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Scientific American

Eat, Drink & Be Merry

published February 2007 | comments (8)
Or why we should learn to stop worrying and love food
magazine cover

Among athletes who obsess about their weight, we cyclists are second to none. Training rides are filled with conversations about weight lost or gained and the latest diet regimens and food fads. Resolutions are made and broken. We all know the formula: 10 pounds of extra weight on a 5 percent grade slows your ascent by half a mile an hour. It has a ring of Newtonian finality to it. F = MA. The Force needed to turn the pedals equals Acceleration times that Mass on the saddle.

But most of the guys I ride with are like me: in their 40s and 50s with jobs and families, long past racing prime. We ride because it is fun, and it feels good to be fit. So why obsess over a few pounds? Because that is the cycling culture — emblematic of our society at large — that carries its own internal calculus: the amount of guilt is directly proportional to the rise in the quantity and tastiness of the food.

The problem is that our bodies have evolved to crave copious amounts of rich and tasty foods, because historically such foods were valuable and rare. How can we modern humans resist? We shouldn’t, at least not entirely, says Barry Glassner, a University of Southern California sociologist and author of the forthcoming book, The Gospel of Food: Everything You Think You Know about Food Is Wrong (Ecco). We have wrongly embraced what Glassner calls “the gospel of naught,” the view that “the worth of a meal lies principally in what it lacks. The less sugar, salt, fat, calories, carbs, preservatives, additives, or other suspect stuff, the better the meal.” The science behind this culinary religion, Glassner says, is close to naught.

When it comes to healthy absorption of nutrients, taste matters. Glassner cites a study in which “Swedish and Thai women were fed a Thai dish that the Swedes found overly spicy. The Thai women, who liked the dish, absorbed more iron from the meal. When the researchers reversed the experiment and served hamburger, potatoes and beans, the Swedes, who like this food, absorbed more iron. Most telling was a third variation of the experiment, in which both the Swedes and the Thais were given food that was high in nutrients but consisted of a sticky, savorless paste. In this case, neither group absorbed much iron.”

Speaking of iron, Atkins is out and meat is bad, right? Wrong. Glassner notes a study showing that as meat consumption and blood cholesterol levels increased in groups of Greeks, Italians and Japanese, their death rates from heart disease decreased. Of course, many other variables are involved in determining causal relations between diet and health. Glassner cites a study showing a 28 percent decrease in risk of heart attacks among nonsmokers who exercised 30 minutes a day, consumed fish, fiber and folate, and avoided saturated and trans fats and glucose-spiking carbs. And according to Harvard University epidemiologist Karin Michels, “it appears more important to increase the number of healthy foods regularly consumed than to reduce the number of less healthy foods regularly consumed.” It’s more complicated still. Glassner reviews research showing that heart disease, cancer and other illnesses are significantly increased by “viral and bacterial infections,
job stress, living in distressed neighborhoods, early deficits such as malnutrition, low birth weight, lack of parental support, and chronic sleep loss during adolescence and adulthood.” Another study found that such diseases “are higher in states where participation in civic life is low, racial prejudice is high, or a large gap exists between the incomes of the rich
and poor and of women and men.”

To clarify this cornucopia of data, Glassner quotes the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Marcia Angell: “Although we would all like to believe that changes in diet or lifestyle can greatly improve our health, the likelihood is that, with a few exceptions such as smoking cessation, many if not most such changes will produce only small effects. And the effects may not be consistent. A diet that is harmful to one person may be consumed with impunity by another.”

As the preacher said in Ecclesiastes 8:15: “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.”

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8 Comments to “Eat, Drink & Be Merry”

  1. L K Tucker Says:

    I was aware that suggestibility played a part in mental illness but not that absorption of nutrients could be effected by appeal or beliefs.

  2. T Y Harrigan Says:

    As a 50 year old male who recently lost 30 lbs of body fat by cycling, running and watching calorie intake, I can say that eating does make a difference: how much, what and when. But the key is moderation. I still eat every food that I like, but just not too much or to often.

  3. D Miller Says:

    Be careful in evaluating Glassner’s work not to confuse causes of disease with associations. For example, being poor probably does not CAUSE disease, it simply is a proxy for less availability of health care and nutritious food. Poor understanding of this accounts for some of the apparent confusion.

  4. P R Allen Says:

    As a 59 year old male marathoner/triathlete/adventure sport enthusiast I merely increase my carbs before a race. The rest of the time I eat what I want in moderation as often as possible. The absorption of nutrients effected by beliefs sounds plausible. However, no amount of scientific research or anecdotal evidence will make me shave my legs, or body, to go two seconds faster.

  5. Keith Carmichael Says:

    What has F = M A have to do with anything if riding up hill at constant speed?
    Rate of increase in potential energy is proportional to Mass, to speed and increases with slope of hill. Cyclists slow because the rate at which they can work is limited.

  6. E.F.Grasett Says:

    Re: Keith Carmichael’s comment —
    In the Real World, friction exists, and energy must be used to overcome it. Does resisting deceleration not count as acceleration for purposes of F=MA?

  7. J. D. Draeger Says:

    Has nobody considered the possibility that people eating the foods most common in their culture might show adaptation towards more efficiently extracting nutrients from those foods? Perhaps different species mixes of bacteria in the GI tract of the different cultures might account for slightly different absorption rates of various nutrients. Feasting occasionally or eating less healthy foods occasionally is not likely to cause much harm. It’s the daily choices we make that add up to real significance in the long run. But no doubt harmful microorganisms play a part in many diseases blamed purely on bad food choices. Some of you guys need to lighten up. I don’t think Dr. Shermer wanted to start a serious physics discussion here.

  8. Broughton Says:

    I dare you to take this a step farther and debunk the myths and lies that marketers spread to get suckers to buy “organic” vegetables and other products, which are actually less safe and worse for the environment than conventional produce.

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