, I’m impressed by Dr. Greger’s passion and integrity as well as the rigor with which he tackles nutrition research. So, I purchased his latest book – How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss – as soon as it was published.

Given scads of diet books on the market, Dr. Greger set out to produce something unique – an evidence-based diet book for which the author had no personal financial incentive. (He donates all of the proceeds to charity.) It’s a 570-page tome jammed-packed with all kinds of valuable information and backed up by nearly 5,000 citations of scientific articles. (The team actually reviewed 500,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications to support this book!)

Here are a few of the attention-getting statistics that introduce the core of his content:

  • obesity pandemicWhile the diet industry rakes in $50 billion per year in revenue, it’s plagued by a gaggle of “fake news.” All too often, the profit motive supersedes well-researched, unbiased academic scholarship.
  • Seventy-one percent of Americans are overweight; 40% are classified as obese. Perhaps even more startling, 90% of Americans are overfat. (That is, a lot of thin people have too little lean muscle mass!)
  • The rise in daily caloric intake more than accounts for our obesity epidemic. The U.S. produces 3,900 calories of food per person per day – far more than we need to sustain normal body weight.
  • Taste engineers in food processing companies strive to make their foods irresistibly desirable by tapping into the addictive properties of sugar, fat, and salt. Dr. Greger refers to their products as C.R.A.P. – i.e., Calorie Rich And Processed food.
  • The average child may watch upwards of 10,000 ads for C.R.A.P. foods in the course of a year.
  • Failure to turn the tide of obesity isn’t a matter of personal willpower. It also reflects a lack of political will. Food lobbyists influence government policy and work to suppress the stark truths about their products. Moreover, the sugar, fat, and meat industries receive substantial governmental subsidies.
  • The per capita lifetime cost of obesity (including lost productivity) equals ~$200,000.
  • Four million deaths annually can be traced to excess body fat.

The foregoing may not surprise you. But here’s a fact that probably will: Caloric intake, not physical activity, predicts weight gain. Moreover, the power of your genes is nothing compared to the power of your fork. Say what?

Body fat accumulates when Calories IN consistently tops Calories OUT. So how do we burn calories?

calories out

  • Our resting metabolic rate consumes 60% of our calories. It’s what we need to feed all of our cells and manage all of our bodily functions.
  • Twenty-five percent of our calories get used up supporting non-exercise physical activity – e.g., walking, hoofing up and down stairs, gardening, housework, cooking, etc.
  • Another 10% of our calories get used for thermogenesis, which is just a fancy word for the effort it takes to process food into usable substances (and eliminate the rest).
  • The remaining 5% gets burned off during exercise.

But wait – what about all those elite athletes who burn thousands of calories during their workouts? Sure – their Calories OUT equation looks a whole lot different from the Average Joe. But here are all the ways the Average Joe thwarts the benefits reaped by exercise:

  • Rewards self with a sugary protein bar immediately after working out
  • Adds more calories to daily consumption than gets burned off by exercise under the guise of increased appetite
  • Spends more time as a couch potato, thereby dialing down the burn available through non-exercise physical activity

Exercise most assuredly adds years to our lives and life to our years by stimulating our cardiovascular system, building strong bones and muscles, and increasing our flexibility and agility. But we can’t hang our weight loss hats on this strategy alone. We must watch what we eat AND make sure we’re getting sufficient non-exercise activity. (Just move!)

In my next post, I’ll cover Dr. Greger’s 17 key ingredients for a successful weight loss program.

Death and Diet

In 2013, the National Institute of Health published a research paper entitled “The state of US health, 1990-2010: burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors.” Its analysis and comparison with 34 other industrialized nations provided valuable input for national health policy. Here are some interesting facts:

  • The US spends the most per capita on health care.
  • US life expectancy increased from 75.2 years in 1990 to 78.2 years in 2010.
  • Healthy Life Expectancy increased from 65.8 years in 1990 to 68.1 years in 2010.
  • Among the 34 countries, the US rank for age-standardized death rate went from 18th in 1990 to 27th in 2010.

To summarize: We spend a disproportionate amount of money on healthcare. While life expectancy has increased, the average person still experiences 10 years of disability. And the US is falling behind other countries in its mortality rate. Not such great news!

