Picking Our Poison

Much has been made of the recent poll where claiming that Americans think sugar a more harmful substance than marijuana:

They left off Americans' other paralyzing fear: gluten

In Washington State, where all four polled substances are perfectly legal, it's a matter of picking our poison, I suppose. Looking at the actual question posed by the pollsters, "Which of the following substances would you say is the MOST harmful to a person’s overall health?" I wouldn't say these figures reveal much at all. After all, the respondents had to pick ONE substance, not rank them. Which makes me wonder who on earth actually believes sugar is more deadly than tobacco? I'm no sugar proponent (besides loving the stuff, as just about everyone does), but even I think tobacco will kill you faster than sugar. Especially since tobacco can kill you second- and thirdhand, but, as far as I'm aware, no one has died from watching other people pack away the Blizzards and deep-fried Twinkies (secondhand sugar), or from being in a place where such things were consumed and left residue (thirdhand sugar).

The 15% who chose sugar might have been reacting to sugar's ubiquitousness. According to the CDC, American smoking rates stand at "18.1% of all adults (42.1 million people): 20.1% of males, 14.5% of females." Still a high rate to be sure, but nowhere near the 71.4% of Americans who consume more than the "recommended" 10% of their daily calories from sugar. Sugar responders may also have been acknowledging that tobacco doesn't need anyone's help to be villainized nowadays--no one is going to argue that it's harmless in moderation, as the food industry insists with sugar.

And, of course, American acknowledgement of a substance's dangers are not necessarily correlated to our consumption levels, especially where addiction is concerned. Is sugar addictive? Some would argue so. From my own Sugar-Free January experiments I would agree that it's best to go cold turkey and wait for the cravings to go away. Moderation doesn't always pay off--rather it can draw out the process. But, other than thinking about sugary foods and lusting over them, there aren't any side effects to quitting, as there are with addictive drugs like tobacco and caffeine.

The lack of people choosing marijuana as the Most Harmful tells me more about the per capita usage than about its real or perceived dangers. According to a recent Gallup poll, although 38% of Americans have admitted to trying it, only 7% actually use it regularly. Much lower than tobacco, alcohol, or sugar.

What can we say? Living is hazardous to your health. Ask those in Beijing, who regularly deal with smog levels equivalent to smoking 21 cigarettes a day. If those folks throw back a couple beers and a slice of birthday cake, they're toast. They may need the fourth horseman, marijuana, just to relax from all that environmental degradation.

One rule of thumb we might consider is to avoid anything that even gets added to national polls as a potential harmful substance. You'll never find broccoli on that list. Or sweet potatoes. Or garlic.

Is it Market season yet?

Sneaky and Not-So-Sneaky Fiber

Magazine's pic. It's a normal-sized pie, despite scale of that fork!

 Only two more days until blessed February begins and Sugar-Free January takes itself off for another year. My hub is already planning the Chocolate Banana Dream Pie he'll make to celebrate. From an old issue of Eating Well magazine, this has been a personal favorite of his ever since its appearance. I'm thinking of marking the occasion with an ice cream sandwich, but all in all, skipping sugar for a month wasn't too awful--especially after reading Fat Chance and giving myself a good scare. Not only did I manage to lose a few pounds without any more exercise than I was putting in in other, sugar-full months, but I'm hoping I struck a few blows in combatting future insulin resistance.

Cutting sugar was one side of the equation, and the other was increasing fiber. Not fiber found in pills and supplements, but fiber found naturally in food before it's processed out: whole wheat; vegetables and fruits which have not been pureed into mush or smoothies; more brown rice instead of white; and so on. If you too are looking to sneak more fiber in with your family, I have a few suggestions:

1) Mix white pasta and rice with brown, whole-grain varieties. With spaghetti, I found I could replace 1/3 of the standard noodles with whole-wheat and no one noticed, as long as it was covered by a yummy, thick sauce. With rice I've gradually upped the ratio until we're at half-brown and half-white. I just increase the water and cooking time to compensate.

