Monday, October 24, 2011

Pick a new plate: how MyPlate fails

Choose for healthy commodities
At no time in history have we had more access to information, and yet as modern people today many of us don’t know anything more about how to feed ourselves than bringing it from plate to mouth. Every day, millions of people eat food that they don’t know how to make. They don’t know what the ingredients are, where those products come from, or how they’re manufactured. We have lost traditional knowledge of how to make food, but also, we’ve lost the larger knowledge of what our diets should look like. Food that used to be regional, seasonal, and prepared and eaten in particular ways, have been replaced with mass-produced products, even fresh produce, that doesn’t vary throughout the year, or from place to place. For guidance on eating these foods, instead of family and community, we have central authorities and credentialed experts. Foremost among these authoritative institutions is the United States Department of Agriculture.

To begin to understand why the USDA is a suspect place to get nutrition information, begin with the USDA mission statement. The USDA’s mission is to promote commodity crops: grains, meat, and dairy; and, to a far lesser extent, garden crops. A pie chart of subsidies from the USDA to the various food industries looks like this:
Subsidies to commodities

Compare the subsidies the USDA gives to the largest producers of these cash crops, with the USDA's official recommendations on diet to individuals. Then look at other sources of advice on diet that do not share the USDA’s ethical issue of being in the business of supporting business as well as being tasked with promoting the health of Americans. The bias becomes clear. MyPlate is skewed in favor of keeping legacy food groups that are commodities, like dairy and grains, on the plates of Americans, and creating new groups, like “Protein,” to encourage us to eat the new industrial food commodities, including refined soy and whey proteins.

Someone at the USDA is probably very proud for having thought up the “Protein” food group. It seems so inclusive, like a nondenominational blessing. It caters to several belief systems about food at once: industry-friendly nutritionism, the “plant-based” diet continuum from flexitarian omnivores to completely vegetarian vegans, and fat phobia. Unlike “meat,” “nuts,” or any other real food containing protein, “protein” itself is refined and treated as a commodity. MyPlate reflects the belief in a plant-based diet as health-promoting, while doing nothing to promote fresh produce. Highly processed foods like breakfast cereal, skim milk, and orange juice are included in its food groups.

Yet the USDA finds fault with fatty meat from a pastured animal, and with whole, raw milk: neither of these are part of an industrial diet, and their industrial counterparts are both correlated with disease. Because the USDA does not recognize the differences between industrial and natural foods, like the more balanced omega fatty acids profiles or other vitamins and enzymes present in pastured animal products, these healthy foods are not part of MyPlate, and their consumption is actively discouraged: the meat because it is fatty, and the milk because it is unpasteurized.

Dairy is still promoted, of course. A round plate should be a pie chart, but there’s an extra plate--or MyGlass--off to one side, full of "Dairy." And although the proportions are clearly intended as a guide, the shape of this pie chart makes it difficult to read. How much of each of these food groups is in a healthy diet? Should we “eat 120%”? Why isn’t MyGlass instead a salad, a cup of bone broth, a pickle plate, a glass of wine, or plain water? Can MyPlate even be modified into a proper model, or should it be scrapped in favor of a whole new shape?

While bone stocks and fermented beverages are also important traditional foods, they are not commodities, and their protein sparing and enzymatic benefits are simply not recognized as significant to the nutrition scientists or public health professionals who created MyPlate. Collard greens have almost exactly as much calcium as milk, cup for cup, but few people know it, because there’s no “Got Collards?” campaign educating the public, and there’s no “Dark, leafy green vegetables” group on MyPlate, either. This promotion of commodities is far reaching and very effective. Children learning about the food groups for the first time are introduced to milk, but not to collards. Which is enshrined in the school lunch program? Which deserves to be?

Milk isn’t even a necessary food. While Americans certainly drink lots of milk, traditionally, the people of the Americas didn’t drink cow’s milk. Throughout Asia and much of Africa, people don’t drink milk. Milk doesn’t need promoting as a food.

There should be more food groups on MyPlate dedicated to vegetables. Of all of the food groups on MyPlate, no group contains more diversity than this one quarter of the plate.

