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“Food is an important part of a balanced diet”*…

In your quest to eat right, are you an a nutritionist or an essentialist?

Nutrition science began with the chemical description of proteins, fats and carbohydrates in the 19th century. The field didn’t seem to hold much medical import; the research was mostly aimed at cheaply feeding poor and institutionalised people well enough to keep them from rioting. Germ theory, on the other hand, was new and revolutionary medical science, and microbiologists such as Louis Pasteur were demonstrating that one disease after another, from cholera to malaria to leprosy, was caused by microbes. But at the turn of the 20th century, nutrition science suddenly arrived as a major part of our understanding of human health…

In 1911, the Polish chemist Casimir Funk announced that he’d isolated the beriberi-preventing chemical, which he thought to be a molecule containing an amine group, and named it ‘vitamine’ – a vital amine. The next year, Funk published an ambitious paper and book arguing that not only beriberi but three other human diseases – scurvy, pellagra and rickets – were each caused by a lack of a particular vitamin. Within a few months, the English researcher Frederick Hopkins published the results of a series of experiments in which he fed animals diets based on pure proteins, carbohydrates and fats, after which they developed various ailments. He posited that the simplified diets lacked some ‘accessory food factors’ important for health. Those factors and many others were discovered over the next three decades, and researchers showed how these vitamins were critical to the function of practically every part of the body. Ten of those scientists, including Eijkman and Hopkins, won Nobel prizes. At the same time that physicists laid out the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics, describing fundamental laws that governed the Universe on its smallest and largest scales, chemists discovered the laws that seemed to govern the science of nutrition.

[… which, over the last 100 years, has exploded…]

[Gyorgy Scrinis, a professor of food politics and policy at the University of Melbourne] argues that the field of nutrition science is under the sway of an ideology he dubbed ‘nutritionism’, a mode of thinking about food that makes a number of erroneous assumptions: it reduces foods to quantified collections of nutrients, pulls foods out of the context of diets and lifestyles, presumes that biomarkers such as body-mass index are accurate indicators of health, overestimates scientists’ understanding of the relationship between nutrients and health, and falls for corporations’ claims that the nutrients they sprinkle into heavily processed junk foods make them healthful. These errors lead us toward food that is processed to optimise its palatability, convenience and nutrient profile, drawing us away from the whole foods that Scrinis says we should be eating. He says the history of margarine provides a tour of the perils of nutritionism: it was first adopted as a cheaper alternative to butter, then promoted as a health food when saturated fat became a nutritional bugbear, later castigated as a nutritional villain riddled with trans fats, and recently reformulated without trans fats, using new processes such as interesterification. That has succeeded in making margarine look better, according to nutritionism’s current trends, but is another kind of ultra-processing that’s likely to diminish the quality of food….

While Scrinis cites the growing body of scientific research implicating modern food processing, he also supports his critique of nutritionism with appeals to intuition. ‘This idea that ultra-processed foods are degraded – we’ve always known this,’ he says. ‘Our senses tell us whole foods are wholesome. People know this intuitively. The best foods in terms of cuisine are made from whole foods, not McDonald’s. It’s common sense.’

Even as nutritionism pushes us to believe that the latest nutrition research reveals something important about food, we also hold on to a conflicting concept: the idea that natural foods are better for us in ways that don’t always show up in scientific studies – that whole foods contain an inherent essence that is despoiled by our harsh modern processing techniques. ‘It’s a general attitude that you can break foods down that is the problem,’ says Scrinis. ‘It’s showing no respect for the food itself.’ This idea of respecting food reveals an underlying perspective that is essentialist, which, in philosophy, is the Platonic view that certain eternal and universal characteristics are essential to identity. Science is usually thought of as the antithesis of our atavistic intuitions, yet nutrition science has contained an essentialist view of nutrition for almost a century.

Most of us carry both ideologies, essentialism and nutritionism, in our minds, pulling us in different directions, complicating how we make decisions about what to eat. This tension is also visible in nutrition. Many government public health agencies give precise recommendations, based on a century of hard research, for the amounts of every nutrient we need to keep us healthy. They also insist that whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are the best ways to get those nutrients. But if you accept the nutrient recommendations, why assume that whole foods are a better way of getting those nutrients than, say, a powdered mix that is objectively superior in terms of cost, convenience and greenhouse emissions? What’s more, powdered mixes make it far easier for people to know exactly what they’re eating, which addresses one problem that constantly vexes nutritionists.

