A Brief Look at Diet Culture

Soure: Social and Health Research Center

Written by: Timandra Rowan

April 21, 2022

Diet culture has a long history of fads and facts. In the U.S., there have been multitudes of “diets” designed for health with more emphasis on weight loss than in other countries over the last century. Why is our national obsession on the relationship of dietary fat been the prominent discourse? A little history may help.

CLICK HERE.

Happy Thanksgiving – Bon apetit.

English: “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“ The turkey is certainly one of the most delightful presents which the New World has made to the Old.”  Brillat Savarin.

Most of the traditional Thanksgiving foods we now eat on this holiday are foods that originated or were Native to the Americas. The word for turkey in French is dinde, short for poulet d’inde since they thought that the turkey came from the West Indies of Columbus days.  The turkey was popular in England before the Pilgrims came in 1620.

Turkeys don’t migrate so they were some of the first Native Americans and were available all year.  Turkeys are easy to hunt – when one is shot, the others freeze in place.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t encourage shooting turkeys – we have lots of wild turkeys here in Western North Carolina. Many times I’ve had to stop and wait until they cross the road.  I once encountered a few hens walking in the woods, followed by a male who wanted to impress them by making a racket and spreading his tail feathers – of course, the “girls” totally ignored him and went on without a nod – I kind of felt sorry for him

Potatoes had reached Europe early in the Columbian Exchange (thanks to Christopher Columbus).  Potatoes had an interesting history – they were native to Peru, a Spanish colony and enemy of England, and went from Peru to Europe and then returned to New Hampshire with Scottish-Irish settlers in 1723.  It is thought that the idea of mashing them with butter and milk also came form Scottish-Irish influence.

Cranberries were native to New England. Cranberries and blueberries were mashed with sour milk and used as paint as well as for food.  To this day, these colors or variations of these colors are used in New England colonial homes.

Many types of squash had reached Europe, but pumpkin was unknown at that time. Pumpkin was used in the early colonies, but did not appear in cookbooks until Amelia Simmons in 1796 wrote the first printed American cookbook.  She referred to it as “pomkin”.  You may prefer pecan pie – and these are also of American origin.  Originating in central and eastern North America and the river valleys of Mexico, pecans were widely used by pre-colonial residents.

Cornbread and sweet potatoes (both being native to the Americas) round out our traditional Thanksgiving fare. Archaeological studies indicate that corn was cultivated in the Americas at least 5600 years ago and American Indians were growing corn long before Europeans landed here. The probable center off origin is the Central American and Mexico region but since the plant is found only under cultivation, no one can be sure.

The sweet potato has a rich history and interesting origin. It is one of the oldest vegetables known to mankind. Scientists believe that the sweet potato was domesticated thousands of years ago in Central America. Christopher Columbus took sweet potatoes back home to Europe after his first 1492 voyage. Sweet potatoes spread through Asia and Africa after being introduced in China in the late 16th century.

So as you enjoy your Thanksgiving this year, give thanks to the Americas for our traditional foods that are truly “made in America”.

BTW –Many of the foods we find on our Thanksgiving table today, weren’t  available back when the colonists celebrated the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth.  The first historical descriptions of the first Thanksgiving do not mention turkey – only “wild fowl” (not identified) and five deer.  The party was in 1621 with fifty-one Pilgrim men, women, and children hosting ninety men of the Wampanoag tribe and their chief, Massasoit.  It was in the fall to celebrate the good harvest of corn (wheat and barley weren’t as successful) and lasted three days.

Have a great Thanksgiving Day from Food, Facts & Fads and STAY SAFE.  SJF

A Very Short Guide to Live the Mediterranean Way

How to Live the Mediterranean Way and How to Feed Your Microbiome: Rules to Live By:  

“Each country around the Mediterranean Sea offers a rich bounty of delicious ingredients. Many authors have written about the Mediterranean Diet in terms of the health benefits that have been shown by an exhaustive array of scientific studies on its merits. The diet is now recognized as an “intangible cultural heritage” in Italy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is a way of life and a way of eating, which the Italians call “Cucina genuine” or “cuisine of the poor”.  This is the diet of those who work the land and feed themselves using seasonal ingredients grown in their small plots outside the kitchen”.

The following characteristics attempt to describe the “Americanized” version of how to live and eat the Mediterranean way – it is not just a diet but a gift to a healthier lifestyle.”

DIET: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. (Michael Pollan). Whole grains, unprocessed foods, fruits, and vegetables. It is not a diet but a lifestyle.

