Aug 15 2007

Dunkin Donuts Cares About Nutrition?

Thanks to Ellen Fried for sending me the announcement that Dunkin’ Donuts has just appointed a nutrition advisory committee. You might think that it needs one. As is nearly always the case, the members are mostly university professors of nutrition, medicine, and related fields, some of them quite well known. Lots of food companies are appointing such boards. PepsiCo, for example, has a breathtakingly distinguished nutrition advisory board. One of its members, Dr. Dean Ornish, also writes a column for McDonald’s. Academics join the boards in the hope that they can work from within to get the companies to produce healthier foods. I often get asked to join such boards (not this one though), but I politely decline. The goals of food companies have to be to sell more products, healthy or not. The boards make the companies look like they are trying to do something about nutrition, even if they really can’t. When I see my nutrition colleagues joining such boards, I just hope they are getting paid really well for doing so.

Aug 15 2007

How Much Weight Should Pregnant Women Gain?

I can’t believe that doctors are still arguing about how much weight women should gain during pregancy. A big Institute of Medicine report in 1990 seemed to have settled the question. It said that the amount you should gain depends on how much you weigh before getting pregnant. On average, women of normal weight should gain 25-35 pounds, underweight women could gain up to 40 pounds, and overweight women should restrict weight gain to 15 pounds. Doctors are now worried that the upper limits are so high that they encourage women to gain so much that they can’t lose it afterward. These doctors want the guidelines revisited. Perhaps they should be. I had my children in the era when normal weight women like me were advised not to gain more than 15 pounds and the doctors yelled at us if we gained a pound or more between appointments. Those of us who followed the advice, dieted during pregnancy (yikes!), and didn’t gain so much had smaller babies than women do now. Weighing more–up to a point–is better for babies. It will be interesting to see how the new Institute of Medicine committee manages to balance the benefits of heavier infants against too heavy a weight gain in the moms. Weight recommendations have changed drastically in my lifetime and the advice still isn’t settled.

Aug 15 2007

Playing with Obesity Maps

The Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley passes along information from RevolutionHealth about that site’s interactive maps that display the rise in rates of obesity in the United States from 1990 to 2006, for the entire United States, and by state. Watch the colors of the states get darker as the rates increase. Click on Texas and you can see the rates more than double from 12.3% to 26.1% of the population. But if you are from Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, or Nevada, you are out of luck; the maps have data for all states except those.

Aug 14 2007

More on Kids’ Preference for McDonald’s

The New York Times has just caught up with the study demonstrating that 3 to 5 year old kids prefer foods in McDonald’s wrappers even when foods in plain wrappers also come from McDonald’s (see my previous post on McDonald’s). Advertising Age, however, has quite another interpretation of this research: bad science (“small sample, obvious agenda”). My favorite part of the Advertising Age story is the advice given to McDonald’s by an expert in damage control. “One good way to handle it, he said, would be to plant some experts or scientists on TV to debunk the study, rather than offer up McDonald’s own executives.”

Right–let’s spin the best science money can buy. Give McDonald’s credit for handling this “crisis” without resorting to such tactics.

Aug 13 2007

Good News About School Meals?

The School Nutrition Association says that school wellness policies are doing great things. It reports that nearly all of the schools it surveyed recently are now offering fat-free or low-fat milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, salad bars or pre-packaged salads, and yogurt or yogurt drinks–a big change from just a few years ago. Also, one-third of the surveyed schools are offering locally grown foods. Are the surveyed schools representative of what’s really going on? Are kids eating the healthier options? Do tell.

In the meantime, the Fort Worth Star Telegram (August 12) describes the changes taking place in Texas lunchrooms under the auspices of the amazing Department of Agriculture in that state. In Texas, of all places, agriculture authorities are doing everything they can to provide healthier meals for school kids. If it can be done in Texas….

Aug 13 2007

FTC Demands Company Info on Marketing to Kids

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency that regulates food advertising, has just ordered a large group of food companies that make junk foods targeted to children to reveal how much money they are spending on advertising each of their products in general and to children, minorities, and other target groups. The FTC wants specific information about expenditures on marketing through traditional as well as modern kid-friendly channels: TV, radio, and print media, but also company-sponsored and other Internet sites, movie theaters, video games, in-store promotions, premium distributions, product placements, character licensing, sports sponsorships, word-of-mouth and “viral” campaigns, in-school, celebrity endorsements, and philanthropy, among others.

This is an astonishing action by the FTC, an agency that usually promotes food marketing and protects companies’ rights to do so. The last time the FTC tried to do something about the marketing of junk foods to kids–just on television–was in 1979. Then, Congress intervened, fired the head of the FTC, and passed a law allowing such marketing to continue. Well, times have changed in the intervening decades. Even little kids are now overweight and developing type 2 diabetes, reason enough to try to address the problem. At the end of 2005, the Institute of Medicine’s committee examining food marketing to kids complained that companies would not give it “proprietary” information about advertising expenditures or sales. So let’s give the FTC lots of credit for demanding this information and for considering how to put some curbs on the unchecked greed of companies pushing junk foods to kids.

Aug 11 2007

Can Foods Be Ranked Nutritionally?

A comment posted yesterday under the Label category asks whether it is possible to rank foods: “The idea that I’m trying to express is some measure that shows that 100 calories of, say, broccoli sauteed in olive oil is healthier than 100 calories of shortbread cookies or 100 calories of potato chips, even if they happend to have the same number of fat grams.”

I have philosophical as well as practical problems with this kind of approach. First, the practical: Foods contain 40 to 50 components known to be required in the human diet and hundreds more (antioxidants, for example) that are not considered essential but have effects on health. All foods except sugar–which has calories but no nutrients–have lots of different nutrients, but in different proportions. Once you get beyond soft drinks, the situation gets really complicated. Many groups have taken this on: Center for Science in the Public Interest, Hannaford supermarkets, the Australian Heart Foundation, for example. I think they are way too complicated and the cut points set up a slippery slope. If you rank foods high because they contain vitamins, all companies have to do is add vitamins to their products to make them rank higher.

Philosophically, I much prefer the “eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and don’t eat too much junk food” approach. Because there are so many different nutrients to keep track of, and because foods have nutrients in different proportions, eating lots of different kinds of relatively unprocessed foods takes care of nutritional needs. Keeping junk foods (highly processed by definition) to a minimum means that you don’t have to worry about the nutritional details and can enjoy what you eat.

Thanks for asking!

Aug 10 2007

Sugars: Fructose v. Glucose v. Sucrose

Today’s question: “From what I’ve read about high fructose corn syrup, the bad-for-you part about it (in addition to the high quantities people consume at once, like in a 20 oz coke) is the fructose. Is fructose the real evil, and if so, then aren’t foods like fruit juices bad as well?”

Today’s answer: I deal with this vexing question in the Sugar(s) chapter of What to Eat. The problems (and I’m not convinced they are very serious) of fructose depend on what you compare it to. Sucrose, the white stuff in sugar bowls, is a double sugar made of glucose and fructose, 50% each. Corn sweeteners are also glucose (42%) and fructose (55%). I’m not convinced the body can tell them apart. Fruit juices also have glucose and fructose. If you compare the metabolism of fructose to glucose, there are differences, but I think the problems are with quantity, not quality. A little sugar makes foods taste good; a lot adds calories that nobody needs these days. From the standpoint of calories, fruit juice has just as many as soft drinks so a little goes a long way even though it is a healthier alternative.

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