2) Make your own pizza crusts and add in 1/3 to 1/2 whole wheat for the white, all-purpose flour. I've done bread machine dough and the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day version, and both are well-received. (More on my latest artisan baking adventures below.)

3) To replace or supplement processed cereals, make ahead and freeze muffins and waffles. Most recipes can be modified to replace up to half the flour with whole wheat with no harm done. I usually shake in some wheat or oat bran and flaxseed meal, as well. Sugar can also be reduced by 1/4 to 1/3 in just about any recipe.

4) Lasagna and spaghetti sauce hide a multitude of sins. I'm not a big fan of juicing or pureeing vegetables into palatability because that destroys the fiber in them, but I'm not above some grated carrot or chopped spinach or minced mushroom.

5) Pick your sugars wisely. We are a dessert-loving family, and for the most part I don't try to make dessert into something it's not, but I do tend to make oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies more frequently than Toll House, and I'd rather everyone have fruit pie than cake. Juice boxes and sodas are special-occasion items, and non-homemade sweets are rarely worth it.

Anywho, that's the latest from the fiber front. But I did try out my slightly-less-whole-wheaty variation of the healthy Artisan Bread In 5 recipe linked above and found it successful, both as a bread and as a pizza crust. The reduced amount of whole wheat gave the bread a more crackly crust, which I liked, but my husband and son both preferred the full-on whole wheat! It looks like we'll be alternating the two recipes.

If you want to try my variation, I took the basic (white) Artisan Master Recipe and, instead of 6-1/2 cups all-purpose flour I substituted:

1/2 cup rye flour
2-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 tsp vital wheat gluten.

I then followed the recipe, increasing the rising and resting times by 15-30 minutes to let the dough develop.

The loaf version were just fine. I did struggle with the pizza crusts sticking to the dinged pizza peel:

This is not a "liberal" amount of cornmeal because the dough totally stuck

I had to smoosh/scrunch the darned crust off the pizza peel onto the baking stone, resulting in all the toppings either falling off or rearranging:

The kids still ate it. Pepperoni-"Striped" Pizza

My next pizza I decided to slide into the oven on parchment paper. Then, after a few minutes of baking and setting up, I pulled the paper out. Worked just fine, except I totally forgot to pull out the paper until the end, so the crust was not as "restaurant-crunchy" as the doomed pepperoni pizza's. Still, it was quite tasty. And this one was a Tostada Pizza inspired by CPK, for some extra extra fiber!

Have a fibrous week!

Sugar, Fat, and All of That

Mea culpa

I write today's post, fully aware that yesterday I ate four gingerbread cookies, two spritz cookies, one "Beurre and Sel Jammer" (Butter and Salt Jammer), one blueberry strudel cookie, part of a brownie, and part of a chocolate-covered Rice Krispy treat. In my defense, I had come from a Christmas party, but nevertheless, this post should probably be labeled Do-As-I-Say-Not-As-I-Do.

People magazine tweeted this morning that, for the first time, thirteen-year-olds will appear on the show The Biggest Loser. And why not? In the last thirty years, obesity and its attendant health ills have crept downward to become a problem of even the young. Nor are Americans the only people getting fatter. The Biggest Loser and its local spin-offs are hit shows in twenty-five countries worldwide and counting. Obesity is a big deal and big business. But what could be causing the worldwide weight gain?

If you're Dr. Robert Lustig, you think you've found the smoking gun. In his new book entitled Fat Chance (Penguin, coming December 27, 2012), he shares his alarming findings and provides plenty of evidence to back them up.

Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF whose "Sugar: The Bitter Truth" lecture video got lots of hits on YouTube, has been watching the rise of obesity and its attendant ills in his practice over the last umpteen years. While not every obese person is unhealthy (and many people with acceptable BMIs still suffer from metabolic syndrome), obesity frequently brings in train "the cluster of chronic metabolic diseases...which includes...type 2 diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), lipid (blood fat) disorders, and cardiovascular disease," along with "co-morbidities associated with obesity, such as orthopedic problems, sleep apnea, gallstones, and depression." Lustig even mentioned the increase of dementia as tied to this whole mess, as insulin resistance leads to dementia!

