Thursday, March 27, 2008

new old nutrition

So I've gone two or so posts without talking about food directly. I'm breaking the "streak" today because of a magazine that came in the mail. It's called Prevention and it's marketed to people with Diabetes. Now, I don't have Diabetes and neither does anyone in my family--anymore. My father, who died a year ago, had Type II Diabetes and the magazine was his (or my mom's; she was trying to help him).

Although Diabetes, of course, is a serious matter, I had to laugh at the cover. The header for the main story reads (or exclaims):

Defy Diabetes
REAL Sugar! REAL Butter!
Potatoes! Cheese!
Even Chocolate!

This header amused me first because it is enthusiastic to the point of ridiculous, definitely not the style taught in writing/journalism classes. It also amused me because "real food" like butter, cheese and "even chocolate" are so foreign to many of us (especially diabetes sufferers diligent about diet) that they come off as nutritional silver bullets. Who would have thought whole foods like these would ever become revolutionary super foods, especially for people trying to regulate their insulin?

But what really piqued my interest was another header which reads:

How Fiber
Weight Loss,
Cuts Blood

Again, through "new research" we're discovering the wonders of fiber, especially how it regulates blood sugar, a hugely important topic for diabetics, whose very lives depend on the regulation of blood insulin levels. This is indeed good news, but I have to ask, is it news? It wasn't to my grandmother who ate high fiber cereals and breads, but apparently it is to several scientists quoted in this magazine.

As I read the cover and stories in Prevention I'm reminded of philosopher Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he said that scientific breakthroughs are huge paradigm shifts that don't happen quickly but which make a huge impact on the culture when they do occur.

Think of the Titanic trying to change course in the Atlantic (slowly, slowly and in that case not nearly fast enough). The nutritional community, like all scientific communities, is like a neighborhood gang (albeit a non-violent one): solidarity is king. Everyone in the gang shares the same vocabulary and keep their private objections private, until, that is, the day comes when it is overwhelmingly obvious that a change is in order. For medicine and nutrition this means everyone supports one theory or therapy until the gang decides that x disease warrants a shift in treatment or x food really does have certain benefits (or detractions). At this point, the shift gets underway. The scientific community, armed with appropriate studies and data, and briefed with certain talking points on a particular topic, issues a statement that "new research" has uncovered a scientific breakthrough. The whole community, aligned to this new thinking moves forward (with key spokespersons doing the talk show and morning TV circuit, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.)

Before this time, going public is anathema. Say a member has a new idea, some new data to share, a different direction he thinks the research should take. He must stay quiet or at least muffled until this same idea dawns on others, if he'd like to keep his job and his reputation intact, that is. If he doesn't toe the line, if he starts trying to spread the word about this new thinking without the rubber stamp of the group, the integrity of the gang comes into question. Sometimes the group comes along with him; usually they kick him out of the gang, leaving him hanging out there alone, labeled a quack or at least an outsider (not something a scientist or, indeed, a gang member finds very comforting).

So, when it comes to food research, like the "new research" that Prevention reported in its recent edition, it makes perfect sense why it all seems so painfully not new, so not revolutionary to those of us who are not in the gang, those of us who put less and less stock in what the gang says and who listen to other voices that seem to make sense, people like Michael Pollan and Nina Planck, not to mention whole foods store purveyors, naturopathic doctors and other "whackos" out there who have been promoting whole foods for decades.

Above I said the magazine amuse me. It also made me a little sad. My dad, and countless others, could have been improving his health and enjoying delicious, whole foods instead of eating artificial sweeteners and fats and having a rotten--and it turns out unhealthy--time doing it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

what are the elements?

I'm making up for lost time, or lack of posts. Here goes another one.

Over at my friend's blog, we've been discussing the Lord's Supper, also called Communion or the Eucharist, depending on which theological neighborhood you call home. It's been a great discussion thread, touching on issues of sociality, loneliness, fellowship, symbolism and more. Check it out. To add to the conversation, I'd like to ask:

What are proper elements for the celebration?

