ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Japanese Women Don't Get Fat

A couple of years ago, Mireille Guiliano, in French Women Don’t Get Fat, explained just how French women manage to enjoy food without gaining weight. Needless to say, it was a runaway bestseller.  Well, French women are not alone. Just take a walk through Tokyo.

I have not seen one obese person in Japan. I have seen very few overweight people. And the Japanese are not jogging down the streets, or pumping iron. They also do not eschew sweets, carbs, ice cream, fried foods, cheese, alcohol or meat. There are also copious amounts of snack foods, most of them sweet and salty, and outrageous versions of western desserts, often piled with gobs of cream-like substances.

But these foods are eaten sparingly. When we sit down to a meal, there are a minimum of two veggie dishes, usually greens. Often these dishes are accompanied by two or three types of pickles - again vegetables. Often soup. Then, of course, rice, served up with nearly every meal. And a bit of protein, though not necessarily meat. More likely grilled fish, or a bit of fresh tofu, served up in bowls, with a bit of ginger, scallions and shoyu. The meat or fish portions are also quite small -  a serving the size of your palm would be on the large side. And that’s pretty much it.

Here's a picture of a quick lunch I got at a department store, as an example, with miso soup, barley rice, sweet fried chicken, a tofu veggie burger with sauce, salad and pickles.

So, am I, at nearly 6 feet, not going hungry? No. I definitely eat more than my Japanese cousins but I’m not going hungry. All I really do miss here are whole grain breads, since the Japanese spin on bread is exceedingly light, airy, and white.

Breakfast in Kyoto

At our hotel in Kyoto, they served up the usual eggs and bacon on the buffet, but also miso soup, hot tofu, three salads, some fish salad, grilled fish (the serving the size of a credit card cut in half), some danish and croissants, and yogurt -- a mishmash of options. OK, fish for breakfast is a bit much, though the salads were fresh and delicious. I looked over to what two Japanese women were eating. A bit of egg, salad, two type of pickled vegetables, miso soup and fruit. That was it.

Made me think of Pollan’s dictum: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That’s the diet here. It’s not something you think about. It’s just the way you eat.

- Samuel Fromartz

Is Organic Better?

Well, researchers on a four-year European Community-funded study think so.

Preliminary results of the $26 million study, conducted at Newcastle University in the UK, found that organic fruit and vegetables contained up to 40 percent more antioxidants. These compounds are thought to play a role in warding off cancer and heart disease. Organic milk contained up to 60 to 80 percent more antioxidants than conventionally produced milk in the summer, and 50 to 60 percent higher levels in the winter. Organic milk also was found to contain higher levels of vitamin E.

The primary researcher, professor Carlo Leifert, said the figures were so dramatic that they would the equivalent of eating an extra portion of fruit and vegetables every day.

The study is in line with others at the University of California Davis, which found higher levels of antioxidents in organic tomatoes. Harold McGee explains that organic crops rely on these substances to ward off pests and diseases in the absence of chemical treatments.

In the Newcastle study, the crops and livestock are raised at a research farm. Details on the work, including several videos, can be found at the researchers' web site.

- Samuel Fromartz

Bean There, Done That

When I was working on Organic Inc., I marveled at the passions the prolific soybean fueled, from vegans dishing up tofu, tempe and soy milk; to raw milk proponents who view the bean as little more than a nasty toxin; to agribusiness giants who process it into soy protein isolate and then add it, like corn, to everything; to Asian cuisine, where the most sublime soy foods are found. Rarely has a bean meant so much to so many.

I knew there was more here than meets the digestive tract, so was pleasantly surprised to see a new book on the subject, Beans: A History by Ken Albala. The passions I encountered while researching soybeans were by no means unique. A “social stigma” against most beans, Albala writes, “remains firmly in place from the time of the ancient Greeks up to the 20th century.”

"The matter is not only gas but class," the Times review points out. "Because beans are cheap to raise and offer a protein payoff that is comparable to meat’s, poor people have traditionally eaten them. The plants that bear beans don’t appeal to the aspirational bourgeoisie. Beans are, in the developed world, markers of a hand-to-mouth lifestyle best left behind. 'In any culture where a proportion of people can obtain protein from animal sources,' Albala observes, 'beans will be reviled as food fit only for peasants.'”

