Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Are the soda companies to blame?

Here is a “serious” follow up to my April Fool’s sugar post.  

Last night I thought I came up with a solution to America’s obesity epidemic.  We’ll need CIA’s participation, but I think we can do it.  We plant worms in bags of sugar and randomly place them in stores all over the country.  Consumers will be so disgusted and appalled that they’ll swear off everything sweet for the rest of their life.  The inspiration for this idea came from the response to my post about fish parasites.  Hundreds of people wrote in saying that they found a worm in their fish and swore off fish for the rest of their life  -- not just cod, haddock, halibut or other worm prone species, but fish in general.  Media can help too.  A few articles about mercury contamination in Coke could do wonders.  At least they’ve done that for fish.  Of course, that’s fish -- one of the most delicious and healthy foods that civilizations have subsisted off for thousands of years.  Sugar is a different story.  It’s only been a regular part of human diet for about 100 years, but got such a hold on us that I bet after the initial disgust, most consumers will simply buy another bag of sugar and give those brownies another go.  Mercury in Coke?  That’s unpleasant, but why swear off all soda?  There is always Pepsi.  I guess it was not a good idea after all, but it does illustrate a point.

I’ll leave demonizing soda companies to the media and activist groups.  They do it so well, it would be a shame for me to get involved and ruin all the fun.  Instead, I’d like to take a serious look at ourselves: American home cooks and food consumers.  My data source will be a food porn site where bloggers submit pictures to be featured on the site, that is if they are deemed to be worthy.  After following it for a few months, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern.  More than 50% of pictures are desserts.  It’s hard to tell if foodgawker favors desserts over savory foods or if they get way more dessert submissions than savory food submissions.  But here is something I do have data on.  Out of 8 images that I got into foodgawker, the most popular by far was a dessert (top row, third from the left) -- it’s not the best picture and it’s a brainless, artless recipe that takes 5 minutes to make.  Yet, it attracted more attention than any savory dish I submitted.  

“But wait,” you say.  Many desserts featured on foodgawker are fat-free, butter-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, and egg-free.  I get it.  Our desserts are so free these days, that soon they’ll write a declaration of independence and establish a state of their own.  Unfortunately, there is this ridiculous notion spread by the media, nutritionists, and medical community that there are good carbs and bad carbs, good fats and bad fats, good proteins and bad proteins, good salt and bad salt, and good sugar and bad sugar.  Somehow bad fats in foie gras and duck confit don’t cause people in Bordeaux to be dropping like flies from heart disease.  They have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world.  The salt guzzling Japan is pretty healthy too.  It wasn’t until sugar and refined carbs got introduced to the diet of humanity that we started getting fat.  There is no such thing as good sugar.  Sugar substitutes?  Just give it another 10 years and we’ll find out that the latest sugar substitute causes cancer.  Adding whole wheat flour and flax seeds to your cookies does not magically eliminate the cup of sugar you put into them.  We love to point fingers at the soda companies, but what about girl scout cookies?  How would you feel if girl scouts sold cigarettes for a good cause?  Sugar is sugar no matter how good the cause is.

The scary thing is that we wove sugar into our culture and social fabric making it very hard to extricate ourselves from it.  Sometimes we don’t even notice it.  Muffin for breakfast?  That’s a dessert, my friends.  A muffin is a cake without icing.  How about cookies for a bake sale, or bringing them to your neighbors for Christmas, and giving them to teachers to thank them for their hard work?  I tried to break the mold the first year my daughter was in daycare and brought a rillettes to the Christmas party at her daycare.  Everyone viewed it with great suspicion.  Many told me they were vegetarian.  Others asked if it had a lot of fat?  The cookies, brownies and cakes did a lot better than rillettes.  I’ve learned my lesson and now bring desserts.

After painting this bleak picture and offending most bakers in America, let me offer some ideas for how to reduce the sugar your kids eat.  I will not tell you to take your children to local farms, or to feed them whole grains, or to control what they do in school and their friend’s house, or to bake them healthy brownies with kale.  Here is what works for us.