The “Vegetables” group, like the “Protein” group, lumps together foods with very different properties. Orange or green, starchy, fibrous, sweet, bitter, and sour, they all have different traits. Most traditional diets include some raw vegetables, and a fermented vegetable dish or two, like kimchee or sauerkraut. Raw and fermented foods provide many benefits worth promoting on MyPlate. Dark, leafy greens, and pod and flower vegetables, are important enough to merit their own, separate food group, and should be consumed often. Pretending that all vegetables are equivalent, from acorn squash to zucchini, raw kale salad to French fried potato, is just as gross an oversimplification as putting all “Protein” foods in one group.

Seven food groups promoted by the USDA in 1943
One of the original seven food groups was butter. Fats and oils, particularly the fats found in meat and dairy from animals raised on pasture and forage, are critical to human health. Once the pinnacle of the food pyramid, butter, lard, and other healthy fats are not anywhere to be found on MyPlate. The Weston A. Price alternative guidelines, based on foods included in all traditional diets, has just four food groups, one of which is Fats and Oils. Fat is a macronutrient, like protein, and just as essential to life. But MyPlate, with its disdain for traditional knowledge and exaltation of nutritionist dogma, fatphobia, and magical thinking about dietary fat, doesn’t include a “Fats” group at all.

The Food Pyramid of 1992
Then there’s everything else about food that nutritionism, and MyPlate, completely ignore, because it’s too hard to produce on an industrial scale, like the enzymes in raw foods. Nutritional guidelines from the USDA do not assign any value to a food for its environmental sustainability. They avoid any suggestion that fresh, organic, locally grown food in its season is preferable in any way to commercially prepared, conventionally grown alternatives. MyPlate does not suggest any of the synergies of traditional, complementary food pairings with its groupings. It doesn’t provide guidance on making meals suitable to different bodies, stages of life, or cultural norms. MyPlate doesn’t suggest a social setting, or the value of sharing a meal with family or friends. And even as MyPlate promotes a plant-based diet, it provides insufficient guidance to vegetarians and those with common food allergies to wheat, corn, soy, and dairy.

The most gaping flaw in the MyPlate model is that it does not provide enough guidance to be properly nourished. Since its only objective is to guide Americans in eating a healthy diet, it appears to be a failure. If, however, its real purpose is to uphold the USDA mission to promote commodity crops, it appears that MyPlate is a success.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Doubly SADD: The Standard American Dieter’s Diet

What’s wrong with the way Americans eat?

The way most Americans eat, and increasingly, the way more people in the world eat, is SAD. SAD is an acronym for the “Standard American Diet,” a generalization of how people in the most highly industrialized nations eat. Depending on who you ask, the problems with the SAD may include:
  • too much meat 
  • too much fat 
  • vegetable oil 
  • refined flour 
  • refined sweeteners 
  • chemicals 
  • foods denatured by excessive heat 
  • not enough plant-based foods 
  • not enough fiber
However, not every one of these factors has a clear relationship to how much energy storage we carry in our bodies, or to our health. The changes to our diet that have correlated with the obesity epidemic have not been in how much meat we eat, but in how cheap and highly available vegetable oil and high fructose corn syrup have become in our diets since the early 1980s. The Standard American Diet is undoubtedly a highly processed diet, relying on the produce of conventionally raised plants—grown in depleted soil, genetically modified, grown with pesticides—animals raised in abusive conditions, on unnatural diets; and industrial chemicals. The SAD is not natural: it’s manufactured using modern technology, and the resulting diet is unlike anything we ate in any other period of human history.

The Standard American Diet is made of cheaply produced foods that have been modified to appeal to our senses so that we will buy more of them. They are a product first, not an essential of life. Purveyors of SAD food want you to keep buying their products. Your wellness is not their primary concern.

For most of human history, the ability to store fat in times of trouble was an advantageous feature that helped us survive, not a defect that threatened our well-being. The Standard American Diet takes advantage of loopholes in our feedback systems of satiety and satiation, rather than being optimized to most healthfully feed our human bodies and psyches. The SAD provides much more calorie-dense food than any we naturally had access to through most of history, but is otherwise nutritionally inadequate. People living on food like this will tend to eat too many calories, because no matter how much bad food a person eats, the body never gets its other nutritive needs properly satisfied.

What’s wrong with Standard American Diet food?