Eat meat in moderation. Limit your saturated fat, sugar and salt intake. Snack on nuts. Reduces inflammatory foods

Practice mindfulness, smaller servings, early light dinners.

Try yogurt, beans, chickpeas (hummus (fermentable foods) like sauerkraut – gives us a diverse microenvironment

Maintain a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) 19.0 – 25.0

Drink plenty of water

EXERCISE:

Take a walk. Enjoy the sunshine.

Stay active. Get gardening.

Exercise improves cognition and stress reduction

BEHAVIORAL, SOCIAL

1-2 Glasses of red wine (daily): Optional (if you don’t drink wine, don’t start) 

Have a purpose in life (a reason to get up in the morning).

Laugh with friends.

Keep your brain active (read, puzzles, learn a language) card games

Focus on family, God, camaraderie, nature

Reduce stress and avoid eating when angry or sad.

Enjoy the secret pleasures and social aspect of foods.  Become more expert at listening to your gut feelings. (mind/body).  

Citations: 

Diane Phillps, The Mediterranean Slow Cooker Cookbook, Chronicle Books, 2012.

Emeran Mayer, MD. The Mind-Gut Connection, Harper Collins, 2016.

Dan Buettner The Blue Zones Challenge, National Geographic, 2021.

The Salem Witch Trials: Revisited

October brings thoughts of fall, Halloween, and witches and the witch trials that occurred in 1692 in a fragile Puritan Community, Salem Village, Massachusetts. The theory most often cited was that ergot poisoning from rye bread was to blame – on further evaluation, history “experts” disqualify this theory and others are brought to mind. The following article by Nik DeCosta Klipa explains:

The theory that may explain what was tormenting the afflicted in Salem’s witch trials

What Caused the Obesity Epidemic?

What caused the obesity epidemic? What are the consequences? 

HOUSTON – When it comes to the childhood obesity epidemic, the prevailing narrative is that overweight children — and their parents — lack the collective will power to put down the potato chips, pick up a jump rope and work at losing weight.

“… doctors specializing in obesity and weight loss say certain scientific and societal factors — including genetics, the rise of processed foods that include soybean oil and national overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages — are more likely to blame for childhood obesity than lazy kids or indulgent parents.

“Obesity is a disorder which, like venereal disease, is blamed upon the patient,” says obesity researcher Dr. George Bray, the opening lecturer at the first annual U.S. News Combating Childhood Obesity summit, held at Texas Children’s Hospital.

It’s the blame issue that stands in the way of progress in fighting obesity as a disease, when larger factors that can’t be controlled may be at the heart of the issue, says Bray, professor emeritus of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University, who has been studying obesity among children for several decades.

“Obesity isn’t a disease of willpower — it’s a biological problem,” he says. “Genes load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.”

In a panel analyzing why weight is difficult to lose, Kevin Hall, an obesity and diabetes researcher, says a new study he co-produced points the finger at highly processed food.

His study, published Thursday in the medical journal Cell Metabolism, showed that patients who ate minimally-processed food with easily identifiable ingredients ate less, and lost weight without trying, when compared with a group that had highly-processed, prepackaged, ready-to-eat food, even though the diets prepared for both groups had the same number of calories and macronutrients.

“What we saw, on average, was that people consumed 500 calories more” on the processed-food diet than those who ate food that didn’t go through a factory, says Hall, chief of the integrated physiology section at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “The ones on the unprocessed diet — they spontaneously lost weight.” It has been proposed that eating a diet for health (whole, “real” foods) can cause weight loss and maintenance of the loss compared to those who primary goal was simply weight loss alone.

In opening the summit, presenters tackled a question doctors and obesity researchers have grappled with a difficult question in fighting the disease: How did we get here?

Bray says studies trace the epidemic back to the ’60s and ’70s, when U.S consumption of soybean oil, most likely through processed-food production, spiked and, around the same time, Americans, including children, started to weigh more. Fats found in soybean oil, he says, were found in breast milk samples from the era.

“The fats in our food supply may well be playing a part in our inability to regulate” food intake, Bray says. However, this is just the tip of the iceburg. Likewise food portions have been shown graphically to double the size of those served beginning inn the 1970’s.

Meanwhile, the consumption of sugary soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi increased from just a few gallons per person per year to more than triple that by the end of the century. The rise of soft drink consumption between 1950 and 2000, he says, paralleled the increase in obesity; pregnant women who drank sugary soft drinks, Bray added, ended up passing the sugar on to their unborn children.

