Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Food That Steals Your Brain

Attack of the Killer Sodas?
With even the soda companies advertising smaller portions as healthier, it's hard to avoid the message that high-sugar foods are bad for you. That's especially true of those that contain high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener used in huge amounts in packaged foods and soft drinks that has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and kidney disease. So clearly, eating sugar isn't smart...and now there's evidence that it can make you less smart even as you're consuming it.
     A new study from UCLA shows that a diet steadily high in fructose slows brain function, hampering memory and learning—and that omega-3 fatty acids (naturally occurring in high-fat fish like salmon and tuna and some plant sources like flaxseed and walnuts) can counteract the brain drain.
     Okay, they did use rats for the study. But those little guys can be useful, and their maze-running really took a nose-dive after six weeks on a high-fructose, typical-American-teenager (or maybe just typical American?) diet. The rats who'd been guzzling fructose navigated mazes more slowly, hitting dead ends and forgetting twists and turns that they'd been taught a few weeks earlier, while the rats that had also been fed omega-3 ran through like little geniuses. The bodies of the all-fructose rats showed signs of resistance to insulin as well, which not only has implications for diabetes but also affects brain function.
     Translate to a school-full of kids who have access to soft drink machines and you have...complete cognitive dissonance. Kids studying and dumbing down at the same time. Rotting their brains. Now, we could try to counteract that with big doses of omega-3s, which happen to be super-healthy in all kinds of other ways as well—always a good nutrient to consume. But seriously, how many teenagers do you know who chow down on salmon and flaxseed daily? Or we could take the entirely logical step of working to drastically reduce consumption of these completely empty-calorie, super-fattening, heart-disease-promoting, and now apparently stupefying products. Tell that to the people making billions of dollars from marketing them to our children.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How She Got That Body

Victoria's Secret Angel Adriana Lima: it's no day at the beach

Time for that semi-annual peep show—um, fashion show—in which Victoria's Secret models strut the runways, tonight at 10 p.m. on network TV. And my guess is that the gem-encrusted bra Miranda Kerr will don (said to be worth $2.5 million) will not really be the focus of most eyes, male and female, during the program. Hey, I'm a fan of lingerie myself. But it's not really about the lingerie, is it?
It's about those impossible bodies, lithe and full-breasted at the same time, and about the fact that we're allowed to stare at them with impunity, pretending it's about fashion. This time around, however, I'll be thinking about the tidbit I read recently that outlined how exactly those bodies are...well, made doesn't seem quite the word. Achieved? And this part ain't pretty.
Victoria's Secret Angel (as they call them) Adriana Lima revealed last month to the London Telegraph exactly what she did to get runway-worthy:
—starting in August, she worked out with a personal trainer every day of the week
—for the three weeks before the show, she pushed it up to two workouts a day
—she met with a nutritionist who measured her muscle mass, fat ratio, and levels of water retention, and prescribed a regimen of vitamins, supplements, and protein shakes. She also started drinking a gallon of water a day.
—for 9 days before the show she drank only protein shakes (lots of powdered egg was involved)—no solid foods at all.
—Two days before the show: she stopped the gallon-of-water business and just "drank normally."
—Twelve hours before the show: she stopped drinking anything at all. (Presumably that means she took in no nutrients of any description, since her diet was completely liquid by that point.)
It makes for painful reading. But it's also educational reading, because it's proof that few people can attain that kind of "perfect" body without extreme, almost super-human effort.  And keep in mind that these women are preternaturally physically gifted to begin with; many bodies will never look like that no matter how many gallons of water go splashing down.
I actually think this news report represents progress, because it begins to dispell the notion that bodies like those of the Angels—or name your svelte model or actress here—are either naturally occurring or easily attained. It's a much-needed corrective to those uber-annoying model lies of the past: "Oh, I just eat anything I want to! And I hate working out!" Those lies only contribute to more self-flagellation on the part of their credulous audience (i.e., women with "average" bodies).
But bottom line: Why do we insist that these naturally gorgeous girls starve themselves down to some strange and unnatural shape? Why can't we enjoy their pre-two-workouts-a-day/pre-liquid-diet beauty? A question for our age, apparently.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Too Scary

I thought I was pretty jaded when it comes to the cognitive dissonance happening all around us. Say, for instance, in these two seemingly disparate subjects: Halloween (former children's candy-collecting holiday, now slutty nurse/cop/cheerleader fashion show masquerading as a light-hearted party night...hey, whatever floats your boat!) and Eating Disorders (group of tragic, obsessive mental illnesses that affect up to 24 million Americans and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, also on display daily in the form of socially-acceptable emaciation among models and actresses and retouched photos of already-thin celebs).

But even my metaphorically seen-it-all jaw dropped at the sight of Ricky's "Anna Rexia" Halloween costume, the result of an evil Venn diagram intersection of the two topics.  Ricky's has already pulled the costume from its website after a firestorm of protest.  I can't even comment on how totally unfunny (and unsexy) this is; it's so obvious that one wonders how on earth the prototype ever got beyond some hilarious designer's drawing board. It's just too painful--as is the knowledge that a not-inconsiderable number of young women aspire to be a skeleton. Oh, correction: a skeleton with big boobs.*
*not included

Friday, August 19, 2011

One Dumb Cookie

This is getting crazy: first marshmallows, now Oreos. Can't they leave perfection alone? Feast your eyes on the brand-new Neapolitan Triple Double Oreo (Nabisco needs some grammatical help in the naming department, clearly). Ersatz chocolate and strawberry "creme" sandwiched between three vanilla Oreo wafers (vanilla Oreos??), stamped with one of the most recognizable patterns in American food history. I call it a totally unnecessary knock-off of one of the finest old brands in the country. Oreos were introduced in 1912, and are widely reported to be the best-selling cookie in the U.S.—for good reason. All they require, really, is milk.

