(Mis)Counting Calories

Whole Grain BreadsI knew that the whole MyFitnessPal calories in vs. calories out thing was too simple to be right. Just when I credited my 53-pound weight loss to paying attention to my net calorie intake, I find out that I’ve gotten it all wrong. It seems that there’s a “degree of difficulty.”

Scientists have long measured calorie content by burning a carefully measured portion of the food in a special device, a calorimeter. As it turns out, your body doesn’t use fire to break down food, and the system it does use produces different reality from what the calorimeter would suggest. According to an article in The New York Times:

The system is most accurate when the foods are easily digested and all of their energy is made available to the body — as they are when consuming highly processed carbohydrates. But in the past few decades, scientists have begun to understand that a substantial number of calories are lost in the effort to digest food. For example, meat and nuts are harder to break down, and so the body expends energy trying to digest them.

This is yet another great reason to eat more whole foods and fewer processed gunk. Since the processed stuff–say white bread vs. whole grain bread–requires more effort for your body to digest, two servings of bread with the same supposed calorie content will have a different impact on your body.

The Five Factors of Fabulous Food

imageIt occurs to me, as I consider the possible topics for a Food Friday entry, that I should spend a few moments considering the criteria for inclusion. After considerable thought–perhaps 20 to 30 seconds at least–I’ve arrived at five factors that allow food to make the cut here.

Cost

Unless you are a trust-fund baby, you probably think sometimes about your grocery budget. That’s why I have been known to buy those $1 Michaelina frozen meals ($.80 with a coupon) that have virtually no redeeming value other than an entire chemistry set of preservatives.

Truly good food–that is, food that will do what you want it to do in your body–is going to cost something. It won’t be the cheapest way you can eat. It’s like when you buy the “cheapest” dog food that your store offers. It might fill up the dog’s bowl, but most of that food winds up lying in piles around your yard rather than nourishing Bowser.

We cannot be afraid to spend good money for good food, but we do, as stewards, need to seek out the most economical ways to eat well. Every Food Friday nominee should be reasonably priced–that is, you should get a lot of bang for your buck. That bang will be found in the other factors.

Upside

Good food isn’t just cheap food. Even though I keep track of my calories to avoid gaining weight, I recognize that calories alone are not the whole story. Food is not a single-dimensional thing. We don’t simply eat calories. We eat fats, carbs, and proteins that all carry calories.

Food worthy of my attention here will be food that has a lot of those positive nutritional elements for a reasonable price. I could eat 500 calories of greasy potato chips or a 500-calorie grilled chicken salad. Obviously the latter has a lot more to recommend it, a lot more upside.

Downside

At the same time that food has a reasonable price and some positive nutritional upside, it can be fouled up by the downside, the negative nutritional factors. Take an example. Today, I ate a footlong Subway Black Forest Ham sub. With banana peppers, onions, spinach, and pickles on it, I felt pretty righteous in my food selection. That sub, even with cheese, comes in at about 620 calories.

Had that sub been what I’d have really preferred, a Spicy Italian, the calorie count would have exceeded 1,000. I would have bumped the protein up from 36g to 40g but at the cost of going from 1600 to 3000mg of sodium and 9 to 48g of fat. Even though that Spicy Italian has a lot of the same upside, it comes at too high a downside for my preference.

Practicality

Maybe you are a devoted foodie, the sort of person who will keep thirteen different types of vinegar in the cabinet to make all the exotic recipes that appear in Food and Wine. That’s all fine, but my assumption is that if food is too difficult, too complicated, or too time intensive, I’m probably not going to make it.

A food could be the most economical, nutritionally ideal, and delicious fare possible. If I don’t ever get it on my plate, then it will do me no benefit at all.

Food Friday items need to be reasonably simple to prepare with ingredients that are easily located and stored. The skills and tools involved in the preparation need to be within the reach of anybody with a kitchen.

If you want to prepare fabulous, exotic recipes, I respect that, and there are plenty of cooking sites online to provide you with ways to use cassava flour and halloumi cheese. Sorry, but this isn’t one of those.

