Scholars chew the fat

Scholars chew the fat McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 14, 2005 - Volume 37 Number 14
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Scholars chew the fat

Illustration of fatty food

Losing weight is not rocket science -- it's more complicated, according to the presenters at McGill's fifth Integrative Health Challenge, "Energy is Delight," organized by management professor Laurette Dubé.

There are those who claim weight loss and gain is a simple matter of mathematics: energy expended subtracted from energy consumed. The experts in nutrition, neuroscience, cuisine, public policy, physiology and management gathered at the Think Tank Workshop (subtitled "Changing Practices in Food, Health and Business Toward Helping Individuals Resist Over-Consumption and Prevent Obesity") would beg to differ.

The conference uncovered some discouraging facts. There are 340 points on the human genome that affect weight gain. We are hard-wired to crave high-calorie food. And if you diet, you are more likely to overeat.

At a press conference, Professor Janet Polivy of the Department of Psychology and Psychiatry of the University of Toronto described how lab studies showed that regular dieters, when "made anxious or exposed to temptation," were far more likely than non-dieters to succumb to temptation. "Even planning to go on a diet can lead to overeating," she said. The reasoning that goes into the dieting mindset can be destructive: You can reason your way into a binge ("I've already broken my diet, so I might as well…" or, "I'll eat cake today and diet tomorrow").

To counteract the negative, punitive mindset associated with dieting, and the problems associated with it, the conference was designed to promote pleasures of healthy eating.

Adam Drewnowski, director of the Centre for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, picked up on the conference theme of pleasure, but put it in a social and economic context that was not encouraging.

"Food preference," he argued, "is driven by energy density." It comes as no surprise that in a table of children's most and least liked foods, chocolate, chips and ice cream won hands down over leeks, vegetable marrow, melon and cottage cheese.

"Energy-dense diets (made up of foods that are high in refined grains, sugars and fats) are a strategy to save money." Drewnowski claimed that water is actually the most expensive food ingredient: in high quantities, it makes foods highly perishable, heavy, more expensive to transport and thus flat out more expensive. So fresh, water filled vegetables and fruit are going to be more expensive that a bag of chips.

Junk food, on the other hand is satiating, tasty and relatively cheap. "It's delightful, it's delicious, it's da money," he quipped.

Babies only three days old show a preference for sugary foods. If freezing grapes transforms them into icy little candies (as Carolyn Bennett, the federal Minister of State for Public Health pointed out), shouldn't we just indulge our kid's sweet tooth more healthfully?

That's a great idea, for those who can afford it. "We've been brainwashed to believe that all foods cost the same," said Drewnowski. In reality, foods with high sugar content are the cheapest way to load up on energy. According to Deborah Buszard, dean of McGill's Faculty of Agriculture and Food Science, American corn subsidies have resulted in a surplus of cheap corn that goes into the manufacturing of corn syrup and fructose.

As for overweight or obese adults considering the Atkins Diet, by Drewnowski's calculations, following it will set you back $14 per day -- that's twice what the average American spends on food, and a whole lot more than the $3 per day that the average low-income American can afford.

There's a veritable fountainhead of cheap sugar pumping into that all American staple of the 7-11, the Slurpee. You don't see many Big Gulps in France. Nor will you notice many low- or no-fat products.

Comparing the American and French lifestyles, Paul Rozin of the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania commented, "When you go to France you notice how much thinner the French are before you've even left the airport."

"We make life comfortable, they make life interesting." When asked what word they associate with "cream," their most common answer is "whipped." In America, it's "unhealthy."

We Canadians share the American paradox identified by Rozin: We're worrying about our weight, we're very concerned about eating healthfully and we're eating unhealthfully. Many of us are consuming too much of too little: too much low-calorie, zero percent fat foods, and/or too many high-calorie foods, and not enough high-nutrient foods

Rozin attributes the pleasure and health the French enjoy to a number of factors: smaller portion sizes, the quality of their eating time, sociability, the freshness and quality of the food they eat and the absence of snacking. In short, they enjoy quality over quantity, collective values over individual ones. (Just try to picture Catherine Deneuve camping out under her duvet with a carton of ice cream.)

There are other factors, of course. In North America we drive to the grocery store and park as close as possible to the door. It's not just that the French don't drive everywhere. Rozin showed a slide of a typical narrow Parisian street, speckled with arrows. He calculates that, what with Parisians' love of dogs and their disdain for stooping and scooping, the average walk to the corner bakery is actually about twice as long as it looks.

In a closing roundtable discussion, it was clear that most participants saw the issue of obesity as one that requires attention from our society as a whole.

Both Rozin and Alain Poirier, assistant deputy minister of Quebec Ministry of Health, proposed that serving sizes should be lowered.

Poirier, however, added that poverty was a principal cause of obesity. He warned that focusing too much on "education" could result in the kind of hyper-awareness of diet that results in anorexia.

McGill management professor Henry Mintzberg, speaking, he said, as a consumer and a citizen, was wary of industry leaders who are still marketing junk foods to children. "In society the dice are loaded in an unfortunate way. Whoever can afford interventions or interventions that stop other interventions has a lot more going for them. Look at the effort it took to face the tobacco industry.

"If the government lets me sell it, I will promote it. That's how the current system works."

Concluding the conference, Bennett was of the opinion that "a war on obesity is not the answer." In all the discussions of how healthy eating should be promoted, there are generally two camps: on the left wing, poverty is seen as the root of it all; on the right, "it's all about choice."

The best results, Bennett said, have sprung from community-based efforts -- community kitchens, for example. The goal of public health policy should be to "make the healthy choices easy and pleasurable."  

She referred to Einstein's definition of insanity as "doing the same thing again and again and failing, and hoping for different results." That's a pretty accurate description of the obsessive culture of dieting we're surrounded with.

If you catch yourself even just contemplating going on a diet, perhaps it would be best to send your North American guilt trip packing and sit back and savour a frozen grape or two.

*Name edited for accuracy.

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