New articles…

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… available on the Examiner. All are Vermont-centric, this time.

Grub first: breaking it down

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A brief note on this blog’s title…

As you can read in this site’s “About” section, I borrowed the title “Grub first” from a quote of German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht– “grub first, then ethics.”

I began this blog for many reasons, but most chiefly because while to eat and thus to grub is a necessity, we humans have managed to transform the primal act of grabbing and ingesting food into a political, religious and social act.

Eating is political when we choose an organic, locally-grown tomato over a conventionally-grown product, religious when we demand that Kosher and Halal food be available in our college dining halls, and social when we gather with close friends to break bread.

We have made food and the act of eating all of these things and more, yet, as Brecht would remind us, “grub” remains a priority. Deliberate we might between saturated and unsaturated fats, but we still at a certain point need to eat.

Myriad resources exist today to guide and advise how and what we eat. Articles published in the New York Times and CNN synthesize studies on the merits of olive oil and blueberries, whole grains and arugula. News clips of Dr. Oz and other popular health figures inform us that Nutrient X is vital for healthy skin and hair, and that we should consider avoiding Food Y if we are pregnant and/or under the age of 10.

With such omnipresent reminders of the ability of food to do good or alternately harm, it can be easy to forget that eating is at its most basic a question of consuming enough calories to keep your body functioning. Mr. Brecht’s “grub” quote is this reminder.

Choose if you will vinagrette over dressing, but remember always to “grub first, then ethics.”

“Let’s Move?”

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Here’s my attempt at writing a short opinions piece on a political topic. This (or a version thereof) should appear in the Sophian on Dec. 2nd.

Also, apologies that it’s been ages since I wrote a true Grub piece. My growing to-do list has kept me pretty busy, unfortunately. I look forward to getting back to some quality grubbin’ once my apps. are finished in January.


Let’s move?

While her husband has bigger issues on his plate these days, Michelle Obama struggles even within the Democratic Party to rally support for her “pet project,” better known as the ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, spearheaded in the aim of stemming rising rates of childhood obesity.

Speaking on the topic, Obama has said “in the end, as First Lady, this isn’t just a policy issue for me. This is a passion. This is my mission. I am determined to work with folks across this country to change the way a generation of kids thinks about food and nutrition.”

In her campaign to change the health of American kids, Obama saw Senate approval for her Child Nutrition Bill this past August, a measure that focuses on getting “junk food” out of the nation’s schools while simultaneously allocating $4.5 billion to be disbursed over the next decade for the purpose of improving child nutrition, particularly through ensuring that national meal programs provide healthier options.

What’s the big deal, then, with working to improve the health of the nation’s youth?

As articulated by opponents of the Bill, their qualms are not with the measure itself, but rather in how Obama and its other proponents plan to provide funding for the Bill; particularly, by cutting future rises in food stamp benefits.

Supporters of the Bill in turn maintain that alternative financing for the food stamp program can be found, as indicated by Obama’s pledge to identify the source of such monies before the cutbacks would go into effect in 2013.

Yet other opponents of the Bill criticize its approach, and argue that the Bill and other “anti-obesity” measures of the First Lady et al. will serve only to reinforce and justify “fat hatred.”

Whether or not you believe that obesity and its “remedy”—weight loss—is a matter of willpower, it is not difficult to imagine the trajectory of thinking that elementary school students will make, armed with their newfound understanding that fat is to be limited and activity maximized. Kids can be harsh, and it is not unreasonable to imagine that, in the absence of some preventative teaching that campaigning against the negative health consequences associated with obesity is not the same as campaigning against obese individuals (or is it?), bullying of overweight children will become even more of an issue.

All told, what is Michelle Obama to do in the face of such criticism? Is there hope for the success of her campaign and of the Bill?

Yes, I believe, if Obama is to do two things. One, the overarching campaign targeted against obesity must be reframed as a campaign to improve the health of the American people. Adults and not just children are notoriously bad as distinguishing between a movement against an outcome and the people who experience that outcome, and her work will be more successful if those Americans for whom weight is a struggle can get behind the movement without fear of ridicule or exile.