Taste

I’ve scoured the New Testament, and never did I find Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who eat bland and tasteless food.” God gave us taste buds for a reason.

The foods that Penny and I present here in Friday Food entries might not be your cup of tea (or plate of porridge), but they will definitely be something that we enjoy eating.

Food should taste good. If it doesn’t, then we’re writing ourselves off as something less than fully human.

Sweet Kale Chopped Salad

Is there anything lazier than eating salad out of a bag? The answer is, “Yes!” The lazier course would be not eating salad at all. I can go to Costco and pick up a bag of this delightful Taylor Farms Sweet Kale Chopped Salad, and I’m good to go for something like six servings. The nutritional facts say that the bag has about three servings, but our experience has seen us getting plenty for four bowls. Toss in the dressing and you’ll only be doing 130 calories worth of damage to your daily count. What a deal.

I like to throw in a few ounces of grilled chicken. Even then, I’m still under 200 calories. Sunday, Penny realized that our ever-helpful son had eaten part of the leftover chicken she had planned to throw on our lunch. She let me have the remaining chicken and cut up a bit of tilapia that we’d grilled the night before. Both versions of this salad were completely satisfactory.

So back to my original question. Is salad-in-a-bag lazy? Obviously it is a lot less work than cutting up all of the various vegetables we find in the Taylor Farms bag. But realistically, are you going to buy  broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, and chicory. Are you going to have all of those in your fridge at the same time and in edible condition? Will you have the dried cranberries, roasted pumpkin seeds, and poppyseed dressing that the bag includes? Even if you have all of those ingredients, let’s be honest, you’ll probably think about all that chopping and instead opt for a couple of frozen burritos instead.

This package will run you about $5, so if you are, like us, getting six servings from it, then it’s a pretty reasonable $.85. The meat will add a little bit to the price, but you’ll certainly get a very healthy lunch on the plate for well under $2.

I tend to agree with Michael Pollan who warns us away from foods that have a health claim on the package. This package boasts about containing “5 Superfoods.” I’m not entirely sure that I believe that kale or anything else is a great deal more than a fad. Good for you? Yes. Superfood? What does that even mean.

Here’s what I know. For $8, I can make six salads that don’t carry a lot negative nutritional baggage and have some good stuff about them as well. Just as important, this thing requires enough chewing that I feel like I’ve really eaten something. That means I’m not inclined to be sticking my hand in a cracker box in half an hour. Finally, it’s easy enough to prepare that I won’t wimp out and drive through Burger King instead.

Is salad-in-a-bag lazy? Maybe. But if it works, then it’s good enough for me.

You Have to Eat Calories to Burn Calories?

Whole Grain BreadsAn article at Wise Bread offers “The 7 Most Calorie-Burning Breakfasts.” First of all, do foods actually burn calories? That seems dubious. And then there’s this whole idea of “The 7 Most…” Did our intrepid author really consider every possible combination of foods and somehow test them to discover that these were indeed the 7 best?

But perhaps I’m too harsh. Reading over these, at around 8:30 in the evening, I’m actually thinking about heading to bed early so that I can get up sooner and eat breakfast. Here’s how the writer sells oatmeal with cinnamon and walnuts:

High-fiber foods like oatmeal have been shown in studies to help people lose weight. Whole grains help you stay full for longer, leading you to eat less. They help eliminate waste in your body, and they are harder to break down, so your body burns more calories to process them.

Makes you hungry, doesn’t it? As much as I’d like to think He served biscuits and gravy, in John 21:12, when the resurrected Jesus said “Come and have breakfast,” I’m fairly certain He was serving something off of this list.

Good Diet Advice?

movie_snacksA recent article in the New York Times provides seven “simple rules for healthy eating. As I read these rules, I’m struck by how sensible they seem, but then I’m also struck by how the “common sense” of 2015 that underlies these rules might have seemed senseless a few years ago. Take, for example the brave new world attitude toward two of the bogeymen of diets past:

Things like salt and fat aren’t the enemy. They are often necessary in the preparation of tasty, satisfying food. The key here is moderation. Use what you need. Seasoning is often what makes vegetables taste good. Don’t be afraid of them, but don’t go crazy with them either.

