"Perhaps the most impressive of all the cookbook blogs are the three devoted to the 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine's "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- all 5¼ pounds and 1,300-odd recipes of it. Befitting this culinary Everest, all three writers are overachievers in their professional lives."

--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008
"I should have told you before how much I've been enjoying reading your thoughts. You seem like such a great cook."

--Ruth Reichl, Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet Magazine, June 8 2008, comment on "Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream".

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Melissa Solves the Mystery and Gets Indexy

Setting the Stage

Readers, unless you've been living in a cave (without wireless) you know that obesity in America is on the rise. And if you've been paying attention even a little, you also know that obesity is connected with serious, complicated medical conditions-- like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

It's a problem, and it makes people bonkers. Health insurance companies are freaked out, diet books fly off the shelves, and pundits expound--but nobody seems to be able to solve this mystery.

Why? Why are Westerners fat and getting fatter?

More alarming--why, when our diet is introduced to other cultures, do they start exhibiting our diseases--like obesity, diabetes and cancer?

Is it chemicals? Fat? Corn syrup? White bread? Sugar? All of it all together, like....Twinkies? Is it a slothful lifestyle, too much screen time and not enough exercise?

Most desperate perhaps are the overweight and obese, who are flooded with conflicting information on an almost daily basis. Look at our very own food pyramid--at first ballasted with "healthy grains" like pasta, bread and cereal, and recently revised. Our own government can't quite get it straight, nobody can, and meanwhile different ingredients are demonized with clockwork regularity--butter or margarine? Sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? What can you abstain from that will give you the magic solution?

Setting the Scene

My own history with diets, dieting and dieters has been life-long. My mother has been deeply involved with food (partaking or abstaining) all my life. Various family members, close and far, have gained and lost weight (or sometimes just gained) and agonized over it. And once I hit my 4th decade of life it became a concern for me as well--my weight at the top of "healthy" began to creep undeniably into "overweight" territory. This, even though I am active and always have been--give me a class, activity, sport and I fall in love with it. My current and most passionate love: karate. Which is some serious calorie burn.

For the record, this is my lifelong food philosophy, up til now:

bread--good if multigrain
what about white bread?--bad
oh? what about artisan bread?--(sigh) delicious but in moderation
cheese/butter--ok in moderation
dairy--good if lowfat
nuts--good in moderation
candy--bad unless chocolate
chocolate--if dark, both delicious and healthy
coffee--good if black
beer--ok occasionally
wine--good in moderation
booze--good without caloric mixers
ok, straight booze--good in moderation
meat--good if lean
tofu etc--good though mysterious
grains--good but a pain in the ass
what about white rice?--bad
fast food--evil
really? All fast food?--ok maybe not pizza
desserts--not good but so delicious
salty snacks--ok if lowfat. Or, lower in fat. And in moderation.

So, that's it in a nutshell--how I've eaten for decades. I don't eat for emotional reasons, and if I'm hungry in the middle of the night, I drink water. Lots of it. How did I land in the food industry? Why keep a cook-through gourmet blog? Because I have a restless mind that loves adventure and loves to be delighted.

The Mystery

Because I have a restless mind, I'm constantly trying new food philosophies on for size, but in the dieting department I've tended to stick with Weight Watchers. It always made sense to me--a balanced diet in moderation. I like their online tracker, and their mysterious Points (now Points Plus) system.

But I'm impressionable, and something I read by Mark Bittman convinced me to try his system of "vegan until 6". It's pretty easy--veggies, fruits, nuts and grains until dinner time, when you eat what you want (for me usually protein, veggies and a cocktail or two).

This was a challenge! This was fun! Did you know that you can get vegan sushi? You can!

For five weeks my day typically went like this:

oatmeal with fruit or
cooked squash with a little honey

steamed veggies, alone or with brown rice or
salad with grains/beans or
miso soup

snacks, usually about 3 or 4 of the following during a workday. Less on weekends:
baked sweet potato
boca burger
multigrain thins with a little honey
dark chocolate
instant oatmeal
multigrain crackers
frozen fruit

lean protein
alcohol (2 drinks, no mixers)

That's it. Pretty healthy, right? No gigantic portions--I'm not a volume eater. I was tracking all this on the WW points tracker, and my life was pretty much the same--except due to a light travel schedule, more karate classes than usual--and that's three classes a week, 1.5 hours each. Yes, the occasional special food event--a family gathering or meetings with the various groups I belong to--but my life is remarkably consistent. For WW folks, I'll add that in no week did I ever "eat" all my points. Even if I ate the extra ones, I never got close to touching the ones that karate burned.

Readers, I gained weight. For me, a lot--so much that I was scared to step on the scale. But I was keeping track of my waist measurement and couldn't believe my eyes when 31.5 inches turned into 34.

Worse, I was growing out of my wardrobe. For me, this is bad news because I put a lot of thought into getting dressed in the morning.

This is me going to work on a normal work day.

To say I was upset is an understatement. I freaked out. I actually spent a day or two researching liposuction and that weird new treatment that "melts fat" by aiming heat lamps at you (don't waste your money... and bad news, lipo folks--that fat's coming back.) In addition to karate, I started getting up earlier and walking two miles. Every morning.

Then the penny dropped.

Enter Gary Taubes, and his 4/13/11 New York Times Magazine article, Is Sugar Toxic?

The Culprit

I urge you to read the Taubes article, then read it again. There's a lot of stuff in there and it takes a while to absorb it.

But here are the essentials.