Second, Obama must find a succinct means of financing her Bill, and stat. In this Lame Duck Congress, time is of the essence, and Obama cannot afford to let her hard work go to rot as its passage continues to be delayed.

In the interim, Obama continues her efforts to curb rising rates of obesity, one step, and one lettuce leaf, at a time.

Dietary needs of vegetarians and vegans

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Talking last week with a group of girls from my house, I was discussing my plans to study nutrition in graduate school. Two of the three present shared that they as vegetarians were concerned about meeting their nutritional needs now that they had decided to forgo meat.

I was able to rattle off a few things, but realized that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to review the subject for their and my own benefit. After all, we just began our Digestive System and Nutrition unit in Anatomy & Physiology, so what could be a better time to review which macro- (protein, fats, carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) vegetarians and vegans are at risk of coming up short on?

Using several different sources (the Vegetarian Resource Group, Nemours’ Kids’ Health site, the American Heart Association), I pulled together the following. Have a look at it, and share with the vegans and vegetarians in your life!

Macronutrients:

Protein- The biggest concern regarding the macronutrients, as you may well know, is whether vegetarians and vegans get enough and enough quality protein sources. Ample empirical research, however, suggests that vegetarian diets can easily provide sufficient dietary protein as long as a variety of plant protein sources are utilized.

The overarching category of proteins, composed as they are of 20 amino acid monomers, becomes a dietary concern when the vegetarian or vegan in question is not getting the essential amino acids, which cannot be synthesized in the body.  Dairy and egg products provide the eight essential amino acids, but the only vegan food sources that contain all eight are soy, hempseed, chia seed, amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa and, perhaps surprisingly, the lupin plant (yes, of Lupin Lady fame).

Fortunately enough for those vegans and vegetarians that can’t afford or don’t have easy access to such foods, the essential amino acids can also be obtained by eating a variety of complementary plant proteins. While the idea of protein “combining” as necessary over the course of a meal has been repudiated by the scientific community, it remains important for vegans and veg-heads to eat a wide variety of plant proteins in order to assure they are getting their requisite eight.

Micronutrients:

Iron- I discussed the importance of dietary iron a little in my piece on hemoglobin. Again, while iron in plant sources abounds, the mineral’s bioavailability is less than that of meat sources, and its absorption is hampered by a number of dietary components. Vegetarian foods that are rich in iron include black and kidney beans, lentils, oatmeal, soybeans, fortified breakfast cereals, sunflower seeds, black-strap molasses and chickpeas. Interestingly enough, a 2009 position paper of the American Dietetic Association has argued that iron deficiencies among vegetarians and vegans is less prevalent than previously thought. A little planning, it seems, is all it takes to get adequate iron.

Vitamin B12- Plant foods are in general not significant sources of B12, which plays a vital role in nervous system functioning and in blood clotting. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get their RDA of the vitamin from dairy products and eggs, while vegans may need to rely on fortified food sources.

Vitamin D- Vitamin D deficiencies seem no more likely in vegetarians and vegans than in the general population, but D-deficiency is a widespread issue among all segments of the general population. While this vitamin can be generated by the body with adequate sun exposure, getting enough “sunny D” is unlikely for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere. Vitamin D is necessary for proper absorption of calcium, and fortified products like milk, soy milk and cereal grains are good sources of the essential vitamin. Supplementation is also an option.

Calcium- Calcium intake in vegetarians is on par with that of non-veg-heads, but can be harder to achieve in vegans. Leafy greens can provide ample supplies of dietary calcium, although the absorption of calcium from spinach, Swiss chard and beet greens is inhibited to a degree by the oxalate ion.

Fatty acids- Omega 3 fatty acids in particular are essential to the human body for a number of reasons, specifically in aiding normal human growth. Omega 3s are also necessary for supporting dermal (skin) integrity, renal function and ensuring a healthy childbirth.

