We started eating better since earlier this year.
It wasn’t as much about new year resolution but about eating wholesome food while losing weight, reducing high blood pressure and cortisol and generally feeling more energetic. We do eat healthy organic food but we eat too few vegetables and too much sweets.
And we both have been struggling with abdomen fat and 3’o clock slump for a long time now.
As Varun and Vipul headed off to pre-school and work; I found more free time on my hand. I read up quiet a few articles online and then read the following books which really made an impact on me.
1. Food Matters – Mark Bittman
2. Wheat Belly – William Davis
3. Vegan Before Six – Mark Bittman
4. Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It – Gary Taubes
5. Omnivores Dilemma – Michael Pollan
These are not new books but I simply never got a chance to read them. But what I learnt was simply astonishing. Not only was the effect of insulin and enzymes on how we store fat a detailed primer on how and why we get fat; but also about environmental and ecological impact of the food chain. They discuss the different food ecosystems at play, the real cost of food ( paid by tax payers as govt subsidies to corn farmers and food miles) , impact of making cows, hens and other farm animals eating more corn based meals ( which also includes antibiotics as they can’t naturally digest corn and other waste ( organ meat, feathers, blood), rise of new resistant bacteria ( E-coli is prime example), how America is eating corn and only corn ( corn fed meat, HCFS in drinks, processed meals, etc) and the humane aspect of “farming” animals.
And when we thought whole grains and their products were really good, did you know that 2 slices of whole wheat bread can raise blood sugar more than two teaspoons of cane sugar? Hybridization to increase production, reduce diseases etc have led to a “wheat” that is genetically different from the ones that our ancestors ate ( 42 chromosomes v/s original 14). Should we even call it wheat? Can it be healthy for us ?
The same modification applies to soy, corn, canola etc.
They go on to discuss how farming these days is modified to suit agriculture businesses ( hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, animal feeds etc) – profits from much of which don’t go to the farmer but to the businesses that sell these products.
Even vegetables are not spared. Growing, harvesting, chilling and transporting a box of lettuce consumes 4700 fossil calories. That roughly the equivalent of 57 fossil fuel calories for every food calorie they provide. Besides they are sprayed with pesticides, insecticides and other things so that they would stay fresh in transit, have longer shelf life and look shiny. Some of these substances are banned in other countries and some of these are created from petroleum products and leaves traces in our body. It may be cheaper to just guzzle gasoline if we humans could handle it raw!
The waste from these farms and animal barns are so toxic that they cause deadzones where nothing but pathogens can harbor. They destroy land, contaminate ground water and eventually fish as they flow into the bays/seas and oceans.
Organic industrial farming is better than traditional one with the use of natural pesticides, fertilizers and additives but don’t really do much to the lives of the cows/polutry etc which are still cooped up/ tied/ caged as densely as possible.
As far as the farmed fish go, they have higher Omega -6 acids to Omega 3 acids than the wild caught ones. Omega-6’s are not good for us and are also present in processed oils (like Canola, Safflower, Sunflower, Vegetable).
And did you know, you need healthy unprocessed, unsaturated fat for hormone production, healthy immune system and energy?
It was more than vegetarian v/s non-vegetarian or carbs v/s no carbs debate or organic/ non-organic .
These books address questions hard questions like: Would eating locally and humbly raised cow ( and hence beef) be more good for you and the environment rather than the vegetables and fruits that are shipped all the way from New Zealand or Ecuador? are vegetables that are shipped all the way across from another coast truly better for you considering the fossil fuel involved in transportation?
They don’t prescribe answers but let you choose what you want to make of it after knowing the consequences.
Insulin and it how it works
As I read about food ecosystems, I wanted to understand how once eaten food is digested and gives us energy. I realized how insulin plays a crucial role Even before we actually eat a meal, the mere thought of food causes insulin to be secreted. Once fats are digested they are stored in the fat cells. As carbs are digested they are released in blood as glucose. If we eat more carbs then there is more glucose in the blood that the body can handle. Insulin helps regulate this glucose.
Some of this glucose is used up immediately as energy but some is stored by muscles as glycogen, by liver as glycogen and eventually fat and by other fat cells as fat.
