Food Fight!

A.V. Walters

We share this house with two cats. Both are rescue cats—one urban, one farm. They get along famously; indeed, the fact that they were already friends figured into Bob’s being invited to stay when his own home options dried up. Kilo is still king of the roost, but he is a benevolent ruler and the two get along like littermates, even though they met as adults with very different backgrounds. When I first moved here, Kilo was a sheltered, city cat. Bob, already a farm resident, would come down to visit, both me, and Kilo. Soon, Bob started teaching Kilo how to hunt gophers. Clearly, Bob won a place in my heart that way.

One thing they have in common is food issues. Kilo is allergic to most cat foods. It’s one of the reasons I kept him, after rescuing him. I, too, have many food allergies, so I stuck with him until we found a brand he could tolerate. I suppose, if I’d had to, I’d still be making him chicken & brown rice mush. I’m a softy that way.  I also had to recognize the marketing limitations of a cat who could only eat one brand of kibble. Kilo took to his limited diet with gusto—maybe too much so. After a scrawny kittenhood, he’s developed into a cat that Rick calls Butterball.

Bob loves to hunt and eat gophers. It’s an honorable farm cat tradition. The only problem is that gophers don’t agree with Bob. Poor Bob can’t keep a gopher down; he’s a gopher-barfer. If I see Bob with a gopher in his mouth, I run to close the cat door. If he insists on repeating the gopher-in/gopher-out performance, he has to do it outside.

Probably half the country could learn a lesson from Bob’s plight. The problem, from Bob’s perspective, is that the consequences of his eating habits are not immediate enough for him to make the connection. Just like most of the rest of us. It took me years to discover my food issues. But we do have the advantage of science, education and news. We can learn from the collective knowledge of the health and medical professions. Still, we don’t do so well.

We’re told that obesity is epidemic. Yet, most Americans fail to change their eating habits even when their health and waistlines are screaming the obvious. A new study shows that our biggest adversary in this may be the food industry. Processed foods are killers. They’ve been saying for over a century that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. According to the makers of highly refined, junk-filled foods, the obesity problem is an individual problem—it’s how much people eat, not what they eat. I call that a blame-the-victim defense. Just recently, science has stepped in to prove that processed foods are a big part of the problem.

The Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a clinical trial by Dr. David Ludwig. On its face, it looked like yet another analysis of weight loss/maintenance diet regimes. The study’s post-weight-loss subjects were divided into three groups. Each group represented a different theory of weight-loss maintenance—a high protein, Atkins-type diet, a standard low-fat diet (the one we’re all advised to eat, whole grains, fruits, vegies and lean proteins) and a low-glycemic diet—lower carbohydrates in total, and those were “slow carbs,” the kinds of carbohydrates that digest slower and convert to blood sugar levels at a slower rate. This diet reduced the available processed foods. Each group rotated through each of the diet regimes and each individual was kept to a set caloric intake for the duration, regardless of the diet at any particular time. The rotation through the various regimes was designed, in part, to determine whether there was a metabolic adaptation to the weight loss, or, put more simply did what the participants ate, post-weight loss, change how they metabolized those calories?

The results were notable. Clearly, regardless of caloric intake (because all the diets maintained the same calorie count), the fewer carbohydrates consumed the more energy the subjects expended—as measured by weight maintenance. The Atkins-style, high protein diet was most efficient at both weight loss and weight maintenance—it produced more energy on the given caloric intake. But this diet also produced adverse health effects, and that made it a poor, long-term choice for a healthy life-style. The low-fat diet was the worst for weight maintenance—belying decades of weight and health expert advice! The best bet for health and weight maintenance was the low glycemic diet. Its low blood sugar carbohydrate approach prevented the insulin-endocrine response that tells the body to store fat. The really interesting thing about this diet is that it completely limits highly refined and processed foods because, regardless of calorie counts, these high-glycemic foods trigger the body’s response to store fats. Processed Junk Foods Kill.

Knowing this, we can still eat well—especially lean meats, some whole grains, and our fresh from the garden vegetables cooked at home without additives—and maintain a healthy weight and metabolism. It makes perfect sense, the “obesity epidemic” has compounded since our culture abandoned fresh foods for the convenience of highly refined, packaged foods. Even more deadly are the “super sugars” —high fructose corn syrups that are abundant in processed foods and beverages. Fifty years of corporate food tinkering have brought us an epidemic of obesity, and all its attendant health woes. These high glycemic foods tap into our innate drives—it was one thing as a hunter-gatherer to crave sweets and calories, another entirely in the land of plenty, a cornucopia of processed sugars and treats.

You won’t see much of this study, out in the light of day. It’s likely to be buried in the boring science files. You see, it flies in the face of the farm-food industry. There’s no money in selling ingredients—only in the “value-added” convenience products, those same refined products loaded in high-glycemic, refined carbohydrates. Big Food is out to make you fat. And, when you get fat, they’ll tell you it’s your fault—that you eat too much. They won’t cop to the fact that their products actually disrupt your endocrine system, tricking your body into becoming a fat producing machine. (They’ve known this for years!)

Knowing this, we are armed with the solution to the Bob problem. We can determine what is good for us and change our habits so that we don’t suffer from our foods. After all, Bob is a cat. I don’t expect him to reflect deeply on his food choices. Faced with a boring bowl of kibble and a warm, fresh, wriggling gopher, Bob is making a hardwired, cat choice. The other part of the problem, the personal discipline part, is tough for everyone. We don’t want to completely eliminate desserts, or fun foods. But we do need a way to keep them in their ‘occasional’ corner. They are designed to tap into our tastes in a way that speaks to irresistible. Food scientists have carefully tinkered with the balance of sweet, salt and fat to create Frankensteins of satisfaction. Most of the time, we must resist.

A doctor friend once told me that genetics was largely responsible for choosing our life spans, that eating right and moderate exercise would only buy us a few months to a year at the end. “Then why do you harp on it so?” I demanded. He smiled, “Oh, you’ll live almost as long, you’ll just wish you hadn’t.” So we are left with the challenge of choice—the result of which will be decades away.

The other day, I was chatting about gopher garden strategies with two of the women who live on the farm. One of them, in the medical profession, paused and then asked, “Do you think you could get sick from eating a bad onion?”

“A bad onion?” I said, startled by the abrupt about face.

“Well, yesterday when I was cooking, I took the last onion. It was a little black and soft at one end, so I cut that part off and used it anyway. Then, later, I got pretty sick.”

The other woman leaned forward, “The part you ate, was it firm and looked good?”

“Yeah, looked fine, smelled fine.”

We kicked it around, but the general consensus was that the onion didn’t seem a likely suspect for her stomach upset. Who hasn’t pruned off the mushy bit of an onion from time to time?

“I guess, then, it must have been the huge piece of chocolate cake and ice cream that made me sick.”

We were quiet for a minute and then, simultaneously the other woman and I said, “Naw, must have been the onion.”

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