This kind of reflexive preference for natural foods can sometimes blind us to the implications of science. Even as research piles up implicating, for instance, excessive sugar as a particular problem in modern diets, most nutrition authorities refuse to endorse artificial sweeteners as a way to decrease our sugar consumption. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time with artificial sweeteners, and I cannot find any solid evidence there’s anything wrong with including them in your diet,’ says Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post columnist who has been writing about nutrition for more than 20 years. She says there’s some evidence that low-calorie sweeteners help some people lose weight, but you won’t hear that from nutrition authorities, who consistently minimise the positives while focusing on potential downsides that have not been well-established by research, such as worries that they cause cancer or scramble the gut microbiome. Why the determined opposition? ‘Because artificial sweeteners check lots of the boxes of the things that wholesome eaters avoid. It’s a chemical that’s manufactured in a plant. It’s created by the big companies that are selling the rest of the food in our diet, a lot of which is junk.’ Haspel says that nutritionists’ attitude to low-calorie sweeteners is ‘puritanical, it’s holier-than-thou, and it’s breathtakingly condescending’. The puritanical response reflects the purity of essentialism: foods that are not ‘natural’ are not welcome in the diets of right-thinking, healthy-eating people…

Our arguments over food are so polarised because they are not only about evidence: they are about values. Our choice of what we put inside us physically represents what we want inside ourselves spiritually, and that varies so much from person to person. Hearn uses food, much of it from a blender, to hack his body and keep him well-fuelled between business meetings. Scrinis looks forward to spending time in his kitchen, tinkering with new varieties of sourdough packed with sprouted grains and seeds. Haspel lives in Cape Cod, where she grows oysters, raises chickens, and hunts deer for venison – and also drinks diet soda and uses sucralose in her smoothies and oatmeal, to help keep her weight down.

Nutritionism and essentialism provide comfortingly clear perspectives about what makes food healthful. But an open-minded look at the evidence suggests that many of the most hotly debated questions about nutrition are impossible to answer with the information we have, maybe with the information we will ever have in the foreseeable future. If we isolate nutrients and eat them in different forms than they naturally come in, how will they affect us? Can processed foods be made in ways to approach or even surpass the healthfulness of natural whole foods?…

Human bodies are so fascinating in part because they are so variable and malleable. Beyond some important universals, such as the vitamins discovered a century ago, different people’s bodies work differently, because of their genes, behaviours and environments. The food we eat today changes the way our bodies work tomorrow, making yesterday’s guidance out of date. There are too many variables and too few ways to control them…

Maybe the reason that diet is so difficult to optimise is that there is no optimal diet. We are enormously flexible omnivores who can live healthily on varied diets, like our hunter-gatherer ancestors or modern people filling shopping carts at globally sourced supermarkets, yet we can also live on specialised diets, like traditional Inuits who mostly ate a small range of Arctic animals or subsistence farmers who ate little besides a few grains they grew. Aaron Carroll, a physician in Indiana and a columnist at The New York Times, argues that people spend far too much time worrying about eating the wrong things. ‘The “dangers” from these things are so very small that, if they bring you enough happiness, that likely outweighs the downsides,’ he said in 2018. ‘So much of our food discussions are moralising and fear-inducing. Food isn’t poison, and this is pretty much the healthiest people have even been in the history of mankind. Food isn’t killing us.’

Food is a vehicle for ideologies such as nutritionism and essentialism, for deeply held desires such as connecting with nature and engineering a better future. We argue so passionately about food because we are not just looking for health – we’re looking for meaning. Maybe, if meals help provide a sense of meaning for your life, that is the healthiest thing you can hope for.

Vitamins or whole foods? high-fat or low-fat? sugar or sweetener?… Will we ever get a clear idea about what we should eat? “The Food Wars,” from Amos Zeeberg (@settostun)

[image above: source]

* Fran Lebowitz

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As we scale the food pyramid, we might send birthday greetings in oyster sauce to Joyce Chen; she was born on this date in 1917.  A chef, restauranteur, author, television personality, and entrepreneur, she parlayed a successful Cambridge, MA restaurant (where she’s credited with creating the “all you can eat Chinese buffet” to perk up slow Tuesdays and Wednesdays) into a collection of restaurants, a cooking school, a series of cookbooks, and a PBS series (shot on the same set as Julia Child’s show).  She is credited with popularizing northern-style Chinese cuisine in America.  Chen was honored in 2014 (along with Julia Child) as one of the five chefs featured on a series of U.S. postage stamps.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 14, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Every time you learn you can do something, you can go a little bit faster next time”*…

 

Screen Shot 2020-07-15 at 11.59.50 AM

Joey Chestnut set a new world record by eating 75 hotdogs in 10 minutes at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4

 

… at least, up to a point.  Readers will know that (Roughly) Daily has checked in on the competitive eating circuit before (e.g., here), with special attention to the the event hosted by the iconic Nathan’s.  So imagine your correspondent’s surprise to learn that the era of dramatic new records year after year might be coming to a close…

The four-minute mile and the two-hour marathon were once believed impossible: now a new gauntlet has been thrown down for the world of elite competition. A scientific analysis suggests competitive eaters have come within nine hotdogs of the limits of human performance.