Make savory food orgasmically delicious
The number one priority for my savory food is deliciousness.  When you are done with your entree, you should not feel that now is finally time for the best part of the meal -- the dessert.  You should feel sorry that the best part of the meal is over.  The number two priority for my cooking is including things that provide satiety and necessary nutrients: protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.  Eliminating things that are “bad” for you, like fat and salt is nowhere on my list of concerns.

I don’t care what my children think of my cooking.  I cook for my husband and myself and they are welcome to eat what we eat.  It took me years to get to this state, but it’s a good frame of mind to be in.  Within a 5 minute interval, I might hear from my children that my Brussel sprouts are the best in the world and my lentils are disgusting.  Should I stop cooking lentils?  Of course not!  I don’t hold my breath patiently offering my kids foods 3, 5, 7, or X times.  You’ll drive yourself crazy this way.  My daughter used to love asparagus and now she hates it.  She used to hate parsnips and now she loves them.  Everyone is entitled to some dislikes, but they should be counted on one hand.

Stop worrying about your poor hungry child
Although I mentioned above that I cook for my husband and myself, I am mindful of everyone at the table.  My son is allergic to eggs, shellfish, nuts and kiwi.  Obviously, I won’t serve us shrimp for dinner.  My daughter can’t stand cheese.  Cheese fondue is not an option in our house either.  But say my dinner includes mahi-mahi with brussel sprouts and lentils.  One kid might only eat mahi-mahi and another might only eat brussel sprouts.  That’s fine.  Those are both nutritionally sound options.  Our meals rarely include empty calories in the form of pasta, potatoes, rice, or bread.  My children are no more special than yours.  Given pasta, they’ll eat pasta.  “Oh, but my children only eat pasta.  I can’t starve them,” you might think.  You’ll be amazed at what kids will do when they are indeed hungry and when there is nothing else to eat in the house.
Recently we stopped buying bread on regular basis.  After one week of whining, the kids stopped asking for it.
But don’t expect martyrdom from your kids.  They won’t eat dry halibut and mushy asparagus because they are good for them.  Your job is to learn to cook as well as possible and leave the choice of whether to  not to eat up to your kids.

Use sugar in savory foods
After my anti-sugar tirade, you might find it surprising that I use sugar very frequently in savory foods.  I cook Japanese food a lot which includes soy syrups and glazes on everything from fish to vegetables.  The important thing to note is what percent of calories comes from sugar.  When sugar is used in savory food, a tiny bit goes a long way.  The presence of salt amplifies the sugar making the food taste very pleasantly sweet and it satisfies the sugar craving we all naturally have.  Instead of bashing junk food companies, why not learn from them?  The combination of salty and sweet is addictive.  Sometimes I wonder if I should start bottling the soy concentrate I make and selling it as “Magical Kid Sauce.”  A tiny drizzle of it on any fish, meat, or vegetable makes my kids gobble it up.  You too can have kids addicted to Spanish mackerel and green beans instead of M&Ms.

If you can find a cookie, you can have a cookie
You don’t expect to get a cookie when you go into a public bathroom, right?  You also probably don’t expect to get a brownie when you go into a bank.  It’s all about expectations of what’s possible and what’s not.  My children don’t ask me for cookies or any sort of dessert because there isn’t any.  It just doesn’t exist.  I do make desserts for birthdays and holidays -- real unadulterated desserts with as much real sugar as necessary -- and they are welcome to eat as much as they want regardless of whether or not they finish their broccoli.  Columbus day doesn’t count as a holiday, by the way.  This policy applies to all snacks in our house with the exception of fruit and dark chocolate.  Fruit is always available.  Dark chocolate is available about half the time.  Other than that, if you want something, you need to cook something.

When my Grandma was visiting us, she was appalled at my empty cupboards.  I had my kids’ friends come over for a play date with their Mom.  When I offered the Mom tea, I served just that -- tea.  “Shouldn’t you serve something with tea?” asked my Grandma.  “I don’t have anything to serve,” I replied.  My Grandma didn’t say anything, but I could see how much she disapproved of my lack of hospitality.  Having something on hand for unexpected guests is polite, but that means it's always around.  If it’s around, it will be eaten.

I succumb to peer pressure in other ways.  I bring my neighbors cookies for Christmas instead of riellette.  But that doesn't affect our own health.  Keeping snacks for guests does.

