Saturday, December 29, 2012

Merry Christmas, Bagel Face!

Okay, that title sounds awful, I admit, but I couldn't figure out how else to put these two topics together.  It will make sense momentarily.

Generic Christmas Dinner Photo.  Yes, there are some grapes and apples on the table, and those might even be carrots in that bread bowl.  But I also see what might be cocktail weenies in a blanket and some round meatloaf looking thing.  Not too much fresh or raw stuf here.

First of all, and rather obviously, it's Christmas (or "the holidays" for the more pc or less religiously-inclined of us).  Like last month's Thanksgiving, it's my first holiday season since my discovery of better health and a greater sense of self care, and wow, I learned a lot about myself.

I had thought, for years and years, that Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, because of the food of course, but it seems that Christmas, to perhaps an even greater degree, is also associated with large amounts of unhealthy food in my subconscious and memory as well.  Or, at least, I'm still, at this stage of my journey, a bit overwhelmed by all the food, healthy or otherwise, that's available during the holidays.  I certainly found it even more difficult to deal with the food choices at Christmas this year than I had at Thanksgiving.

Perhaps it's the time frame?  Thanksgiving is one day, then it's over.  Christmas, while of course the holiday is just one day, goes on for at least a few days before and a few days after.  With my family it always has at least.  On top of that, as a teacher, I've got a two-week break from school and from routine.  If summer taught me one thing, it's that I find it much easier to stay on track with food choices and exercise when I've got a regular schedule.  During this winter break, all those extra days off just means more time surrounded by trays of cookies, cakes, pies, chocolates, turkey, ham, sausage!!!!  Yeesh!  (A topic for another post, perhaps, is how I've noticed mybody's tendency in winter to want to get big - go figure!)

However, and hopfully needless to say, I still ate my nutritious fill of salad and other veggies while others ate turkey and ham.  I did though (over)indluge a bit in cookies, seemingly my great weakness.  I drank at least my share of wine as well.  I'm not going to beat myself up over it (not too much at least) - I did go running a few times, which definitely helped me feel a bit better.  Nonetheless, this holiday season has shown me very clearly where my tendencies lie.  Knowledge is power they say, so, more power to me?  Yes, I think so.  I'll be even more prepared to deal with the holidays next year.

Bagel Face

I think this would have been an ever better title for the book I just devoured over the course of two days at my mother-in-law's, Wheat Belly ("Bagel Face" is actually a title of one of the chapters).  My mother-in-law has been incredibly supportive of the food revolution I've got myself involed with, always willing to lend an ear to hear of my latest nutrition discovery (sadly, her tragic flaw is that she also makes the best chocolate chip cookies outisde of Delicious Orchards!  Okay, who are we kidding, it's MY tragic flaw, right?).  We got to her house a few days before Christmas and I saw this book that she'd just gotten and of which she had read a bit.  It was really pretty amazing.
My arch-nemesis in the search for moderation, good nutrition and health: the chocolate chip cookie.
This is definitely how many I could eat if I let myself.
The book just came out last year and is authored by a "renowned" cardiologist, William Davis.  I quite literally could not put the book down.  The first night I had to pry it out of my own hands because I was so tired and needed to sleep.  Davis makes some fascinating and seemingly well-researched points about wheat.
One of the important points he makes early on in the book is how wheat has so radically changed from the grain that was originally grown in the Fertile Crescent (modern-day Mesopotamia - Iraq, etc.) during the Agricultural Revolution around 12,000 years ago.  I think I linked this video in an earlier post, but it's at least as appropriate here.  It about 11 minutes long, but it's really a prety brilliant 11 minutes.