A huge percentage of people in America, and increasingly, the rest of the world, are on weight loss diets, either now or at some point in their lives. Even those of us who aren’t on a diet right now often have some idea of what would be a healthy diet, and how close our own diet is to that goal. “Diet food” is very often as bad or even worse than what it replaces, because its qualities are based on faulty assumptions about what causes people to gain or lose weight, and on a highly simplistic view of the relationship between weight and health. Our concepts of diet for weight loss are punitive, classist, and feed a cycle of shame that precludes healthy attitudes about our bodies and what we eat.

Willpower is not infinite. Many diet foods suggest that they take the willpower out of the equation by providing a technological marvel such as “fat free cream cheese” or “sugar free, calorie free sweetened beverages.” Of all of the tricks that industrial food plays on our senses, diet food plays the worst tricks of all, by pretending to be more food than it is, with thickeners, added flavors, and artificial fats and sweeteners simulating calories. The reason these tricks can be played at all is because we have two feedback systems in our bodies for regulating food intake: one for satiety and one for satiation. Satiation has a quicker response time, quick enough to tell us to stop eating. It’s a heuristic for satiety, which takes longer to report to the body, because food has to be at least partially digested and absorbed for the body to know for sure what it contains and what the body may still need.

Diet science is junk science. The reason all of these tricks are played is a belief in the so-called “calories in, calories out” model of body weight that, like the Body Mass Index, is made up of some numbers that make bad superstition look like good science.

The BMI is the calculated ratio of your height over your weight. The CDC claims that it is a reliable indicator for most people, yet this ratio doesn’t actually tell you anything about an individual’s actual body mass. It makes the assumption that not just most people, but you, specifically, will have the same ratio of body fat to lean mass as other people of your height and weight. It also assumes that, even if we knew what your lean to fat body mass ratio is, that it would tell you something important about your health. Clearly, this is all bullshit. Even people who’ve never heard of Health at Every Size can see that a highly active athlete and a couch potato can have the same BMI, and enjoy vastly different states of health.

The “calories in, calories out” model presumes both that we can accurately know how much nourishment you get from your food, and how much you expend. Even under laboratory conditions, we have isolated a number of factors that change how much of different nutrients people absorb from their food, from how palatable the food is to whether the person has an innate inability to properly digest the food. In the real world, other factors affect how much we eat, and these methods are studiously applied to us every time we eat at the home of the endless soup bowl. We’ve only just begun to understand the role of our gut flora in nutrient absorption, and that each of us has a different makeup of the many species of bacteria that live in our bodies and without which we would not exist. We know for sure that not everyone gets the same benefit from each food, each time they eat it. Calories are measured by burning a food to ash, not by observing their effect in human bodies, and not in yours, particularly. This measurement on the “Nutrition Facts” label doesn’t guarantee that the food in your package precisely matches the sample that was measured, or that you will absorb the nutrients listed. Being able to accurately measure not just the potential nutrition you ingest, but what you actually absorb and how your body uses it, is beyond our abilities to scientifically measure.

Therefore, we can conclude that there are healthy ways of eating that are older than our concept of the kilocalorie. Luckily, we still have our bodies to tell us what to eat, how much, and when, as long as we don’t game the system with industrial foods, including diet foods.

How weight-loss dieting damages health

Industrial food can never be the basis of a healthy diet.

It isn’t just that food that is manufactured is not fresh, or that it’s unbalanced compared with what we evolved to eat. It costs society more to allow industry to “add value” to food, including allowing industry to add the value of “diet versions” of the same foods, than it would be to ban all of it and revert to earlier ways of feeding people: fresh food, grown locally and prepared to meet personal tastes and requirements. The costs aren’t all in one place, and many of the costs are born by our bodies, which labor under the sufferings caused by bad food.

Chronic stress levels keep cortisol levels high, which drives us to eat, especially starchy foods. Dieting is a willpower-enforced famine condition. It’s profoundly unnatural and very difficult to sustain. It is a chronic condition of not getting enough calories, of baiting-and-switching the satiety/satiation feedback systems in the body. The stress of chronic malnourishment and exercise of rigid willpower drives up cortisol levels, which only serves to increase the drive to eat carbohydrate-rich foods. Eventually, the body asserts its needs for food, and the dieter falls off the diet.