Don’t try to control what kids do outside the house
If my kids go to a friend’s house and eats 3 cookies, that’s fine with me.  10 cookies?  That’s even better because it might result in a stomachache and discourage them from doing that again.  We take our children trick-or-treating and they eat the candy afterwards.  After 2 days, we quietly throw away what’s left.  The good old days of Sammy saying the candy tastes weird ended when she was 3.  Pre-school and kindergarten introduced her to enough sweets and cured her from her sensitivity to sugar.  I can cry about it, and try to change the world.  But I am not that person.  I am a pragmatist.  Making the sugar the forbidden fruit only makes matters worse.  My children eat their breakfasts and dinners at home; I have more impact on their taste preferences than anyone else.

Get kids involved in preparing savory foods
When children start to help in the kitchen, what do they do?  They stir the cookie and muffin batters.  Taking a lick of raw cookie batter is a rite of passage.  I don’t know of an American kid who hasn’t done it.  Salmonella?  What salmonella?  We are talking about cookie batter here.  The same parents will not let their children eat raw fish or medium-rare burgers.  Salmonella is actually much more common than e.coli.

Stirring cookie batter and pouring in chocolate chips are not the only activities kids are capable off.  My 2 year old snaps asparagus.  How often does a little boy hear from a parent, “I need help breaking these sticks.”  You should see the diligence with which he grabs those thick spears with his tiny hands and puts all his might into cracking off the woody end.  My 5 year old cuts them up.  Don’t want to give your kids knives?  Get them to help with washing and drying the veggies.  They think the salad spinner is a veggie amusement park ride and participate with great pleasure.  Just don’t expect that they’ll love the kale they washed with their own hands.  They might or they might not.  That’s not the point.  The point is that you are working on a project together and they are doing something useful.

Most of the above is probably not breaking news to anyone, but the response to that is usually, "Yes, but..."

What if I don’t have time to cook?
I know we love to fantasize about the good old days and complain about how hard our life is now.  But eating out and take-out are a novelty introduced to human civilizations fairly recently.  Do you think the Tuscan farmer we romanticize to death had more time in the 1800’s than you do?  He or she worked in the field from dawn till dusk.  A chicken dish required killing, plucking, and cutting up a bird.  So let’s not whine about a recipe asking us to cut out chicken's back bone.  We don’t have it so bad.  If you have time to read this blog or watch TV, you have time to cook.

What if I hate cooking?
We hate doing things we are bad at.  I was a chubby kid who hated exercising.  I wrote myself notes to get myself out of gym classes from 1st to 12th grade and signed them with my Mom’s signature.  Now I exercise regularly and take dance lessons with my husband.  I kept trying physical activities until I found ones I enjoy.  The more I did them, the better I got at them, and the more fun it became.  We are living creatures.  Enjoying the physicality of life like food and movement is built into us.  But like any worthy cause, it takes time and effort.


Kake said...

Here's another solution to the obesity panic: Health At Every Size. You don't need to be thin to be healthy, and giving up sugar may improve your health but isn't necessarily going to make you thin.

As someone who finds sweetness unappetising and desserts boring, I'm all for reducing the amount of sugar in the things we eat — but I think it's counterproductive to conflate body size with health-related behaviours.

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Kake,

Thanks for the HAES website. it's an interesting approach. I agree with many of its principles. We might be in violent agreement here, but it depends on what you mean by "thin." I had women who are size 4 tell me that they are fat. You can never be thin enough or rich enough ;) That being said, I don't think you can be healthy at *every* size. Obesity is directly linked to heart disease and many other health problems. I am not talking about being a few pounds overweight and unhappy about how you look in a mini-skirt. We all have different bodies and we don't need to look like models. Can you be thin and unhealthy? Of course.
Calories are calories and it doesn't matter whether they come from sugar, protein, or fat. But practically speaking, it's hard to overeat on proteins and fat. I haven't seen too many people eat 2 steaks when they meant to eat 1. But I've seen too many people eat 5 cookies when they meant to eat 1. Sugar and other processed carbs cost almost nothing and don't give you a sense of satiety, so they can easily push one over the calorie limit without a person noticing.


Kake said...