A pity, since the lowly legumes are high in protein and fiber and low in fat. But as history shows, as incomes rise, people want meat.

- Samuel Fromartz

Image: soybeans, Wikipedia

Embargo, Weight Loss and the Cuban Sandwich

The Slow Cook has a provocative post on what the collapse of the Soviet Union did to Cuba: it improved the diet, according to a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

The Cuban economy had become highly dependent on the financial supportas well as fuel, fertilizers and pesticides provided by the Soviet regime. When that ended in 1989, Cubans had to reinvent the way they feed themselves. Nationwide, Cubans consumed one-third fewer calories and most were forced to walk or bike to work. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds, and over a period of years the country reverted to an organic system of agriculture and planted every available green space for food crops.

During the decade-long period of adjustment, the prevalence of obesity in Cuban declined from 14 percent to 7 percent. Deaths from diabetes dropped 51 percent. Deaths from heart disease declined 35 percent. Overall, Cuba's death rate was reduced by 18 percent.

Sounds like the post-Peak Oil diet... One major casualty - the beloved Cubano sandwich.

- Samuel Fromartz

With My Re-Entry, A Fat Post

By Samuel Fromartz

Whew! What a nice break.

I did the unthinkable and went on vacation for 2 weeks without a laptop. I checked email a couple of times  at a public library, but truth be told, I didn’t miss it. Not a bit. Without pending deadlines, I had very few emails that demanded attention. And as for all those pesky email lists and alerts, I just scanned and tossed them once I got back.

What I realized was something I already knew but found hard to accept - that email and the web are an incredible time suck, with a plethora of minutia sapping your attention and brain power. It’s the intellectual equivalent of eating too many corn chips in front of the tube. You wonder where all the time went and what you got out of it. (Perhaps I’d even include this post in that -- actually, I will. Take it or leave it).

But now that I am back in this unnatural position, in front of a screen, consuming my metaphorical brain corn chips, a couple of items have grabbed my attention. Like fat. It’s been on my mind this summer. In the summer lull, I happened to catch Shaq’s Big Challenge on ABC in which the giant basketball star corralled a group of morbidly obese kids from the Sunshine state for months, trying to get them to lose weight and get in shape.

The show itself had its moments, leaving me teary-eyed and bleary-eyed. The challenge these kids faced was truly heartbreaking at times, but it was also difficult to dramatize what was a months-long slog of weight loss, exercise and diet change. Shaq helped. He’s actually entertaining. The kids were also heroic. But it’s a crime that they got to such an extreme stage before there was any sort of intervention. Indeed, the public school, with its lack of a physical ed requirement and its fast-food lunches, was an enabler of the epidemic. The parents didn’t help either. In fact, they were part of the problem, which shows how love, spoiling, and nutritional ignorance are a recipe for disaster.

The key, though, was you couldn’t finger anyone for the blame: The clueless school, trying to offer food kids would actually eat (for $1 a meal); the parents, who obviously had their own food issues; the kids, who bellyed up to the trough of candy, soda, burgers, pizza and fries at any opportunity and the culture at large, which provides this smorgasbord and offers absolutely zilch in the way of accessible healthy food alternatives or education. Yes, the critics will claim, these kids and their parents were just exercising free choice to eat what the hell they wanted. But frankly, that’s like saying they were choosing to stick a very slow acting gun in their mouths and pulling the trigger. The bullets were edible and called food. We know the result - an epidemic of obesity that is only getting worse.

As everyone knows, the only way to lose weight is to eat less and move more. Both are difficult. Even with a personal trainer in the mold of Attila the Hun, Shaq’s personal counseling sessions, an obesity doctor, a nutritionist, a receptive school principal and a chef re-engineering the school lunches, it was difficult. And people without resources are expected to do this on their own? No wonder dieting is a $35 billion business which people perennially fail at. (It’s kind of an ideal business model for it ensures repeat customers). All of these kids, however, lost weight, some dramatically. But the big winners were clearly in the minority, which shows you how difficult it is -- even with the most extreme sort of intervention -- to succeed.