Once the fat is in the fat cells, it is immaterial how it was “sourced” from carbs or fats. It is now a fatty acid stored in fat cells.
Insulin dictates how these fatty acids are stored with aid of an enzyme called LPL. LPL is release by muscles and fat cells. If the fatty acids bond with LPL released by muscles, then the fatty acid is stored in muscle cells where it can be burnt for immediate energy. If the LPL is released by fat cells then it is stored in fat cells.
These fatty acids are small molecules and can easily enter the fat cells. However once inside 3 fatty acids and glycogen together form triglycerides – a larger molecule that cannot exit the fat cell and is stashed away for later use.
Essentially, in a nut shell, LPL works to make us fat.
Insulin also influences another enzyme called HSL. The role of HSL is to break down the triglecerides and release them back into component fatty acids that can be used as fuel. But as insulin secretion increases, HSL goes down. So the trapped fat in fat cells cannot be consumed.
With the aid of LPL and HSL, Insulin works to make us fat.
Impact on Gender, Race etc
And because insulin secretion varies from person to person, we tend to get fatter or leaner. Insulin, LPL and other such enzymes dictates how much fat goes to muscles and to fat cells. Its dictated by genetic makeup to an extent. For those lean marathoners, insulin works to convert glucose in our blood into muscle energy for consumption and stores very little for “future reserves”. For others, any food is stored into “future reserve” and very little is available for immediate consumption. Some people are naturally lean and stay that way their whole life while others become fat even when they don’t eat very much. Lastly, as the LPL is active on different parts of the body ( below belly in women and above belly in men), the natural tendency for most men is to put on weight in the abdomen/belly area and for women in hips and thighs area.
Why diets, exercise etc don’t work.
Insulin is the reason why we get hungry. As more fat is stored and locked away, less is available for us for immediate consumption/fuel and we tend to eat more to get more energy. Eating more causes more glucose in blood stream and hence more insulin to be secreted and the cycle continues.
Exercising doesn’t work mainly because if we exercise then we get hungry to compensate for the fuel burnt. Rarely can you exercise just enough that you don’t need to eat more than usual. As least that has been our experience thus far. And eating more has the same effect on glucose-fat as described above.
The typical advise is to eat something rich in protein and complex carbs within 20 minutes of exercising to replenish your muscle stores. But based on your insulin response, this may not always be the case. Some of this will be stored as fat making it a zero-sum game.
Diets don’t work either. You can starve, eliminate certain food types (usually carbs and fat) but that will simply cause temporary loss of fat reserve as the body breaks down but the reserves will be built up with a vengeance once you stop the diet.
What can we do about this?
I know on a personal front we need to do something about what we eat. As I described my readings to Vipul he was worried we may have nothing to eat by the end of my reading all the books. But eliminating food groups is not an answer. We all know that eliminating something makes us crave that even more. Atleast thats true for us.
Most vegetarians reading this will advocate that give up meat. Its easier for most of my Indian readers who never ate meat to say that. In my mind cruelty to animals is not just about slaughtering them for food.Its also extends to taking the milk that was meant for their calves and giving it to humans.It extends to prizing silk saris and pashmina shawls; using leather handbags and shoes and even testing cosmetics on monkeys.
There are others who advocate eating what you grew up with. The reason why they say French never get fat despite eating cream, butter and other fattening things. Most people mistaken Indian diet as ” vegetable heavy”. It is more carb heavy than vegetables with usually a serving of vegetables at lunch and dinner but none at any other meals. So going that route is not an option for us.
So surely there is a another way that works for us, the animals and the environment.
The Sustainable Lifestyle for Us
Luckily, as more and more people are aware of food and food related health and environment issues, there are many sustainable food options available. Shopping at local farmers market for humanely raised poultry, subscribing to a CSA for produce and even cooking more at home are some of the things we can do.
It is more expensive and time consuming but in the end it will be good for us and the environment.
I don’t think any of the books prescribe one way to do these things – after all not everyone has the time/motivation/resources to make sustainable lifestyle a priority. Food, environment, lifestyle are all intermingled. But every little bit will help.
As one of my colleagues in Redmond used to remind me – If you drive an electric car or take public transport but eat at McD’s its still better for the environment than driving a gas guzzler and then eating processed food.