Regarding your assertion that obesity is directly linked to heart disease, here's a study indicating that actually BMI isn't a useful predictor of cardiovascular disease when indicators such as blood pressure, lipids, and diabetes history are available. It's those metabolic factors that determine your risk, not the size of your body.

Here's another study indicating that among people who adopt four healthy habits (eating 5 or more fruits and vegetables daily, exercising regularly, consuming alcohol in moderation, and not smoking) there is no difference in all-cause mortality between "normal" weight, overweight, and obese people. It's not the size of your body that matters; it's your behaviour.

I don't have a susceptibility to sugar myself — I not only can eat just one cookie, I usually only want to eat one cookie. But I have certainly observed the "can't stop" behaviour in others, and it seems possible that restricted eating — weight loss attempts — plays a part in this. (I have no references for this, I'm afraid, as it mainly comes from listening to people tell me about their personal experiences, but I do remember reading about this idea on various HAES websites.)

Finally, here's a blog written by a dancer who is fat by anyone's standards, yet is very fit and healthy. She discusses the HAES philosophy as well as the social justice angle.

Thank you for being willing to think about this!

Helen Rennie said...


You made me have a completely different perspective on things. Thanks so much for your links. That dancer's blog is fabulous. Her latest post on the comments she gets in zumba class illustrates a great point. There are many stereotypes when it comes to exercise and all those people thinking that they'll move their hips and make them thinner or move their legs and make them thinner is ridiculous. There is not such thing as spot reduction and it actually made me rethink why I go to the gym. I think when I started working out, I was doing it to lose weight, but now I do it to stay healthy. When I put my kids in car seats I no longer experience searing pain in my shoulder blade because I started doing muscle conditioning a year ago, and the zumba class or jogging are great stress relief for me. So I agree with you that exercise is good for you regardless of whether you lose weight or not.

But I also believe that not eating refined carbs on regular basis is a good health habit (like exercise or eating fruits and veggies). It might not necessarily make you thinner, but it will make you healthier.


Taste the Rainbow said...

Hi Helen,

I loved your post and agree with every point you made.

My only concern was for the vegetable I love a lot, the potato. I disagree that it has empty calories, such as pasta and rice. I know people usually don't eat potatoes plain, but I do. I cut them up also and roast them with other vegetables.



Kake said...

I'm so glad you found the links useful, and it's great to hear examples of how exercise has helped you.

It may well be the case that avoiding too many refined carbs is good for one's health — I don't know the state of research on that one. In any case, I'm thoroughly behind your suggestion of making savoury food delicious!

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Mary,

I love potatoes too :) They are a special occasion ingredient in our house, but that's a personal choice. I am not the kind of person who eliminates an ingredient completely. Sugar, potatoes, refined flour -- I use them all. What to eat on regular basis and what to eat for a special occasion is a very personal decision. The reason I wrote this post is because sugar is something most people think should not be a part of their regular diet, yet it seems over-represented in both the food media and in our culture.


Taste the Rainbow said...

Hi again Helen ~

Yes, I agree about your entire post, with the exception of a lovely vegetable like the potato. It can be eaten without garnish and wonder why you put it on your "once in awhile", list?

Much to my belief it is high in potasium, nutrients and flavor. How is the potato bad for us? I am just questioning you because I have never read anything to the contrary. Have I been misinformed?

Oh btw, I was at the market today and spent an hour in the yogurt section, and all of the most popular brands have almost 20 grams of sugar in a 4 oz. container. It's amazing what this Country does call "healthy food".

Cheers and I hope to see you soon. Loved your classes.


Helen Rennie said...

Potato is not bad for you and does have useful vitamins and minerals. But I do care about my weight. It's a personal decision. I am not saying everyone should. I also have a bad metabolism. Most of potato's calories come from carbs which don't fill me up like proteins. If I eat 300 calories worth of eggs, fish, or meat, I'll be full longer than if I eat 300 calories of potatoes. I gave up eating good for you grains (including whole grains) on regular basis too. About 70% of my meals follow paleo principles. It has nothing to do with healthfulness. It has to do with desire to stay within a certain weight range.