There have been several TV shows along these lines (ABC seems to be flogging the genre with its current Fat March in which several obese adults walk from Boston to D.C. to lose weight). Why the interest? There’s a growing audience for these shows -- literally. We are now told that we are getting fatter, according to a widely reported study this week. Not a single state has shown a drop in obesity rates in the past year. People in 31 states have gotten fatter. So there's a entertainment genre for couch potatoes worried about  being couch potatoes. (Now if TVs were powered by treadmills rather than enjoyed with potato chips we might actually get somewhere...)

Forget for a moment the impact on heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. (Obesity-related hospital costs for children ages 6 to 17 more than tripled from 1979 to 1999, rising from $35 million to $127 million, according to the report.) Just consider the quality of life issue. The overweight kids in Shaq’s show were unhappy, depressed, with extremely low self-esteem. Their parents, schools and society had failed them. Everyone recognized the train wreck but no one knew what to do. Even the Superstar was flummoxed.

But at least he (even at the behest of a prime time ABC show) tried. The Washington Post mentioned a couple of other examples in its report on the latest statistics, like a "Shape Up" program in Somerville, Mass., that added school crossing guards to previously unattended corners and alerted parents to the change. That boosted by 5 percent the number of kids who walked to school.

But here’s the kicker quote to the Post story, which we should all keep in mind. “Interventions are important to put in place," said Jeffrey Koplan, who directs the Global Health Institute at Emory University in Atlanta. "But none of this is going to turn around [the obesity epidemic] in a year or two, or three and maybe not even in five. We have got to be in this for the long haul."

Kind of sounds like, well, exercising.

Consumers Hate HFCS, Survey Says

The Hartman Group market research firm announced a shift among consumers who are veering away from processed foods, sugar and specifically high fructose corn syrup, which it calls "the whipping boy of their frustration."

...When consumers do venture into the (increasingly) quiet depths of thecenter store for packaged or processed foods, they are choosing to focus their attention on those foods with the fewest ingredients, additives or preservatives. Likewise, their chief concern when reading package labels has shifted from nutrients and health claims to sugar content, where they demonstrate two complementary goals (a) reducing overall sugar intake and (b) avoiding anything with HFCS.

Choosing to re-formulate your cookie line with whole grain options is absolutely meaningless if your product still contains HFCS. Ditto for fortified juices, crackers, soups or any other packaged food category. We can guarantee you that 7UP's recent decision to market itself as "natural" to consumers fell on deaf ears when the ingredient label read "high fructose corn syrup."

In a survey, Hartman reported that 71 percent agreed with the statement, "processed foods are not good for my health." (Thirteen percent disagreed). And 89 percent agreed that "the key to long-term health is through eating more fresh foods." (Six percent disagreed). It also reported that 38 percent were swayed by  the chapter on corn in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. Gotcha! Just kidding on that last one.

Dovetailing with the boom in demand for corn ethanol, dare we suggest that HFCS will find itself in a death spiral? Now lets not get ahead of ourselves...

- Samuel Fromartz

A More Nutritious Organic Tomato?

A recent study comparing organic and conventional tomatoes found that the organic tomatoes have higher levels of flavonoids - an antioxident - but does this mean the tomatoes are "healthier"?

The researcher at the University of California Davis behind the study said the results were intriguing but not definitive. "There's a lot of confusion," said Alyson Mitchell, a professor of food chemistry and toxicology at the University of California, Davis, in this Sacramento Bee article. "For every study that shows there's a difference, there's another that shows there isn't."

Interestingly, this study took a long-term look at two particular flavonoids - quercetin and kaempferol - and found on average they were 79% and 97% higher, respectively, in organic tomatoes than conventional ones. 

Scientists theorize that "flavonoids are produced as a defense mechanism that can be triggered by nutrient deficiency, such as a lack of nitrogen in the soil," the BBC reports. Organic farms add compost to the soil to build fertility, rather than fast-acting synthetic nitrogen.

A previous study by Mitchell et al in 2003 found that organic berries contain higher levels of phenolics, which include vitamin C and antioxidents. They theorized then that plants developed these compounds in the absence of chemical fertilizers as a way to combat pests, diseases and natural stresses that may be present at higher levels on organic farms.