The theoretical ceiling has been set at 84 hotdogs in 10 minutes. The current world record, set by Joey “Jaws” Chestnut earlier this month, stands at 75.

James Smoliga, a sports medicine specialist at High Point University in North Carolina who authored the research, described 84 hotdogs as “the maximum possible limit for a Usain Bolt-type performance”.

The analysis is based on 39 years of historical data from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, an annual spectacle of gluttony held on Coney Island, New York, combined with the latest sports science theory, which uses mathematical modelling to project trends in performance.

Hotdog composition and size have, reportedly, remained unchanged at Nathan’s Famous in the fast food company’s 104-year history, allowing for valid comparison between competitors across years.

Improvement curves in elite sports ranging from sprinting to pole vaulting tend to follow a so-called sigmoidal curve, featuring an initial slow and steady rise, followed by an era of rapid improvement and finally a levelling off. “Hotdog eating has definitely reached that second plateau,” said Smoliga…

The limit of progress? The end of history? “Competitive hotdog eaters nearing limit of human performance.”  See also “Scientists Have Finally Calculated How Many Hot Dogs a Person Can Eat at Once.”

* Joey Chestnut, competitive eating champion [pictured above]

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As we chow down, we might recall that it was on this date in 1762 that Catherine II– better known as Catherine the Great– became the Empress of Russia after the murder of her husband (in a coup that she’d helped arrange).  While her personal habits (largely her love life) tend to dominate popular memories of her, scholars note that her reign (through 1792) was a “Golden Age,” during which she revitalized Russia, which grew larger and stronger, and became one of the great powers of Europe and Asia.

Catherine enthusiastically supported the ideals of the Enlightenment; and as a patron of the arts, presided over the age of the Russian Enlightenment, including the establishment of the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens, the first state-financed higher education institution for women in Europe.

503px-Catherine_II_by_J.B.Lampi_(1780s,_Kunsthistorisches_Museum) source

 

“The slogan of Hell: Eat or be eaten. The slogan of Heaven: Eat and be eaten”*…

 

This three-year-old male Great Dane was observed repeatedly vomiting and retching all day; he was taken to DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital in Portland, where abdominal radiographs revealed a severely distended stomach and a large quantity of foreign material:

During exploratory surgery performed by a DoveLewis veterinarian, 43½ socks were removed.

The patient was discharged home one day after surgery, and is doing well.

The peckish pooch finished third in Veterinary Practice News‘ annual “They ate WHAT?” contest.  See the other winners at “2014 X-Ray Contest Winners–Animals will eat just about anything. The proof is in the radiographs.”

* W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book

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As we are what we eat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1932 that Walt Disney initiated the art classes that grew into the Walt Disney Art School (and later inspired the creation of the California Institute for the Arts).  In preparation for his feature-length cartoon (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which would require the animation of more human figure than the critters theretofore featured), Disney set up the school to train his animators.  The first class was taught by Don Graham of the Chouinard School of Art, lecturing at Disney’s old sound studio on Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles. Classes are held once a week after work on the sound stage, but soon this will be expanded to twice weekly. The selection of Graham was propitious; “The Prof” groomed a team of animators that went on to set (and continually raise) standards for decades.

A true scholar of the art of drawing [who] knew as much about art as anybody I’ve ever come in contact with. Don gave so much and offered so much and not too many people realize that. [Don] was a very inspirational man.Marc Davis on Don Graham

Don Graham really knew what he was teaching, and he “showed” you how to do something – he didn’t just talk. He taught us things that were very important for animation. How to simplify our drawings – how to cut out all the unnecessary hen scratching amateurs have a habit of using. He showed us how to make a drawing look solid. He taught us about tension points – like a bent knee, and how the pant leg comes down from that knee and how important the wrinkles from it are to describe form. I learned a hell of a lot from him!  —Art BabbittOnce Upon a Time — Walt Disney: The Sources of inspiration for the Disney Studios

Jack Kinney‘s memory of Don Graham’s class

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 15, 2014 at 1:01 am

Living large…

“People who use big forks eat less compared with diners who use small forks…”  All three courses of the explanation are at LiveScience.

As we super-size our cutlery, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that over 700 million television viewers worldwide watched Neil Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon.  “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 20, 2011 at 1:01 am

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