I was raised by a health food zealot, and have been “eating clean” for most of my life. I have been an editor of a peer-reviewed nutrition and obesity journal, a food critic, and a dairy farmer. I am passionate about food – but I am also passionate about science. And I have to tell you, that for measurable health benefits, how much you eat is more important than what you eat.
I know this is controversial, and I’m certainly not saying that we should throw out all our leafy green veggies and grilled chicken and chow down on a diet of Twinkies and beer. But what I am saying is that the relative importance of food volume versus food quality has been misrepresented. We are focusing too much on specific nutrients and not enough on total caloric intake. I’d guess that what we eat is about 10% of the obesity problem, and how much we eat is 90% of the problem, but we spend 90% of our time talking about changing and improving what we eat rather than portion control strategies.
Consider these research-based findings :
1. The CDC has determined that 90% Americans get all the nutrients they need from the food they eat. Even “crappy” US diets actually do provide the minimum nutrients needed to avoid disease and malnutrition. I know this is surprising, but vitamins and supplements are simply not needed by most people.
2. Measurable health benefits occur from weight loss as small as 5-10% of total body weight. You don’t need to be a bikini model to achieve the health benefits of weight loss. You can decrease your blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol with modest weight losses. In my opinion, leanness under about 25% body fat (for women) is mostly an aesthetic choice, not one of medical necessity.
3. Exercise benefits are largest at minimal levels. Going from sedentary to slightly active provides a larger health benefit than all additional increments of exercise. Thirty minutes of exercise, five times a week, is the minimum bar set by the Department of Health and Human Services. Anything beyond that is still valuable, but doesn’t decrease health risks by as much.
4. It matters more to lose weight, than it matters how you do it. Head-to-head studies of one diet versus another have repeatedly shown minimal differences in health benefits between the diet groups. The benefits occur from the weight loss, not from the manner in which it was lost.
This is all good news. Americans can achieve healthier outcomes with less effort than generally believed. Regular exercise, and a calorie-controlled diet (rather than rigidly controlling the macro and micro nutrients) are all that is required to substantially reduce the risk of many costly and unpleasant diseases. If you want to further optimize your health by eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies, whole grains, low-fat dairy, healthy fats, and lean protein please do so! But better to be a normal weight than obese due to eating too much of that healthy diet.
The bottom line is that you don’t have to give up eating the things you like, you just have to eat less of them. Even Olympian Carmelita Jeter eats Hostess cup cakes occasionally. And she’s the fastest woman in the world!
P.S. This blog post was inspired by a Twitter conversation with @Judith_Graham who said that the complicated issue of what to eat was too difficult to address in 140 character exchanges. Thank you, Judith!
P.P.S. Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about well-meaning but misguided (IMO) health policy issues raised by mayor Bloomberg’s ban on Big Gulps and the AMA’s endorsement of soda taxes. Bloomberg was pointing in the right direction (the size of the soda, not the soda itself was the problem), but I don’t believe you can regulate good behavior. Education and personal responsibility are the way to go.
There’s plenty of of analysis, criticism and praise of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ controversial decision to prevent the “morning after” contraceptive pill Plan B from being sold over the counter at drugstores and to girls under 17 without a prescription. The top question: how much did election-year politics affect the decision?
President Barack Obama, father of two daughters, defended Sebelius today and said he was not involved in her decision. The New York Times quotes him:
The reason Kathleen made this decision is that she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going to a drug store should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could have an adverse effect.
Here’s a roundup of the national conversation so far:
NPR’s Julie Rovner reports today on the angry reactions from women’s health advocates, who note that Sebelius’ reasoning – that young girls might not use the OTC birth control correctly – sets a double standard for birth control. She quotes former assistant FDA commissioner Susan Wood: Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at Reporting on Health - Barbara Feder Ostrov's Health Journalism Blog*
There aren’t too many grandmothers developing mobile health apps these days, but I met a charming one (Jill Campbell) at the mHealth Summit yesterday. Jill is a 60 year-old woman from Texas who has been actively concerned for the safety of herself and her daughter over the years.
“My daughter took a self-defense class,” Jill explained, “And she was taught the ‘fight or flight’ response to escape harm. I’m 60 years old. I’m not good at fighting and not very fast at fleeing. So what’s my third option?” Jill created the WatchMe 911 app to provide the solution.
“I first started thinking about a personal alarm system before smart phones even existed. I saw that there were car alarms and house alarms, and wondered why there weren’t personal alarms. At the time I imagined that the personal alarm would go through an answering service system, but since smart phones were created, it can all be tied together in an app format.”
Jill demonstrated the WatchMe 911 app to me during our interview. It contains features such as a panic button that can be armed in advance. Two taps on the smart phone screen and a circle of friends and 9-1-1 are contacted immediately with your GPS location and an alert message. The panic button is a favorite for women who are concerned for their safety when walking late at night or in dimly lit parking lots or alleys. Read more »
I’m proud to have been selected as the national, nutrition (“mind”) coach for the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Triple Play Fit Family Challenge. This is a 6-week challenge – five families (you can meet the families on the Fit Family Challenge blog) will compete for a grand prize: an all-expenses-paid vacation!
My job is to support the families with evidence-based nutritional information that they can use to establish lifelong healthy eating patterns. Proper nutrition is one of the most critical components of preventive medicine, and can help to reduce the risk for America’s top 3 killer diseases: heart disease, cancer, and stroke (not to mention type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and high blood pressure). If these families help their kids to adopt healthy lifestyles now, they will have a lower lifetime risk of many major diseases. And I hope that the kids will also become evangelists for healthy eating to their peers!
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned over the years as a nutrition journal editor, avid foodie, and rehab physician, and I think that (to begin) I can truly boil down all we know about American eating habits into these three pieces of advice (note that these are based on HHS’s Dietary Guidelines For Americans, 2010): Read more »
In the 1993 film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman who finds himself trapped in a do-loop, covering the numbingly boring display of Punxutawney Phil, over and over again.
Forgive those of us who follow news from the Department of Health and Human Services for feeling like Bill Murray in that movie.
Last month, HHS released an action plan to reduce racial disparities in health care. The plan called for new care models, more service delivery sites, a beefed-up health and human services workforce, and targeted efforts to reduce cardiovascular disease, childhood obesity and other scourges of minority populations.
Remarkably however, the plan came with no funding. Apparently, it was supposed to prompt agencies within HHS to assure that their own internal plans were aligned with the effort to reduce racial disparities. Worse yet, the plan involved only HHS itself. In effect, it assumed that a ‘medical model’ can solve racial disparities in health care. However as I argued here, these disparities aren’t about health, at all. They are about socioeconomic status, and HHS can’t fix that by itself.
Solving the problem of racial disparities in health care clearly requires input from many branches of government, including those involved with education, urban planning, transportation and more, in addition to HHS.
When it was all said and done, the HHS plan came off looking like a political stunt by the Obama administration. While the administration probably does want to fund a bona fide effort to reduce racial disparities, today’s incessant (and appropriate) focus on deficit reduction forced the administration to release a plan with no teeth. It isn’t going to make a dent in the problem. Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at Pizaazz*