“It’s kind of maternal abuse of the fetus” where “the child has no control, only the mother has,” he says.

The U.S. News Combating Obesity summit convened top medical experts, hospital executives, pediatricians, community health leaders, advocates to exchange ideas and share practices that are helping to combat the nationwide obesity epidemic.

The percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity “has more than tripled since the 1970s,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to data from 2015-2016, the CDC reports, “nearly 1 in 5 school age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in the United States has obesity.”

Experts say the epidemic has long-term ramifications: Obese children who carry the weight can exhibit heart disease and type 2 diabetes as well as mobility and self-esteem issues. Unfortunately in order to reverse this trend, cultural changes will be required at many levels, to say the least. Can it happen?

U.S. News and World Report

Joseph P. Williams, Senior Editor

May 16, 2109

Scientific, Societal Factors to Blame for the Obesity Epidemic

Lifestyle and Longevity

Does chronological age always match biological age? According to a recent study, 1500 elderly women aged 64 to 95 years who sit for more than 10 hours a day have cells that are biologically older by 8 years compared to women who are more active. These women had shorter telomeres which are found on the ends of DNA strands. These structures protect chromosomes from degradation and normally shorten with age but more progressively with unhealthy lifestyles such as obesity or smoking.

Aladdin Shadyab. Lead author. Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

The research was partly funded by the National Institute on Aging.

Living in a Blue Zone

Longevity appears to not just be due to diet. Lifestyle in general is so important. No one says we have to eat rice and beans every day as they traditionally did in the Blue Zone of Costa Rica. However, there were other factors like keeping active and being social with friends and family. Why not search for the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, to try a more delicious fare?

A DAY of the life of living in a Blue Zone:: Costa Rica

“Aged 94, Saturnino “Sato” Lopez rises early each day, chops wood and takes long walks in a part of Costa Rica that’s a global oddity: like him, people there tend to live a very long time.

Home for Sato is the Nicoya Peninsula, where 1,010 people aged 90 or older live in a so-called “Blue Zone” — five areas around the world where life expectancy is particularly high.

And these people did not move to the peninsula, located in the northwest of Costa Rica. Rather, they have always lived there.

“At my age, I feel well because the Lord gives me strength to walk at ease. I go out, walk maybe a kilometer (around half a mile), or four kilometers, and I return, no problem,” said Lopez.

His house is in a village called Dulce Nombre — Sweet Name — is a sort of nature refuge.

The village’s wood, concrete and stick-and-mud houses are surrounded by vegetation and cicadas drone non-stop. The Covid-19 pandemic has gone easy on this village.

“During the day if I have to sweep the patio, I sweep. If I have to chop wood, I chop, also. A bit of everything,” said Lopez.

Blue Zones –

In the late 20th century, demographer Michel Poulain and a physician named Gianni Pes used a blue marker to highlight on a map the Barbalia region of Sardinia, Italy, where they found people lived a very long time.

In 2005, an American author and National Geographic fellow named Dan Buettner discovered similar characteristics in Loma Linda, California; Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan, and Nicoya.

So what is their secret?

“The main food is rice and beans. A bit of meat, fruit, avocado. That is what you eat. They say this is good food,” said Lopez.

His neighbors Clementina Espinoza, 91, and her husband Agustin, 100, follow a similar diet.

Espinoza has outlived six of her 18 children. She walks slowly but steadily, and still tosses corn to her chickens, prepares meals and washes up afterward.

Clementina Espinoza, 91, tends to her garden in Nicoya. She exhibits robust energy in a country where the life expectancy is a mere 80. For the world in general it is 72, the World Health Organization says.

“Out in the countryside, life is quieter,” said Espinoza, insisting that diet is key. “You are more relaxed and there is not so much danger.”

– Having purpose is key –

Having goals is critical to aging well, said Aleyda Obando, who works in the social security administration in Nicoya.

“They thank God for being alive and they make plans, to plant something or go see friends,” said Obando. “It is a combination of factors that makes these people last longer.”

It also helps to have a social support network, exercise, eat healthy food and minimize stress.

“We grew corn, rice, beans, everything. “We grew what we ate,” said Clementina. Now, her daughter Maria looks after her.

Agustin, one of 53 people in the area who are 100 or older, is blind now and suffered a stroke.

– Back in the saddle –

Jose Villegas is another centenarian, who lives in the neighboring village of San Juan de Quebrada Honda, with one of his eight daughters.

He is hoping that when he turns 105 on May 4 he can once again ride a horse — he used to make his living on horseback, herding livestock. But sometimes he has trouble with his legs.