Roughly three-quarters of all US deaths can be attributed to one of 10 causes. Here are the statistics gathered by the Center for Disease Control:

leading causes of death in the usa

I know a lot of people who think that we do not have much control over when and how we die. They think that maladies come with old age and that something is bound to get us. But when you look at the data, it turns out that we have much more control than you might think. According to the aforementioned State of US Health report, here are the top 10 primary risk factors that lead to premature death:

risk factors for death

What’s the number one risk factor? Diet! And if you’ve read my other posts, you’ll see how diet impacts blood pressure, body mass index, plasma glucose, and cholesterol. So, in reality, diet is responsible for the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 7th leading risk factors for premature death. And Dr. T. Colin Campbell makes the connection between diet and cancer in his book, The China Study.

Bottom Line: Change your diet and you just might save your life!

What Research Says About Dieting

I am an enthusiastic subscriber to NutritionFacts.org videos. As I’ve mentioned in a prior post, Dr. Greger and his team wade through thousands of scientific articles annually to keep the general public informed on the latest findings on nutrition. And they do it for free!

On Friday, I joined thousands of other folks for a NutritionFacts.org webinar re: dieting and the efficacy of fasting. Dr. Greger shared previews of videos that will be posted on the site over the next several months in support of his upcoming book, How Not to Diet. Here are just a few of the things that I learned.

piggy scaleA long-standing maxim regarding weight loss goes something like this: 1 pound of fat is equivalent to 3500 calories. Therefore, if you want the bathroom scale to register one less pound, simply reduce your daily caloric intake by 500 calories for 7 days. Trouble is, the body doesn’t quite work that way.

The body’s “math” says that weight loss is a function of CALORIES IN (i.e., what you eat) minus CALORIES OUT (i.e., what the body has to burn to keep you alive). A heavy person’s body at rest will burn more calories than a thin person’s body at rest because there’s a lot more tissue and blood vessels to maintain. As a heavy person loses weight, it takes increased caloric restriction over time to sustain the same rate of weight loss. But that’s not all…

Our bodies have been hard-wired over millions of years to defend against scarcity. When they confront caloric restriction, they’ll respond by lowering their metabolic rates to ensure survival. They’ll also amp up the hunger sensation to get us to forage for food. As such, it takes that much more willpower to stay the course!

Folks often complain that their diets stall after about 6 months. Both factors noted above contribute to that result. But there’s an insidious little factor that slips beneath our level of awareness. Studies show that most dieters inadvertently start eating more food over time. At the 6-month mark, they may feel as though they’re still eating 500-600 fewer calories every day, but they’re actually only eating 200 fewer. The hunger drive gets the better of them and distorts their perceptions.

Fasting has become a popular tool for weight loss due to its potential for rapid results. But the research doesn’t bode well for this approach. During fasts, the body cannibalizes itself, using lean muscle mass to create fuel. Moreover, fasting for a week or two can interfere with the loss of body fat long term. Fasting also deprives the body of essential vitamins and minerals. That deficit can result in serious (even fatal!) consequences. Breaking fast is also dangerous if not pursued intelligently. The body can’t turn up its digestive functions on a dime. Anyone considering this technique for weight loss should only do so under medical supervision with folks who know what they’re doing!

Folks who opt to lose body fat through liposuction may lower their body fat composition but do not reap the benefits of improved health. That procedure simply removes subcutaneous fat. It’s the visceral fat – i.e., the stuff that surrounds our vital organs – that wreaks havoc on our systems, leading to hypertension, arteriosclerosis, insulin resistance, etc. So while clothes may fit better, the newly thinner person is not a healthier person.

Sustained weight loss requires a consistent deficit of 300-500 calories daily. To meet this requirement, Dr. Greger tell us not to eat less food of the kinds you’ve always eaten; rather, eat better food. You can lower the caloric density of meals and keep hunger in check by pursuing a whole food plant-based diet. You also do yourself a big favor by consuming your calories earlier in the day. He tells us to eat breakfast like a king (queen), lunch like a prince (princess), and dinner like a pauper.

Exercise needs to factor into the mix. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact of calorie restriction on weight loss. BUT exercise improves muscle mass, and resistance training prevents bone loss that can occur with calorie restriction. The research also suggests that it’s best to exercise first thing in the morning before eating.

Finally, our bodies like to have a daily fast of ~12 hours in duration. So, set aside a 12-hour window for eating (e.g., 7:30am to 7:30pm) and drink water and herbal tea during the other hours. That practice alone supports weight management as we tend to eat less healthy foods at day’s end.

If you’d like to find out the optimal number of calories to drop for weight loss based on your current weight and level of activity, check out the NIH Body Weight Planner.