But for my kids, it does have to do with health. I find that when potatoes (particularly sweet potatoes) are present, they don't eat green vegetables, fish and meat as much. I do cook potatoes, but not more frequently than once a week. Since my kids eat their lunches at school, there is no shortage of potatoes, rice, and pasta there, so at home I want to give them what they don't get in school.


Kari said...

Great post. Regarding your comment on the focus on desserts, have you ever noticed how quickly the dessert spot fills up on a potluck sign-up sheet? Everyone wants to be the one to bring dessert. Even if that dessert is something store-bought or baked from a box. Just one of the reasons I hate potlucks.

Helen Rennie said...

Let's start a savory rebel group :) When people show up at our house for play dates the first times, many moms seem to find it necessary to bring me cookies. I want to see the look on their face if I show up with grilled asparagus. Would that be totally unacceptable?

Kake said...

I think sometimes people feel more confident doing baked goods for potlucks because they worry about keeping savoury food contained without spills and at a safe temperature.

My partner took cumin cookies (photo) to a bake sale at work, and he's had several requests to do them again. I also like savoury muffins, e.g. spinach and cheddar savoury muffin slices.

I would be overjoyed if someone brought grilled asparagus to my house :)

Helen Rennie said...

Sweet things offer many conveniences. They travel well. Don't require refrigeration. Some of them can be baked a few days ahead. Their over-abundance on food porn websites can be easily explained by the fact that a brownie is much easier to photograph than a fish fillet. You don't need to worry that it will get cold. You usually have a few dozen brownies, so if one got messed up during slicing, there is always another one.

But good things in life are not always convenient :)

Anonymous said...

Why is that you have to chose only between sweet(meaning junk sweets) or savory(meaning good for your health veggies)?
There are other options on the table: like fruit trays :). It's "kind of" sweet and "desserty", healthy, most of the people like fruits and if you know how to do a beautiful presentation very impressive and pleasant for people to look at. At least this is my favorite option to bring when we meet with the friends, and surprisingly but usually this is the first thing eaten up when the party is over. How about that idea?
Love your blog BTW.

Helen Rennie said...

yes, fruit trays are a wonderful option. My mom makes stunning ones and they are the first thing to disappear at parties.

Nurunnahar Amily said...

I love your post.Recipes

Enrica Kruse said...

Hi Helen, I enjoyed reading your post and share many of your ideas on food. :-) Here is my latest post on food:

I disagree with you on the fact that eating pasta, rice and potatoes is unhealthy and can lead to obesity. The Mediterranean diet relies on these types of food. Yet it is considered one of the healthier diets in the world. It is also true that Italians are told not to eat pasta with meat, but with vegetables.

I also disagree with Kake on the link between sugar and obesity. This scientist has demonstrated that obesity is not caused by fat but by fructose, which is present in extremely high dosage not only in the soft drinks and juices but in all the American processed food. It is not fat that causes obesity but high dosage of added fructose (especially in sodas and juices), which transform into empty calories:

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Enrica,

Let me clarify. I don't think pasta, rice, and other complex carbs are not healthy per se. I just don't think they are nearly as nutritionally dense as proteins and green vegetables. All kids are different. I am sure there is some kid in this world who will eat fish if pasta is on his plate. My kids will gravitate to pasta and I have a feeling so will most kids. Sure, we have pasta and rice at home, but on special occasions (about once a week or so). Until the invent of factory produced pasta, I have a feeling that Italians were not eating pasta every day. It would be too labor intensive. I don't know how much pasta an average Italian family consumes, but I have a feeling that an average American child eats it at least once a day (maybe twice).


Gdaiva said...

Exactly, kids eat whats available!
Dr Natasha McBride, who is best known for autism and allergies, says kids will not starve themselves to death and eventually eat what they supposed to, it only depends on parents what they are feeding them. Amazing story she described about one mom who was determined to turn around and help her autistic "picky eater" child, that refused to eat for 5 days until start eating real food. Imagine moms heartbreaking? I thought that story was so inspiring!
My mom too, never forced me to eat anything, i remember her saying: "you'll eat when you hungry", and of course I did. The same was for my kids, they didnt keep asking for junk food, because they knew its not an option, we had twice a month outing and thats it.
Maybe we are from different part of the world and learned more discipline, but i think it works and i keep sharing my experience, and love to see you doing it.
Thank you for your work!