Plant-based sources of the fatty acid include soy, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, canola oil, hemp-, chia- and flaxseed, as well as purslane. Plant foods supply alpha-linolenic acid but not long-chain omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which can be found to a small extent in dairy products and eggs. As a result, vegetarians and especially vegans are often found to have lower levels of EPA and DHA than omnivores, and supplementation may be recommended.

That said, a well planned vegetarian or vegan diet has been endorsed by the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada as “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provid[ing] health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Specifically, mortality from ischaemic heart disease has been found to be markedly lower in vegan and vegetarians, as well as risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, kidney diseases, osteoporosis and dementias. Vegans and vegetarians also exhibit lower rates of obesity and better cholesterol profiles.

Beyond that, this future dietitian does not believe that any one dietary philosophy (beyond the baby food diet and other such fad diets) is better than another, and I would encourage eaters to choose foods in a fashion that fits their lifestyle. While I for example could easily go without meat, I find the occasional turkey or ham sandwich to be too tasty to pass up. And while I believe in the importance of eating locally-sourced meats and dairy/egg products grown in a humane and sustainable manner, I am also a realist and make do for the time being with dining hall meats.

My take-home message? Eat in a way that is congruent with your moral beliefs, and don’t let any quack nutrition or medical professional convince you than any one diet is superior to another.

Calorie counts in college dining halls?

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Below is a fabulous Letter-to-the-Editor from fellow Smithie and student blogger Jackie, published this past Thursday in the Sophian, our student newspaper.

Jackie’s letter addresses Smith’s recent decision to post nutrition information (calories, grams of fat, protein, etc.) on the dining menus available online.

To the Editor:

As a senior at Smith, I’ve seen many unfortunate changes take place within our campus and community, many as a result of recent budget cuts. Despite this, I adore Smith College, and it pains me when the administration or offices on campus make choices that are out of touch with the needs and desires of the students. Dining Services’ recent decision to provide nutritional information alongside the online menus strikes me as a choice that, while surely well-intentioned, reflects an ignorance of the type of student body we have.

I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for nine years, and though recovered now, know many other Smithies who also deal with eating disorders and disordered eating. Although I have no hard facts, my personal estimate is that at least 20% of our campus has had some struggles with this, if not more. It is nearly epidemic.

While attempting to fight a mental illness and maintain a real concept of what healthy eating looks like, easy access to calorie counts can be devastating and a real setback. I have no doubt that many of the students dealing with EDs on campus can estimate the calories in their food with startling accuracy, but I see no legitimate reason to provide us with the cold hard facts to further enable eating disorders. Even for students who may be trying to lose weight for legitimate health reasons, given Smith’s style of dining services, it’s hard to make healthy choices if you realize the mac n’ cheese has a bazillion calories, but there’s no other real option presented except the salad bar, which does not a dinner make.

I fully support Dining Services in publishing allergy information, ingredient lists, sodium, and the like, and even macronutrients like carbohydrates and protein. Providing this information gives individuals with health conditions the ability to eat with confidence that they won’t be adversely affected by their food, and that’s great. But to put the fat grams and calorie counts for foods I’ve eaten, blissfully ignorant of their caloric values over the past three years, seems to be a decision out of touch with the needs of Smith’s unique student body. Women already fight an uphill battle in trying to treat their bodies with love and respect, and Smith shouldn’t make this any harder than it has to be.

Sincerely,
J.S.

First off, I applaud Jackie for making her voice heard. Like she says, Smith has made quite a few decisions in recent years (phasing out college chaplains, for example) that have angered the student body. Yes, cuts must be made to maintain a viable college budget, but many such cost-saving measures seem to have gone too far. Similarly, with Dining Services’ decision to publish the nutritional and caloric break-down of our beloved vegan Caesar salad, chocolate chip brownies and cheddar-broccoli bake, we students have once again a chance to make our opposition heard.

I agree wholeheartedly with Jackie on this issue. Smith College is home to 2,500-some young women who regularly push themselves for excellence in the classroom, on the soccer field and in all aspects of their lives. As a result of our collective tendency towards perfectionism, it is unsurprising that many Smithies have struggled or struggle with disordered eating and eating disorders. As Jackie points out, providing such students with yet another reminder of the ways in which food (that which is meant to nourish and sustain) can ohmygod! make you fat! is unnecessary and in fact harmful.