As appetizing (sorry) as I find these guidelines, I wonder if the author Dr. Aaron Carroll, isn’t just lending his credentials to the prevailing winds of public opinion. In fact, this scientist admits pretty frankly that his ideas are not terribly scientific.

These suggestions are also not supported by the scientific weight of rigorous randomized controlled trials, because little in nutrition is.

If this is true, as it apparently is–after all, would a doctor lie?–then why are the pronouncements of doctors, nutritionists, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to be taken seriously? Why should we think of a diet rich in pizza and cheesecake as being inferior to one full of whole grains and organic veggies? Why should we take this non-scientific advice more seriously than we take the dietary codes of the Old Testament? The answer: It just seems right. I’m sorry, but that’s pretty feeble science.

I have to admit that reading over Dr. Carroll’s ideas, I feel as if he gives good advice. I feel that, but I won’t be a bit surprised when the winds of opinion shift in ten years and decide that Wonder Bread was actually what we should have been eating all along.

 

A Whole Grain No-Brainer

Whole Grain BreadsGluten-free has become a new promise of life and health in food circles lately. What with people eating “Paleo,” is there any real place in our cupboards for grains any more?

Whenever I hear of somebody putting the hate on grain, I remember that God commanded Ezekiel to bake bread with not one grain but four plus a couple legumes.

“Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. You are to eat it during the 390 days you lie on your side…. Eat the food as you would a loaf of barley bread; bake it in the sight of the people.” (Ezekiel 4:9,12)

Of course, if you know this passage, you might be thinking of the part of verse 12 I left out. That, I believe, doesn’t change the goodness of grain. God also commands showbread in the temple and various sacrifices of grain. Grain is good stuff.

Imagine my lack of surprise to discover that science has “discovered” what God already told us. A recent study has indicated that eating whole grains correlates with a 9% decrease in mortality and a 15% decrease in death from heart disease.

So enjoy that whole-grain bread. Just don’t eat the whole loaf.

Be (Less) Salt of the Earth

A spilled salt shakerIn Matthew 5:13, Jesus admonishes us to be the salt of the earth. It’s a metaphor, but why would Jesus make a positive metaphor out of such a wicked substance. After all, as anyone who pays attention to the scientific brilliance of TV newscast health reports, salt is a silent killer. Before long, Morton will be joining American Tobacco in a walk of shame for contributing to the long, slow demise of American health.

But not so fast, scientists are increasingly saying. A study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that not only are the government’s recommendations for salt intake unnecessarily low but a too-low intake of salt can actually be a health risk. An article in the Washington Post presents the matter in some detail.

“The current [salt] guidelines are based on almost nothing,” said [Dr. Suzanne] Oparil, a distinguished professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Some people really want to hang onto this belief system on salt. But they are ignoring the evidence.”

How could something as simple as salt stymie scientists for so long? The answer is that, despite the dietary claims that are made for all kinds of foods, actually substantiating how eating influences human health is notoriously difficult.

Not being a chemist, a physician, a nutritionist, or anything else likely to get me a guest appearance on Dr. Oz, what am I to do? I have a host of established scientists on one side saying the salt will kill me, while a host of scientists on the other side, perhaps less established but possessing more recent studies, say that too little salt is a problem. I’m stuck in the middle, hand paralyzed over the salt shaker.

This dilemma is yet another underscore for something I’ve long believed: Christian life is better than non-Christian life. As a believer, I’d love to live a long and healthy life, but I recognize that my hope is not ultimately tied up with the findings of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I can respect the way in which science lurches along testing provisional truths and moving from hypothesis to hypothesis, but I know that I can depend on the unmoving truth of the Word become flesh. The insight from the Holy Spirit, while not quite as specific as a recommended daily intake of sodium, will provide the guidance that I truly need.

While the nutritionists furiously rage together and the people imagine a vain thing, I’m going to focus on being the salt of the earth. Pass the salt, please.