Being 104, he says, “is a big deal because God has given me a lot of life. It was not fantastic but it was not bad, either,” said Villegas, sitting in the house he was born in.

“Now, lifestyles have changed. It is not the same as before. Things used to be healthier, and people loved each other a little bit more,” said Villegas, who became a widower seven years ago and spends his evenings listening to folk music.

Gilbert Brenes, a demographer at the University of Costa Rica, said the Blue Zone’s elderly population may peak in the next 20 or 30 years and then decline.

Younger generations have different diets and suffer more from diseases like obesity and diabetes. And fewer and fewer people grow what they eat.

But Saturnino Lopez, a father of nine, remains active.

“My children say to me, ‘you no longer work. We have to work to support you.’ But I don’t like that, because I know what keeps me going,” he said, referring to physical activity like cutting wood.

“Even if it is just a couple of blows with the machete, that’s enough.”

Crime and Nourishment???

We have all heard about the rising crime rates occurring in the U.S. Our first inclination is to wonder what could be going on in our country to cause this – or at least what is contributing to this disturbing shift of behavior?

“The issues of diet and criminal behavior are limited but intriguing. If you’ve ever found yourself in front of the TV after a bad day, mindlessly digging ice cream out of the container with a spoon, you know that mood and food are sometimes linked. But while stress eating is a verified phenomenon, the relationship between food and actual mood disorders, depression and even behavior needs some attention. Can dietary changes potentially improve our mental health.? What do the studies say?

Scientists looking for answers – Hints of a Link

Before, we jump into the science (research), some basics:

As we all know, our behavior is mostly controlled by our brain. Every organ in the human body requires nutrition to function properly and when it doesn’t get what it needs it functions abnormally. So, is there any reason that the brain should be an exception? The brain is a complex organ so that alone should be enough to assume that if it does not get the proper nutrition, it might just not work as well as it should.

Recent research offers a viewpoint that the brain and the gut “talk to each other” through the presence of the microbiome – the community of microorganisms that lives inside our digestive tract.  When this communication channel is “out of whack” or missing essential nutrition, major health problems can crop up in both the mind and body, enabling food sensitivities, allergies, digestive disorders, obesity, depression, anxiety, and fatigue.

“A study indicated that when levels of the brain chemical serotonin decrease from stress or not eating, it affects the brain regions regulating anger, potentially resulting in “a whirlwind of uncontrollable emotions”. 

“Prison studies suggest that many inmates have poor blood sugar control, compounded by a high-sugar diet. We all know how it feels when blood sugar drops – we feel moody, foggy. Apply that to someone from a disturbed backgound.”

In a randomized, placebo-controlled trial,  Oxford criminologist Bernard Gesch found that giving prison inmates a multivitamin and fatty acid supplement led to violent offenses dropping 37% compared to 10% for those who were given a placebo – findings that were confirmed by a later Dutch study.

“In a large study of prison diets, Stephen Schoenthaler, Professor of Criminology and Sociology at California State University found that prisoner’s eating habits could be used to predict future violent behavior. Normally, past violent behavior is considered the best prediction of future violence. But professor Schoenthaler found that a poor diet is an even better predictor of violent behavior.”

He also found that that in a study of young offenders in California, young adult men receiving vitamin supplements showed a 38% drop in serious behavior problems.

The types of problems associated with poor diet, such as aggression, attention deficits and hyperactivity can make impulsive behavior more likely. Low levels of iron, magnesium and zinc can lead to increased anxiety, low mood, and poor concentration, leading to attention deficits and sleep disturbances. Omega-3 fatty acids, are often deficient in the U.S. diet and needed to improve cognitive functioning.

“No one blames a poor diet as a cause of crime, nor is it the only solution. But if better nutrition in general can bring about a substantial reduction in violent crime in and out of prisons, that would be something to cheer about. For isn’t a good diet, made up of good food, a better and less expensive solution than just hiring more police and building more prisons?”

Needless to say, The Standard American Diet (SAD) needs more attention for all of us, not just in our prison population. Simply, with the input of nutrition scientists, education of the consumer, and cooperation of the food industry, we desperately need more healthy food choices for our personal health and that of our food culture.

Schoenthaler, S.J., Ames, S. Dorax, W., et al (1997)

The effect of randomized vitamin mineral supplementation on violent and non-violent antisocial behavior among incarcerated juveniles. Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, 7:343-352.