Here is what the Scripture says about the institution of the Supper:

I Cor. 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.


Luke 22:14-20
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God." After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, "Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

So, the from the start the institution of the Lord's Supper has entailed a prayer of blessing over wine and bread. If I am not mistaken, most churches for most of Christian history since that time have used as their elements some sort of fruit from the vine (juice, wine) and some sort of bread (cracker, bread cubes, etc). But not all churches, especially lately it seems. Consider this short story, written by a Reformed individual, no less, which seems to advocate (or at least okay) the use of other elements (in this case cookies and Kool aid.)

What say ye?

plastics problems and solutions

In addition to the foodie frenzy that's got me thinking a lot about what I eat, where it comes from and how its grown, I've recently started musing on the water I drink. My focus on water started when I added a new exercise element to my life, Bikram yoga. Bikram yoga is sometimes referred to as "hot yoga" because the studio temp is between 95 and 100 degrees F. Not surprisingly, this sort of yoga makes you sweat. A lot. Like constantly for the 90 minutes you're doing it.

I take a 32 ounce hard plastic bottle with me to class. By the time I walk to my car after class, I've drained the bottle and am ready to refill it when I get home. In all, I'd say I drink 3-4 of these bottles a day, which sounds like a ton (especially to a person like me whose two daily beverages tend toward coffee and wine!). But, again when you are losing as much fluids a day from the yoga, it's not all that much.

So back to the bottle situation. I've read lately about the ills of plastic garbage, especially that made by disposable plastic bottles. You know, the ones that pop up everywhere from boardrooms to bedrooms these days, the ones that come in pallet quantity at Costco and other huge retailers. Apparently plastics like these are creating a garbage raft in our oceans, what some have cleverly and nauseatingly called a "yummy plastic soup."

While I've known for a while that there is growing health concern over disposable plastic bottles because they tend to leach chemicals into whatever they are holding, somehow I was under the impression that hard plastic is a ton better. Hard plastics, like the popular Nalgene bottle, can also be found just about everywhere, especially (and ironically) in the packs of nature freaks (and yoga weirdos). I think I was tripped up by the logic of: soft=leaky; hard=not leaky. And of course, good marketing by Nalgene and others give hard plastic bottles the healthy, outdoorsy mystique (ie, people carry the bottle even if they never hike or ski because it's cool).

It seems that hard plastics aren't so groovy either, at least those that are made with certain chemicals. Apparently many of the same issues plaguing soft plastics also occur in hard ones.

Thankfully, some companies are helping us out by providing alternatives. One company, Kleen Kanteen, goes stainless steel. Think really cool WWII canteens. They offer several basic models for adults (bottom left) and babies ( right). They assure us that the plastic tops they use in all their bottles are non-leaching.

At the risk of sounding alarmist, let me say that who knew stainless steel would ever be such a God send. It's true that not everyone believes plastics are that bad (as the articles linked above demonstrate). But many do and find it challenging to live plastic-free (or plastic-less, at least). This is because plastics are prevalent and preferred, of course. Think of all the plastic fluid containers in your house, from the water bottles we've been discussing here to the plastic gallon jug of milk in your fridge. It's one thing to order (as I will) a metal canteen for your drinking water, but it's another to try to limit plastic use in other areas of your life. Consider that my local market won't carry my favorite local farmstead milk because it comes in glass containers (below right). So to get their milk you must go out to the farm, which is a great idea, but let's face it, not a step many can or will take.

Milk is just one product. Let's think of other things we put in our mouths or on our bodies that are commonly stored in plastic containers. There's toothpaste, toothbrushes, the container that holds your toothbrush, your shampoo bottle, your travel soap container, oh, and your kid's teething ring and his wet wipe container, get the point.

This topic is both encouraging and frustrating: encouraging that we have options like metal canteen water bottles, but frustrating that we need them. We are arguably the most developed and wealthiest nation on the planet with the safest water source, but we're too lazy or too ignorant to figure out how to drink it.

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