Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Food Writers and Missed Opportunities

Many of the major newspapers have food writers who focus on providing recommendations about "healthy eating." The New York Times has Jane Brody and her Personal Health column. The Washington Post has Sally Squires and her Lean Plate Club column which is also published in the LA Times. Since I live in the DC-Metro area, I follow the articles published in the Washington Post and am routinely dismayed by the nutrient-deficient recommendations made by Sally Squires.

Today's article, To Cut Fat, Eat Less Meat, is just another example of how dangerous it may be to follow the recommendations of food writers with an agenda to promote only low-fat options rather than nutrient-density. But, I'll get to that in a minute.

Her evidence today was...[a] new study of some 55,000 healthy, middle-aged Swedish women finds that those who ate little or no meat weighed significantly less than their more carnivorous counterparts. The findings are some of the first to show a direct link between a plant-based diet and a lower body mass index, or BMI.

Curious, I wanted to look at the data myself and found it online - Risk of overweight and obesity among semivegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women.

Data analyzed in this cross-sectional study were from 55459 healthy women participating in the Swedish Mammography Cohort. Women were asked whether they considered themselves to be omnivores, semivegetarians , lactovegetarians, or vegans, and this question was the main exposure variable in this study. In secondary analyses, some women were reclassified as lactovegetarians on the basis of food intakes reported on the food-frequency questionnaire.

Sounds like a large number of women were followed, doesn't it? Just how many from each category though? This is where the numbers get interesting...

  • omnivores - 54257
  • semivegetarians - 960
  • lactovegetarians - 159
  • vegans - 83

The findings showed that in the above categories, the incidence of overweight or obesity was:

  • omnivores = 40%
  • semivegetarians = 29%
  • lactovegetarians = 25%
  • vegans = 29%

Personally, I'm not surprised by the findings when the numbers show that the vast majority included are in just one category - omnivores. Every group, including the vegans, actually reported that they include animal products from time to time - so none of the groups were truly eating an exclusive "plant based" diet.

The study looked at BMI. What it did not look at is important - nutrient-density and overall health. While the data can support a finding that those eating a diet that is rich with plant foods weighed less and had a lower BMI, it cannot extend to a finding of better overall health because no one looked at cholesterol, bone density, blood pressure, nutrient intake or other health markers in the women followed.

Yet, Sally Squires jumped on the data as "proof" that eating a lower fat diet is healthy and even offered up a recommendation on how to eat "semi-vegetarian" sometimes.

Go semi-vegetarian sometimes . You may be doing it already. Breakfast on shredded wheat with berries, slivered almonds and skim milk. Have a large Greek salad with feta cheese and a crusty bread for lunch. Snack on fruit and yogurt and eat a couple of bean burritos with a little low-fat cheese and some rice for dinner. Have fruit for dessert and you've had a semi-vegetarian day.

What's wrong with such a recommendation?

It's painfully inadequate for essential nutrients - those vitamins and minerals considered critical for long-term health!

By inputing her recommendations into FitDay.com and using 1/2 cup of blueberries as the fruit in the morning, 2-medium slices of Greek/Armenian bread and 4-tbs of low-fat dressing in the lunch, a peach and 8-ounces of low-fat fruit yogurt as the snack and a medium apple for dessert, the calorie load worked out to 2016-calories for the day - right on target for the 2000-calorie RDA recommendations.

So how did her recommendations fare for nutrients?

At the high-level - that is the percentage of calories from each macronutrient (fat, carbohydrate and protein) the day looks spectacular! Fat accounted for just 25% of calories, with just 9% from saturated fats; carbohydrate provided 60% of calories and protein accounted for 15% of calories. All well within the US Dietary Guidelines.

The question begs - how did the recommendation fare for nutrient-density?

In a word - miserably!

Based on the 2000-calorie RDA's

  • Sodium intake was high - 2876mg - 476mg over the 2400mg limit
  • Vitamin A fell short, with just 618mcg of the 800mcg RDA
  • Vitamin C RDA was almost met with 59mg of the 60mg RDA
  • Iron fell short of the 18mg RDA with just 15.8mg
  • Vitamin D was lacking with just 2.46mg of the 5mg RDA
  • Niacin was lacking with just 13.9mg of the 20mg RDA
  • Vitamin B-6 fell short with just 1.2mg of the 2mg RDA
  • Vitamin B-12 fell short with just 3mcg of the 6mcg RDA
  • Magnesium was lacking with just 358mg of the 400mg RDA
  • Zinc fell short of the 15mg RDA with just 10.4mg in the day
  • Copper was lacking with just 1.75mg of the 2mg RDA
  • Vitamin K was painfully lacking with just 3.6mcg of the 80mcg RDA

Failing to provide adequate levels of 11 essential nutrients is not a "healthy" recommendation!

Honestly, what is more important - maintaining "acceptable" macronutrient percentages of calories OR actually eating a nutrient-dense diet that meets or exceeds RDA's?

In your quest to find a dietary approach that works for you, remember, it's not just the macronutrient percentages that matter - in fact they matter little at the end of the day if you're leaving your body malnourished for essential nutrients it needs to function and thrive! Next time you see a food writer providing a sample menu, take the time to really look at it carefully - look beyond the ratio of fat:carbs:protein and see if it really is providing nutrient-density!

1 comment:

  1. Your readers might be interested in this article I recently wrote.

    Nutrition Guidelines are just a Guide

    The USDA recently published their dietary guidelines for Americans and the recommendation leave a bit to be desired. As Americans our health continues to slip. We have the largest and most expensive insurance and health care system in the world. The following recommendation made by the USDA is just recommendations. As we all know advice is only as good as who receives it. Our children seem to be the ones with the most to lose but the USDA has little to say regarding their eating habits. This report highlights the following recommendations for children.

    Infants should not eat or drink raw milk or any products made from unpasteurized milk, raw or partially cooked eggs or foods containing raw eggs, raw or undercooked meat and poultry, raw or undercooked fish or shellfish, unpasteurized juices and raw sprouts.

    Young children should keep total fat intake between 30 to 35 percent of calories for children 2 to 3 years of age, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. Consume whole-grain products often. At least half the grains should be whole grains. Children 2 to 8 years should consume 2 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products. Young children should not eat or drink raw milk or any products made from unpasteurized milk, raw or partially cooked eggs or foods containing raw eggs, raw or undercooked meat and poultry, raw or undercooked fish or shellfish, unpasteurized juices and raw sprouts.

    Children should engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on most, preferably all, days of the week. The USDA also recommends that kids consume whole-grain products often. At least half the grains should be whole grains. Children up to 8 years should consume 2 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products. Children 9 years of age and older should consume 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products. Parents should help children to keep their total fat intake between 25 to 35 percent of calories for children 4 years of age to adolescence, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
    This sounds great, but what can we do as a country when our food supply seems filled with everything that the recommendations advise us against eating? Should the general consumer be expected to pay extra to get the food that we as a country need or should growers, butchers, and producers are required to provide the foods at a lower costs. It seems that doing the right thing in this country is very expensive. No wonder we have obesity and other problems looming over our heads every day. If you are interested in reading more about how to eat well and within you r budget then you can get access to the World's #1 Resource for Raw and Living Food Nutrition! By looking on the internet or visiting your local health food store.

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