Consider some of his alarming statistics:

- 1/4 of U.S. children are now obese;

- Greater than 40% of death certificates now list diabetes as the cause of death, up from 13% 20 years ago;

- The percentage of obese humans GLOBALLY has doubled in the last 28 years; there are now 30% more overnourished (obese) people than undernourished, worldwide;

- Fructose (all the sugars you can think of, apart from the sugar in milk) is "inevitably metabolized to fat";

- Fructose consumption has doubled in the past 30 years and increased six-fold in the last century;

- The majority of humans, regardless of weight, release double the insulin today as we did 30 years ago for the same amount of glucose; this hyperinsulinemia leads to insulin resistance, the body thinking it's starving, and increased eating, especially for foods high in fat and sugar because our dopamine receptors aren't getting cleared--a vicious cycle;

- The processed food industry has turned to increased sugars of all kinds to improve flavor and shelf life; we eat lots of processed foods; therefore, 20-25% of all calories we consume on average come from sugars; in adolescents this number can approach 40% of daily calories.

Because I was blitzing through this, I didn't absorb the science as well as I might have, but Lustig helped me understand that how often, how much, and how unhealthily we eat can be a function not of choice but of our biochemistry. The feedback systems and processing systems which served humans so well for eons were not built to handle as much food as we eat nowadays, particularly the avalanche of empty sugar calories. Sweets and fats used to be hard for us to come by--if we hit a surplus, of course our bodies stored it up (as fat) for a rainy day! Unfortunately, there are no more rainy days, so we keep storing and storing and overloading the system.

Lustig's book is not about dieting or losing weight--in fact he says we have natural weights we gravitate toward, and there isn't a heckuva lot we can do about it, exercise or no exercise. But obesity is a new thing that is environmentally-aided, and that can be fought against.

His conclusion? You can probably guess. Lots of fruits and vegetables and fiber. The fiber in fruits requires enough work to digest that it effectively negates the fructose. Milk or water to drink (lactose is not processed like fructose). Meats (not corn-fed) and dairy (ditto) are fine, but don't skip the produce. Whole grains (all the brown in them--exactly how my son doesn't like them), but even then there's no need for tons of grain. And, if it has a nutrition label, it's a processed food. Use sparingly.

The low-hanging fruit Lustig tackles first is ridding your life of soda, smoothies, frappucinos, and fruit juice. (8 ozs of orange juice has more sugar than 8 ozs of Coke.) If you do alcohol, do just enough wine to get the resveratrol benefits and then lay off. (Another source of resveratrol? Peanuts!)

As Lustig points out, changing one's food environment is all but impossible for the poor. After all, corn and soy receive massive government subsidies, making the processed foods based on them cheap, cheap, cheap. Even if you have access to fresh produce, your money goes farther on the stuff in boxes, and food stamps cover soda. One of the more disheartening bits of the book was when he talked about meeting with Michelle Obama's personal chef Sam Kass, the point person for the White House Obesity Task Force. Kass admitted everyone in the White House (including the President) had read Lustig's NYTimes article "Is sugar toxic?" but they would do nothing to help. "Because they don't want the fight, this Administration has enough enemies." Sigh. Not that the Republicans mentioned fared any better. Basically, changing our food landscape is up to us. For those of us with the dollars, vote with our dollars! If we don't buy it, not all the food stamps in the world will make it profitable.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it's kind of a bummer to read this going into Christmas-cookie season, but one of my New Year's Resolutions will be to improve the food environment for my kids. I'm already talking up the benefits of fiber and fruits and vegetables, and the juice boxes are history.  (How I wish I had a time machine! I would never have introduced our biggest consumption area for processed foods--breakfast cereal. I can only comfort myself that we don't eat any off of his "Ten Worst Children's Breakfast Cereals" list! In the meantime, I've converted my youngest to occasional oatmeal and have started making bran muffins for my oldest. The middle child's cereal tooth can only be tempered with homemade waffles, full of colon-busting whole grains and flaxseed.)

I highly, highly recommend this book. Pre-order it for your family as a Christmas gift that will keep on giving!