But where you and I might see crispy-creamy quintessence, Nabisco sees untapped potential. And like every other recent do-over of a food classic, the new triple-decker Oreo comes in heavy: 110 calories per cookie, more than twice the heft of the original. So, just as with the similarly superfluous super-sizing of the marshmallow this summer, you can eat the same number of treats—and take in two or three times the calories. If anyone ever asks why more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, I think you have your answer.

Friday, August 5, 2011

You've Been Served

Trigger-happy? Get ready for sticker-shock.
I'm crushed. All these years I was feeling so virtuous, spraying my pans with Pam or its generic knock-offs, dreaming of all those cumulative thousands of calories I was saving. But those lying liars at ConAgra Foods (oh, and Campbell's, Nestle, Haagen-Dazs...) were, quite simply, lying about calories.

Zero calories, zero fat in a "serving" of Pam? Sure, if your definition of "serving" is a spray that lasts a quarter of a second. If, like most sentient humans, you hold that spray button down for, say, six seconds--long enough to actually get a non-stick coating onto the surface of the pan--you'll be taking in 50 calories and 6 grams of fat. And I'm saying, Hell, I coulda used butter (literally: a half-tablespoon of butter is 50 calories) and added some actual flavor--not ersatz "butter flavor," as Pam puts it.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is serving papers to the FDA demanding that the agency start doing its job and policing the avaricious food companies that persist in telling dangerous untruths--life-threatening untruths. Because obesity and high blood pressure are killing millions of people who read the label on a can of Campbell's soup and think they're eating a serving that contains 790 milligrams of sodium, when in fact they're taking in twice as many. When was the last time you considered a half-cup of soup a "serving"? That is--I kid you not--8 tablespoons. Please. That's lunch?

Emotional eating just got more fattening.
And, be honest, when was the last time you considered a half-cup a serving of ice cream? Haagen-Dazs measures it that way. But if you eat a cup instead, you've just ingested a full day's recommended limit of saturated fat. And if you were on the Dumped-Again Diet and stood in front of the fridge until you finished a pint of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (yes, people, it does happen!) that's two full days of sat fat. And fat is what you will be. Much like the wallets of the food-company CEOs.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Big Fat Stupid Food

Exhibit A
     Really, need we say more? Did the world really need Jumbo-Mallows? Consider: one old-fashioned marshmallow=25 calories. One cynically redesigned monumental jumbo-mallow=90 calories.
     Consider also: a recent study showed that people tend to eat by number-of-pieces, rather than by size-of-pieces. Thus, when one group of study subjects was given whole candies to eat, and another group was given pieces of candy that had been broken in half, both groups consumed the same number of pieces. The half-candy group therefore took in half the number of calories.
     Translate that to marshmallows. There's no doubt: people will rack up more calories when they eat super-sized marshmallows. Their eyes, their brains, will tell them "Hell, I've only had one marshmallow!" One hellacious marshmallow.
     Beyond the simple math, and the not-so-simple obesity epidemic, there is the aesthetic issue. Marshmallows were perfect as is, an American object amply endowed with quintessence. Ideally proportioned to pop into one's mouth, serendipitously shaped and sized for roasting and then for squishing between (also quintessential) graham crackers and Hershey's squares for the creation of quintessential s'mores. Why mess with it? Those crafty people at Kraft could tell you: just follow the money.
Exhibit B: Hey, Big Boy!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Truth About "Bad" Foods (Finally)

Yes, Virginia, French fries are fattening
I know I wrote once—okay, I wrote many times—that there are no “bad” and “good” foods, and that labeling them that way can be unhealthy. A magical thing happens when you say something is bad: suddenly, you want it more. Call it our naturally greedy human nature.

Thus, my dietary philosophy was for years aggressively laissez-faire. Rather than swearing off certain forbidden foods forever—and then feasting on them in moments of weakness—I believed in leaving things alone, and letting them achieve a natural balance. I saw it in action in my kids, with the result that they often left “goodies” unfinished for the simple reason that they were full. They knew the delicious (and not-forbidden) food would be available to them again tomorrow, if they so desired, so why get uncomfortably stuffed? Have you ever seen a dieter who has momentarily fallen off the wagon not scarf an ice-cream sundae down to the last rainbow sprinkle? She’s thinking of tomorrow, when she will vow to never ever again touch Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey. 

But you may notice I use the past tense here. While I still think there's truth and logic to what is called the Blown-Diet Syndrome, I can’t deny this additional truth any longer: there ARE bad foods! And they’re killing us! A huge study from Harvard’s School of Public Health last month spelled it out yet again, in greater detail. Weight gain over the years (and the average is 17 pounds over 20 years) was highly associated with a handful of foods. Leading the charge were French fries, potato chips—in fact, potatoes in any form—and sweetened drinks.