Instead of realizing the actual factors that are causing the epidemic of obesity---an increasingly industrialized food chain, stagnating quality of life, increased stress---we persist in this notion that systemic problems should be fixed with individual willpower. Willpower is like spoons, or socks: we don’t all have a lot of them, some of us have to make careful arrangements not to run out, and the people who are hurt the most are the ones most in need and have the least. Asking people already laboring under the burdens of an unhealthy society to increase their personal expense to fix the same health problems that chronic stress and injustice cause is victim-blaming, judgmental, and unfair. It also doesn’t work.

What is really making us fat

So we know that calorie-counting doesn’t work for eating. “Calories out” is just as fuzzy a number as “calories in,” and for the same reasons: it’s practically impossible to know exactly how much energy a person expends in an activity, even one that has been measured in other people, because we differ metabolically. One example of the differences among people’s metabolisms is that some of us who may be described as metabolically tending toward obesity burn glycogen, which is our quick go-to energy source in the body, at much higher rates than people whose metabolisms do not incline them toward obesity. Not only do those of us with this metabolic tendency burn through our glycogen faster while at rest, but also when exercising. Additionally, we may be less “metabolically flexible,” meaning that our bodies are less able to shift to burning energy from fat stores than the “metabolically lean.” This makes it perceptibly more difficult for some people to do exercise.

Another factor that tends to keep people fat is one of insulin resistance. Eating a diet that delivers huge jolts of sugar to the bloodstream, several times a day, makes the body’s cells resistant to accepting insulin. Since insulin is what brings energy to our cells, we’re starved and exhausted at the cellular level. The energy goes into fat stores, not into the cells that need it.
Historically, when humans were chronically stressed, it was in conditions of famine and other physical hardship, and having the ability to use less energy and store it in our bodies, instead, was an advantage. The world we live in has so changed that this stress response is no longer a helpful adaptation. This is most evident among the people with the least power to make non-mainstream choices. People who are poor, abused, lack transportation, live in food deserts, can’t cook for themselves, are institutionalized, have no safe places to exercise, live with trauma and other chronic, painful, and debilitating conditions, work in unsafe conditions, and live with other modern stresses, are the hardest hit by the effects of industrial food. Our modern, efficient food delivery system cures energy starvation, but instead causes diseases of overconsumption and malnourishment.

The effects of metabolic inflexibility and insulin resistance make it increasingly difficult to exit a spiral of sedentary lifestyle and obesity. Add chronic stress, limited food choices, and few socially acceptable ways for fat people to exercise, and it’s easy to see how modern life makes people fat: not because we lack willpower, but because it’s unreasonable to expect people to expend energy as if it’s unlimited, to overcome the obstacles placed there by the same institutions that are supposed to make health easier to achieve.

Eating well is for every person

Health isn’t measurable through a BMI. Health is a subjective measure of one’s well-being and includes physical, social, mental, emotional, and spiritual factors. It’s not just your risk of developing a serious illness, but how well you feel each day.

The dietary model of willpower and calories doesn’t work for weight loss. More industrial food, harmful misinformation about eating and health, and victim-blaming exacerbate the health problems that industrial food has wrought on society: malnutrition, overeating, guilt, poor esteem and health. The Standard American Dieter’s Diet relies on the false science of calories and nutritionism, and the false assumption that willpower is an infinite resource. It assumes that our systemic problem is actually just a lot of individuals with willpower problems.

It suits the diet industry for their diets to convince you of their efficacy, but continually fail you. A beguiling promise that makes you their convert, and their consumer, is a cash cow. No one stands to make much money encouraging people to eat home-cooked meals together with their families. But everyone in society stands to benefit from increased well-being, which is why public health is properly publicly funded work, not contracted out to McDonald’s. It’s time to remember what the covenant of civilization is supposed to be for: not to make a few rich, but to give everyone a level of freedom and security in pursuit of their natural rights.

The cycle of bingeing, starving, and failed attempts to gain control over one’s life through willpower, is bad for every aspect of one’s health: self-image, nutrition, and energy levels. What is needed is not more willpower for fat people, but a unified model, universally embraced, of competent eating that includes a healthier attitude about food, treating food as a right and a pleasure instead of drudgery, more complete knowledge of how our bodies work, and a better food system that actually meets our needs for health first, rather than the corporation’s bottomless pit of desire for profit.