Thursday, September 27, 2007

welcome back, Gary!

Gary Taubes, the journalist who wrote, "What if it's all Been a Big Fat Lie?" for the New York Times back in 2002, has a new book out, Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I intend to buy and read as soon as possible. "Big Fat Lie" was the article that touched off the most recent upswing of low-carb dieting, with the attendant articles, studies, convenience food products, and controversy. It was also the article that made me realize why the nutritional information around me was so different from the Health and Nutrition teachings I remembered from grade school, not to mention my own observations.

Taubes' book is about the research he did for the Times article and the research he's done since; more than that it's about the politics and infighting of medical research, and how "low-fat=health" became a meme in America.

Taubes talks about those politics, and the backlash to his article, in a PBS interview:
But [now] everyone agrees that insulin is the hormone that controls the deposition of sugar and carbohydrates and fat in your body. They agree that if insulin levels are high, you'll preferentially store calories as fat; and that as long as insulin levels stay high, you won't be able to get to that fat to use it for fuel. They agree that carbohydrates will raise insulin levels more than -- fat doesn't have an effect on insulin, although if you force-feed enough calories, you can [raise] it. All of that is given.

What they don't agree is that somehow the carbohydrates, the actual macronutrient content of the diet, will do this. [Scientists] will say a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. They'll admit that a calorie of carbohydrates has an entirely different effect on your hormonal system than a calorie of fats. They'll admit that your hormones can control your weight; that insulin and estrogen have effects on weight, hunger, and body weight regulation. But they will never go from the step where they say: Hey, maybe the amount of carbohydrates and the kind of carbohydrates in the diet will have an effect -- through their effect on insulin, through insulin's effect on the deposition of calories, through that effect on hunger -- [on] being a functional diet.

I've been backsliding lately, I admit it. I live in a hippified college town, and I read foodie literature about where food (esp. meat) comes from, and much of the information out there comes from vegetarian or animal-rights sources, who pull no punches in their crusade to make carnivores feel like greedy amoral elitist murderers of doe-eyed animals and third-world children.

While I'm in no way ready to give up eating meat, I do worry about the safety of what I eat, its availability in the face of shrinking farmland, and its environmental sustainability. I worry whether the benefits of being a carnivore (good height, good muscle and nerve development, good teeth) are enough to outweigh the threats of chemical and hormone poisoning. And the cost gets worse all the time, with feed corn being used for biofuels and other Unholy purposes.

But I don't for a minute believe that to stop eating meat is the ethically or environmentally appropriate solution. Raising a pig or a goat or a flock of chickens uses a helluva lot less land and water than growing an acre of soybeans, not to mention the energy needed to process the crop vs. the carcass. Ergo, it's the farming methods, not the product, that needs modification, if you want to feed the multitudes while preserving the soil (goats, pigs and chickens make more soil, too, whereas soybeans merely deplete it). Furthermore, one can eat far less meat (versus vegetable matter) per poundage of human and still be adequately nourished. I will never believe that a child raised vegetarian is getting enough protein for healthy brain and skeletal-muscular development. Period. They may live to grow up, but they will be rickety, weak, and vague. We have canines. We are omnivores. Deal with it.

Occasionally I think I should quit my job and become a radical nutritionist and proactive farming activist, since these topics stir me so strongly. Perhaps one day I will. But for now I'll go order that book, so I have more ammunition at my disposal next time someone sneers at my cheeseburger.

Meanwhile, a Coda: Yesterday I found a headline in Time about low-carb diets and cancer research. Read it. Be enlightened. And lay off the damn soda.


AJ Milne said...

Really interesting notion, that cancer study. I think I'd probably be able to hold to such a regimen just fine. I'm not normally a dessert person, only ever drink soft drinks if that's absolutely the only available method of acquiring necessary caffeine, and I'm desperate enough to deign to drink malted battery acid...

But red meat, ahhh... I like that. Lots of that. Bring me cows. More cows. Now!

I'd miss tortilla chips a bit, I guess, on low carb. Pity that. But I think I'd probably survive. Just distract me with enough steak.

But wait... where's dairy fit into all this? Espresso is all right on its own, but with properly frothed whole milk, that really should be one of the food groups. And decent cheese is one of those things makes life worth living.

Holly said...

The die-hard low-carbers recommend against milk because of its relatively high levels of lactose (milk sugar). Some studies suggest that we don't readily absorb the calcium from milk as well as from other sources. I'm not entirely convinced of that, but I do know that milk makes me feel bloated and my skin seems to take it badly, even though we stick to the organic stuff these days.

Cheese, on the other hand, is to be lauded and praised. Practically pure fat and protein, and already partially digested--what more could you want? Hard cheeses are les carb-y than soft.

Yogurt and kefir are the ones that give me pause. The bacteria in them are supposed to be good for the gut, and they contain calcium and don't seem to give me internal discomfort like milk does, but even unsweetened, they still contain the same about of sugars as milk (about 10-12 grams per 8 oz.). Fortunately I've never been a big yogurt fan so I only have a little now and then.

Butter, of course, is the blood of life. I have been known to eat chunks of butter as appetizers while standing at the stove. My husband has to restrain me from doing butter shots when we go to seafood restaurants.

Holly said...

Oh, and I should mention I'm not a coffee drinker. I should probably also mention that I'll drink heavy cream straight from the carton, so... the milk-in-coffee thing isn't such a problem for me.

Tortilla chips, yes... Mexican food is my Achilles' heel.

Anonymous said...

My colleague down the hall is a vegeterian. I stand four inches taller than he, and tho' I am some twenty years older, I still have most of my teeth.
At the time of the Texas Revolution, the typical American settler stood half a foot taller than his Mexican counterpart. Pedro subsisted on corn and beans, while Davy ate meat, quite often that of his own shooting. And have you observed the people of India today? They are so small; their adult women may be the size of our twelve-year-old girls. I've seen folks of the Indian persuasion scarf down helpings of rice that would choke a horse in my estimation, yet they can walk under my outstretched arm.

Although I have long since gained my full growth, I will continue to eat meat, the bleeding-heart dogooders be hanged.

Anonymous said...

Drat!!! Forgot to sign my comment!!!

Anonymous said...

One of my Hindi buddies here at the lab has a saying, "You eat the cow, you look like the cow." He usually says this to me while I'm chomping on a burger.


Holly said...

That is, pardon my saying so, rather silly. (What's that mean, anyway? That eating meat makes you fat? Bullshit.) And it's exactly that kind of in-your-face criticism, in the form of "helpfulness," that gets my blood up.

I don't have any vegetarian friends, although there are a fair number of veggie-leaning types who hang around the fringes of my kung-fu class, and whenever one of them starts extolling the virtues of the meat-free life I mention the lovely recipe for pork roast my mother just sent me.

I mean, do what you gotta do, man--just don't expect me to validate you.