Back to the book.  Davis talks about how the orginial wheat grown 10,000 years ago (Einkorn wheat, I think it's called) went through very few changes for much of its history.  Some changes, yes, as it was adapted to different environments, but nothing very radical, nothing that altered its chemical makeup so much so as to make it detrimental to humans.  But, he argues, over the last 50-80 years, wheat has undergone innumerbale hybridizations and changes, at the hands of scientists, farmers and agriculturalists, that what we consume today in bread, pasta, pretzels and crackers, barely deserves the name "wheat."  And, more importantly, the argument goes, none of these changes that have radically altered the composition of wheat and its associated protein, gluten, have ever been studied or considered in terms of affecting wheat's suitability for human consumption or effects on human health.  In a way Davis is saying we've created our own Frankenstein, and unwittingly brought about obesity and diabetes in the process.
With the ever-increasing mechanization of agriculture that's happened over the last 80 years, wheat, like most other crops, has undergone numerous (man-made) changes in order to make it easier, faster and cheaper to grow.  At what price to human health has this come?  That's one of the main questions Davis sets about answering in this book.  The conclusion is not a pretty one.
He then talks about how modern "wheat" has become so incredibly ubiquitious, finding its way not just into the obvious foods like bread, pasta and crackers, but into a host of other foods we'd never thought contained wheat products.  The one shocking fact about wheat, whether from Wonder Bread or from my own homemade 100% whole wheat bread, is that wheat has a glycemic index even higher than table sugar.  It's mostly for this reason that he targets wheat as the greatest cause of what he calls "visceral fat," that is, the tire around the gut of many Americans today.  (If you don't know about glycemic index, you probably should - it's certainly a useful tool.  Go here for more info.)
 My awesomely delicious homemade 100% whole wheat bread - I knew it wasn't really the greatest thing for me, but, wow, I sort of had no idea the extent to which wheat was, in Davis's view, implicated in so many health issues.
The book at times gets a bit scientific for a non-scientist like myself, but only in a few places, and it's still relatively easy to follow the gist of what he's saying, even if you don't know exactly what a "protoprotien A" is or looks like (I made that term up, fyi).
The book seems incredibly well-researched, with information pulled from lots of studies spanning the last half-century as well as dozens of pieces of anecdotal evidence from his long career as a preventive cardiologist.  During the book he ties an excess of wheat in the modern American diet to skin conditions like acne, to premature aging, to diabetes, to obesity, to heart disease and even to brain disorders like cerebellar ataxia.  It seems that some of the compounds in wheat are among the few that the body allows to pass through the blodd-brain barrier.  And speaking of the brain, he also discusses the addicative nature of wheat - it apparently helps the brain produce some opiate-like peptides called exorphins that give you the "eat more" signal.  That resonated with me pretty strongly - I recall the those times eating three bagels in a row becuase I just couldn't stop (I'm sure I mentioned that somewhere in my "bio.")
So while I can't give a complete book review here, I have to say I think it should be required reading for everyone.  Am I going to totally forgo wheat?  Well, I really don't eat that much of it anymore anyway (except in my mother-in-law's amazing chocolate chip cookies), but I still have the occasional whole wheat wrap.  I'm probably going to just try a wheat-free month to see if I really notice anything.

Complaints?  Yes. 

I do have one pretty big criticism of the book, however, and in my opinion, it's a pretty big one. 
While reading the first few chapters, I thought the ending of the book, in terms of dietary advice, was going to read something like this: "Wheat, and more specifically gluten are clearly nutritional evils.  In its place you should eat gluten-free or low-gluten grains like millet, buckwheat, oats, teff, quinoa, sorghum or amaranth.  This way, you'll get many of the benefits of eating whole grains (especially fiber) while avoiding gluten.  And when you eat grains, be sure to eat them whole, the less processed the better.  And eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts seeds and beans.  Be moderate with high-fat foods like meats, cheeses and oils."

But no.  Essentially he takes a pretty radical low-carb approach, extolling meats, eggs, cheese, nuts and seeds, while banishing or strictly limiting almost ALL grains, including brown rice and those other whole, gluten free grains.  He even proposes a strict limit on beans and says, I think literally, to place no limit on one's use of oils.  Come on now, at 120 calories per tablespoon, and all of fat, oils are something to use wisely, not in unlimited amounts.

Glycemic Index Versus Nutrition

Now of course I'm no doctor (yet, at least), but at this point in my food and nutrition journey, I really take exception to some his advice.  Ultimately I think the book's big weakness is this - he places the concern about glycemic index and blood sugar levels above the issue of actual nutrition.  So in his plan you avoid most fruits because they raise your blood sugar, but you eat cheese because it doesn't.  For my money, though, the rise in blood sugar caused by some fresh fruit is more than offset nutritionally by the massive infusion of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients your body gets.  Compare that with the hunk of cheese, which, while it doesn't do to your blood sugar what the fruit does, also does very little for your body in terms of actual nutrition (or disease prevention for that matter).  Should people who are currently diabetic and prediabetic watch their intake of all foods with a high glcemic index?  Sure.  But, for those of us who already choose our foods wisely, I find his advice wholly inadequate.

I think Dr. Joel Fuhrman, while he'd certainly agree with the first two-thirds of the book, would have much the same to say about the dietary recommendations Davis makes in the final section.  Reading the book also reminded me of raw food expert and proponent David Wolfe, who in the film Food Matters talks about our society's overwhelming (and ultimately debilitating) reliance on corn, soy and wheat.  Very true it seems, and obviously very unhealthy.
Here ends Sausage Boy's first ever book review.  Certainly worth reading if you can get it from the library, and there are some good recipes in the back as well.  If you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think.
Happy New Year to everyone - be well!

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