Saturated fats may or may not kill us all

I am daunted by stuff like this recent article in Paleo Magazine: Does Coconut Oil Really Cause Heart Attacks? which makes the case that polyunsaturated vegetable oil is dangerous stuff to eat, and that the statistical associations that seemed to suggest that it was safer than saturated fat were an artifact of other dietary changes going on at the same time that the public was being pushed to switch to vegetable oils:

Though saturated-fat-intake data used in these trials are absent from most of the publications, historical data do show that the average person’s diet was higher in margarine and shortening than it was in butter, lard, and tallow. One must consider that most, or possibly all, of the 1970s-era studies showing a supposed benefit of adding PUFAs are actually evidencing the benefit of cutting out trans fat.

It is annoying that the research studies done to date do not seem to have been constructed to resolve this question, leaving us stuck trying to figure out statistical correlations and hypothesize about cause and effect based on how different fatty acids are metabolized in the body.

Lacking the skills with either statistics on the one hand and biochemistry on the other, I can’t figure this out for myself. And yet, it is literally a matter of life or death.

However, there is another way to get at the question, the strategy suggested by Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food. There are many traditional diets that have been eaten all over the world by millions of people for thousands of years, and the people who have eaten them have thrived.

There are also diets that were eaten by people who did not thrive—the standard American diet for one, but also many others. (In particular, it seems that many early agricultural societies go through a period when agriculture starts producing enough calories through a single staple crop to push the population high enough that it’s not possible to get the full range of necessary nutrients from other available foods. In the archeological record you see people shrinking and signs of various degenerative diseases not present in other populations.)

By looking at the vast range of diets that lead to thriving, I am convinced that it’s not that hard to eat a healthy diet, and that simply going for whole foods gets one most of the way there.

I am convinced enough that, despite being a picky eater from way back, I have been expanding the range of things I eat more and more, trying to add whole foods and delete processed foods. I give a nod to paleo eating—speculating about what cavemen ate and how they prepared it is at least fun and may even offer some useful guidance on how to eat, especially for people who have dietary issues that they’ve been unable to resolve with simpler strategies—but I have not given up dairy or grains or legumes.

Trying to eat whole foods has significantly increased the amount of saturated fat in my diet. I just about don’t use polyunsaturated vegetable oil in my own cooking—it is, after all, a quintessentially processed food—and I eat very little food cooked by other people (except Jackie).

I suppose the fats I do eat and cook with—olive oil, butter, and lard—are all “processed,” but those processes (pressing, churning, rendering) are processes that people have been using for a very long time indeed. The number of people who have eaten those fats and thrived over the past 5000 years (that we know of, and probably a multiple of that in fact) is large enough to give me some confidence that these foods are safe to eat.

So far that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with.

The Ultimate Army Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants | The Art of Manliness

If you’re interested in foraging, your best source of information is going to be a local forager who knows what’s available in your area at different times of year. You next best would be a book by a local forager. Third best, but better than nothing, would be FM 21-76 the (not copyrighted, because it’s a U.S. government publication) Army Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants.

Original opulence via simple living

Just from her title I was pretty sure that Christa Whiteman’s post Living simply: reclaiming sanity + authenticity would be right in my sweet spot, and I was not surprised to find more than a little overlap with what I’ve been saying for years at Wise Bread. I’ve talked about living a life of “luxury and splendor,” but recovering our “original opulence” sounds good too.

Christa suggests three starting places: food, movement, and stuff—adding that the proper course to take is a spiral, coming around to the same points over and over. She is right—where you start means little—and yet, her course is so completely different from my own I thought it might be worth pondering those differences to see if they told me something useful about what I’ve been doing, and about how I’ve been writing about it.

As anyone who has read my work at Wise Bread knows, I’m all about the power of frugality as a tool for living a life of full of exactly what you most want: Basically, I started with the “stuff” piece. I probably have a hundred articles on various aspects of figuring out the difference between needs and wants, covering your actual needs, identifying and focusing on those few wants that matter most deeply to you, and dealing with others who care how you satisfy your wants.

I wrote quite a bit about food, too—about how to eat at the intersection of cheap and healthy. I’ve just now reread a few of those posts and I’m pretty pleased with them, even if I’d write them differently now.

Christa’s third piece is about movement, and that is where my writing at Wise Bread falls short. In fact, I’ve really got exactly one post that’s right on topic. The editors gave it the unfortunate title of Get a Great Workout for Free With 11 Simple Moves, but it’s straight-up natural movement advocacy. Before that, I had some good stuff on how walking and bicycling for transportation were frugal and healthy, but it had a pretty limited perspective.

I think I need to write some more pieces on both food and movement for Wise Bread. I can certainly write a new Wise Bread post on how to eat paleo on the cheap. (Not that I eat a paleo diet, but there’s a lot of overlap between what’s expensive in my diet and what’s expensive in the paleo diet.) Maybe I can also write some more movement pieces. What should be the focus, I wonder. The frugality of natural movement for exercise? The frugality of staying healthy? Or the luxury and splendor of being a fully capable human? I guess I’ve done that first one. Hmm.

Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.
Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.

Tomato soup has high fructose corn syrup?

I was eating my lunchtime salad, and on a whim (because it was a chill, blustery day) decided that I’d really like some soup. So I grabbed a can from the cupboard and heated up some Campbell’s tomato soup. I didn’t check the label, because, you know, tomato soup. What would be in it? Tomatoes, broth, maybe some onion, and salt, right?

One sip, and I was shocked to find it tasted sweet.

My first thought was that eating low carb had sensitized me to the taste of sweet, and I guess it has (I’d always perceived Campbell’s tomato soup as salty in the past) but it’s not just that.