Sugar = Liver Fat
Liver Fat = Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic Syndrome = Diabetes/Heart Disease/High Cholesterol/ Body Fat
Sugar = Insulin
Insulin = Food for Tumors

In other words, our sugar-heavy diet is not only making us fat, it's making us sick and then it's killing us. Thin, young people, you are not immune.

During the Korean War, pathologists doing autopsies on American soldiers killed in battle noticed that many had significant plaques in their arteries, even those who were still teenagers, while the Koreans killed in battle did not. The atherosclerotic plaques in the Americans were attributed to the fact that they ate high-fat diets and the Koreans ate low-fat. But the Americans were also eating high-sugar diets, while the Koreans, like the Japanese, were not.

It's also worth noting that carbs = sugar. And that's where I had my "aha!" moment. My vegan diet of five weeks had been carb heavy--brown rice, beans, multi-grain bread, "sweet" vegetables, fruit.

The Recovery

I tried the South Beach Diet once for a few weeks (in a moment of post-holiday desperation) and had great results with it--4.5 lbs lost in one week, 7 lbs in two. That was Phase One of the diet, which is zero carbs--no sweet veggies, no beans, no fruits, no booze and certainly no grain products. Lean meats, low fat dairy. This diet has you eventually re-introduce wine, fruits, multigrain carbs and the forbidden veggies--the idea is to keep it low fat and to break you of a carb-heavy habit.

I've also watched the waistlines of others (all men) expand and contract according to how many carbs they were eating. My darling husband, Don (who is emotionally attached to all kinds of carbs) exercises more than I do--he takes a 1.5 hour Bikram yoga class (that's hot yoga) at least four times a week. Low carbs? Slender. High carbs? Love handles. And he can go from one to the other--and back--in two weeks or less. My brother-in-law and my friend Pat have both lost significant amounts of weight on low-carb diets.

I did a little more exploring and found Gary Taubes' blog. It's more personal and his most recent post featured his blood work lab results (a challenge from Dr. Oz). His blood work is a doctor's dream--pretty near perfect, and this from a guy who subsists mainly on meat, cheese, nuts and eggs. The comments from his readers are perhaps predictable but illuminating.

The sum total of this is I've changed my eating philosophy--completely. This is what I eat now:

Low-fat dairy
All veggies except winter squashes, sweet/white potatoes, corn, peas, carrots
Low-carb protein drinks
dark chocolate
For alcohol: dry vermouth (8 carbs/oz) or wine

above-mentioned veggies
fruit (except tomatoes)
gluten products
products/recipes with added sugar (except for dark chocolate)

I've been eating like this for 4 weeks, and please note I've been eating the same amount of food (still tracking on WW--still not eating those activity points).

I can't tell you how many pounds I've lost because I never stepped on the scale at my peak. But when I measured my waist this morning it was 30.5 inches.

That's right, in four weeks I took 3.5 inches off my waistline. I didn't change how much I was eating calorically, I changed what I was eating.

Here's a typical food day:

2 eggs on top of
3 strips center cut bacon on top of
big pile of fresh arugula
2 cups black coffee

steamed sliced zucchini (from freezer aisle) with
leftover sliced lamb
nuts pack from Trader Joes
1/2 cup part-skim ricotta
square of dark chocolate
low sodium V-8
mini light babybel cheese
dill pickle
black coffee until noon. Herbal tea after.

roasted chicken
steamed broccoli with lemon mayo
celery sticks
sliced cukes
2 drinks--dry vermouth or wine

Am I a rigorous Nazi about this? Nope. I've made gluten-free fruit-based desserts for my meditation group, and I had a beer last week (it gave me a stomach ache.) I've eaten a few veggie mixes that have carrots in them. And some of the nut packs Don brings back from Trader Joe's have dried cranberries in them. And yes, I'm well aware that dark chocolate has sugar in it.

But my angle is to make carbs and sugar the exception to the rule. Now that I understand what's going on inside...and with such a dramatic example of what amping up carbs can do to my own body...I'm calling this mystery solved.

Your mileage may vary. But I dare you--I double dog dare you--to try this way of eating for a few weeks or a month and see where it gets you. Read the Taubes article. Post your results here.


In the spirit of eating well while eating well, I've gone back and indexed these posts to include labels you might be looking for when you're thinking about your diet. I'm about halfway through and expect to fully index within a week or so. Still to come--in my posts where I combine a lot of recipes, I'll add a note at the bottom indicating which recipes go with which labels.

New labels:


That last one might give you pause. Paleolithic is a recently popular eating trend, and it is what it sounds like--eating the way our cave-dwelling ancestors most likely did, to the end of avoiding our modern-day ailments. That means, basically, meats, fish and veggies. Very little fruit, no sugar, no dairy, nothing fermented. Certainly no processed foods, and nothing that requires grains. And believe it or not, some recipes here qualify, or at least the way I understand it (if cavemen could use spices.) I know some karate folks who eat this way and hey, even karate folks throw fancy dinner parties every once in a while (I know I do.)

EDIT 5/25/11: I've removed some incorrect stats (like WW points) about dry vermouth that appeared in the original post. Dry vermouth is slightly higher in alcohol than white wine and has a similar points count.

Thanks to Polls Boutique, Fitness Guru Sam and Beaumont Holidays for image grabs.


mangolassie said...

wow! Summer with no fruit -- I cannot. But you have given me food for thought...

Anonymous said...

> beer--ok occasionally
> wine--good in moderation

beer's health benefits have long been underrated and misconstrued by swill macro producers. wine gets all the attention because it gets more research. just like green tea compared to black teas and puerh.

beer has b vitamins, fiber, and polyphenols, etc. brewers yeast is very nutritious. beer deserves a good in moderation upgrade just as much !!