Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Nutrition-Industrial Complex

"cheez-its are not nearly as good as generic cheez-its," 
I posted on Facebook. 

Dennis suggested I had bought low-sodium ones - though I was sure it was due to the presence of "real cheese" in the generic. 

Driving back from Great Falls with my girlfriend (an academic in a nutrition department), she pointed out that the difference probably was due to lower salt, thanks to the new sodium regulations.* I was immediately incensed that the nanny state took away one of the only processed snacks I like and she went on to explain that all these foods taste good mostly thanks to the simple trinity of salt, fat and sugar. And I was very surprised to hear that anytime you see a food advertised to be low in one of these categories, the unspoken subtext is that there's usually extra of the other two. "Low-fat" bread has "Extra salt," etc.

As I continued to complain about the government playing with my food, she elaborated that despite all the complicated research into nutrition, it seems that a lot of being healthy seems to just come down to calories. I had never bothered to actually read the Twinkie diet story, but apparently Professor Haub had managed not only to lose weight, but to improve his cholesterol and triglyceride levels, multiple putative markers of a legitimately healthy lifestyle.** Eating bad food might not always make you unhealthy, and eating healthy food, Haub points out, doesn't necessarily make you healthy. 

My girlfriend pointed to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as an example of this disconnect in our culture. This report is published every 5 years by the USDA and HHS and is meant to be a complete resource for U.S. citizens to live a healthy lifestyle - but it's so long and complicated. In her research, she frequently runs into the idea that most people will understand and utilize nutrition information only when it's extremely simple and easy to follow - e.g. the best solution for childhood obesity may be telling parents to serve their children's dinners on small plates.***

I don't know how accepted these conclusions are in the nutrition world but they make sense to me - and make me wonder why we don't hear a more consistent and simple message (eat less, eat diversely as you can), rather than this super technical, hyper-regulatory approach where we all have to learn what "trans-fats" and "high-fructose corn syrup" are.

I wonder if some of the nutrition academics are too wrapped up in their research to recommend advice that doesn't acknowledge how important their specific topic of study is.**** I also wonder if the USDA's mission to "expand markets for agricultural products" leads it to lean a little heavier than I'd like on pro-(established)business solutions.*****

Like eating too many servings of low-salt Cheez-its.

*an incredible park that you'd never believe was minutes from downtown D.C.!
** btw, why the heck does the CNN article have links to other articles hidden in the middle of the text as if it's part of they story? it's incredibly obnoxious and yet more evidence that CNN is no longer a news organization
***research shows that people tend to fill up their plate and eat everything off of it, whether it's a small plate or a giant one
****telling a researcher that their chosen corner of expertise isn't really relevant elicits the same response as telling a Virginian they're not really part of the South
*****I ran into this conflict of priorities back when I was active in the sudden oak death community. Regulatory agencies like the CDFA and USDA did their best to quarantine infested nursery stock in a balanced way that didn't drive too many nurseries out of business and didn't let too many new forests get infected, and were angrily assaulted by stakeholders on both sides


  1. It is simple - nobody wants to make anybody mad. It is time to face the music: by letting your child eat anything they want, play video games all day, teach them bad eating habits, and watch them become overweight is nothing short of killing your child. Diabetes, heart conditions, thyroid problems, etc. A child with those conditions will be on medication all of their life and be at risk of greater, fatal health problems.

    I overheard a mother telling her child that he "cant have another soda since you already had four today." Needless to say the kid was overweight. Down right poor parenting.

  2. Well their ten times better than cheese me anyway. Yes there is a difference, cheese nips tend to be a little bland.



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