After that one spoonful, I looked at the label. A 1/2 cup serving of soup has an astonishing 20 g of carbs, 12 of them from sugar. The number two ingredient is high fructose corn syrup!

I know I shouldn’t find this as surprising as I did. If it’s processed food, of course it’s going to have high fructose corn syrup. I just hadn’t thought of it, because even a week and a half into eating low-carb, I hadn’t needed to get into the habit of checking labels.

Jackie cooks almost all our meals (although I’m cooking a good share of mine, while I’m doing the low-carb thing). We rarely eat processed food, but we keep some on hand so we can satisfy just this sort of sudden urge.

The upshot is that I haven’t had to get in the habit of checking the nutrition labels, because most of what we eat scarcely has labels—because we eat food, not industrially manufactured food-like substances.

I ended up eating about three tablespoons of the soup, and then putting it in the fridge. Maybe we can make some use of it, putting the odd spoonful here and there into some dish that needs a little tomato and little salt—and a little sugar.

Katy Bowman: The Michael Pollan of movement

I have always found “deconstructionist” models appealing. For example, I liked the idea that you could “figure out” all the nutrients that you need and then build up a diet that provides the right mix of carbs, proteins, fats (with proper mix between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), the right amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and so on.

Then Michael Pollan came along and (in his book In Defense of Food) completely destroyed that idea. First of all, it’s an impossible problem to solve—the different nutrients interact in the body (and biome) in ways that are intractably complex, plus there are so many micro-nutrients as to make it computationally infeasible (even if we knew what all of them were, which we don’t). More to the point, though, it’s a completely unnecessary problem to solve: our bodies solve it for us, as long as we eat a diet of diverse foods and minimize our consumption of manufactured food-like substances.

I’m not saying this is new news. In fact, this is common knowledge—everybody said this, right from the start. What I’m saying is that, for reasons no doubt having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, I liked the deconstructionist model for analyzing and then constructing a plan for what to eat, despite what everybody said. For some reason, again having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, Michael Pollan’s explanation of how the whole deconstructionist model of designing a plan for eating was fundamentally flawed suddenly made it clear to me (in a way that any number of people—including my third grade health teacher and both my parents—had not managed to do).

All that seems relevant because—I recently realized—for years now I’ve been making the exact same mistake with movement. I’ve been trying to “figure out” an exercise regime that would keep me fit. If you click on the Fitness category over in the sidebar, or the “exercise” tag on this post, you’ll be linked to a long list of my posts on the topic, many of which describe my latest attempt to find the right mix of walking, running, bicycling, lifting, stretching, and taiji to build and maintain optimal levels of aerobic capacity, strength, and flexibility.

Then I ran into the work of Katy Bowman, whose explanations of why exercise is no substitute for movement clicked for me in just the same way, and for roughly the same reason: The problem is intractably complex, and anyway our bodies solve the problem for us—as long as we engage in an ample amount of diverse movement and minimize things like sitting in chairs and wearing bad shoes. (See her book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement.)

Again, this is not really new news; I’m just late to the party because I like the idea of designing an exercise regime that covers all the necessary categories.

However, I think I have come around. Appealing as it is to me to design the perfect exercise regime and then tick off each box as I reach my target for the week, I pretty much have to admit that the whole thing is a fool’s errand. I’d be much better off spending that time walking, stretching, hanging, squatting, climbing, balancing, jumping, throwing, catching, and so on.

I’ll still run (because I enjoy it, probably due to the endocannabinoids, and because being able to run is useful), but I’ll spend a lot less time on things like figuring out how much I can safely add to my weekly mileage. I’ll just run as much as I feel like—while being careful to do so mindfully, and to pay attention to my body, so that enjoying running doesn’t entice me to run more than should.

Still not new news.

Eating native food

This great article in Al Jazeera America hits a whole bunch of my interests: healthy eating, decolonization, sustainability, preserving culture:  Eating indigenously changes diets and lives of Native Americans. Basically, more than one group of researchers who are also Native Americans have decided to look into seeing if they could eat the way their ancestors ate.

Reinhardt, a professor in the Native American Studies program, was helping to serve up fry bread, Indian tacos and other offerings at the annual First Nations Food Taster, a fund-raising event for the Native American Student Association, when he had an epiphany: “Would my ancestors even recognize this as food?”

If you, like me, are a fan of Michael Pollan’s work, there’s a lot here to find interesting. There is considerable overlap with the “paleo” diet (although the researchers set their time threshold at 1602, rather than the dawn of agriculture) and with the locavore movement (with different locales for different Native American researchers).

The article touches on all sorts of question: Do we even know what they ate? Are the plants and animals still available? Is such a diet healthier than a modern Western diet?

Interesting as the food issues are, the issues having to do with decolonization are at least as interesting, as are the issues having to do with sustainability.

Peanut butter is good

We usually buy our peanut butter from a local health food store that grinds it fresh. The owner comes out from behind the counter, grabs a 1-pound package of peanuts from the cooler, and then takes it back behind the counter and grinds it while you wait. (I think you’re supposed to get the package yourself and bring it to her, but I didn’t know that. Jackie usually does the shopping there.)

Sadly, we just used up our package of freshly ground unsalted unsweetened peanut butter, and for lunch today had to make do with our backup supply—some national brand peanut butter. We keep it on hand for two reasons. It’s less runny than good peanut butter, which is nice when we’re making peanut butter sandwiches to take to a lunchtime lecture at OLLI (or any similar brown-bag event) and want a minimally messy lunch. And it stores well.

It’s not as healthy. It’s salted and sweetened. Worse, some of the healthy peanut oil has been replaced with some less runny oil. (Although they now use less hydrogenated vegetable oil than they used when I was a kid.) But you know what? The commercial stuff tastes good even so.

Still, we’ll get some more freshly ground peanut butter first chance we get.