The Conversation: Crime and Punishment – the link between food and offending behavior. Hazel Flight, John Marsden, Sean Creaney. 2018

The Guardian. Can Food Make You Angry? Rebecca Hardy. Wed.24 Apr 2013.

C. Bernard Gesch, Sean M. Hammond, Sarah E. Hampson, Anita Eves, and Martin J. Crowder

Influence of supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids on the antisocial behavior of young adult prisoners. British Journal of Psychiatry 2002, 181, 22-28

How to Live the Mediterranean Way

How to Live the Mediterranean Way and How to Feed Your Microbiome.

Each country around the Mediterranean Sea offers a rich bounty of delicious ingredients. Many authors have written about the Mediterranean Diet in terms of the health benefits that have been shown by an exhaustive array of scientific studies on its merits. The diet is now recognized as an “intangible cultural heritage” in Italy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is a way of life and a way of eating, which the Italians call “Cucina genuina” or “cuisine of the poor”.  This is the diet of those who work the land and feed themselves using seasonal ingredients grown in their small plots outside the kitchen”.

The following characteristics attempt to describe the “Americanized” version of how to live and eat the Mediterranean way – it is not just a diet but a gift to a healthier lifestyle.”

DIET: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. (Micheal Pollan). Whole grains, unprocessed foods, fruits, and vegetables

Eat meat in moderation. Limit your saturated fat, sugar and salt intake. Snack on nuts. Reduces inflammatory foods

Practice mindfulness, smaller servings, early light dinners.

Try yogurt, beans, chickpeas (hummus (fermentable foods) like sauerkraut – diversifies microbiome

Maintain a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) 19.0 – 25.0

Drink plenty of water

EXERCISE:

Take a walk. Enjoy the sunshine.

Stay active. Get gardening.

Exercise improves cognition and stress reduction

BEHAVIORAL, SOCIAL

1-2 Glasses of red wine (daily): Optional (if you don’t drink wine, don’t start) 

Have a purpose in life (a reason to get up in the morning).

Laugh with friends.

Keep your brain active (read, puzzles, learn a language) card games

Focus on family, God, camaraderie, nature

Reduce stress and avoid eating when angry or sad.

Enjoy the secret pleasures and social aspect of foods.  Become more expert at listening to your gut feelings.(mind/body).  

Citations: 

Diane Phillps, The Mediterranean Slow Cooker Cookbook, Chronicle Books, 2012.

Emeran Mayer, MD. The Mind-Gut Connection, Harper Collins, 2016.

Dan Buettner The Blue Zones Challenge, National Geographic, 2021.

Going Vegan?

Lose weight and live longer on a vegetarian diet.? From the Harvard Medical School Health Guides

There is a lot of attention being paid to switching to a plant-based diet. There are many published articles and recipes on plant-based diets to achieve a lower body index, lower blood pressure, and reduced risks for heart disease, diabetes, type 2, cancer, and longevity. Plenty of attention is being paid to the health benefits of those centenarians living in the Blue Zones, particularly ones that live in a plant-based environment as well as those with a more modified vegetarian approach. I suggest you search for more posts on these excellent topics on the “Blue Zones” on this blog or check at your local library.

If you’re thinking of going vegetarian but worried about making such a big change, there are several ways to try to see if you can manage a diet with less animal protein.

Here are some options:

  • A flexitarian diet – meat is limited as a condiment and not considered the main attraction. Use vegetables, appetizers instead.
  • Semi vegetarian diet (no red meat)
  • Pescatarian – avoid meat and poultry but eat fish and seafood.
  • Lacto -ovo -vegetarian – skip all meat, fish, and poultry but include dairy and eggs in your diet.

If you’re trying to lose weight -go heavy on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains but limit foods high in saturated fats (ice cream, whole milk, and cheese.) An important aspect of losing weight is often not what you eat – but how much you eat to keep daily calories in check. After all, vegan foods have calories, too. And some are not as healthy as they could be.

In the U.S. Standard diet (SAD) our meals and snacks are taking on gargantuan proportions. “The food industry decided they had to make portions larger to stay competitive and people got used to larger sizes very quickly. Today, normal sizes seem skimpy,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Professor of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University.

When eating out, the transition to a plant-based diet is easier than than you might think. Fill your plate with vegetables – cooked, raw, or in a salad. Check out the sides that are offered. Then gradually introduce all vegetarian meals once or twice a week and if you like, increase it until you are as “vegan” as you want to be. Try a few meals from a local vegan restaurant, then try a few on your own. You may be surprised. Bon Appetit!!