This new study may also support findings by the University of Texas, which found a long-term decline in certain nutritious elements in conventionally grown fruit and vegetables. The researchers theorized that this too reflected the increasing use of synthetic chemical fertilizers over a half-century - a theory that researchers around the world are pursuing, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report last year.

What's less clear is whether these nutritional differences are significant to human health. They should also not obscure a bigger point: that consuming a healthy amount of fruits and veggies each day is more important than eating too little or none at all.

- Samuel Fromartz

Chewy Tip: Fiber on the Cheap

Chews Wise welcoms Marci Harnischfeger, a graduate student in nutrition at New York University, as a contributor.

By Marci Harnischfeger

You might think nutritious foods are costly, but I say, nonsense. Nutritious foods can be cheap, you just have to know where to find them.

Take fiber for instance. Fiber's one of the first things to go when foods are manufactured, but it keeps our intestinal tracts healthy and helps lower cholesterol and maintain a healthy weight. It may even contain other beneficial nutrients that have yet to be discovered.

Most Americans do not come close to meeting their daily recommended 20-25 grams of fiber for women and 30-38 grams of fiber for men, though. Switching to whole grain versions of your favorite starches such as whole wheat bread and brown rice and getting five servings of fruits and vegetables per day are great ways to help meet your fiber needs.

Here's other cheap and easy ways to increase fiber in your diet:

Oatmeal. Perhaps you have seen all the claims. Add oatmeal to your diet and reduce your cholesterol. Well, for many this has been shown to be true. Unfortunately, though, lots of the oatmeal packets on the market tend to have added salt and sugars.

Suggestion: Try oatmeal in a container. You have probably seen it. Tucked away high on the shelf. Using plain rolled oats allows you to control what goes into your bowl. Did you know the preparation directions are the same? Just measure into a bowl, add water, and cook on the stove or microwave. After a few days, you will be able to eyeball the right amounts.

Pennies Saved: Oatmeal in a container is half the price per serving of oatmeal in a packet. If you go to a natural foods store that sells oatmeal in bulk, you'll save even more, by avoiding paying for packaging. Use that money to purchase an apple and chop half of it into the bowl before cooking. Add a dash of cinnamon and enjoy.

Beans: Cannelloni, pinto, black, kidney. Starchy beans are a great way to add fiber into your diet. Unfortunately, with dried beans, you need to plan ahead to soak and cook them. Further, most restaurant beans are loaded with added fats and sodium.

Suggestion: Canned beans. These nuggets are precooked and pack all the same health benefits as dry ones minus all the prep. Rinse your beans in a colander to remove the starchy build up our intestinal bacteria love to eat. This will also help reduce any sodium or other brining solution used during canning and, more importantly, should significantly reduce the gas factor. Throw them on top of ready-made salads, exchange them with meat in recipes, add them to your favorite whole wheat pasta dish, etc.

Pennies Saved: By exchanging beans for meat in a few recipes during the week, you can cut the cost by about two-thirds or more. Plus, canned beans are shelf stable, so they don’t spoil and can be ready to go any time.

Popcorn: Popcorn has roughly three to four times more fiber than potato chips. For people without dental problems or diverticulosis (an intestinal disorder), popcorn can be a satisfying, low calorie snack. Unfortunately, many microwave popcorn bags tend to be loaded with added fats and sodium.

Suggestion: Make your own microwave popcorn.

- Take a brown paper lunch sack and fill the bottom with one layer of popcorn kernels
- Add a drizzle of canola, olive, or vegetable oil (roughly 1 TBSP) and a shake or two of salt if desired
- Fold the top of the bag over twice to make a tight seal and leaving room for the kernals to pop
- Shake well
- Lay popcorn bag on its side in the microwave
- Set the timer for a short 1-2 minutes (if you smell popcorn, take the bag out to avoid burning)
- Open bag carefully to avoid the steam and enjoy.

Pennies Saved: Conventional microwave popcorn is about a buck a bag. Microwave popcorn using the method above costs about 10 cents.

Making these simple changes will not only boost your fiber intake, but allow you to use your ‘pennies saved’ to buy other nutritious foods, or organic versions of the products. You can even spend it on produce from your local farmer.

Remember: Make one change at a time to allow your body time to adjust to the fiber increase. And drink plenty of water to help flush everything through.