This is what we are planning to adopt as we are on the journey to improve our health.
1. Eat more vegetables
While I know we can’t give up meat (or eggs or fish) we can control its portion and supplement with more vegetables. At all meals. A 2 – egg omlete with mushrooms and spinach works just as well as a 3 egg one. Incorporating vegetables at every meal ( including snacks) makes us feel full and even saves $ on the meat budget.
2. Eat less processed food
After reading these books, I went through our fridge and pantry and was surprised to find these ingredients in “organic natural/ safe” food – Sugar in “organic” peanut butter, milk powder in “organic” non-fat milk, xanthan gum in Gummy bears, HCFS or GMO corn in Beer, V8 which is made from concentrate (which likely contains HCFS) etc.
Almost all of those ingredients have HCFS as their source – which has an undesirable effect on insulin, fat and our waistline.Besides making some of these things on your own or reading labels to carefully chose the right products there is really no other options.
Land o lakes and I Cant believe is not butter is made from milk from GMO fed cows ; canola oil is made from GMO rapeseed which is shown to cause blindness in a UK study in cows.
Only whole milk, cheese or natural ingredients for us going forward. After going non fat for nearly a decade this is unnerving.This is a paradigm shift.
We have already switched to whole milk and cheese. They taste really good though we are careful to use/eat them in smaller quantities so as to not jeopardize rest of the diet.
3. Eat locally and seasonally
This is real easy for us to do as we are in sunny California with bountiful farms around. But really learning how to cook some non Indian ingredients in Indian way or just as is ( celery, tofu, collard greens, kale, rainbow chard, bok-choy , squashes etc) and not eating some Indian vegetables ( doodhi/lauki, methi, certain types of cucumbers, Indian eggplants, curry leaves etc which are imported) would help us eat locally and seasonally.
While I don’t think I can give up tomatoes in winter at least sticking to other vegetables will introduce variety in our diet. And it will be healthier to the boot.
This also means we should eat “pastured” and farm raised eggs and poultry in Spring and pork and beef later in the year – but I don’t think we can take it that far. We will stick to eggs , poultry and wild caught fish year around with a little red meat throw in for special occasions.
EatWild is an excellent website to find pastured local sources of meat/dairy and poultry.
Local Harvest is another excellent source to find local CSA/farmers market, in season vegetables etc
4. Grow a couple of vegetables at least
We don’t really have much space in our apartment here in San Francisco, but a pot of lettuce, spinach and some herbs ( cilantro and mint) should be manageable. Maybe I could give regrowing few veggies in a glass a try ( like regrow spring onions and celery).
5. Eat more varied carbs
More or less our carbs are based on wheat and oats. I want to incorporate more carbs variety in our diet. Indian diet has a variety of untested breads based on jowar, rice, millet, chickpea flour. Incorporating those will reduce our dependance on wheat and the wheat belly that comes with it.
6. Eat more healthy fat
I know folks ( like my mom) who eat virgin coconut oil before meals to feel fuller and satisfied. And touch wood don’t have any health issues v/s others (like my uncle – mom’s brother) who has lived a typical 21st century life ( low fat/low calorie diet, stressful work and sedentary lifestyle) and now has to deal with knee problems, heart and blood pressure issues.
While I don’t think I will binge on it, we will be a little more liberal with our fat usage. And switch to unprocessed fat like -ghee, butter, olive oil, coconut oil and avocados. Apparently it takes fat to reduce fat!
As usual I will be posting recipes and progress. Some may work, others may not. Either ways you will know. If possible do join us in our quest to adopt healthier wholesome food. I am sure it won’t be easy but we can learn from each other. At the very least vote with your $$ and say no to processed, unlabeled, GMO food.
Stay with us, share your thoughts, recipes and ideas and do do encourage us as we tread on this rather difficult but interesting food journey.
More Food For Thought
Food Rules – Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food – Michael Pollan
The Unhealthy Truth – Robyn O’Brien
Master your Metabolism – Jillian Michaels
Fast Food Nation – Eric Schlosser
Squeezed: What you don’t know about Orange juice – Alissa Hamilton
Organic Manifesto – Maria Rodale
Conscious Eating – Gabriel Cousens
Beauty Detox Solution – Kimberly Snyder