Because I am often at UMass for Anatomy & Physiology and Biochem., I eat most lunches in the university dining halls. Beyond providing far greater variety (and soft-serve!), UMass also adorns its many eating options with nutrition tags. Brown rice, I read today, contains 107 calories per serving, and 1.4 grams of fiber. Couscous, on the other hand, contains only 100 calories per serving, but less fiber. Interesting for a future nutritionist, yes, but dangerous information in the hands of someone who has struggled with disordered eating.

I understand as Jackie does that such nutrition tags can help students avoid allergic reactions, and influence a student to pick a protein-rich item over one that has comparatively little protein, but, especially on a campus where so many of us attach undue meaning and importance to food, publishing such information can be quite damaging.

If Sally Smithie reads that her favorite pasta dish contains 200 calories more than another entrée, she may decide to forgo the pasta. It is Sally’s right as owner of her body to choose what goes into said body, but what if Sally is a recovering anorexic? The dining halls then becomes a minefield for S.S. and similar students for whom eating is no second-nature affair.

I understand that Dining Services’ intentions are good, but I must, like Jackie, remind the administration that such a decision should not be undertaken without consideration of the myriad ways in which making calorie- and fat-counts part of the dining experience can endanger the health of the student body.

Two new Examiner articles up

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Banning chocolate milk in schools?

And

New exercise guidelines to prevent excess weight gain in women, and how to get more out of shorter workouts.

In defense of spuds

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No, it ain’t Michael Pollan on blogging loan.

Just me, myself and I urging a little compassion for our friend Solanum tuberosum, better known as the common potato.

While ‘taters today remain the world’s fourth-largest food crop, the tuberous plant has been much maligned in recent years, largely due to its high ranking on the Glycemic Index. Trailed by an abundance of bad press, potatoes have suffered somewhat in popularity in the U.S., but wrongly so.

While sweet potatoes (which are actually only distantly related to their white counterparts) are higher in beta-carotene and dietary fiber, spuds remain nutritional powerhouses.

A medium-sized white potato, for example, provides 45% of the Daily Value of Vitamin C, 18% of potassium and trace amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, folate, niacin, magnesium, phosphorous, iron and zinc. White potatoes are also equivalent in their fiber content to whole grain breads, pastas and cereals.

While potatoes are indeed “starchy” foods, some of their starch (or glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrates in plants), is considered “resistant” in that it is resistant to digestion by stomach and small intestine enzymes, thereby reaching the large intestine more or less intact.

Resistant starch is theorized to have similar physiological effects and health benefits as dietary fiber. That is to say, resistant starch seems to add bulk to stools, improve insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, lower cholesterol, protect against colon cancer, increase satiety and potentially reduce fat storage in the body. The amount of resistant starch in a potato dish depends to some degree on its preparation.

Below is the nutrient break-down of a white potato, with and without the skin. Information courtesy of nutritiondata.com.

Nutrient Without skin (156 g) (% RDA) With skin (173 g) (% RDA)
Vitamin C 33 28
Thiamin 11 7
Niacin 11 12
Vitamin B6 23 27
Folate 4 12
Pantothenic Acid 9 7
Iron 3 10
Magnesium 10 12
Potassium 17 26
Copper 17 10
Dietary Fiber 9 15

As you can see, the nutritional benefits of white potatoes are nothing to sneeze at. And while it is true that potatoes have a relatively high Glycemic Index, the GI value of a potato does vary considerably depending on the type (red, Russet, etc.), where it was grown, its preparation methods (e.g. mashed v. whole) and whether it is served with high-fat or high-protein toppings, both of which would lower the potato’s GI.

So give the ol’ patata a second chance, and know that your are doing your body, as well as your taste buds, a world of good.

Patatas bravas, a classic Spanish tapas dish.

Recipe for the dish pictured available here.

UPDATE: Just saw this in the New York Times’ Health section online… I swear I didn’t steal the title (!)

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