Tag Archives: nutrition

Nerdy Ways To Get Around Giant Soda Bans

New York City’s giant soda ban was supposed to go into effect tomorrow, but a judge today banned the ban, citing both the regulatory overreach of the city’s health board, and the ridiculousness of a ban that has loopholes as big as the sodas of which it tries to rid us. However, this is hardly going to be the last word on the issue — the city promised to appeal — so here are some interesting ways to still get your fix, in case the worst does happen:

Giant soda hacks

A Klein Bottle is a theoretical surface that cannot exist in our three-dimensional universe.

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From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

To Lose More Weight, Eat Early, Not Late

(That’s right: the headline does rhyme.) Research done in Spain seems to indicate that advice like having a big breakfast and not eating late dinners are actually not old wives’ tales. The study followed 420 fat people (equal numbers of each gender) for 20 weeks: half of them were early eaters, that ate their big meal before 3pm, and half were late eaters. This was a weight loss study, so they all ate a paltry 1400 calories per day, and got similar levels of exercise and sleep. But, the ones that ate early, lost 30% more weight: 22 lbs vs 17 lbs for the late eaters.

The scientists don’t really know why, or if it’s even a causal relationship — a third factor, say… nervous pacing, could’ve caused both the early eating and faster weight loss. But if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s worth giving it a try; after all, what you believe about weight loss has a significant impact on how effective it is.

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Posted Calorie Counts Are Not Very Accurate

One of the provisions of Obamacare is that all restaurants with more than 20 locations are required to post the number of calories in their menu items. (Even though Obamacare was passed in 2010, the requirement doesn’t go into effect until the second half of 2013 because of red tape: the FDA had to first come up with regulations, hold discussions on them, get final approval, and then publish them for six months before they take effect.) Most people that aren’t in the business of selling junk food see this as a great step forward in helping people realize exactly how much stuff they’re eating. But, the system is far from perfect.

200 calories' worth of apples. Photo from wiseGEEK.


The government-sanctioned way of figuring out how many calories are in food — and so far, the only practical way to do it at all — is called the Atwater System, and is named after the chemistry professor at Wesleyan who developed it around the 1890s.  Mostly, it involves burning food in a bomb calorimeter to figure out how much energy it has, and subtracting what’s been left over after digestion. But, according to NPR, this process has some flaws:

  • Processed and unprocessed foods are treated the same, even though our bodies would extract more calories from processed foods, which have in effect been pre-digested. Meaning that if two foods have the same number of calories on the label, if one of them is raw (like fruits and rare steak), your body will end up with less of its calories than the processed one (like candy and hamburgers).
  • Processed carbohydrates are particularly bad because they don’t make us feel full. The calories from a chicken breast will keep someone full a lot longer than the same calories in a chocolate bar.
  • There are also upsides though, because for some foods, the body spends a lot of energy digesting them — or doesn’t get as much energy out of them for various reasons — making the caloric count on the label higher than what you actually end up with.

200 calories' worth of Hershey's Kisses. Photo from wiseGEEK.


So even if the number of calories on the label or menu accurately showed the amount of raw energy in food, they don’t accurately represent how much of that energy our bodies absorb, or how long that energy will last us.

And as it turns out, the labels are not likely to even be accurate. In New York City, most food already has to have caloric labels, so Casey Neistat — the filmmaker who, among other short films, made an interesting video a few months back about how toothless the NYC soda ban really is — decided to test their accuracy. He took five items that he was likely to eat in one day to a food lab and had their energy measured. All but one came in over their stated number of calories:

  • a yogurt muffin actually had 735 calories instead of the 640 on the label
  • a Starbucks coffee had 393 instead of 370
  • a Chipotle burrito, 1295 instead of 1175
  • a tofu sandwich, 548 instead of 228
  • a Subway sandwich, 351 instead of 360 — the only item that was under

Starbucks and Chipotle you can forgive, because no matter how hard the employees try, no two coffees or burritos will be the same. Subway came in under that amount most likely for the same reason. But the muffin and the tofu sandwich were pre-packaged and probably should have been closer to their goal. Part of the problem is that New York City doesn’t enforce the accuracy of the calorie count — only their presence.

But regardless of blame, at the end of the day Casey ate 3321 calories instead of the 2773 calories the labels showed. That’s 549 extra calories that he didn’t intend to eat and wouldn’t have accounted for; as he points out in the video below, it’s the equivalent of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese, or two donuts.

The take-away? Calorie counts on the nutrition labels are not very accurate, and even if they were, they still wouldn’t represent how many of those calories your body gets, or how long it will keep hunger at bay.

At best, the number is a guideline that opens our eyes to unbelievable truths, like that a donut is the equivalent of two grilled chicken breasts. In that way, counting calories is like a very poor window thermometer that tells you if it’s warm or cold outside, but its temperature can be off by a few degrees. Still, it’s better than no thermometer.

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From NPR and The New York Times

People Who Eat Healthier Snack More

Market research firm NPD Group followed people’s eating habits for two years and found out that those with the healthiest eating habits had 36% more snacks than average; the ones with the least healthy diets snacked 29% less than normal. Conclusion: snacking helps you keep to a healthy diet.


What should you be snacking on? The Huffington Post compiled a list of snacks that nutritionists eat:

  • Greek yogurt
  • Snack-size vegetables, like carrots
  • Apples (probably also pears, nectarines and bananas)
  • Roasted walnuts or almonds
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Edamame
  • Avocado

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From NPD and Huffington Post, via Lifehacker

Evaporated Cane Juice Is Actually Just Sugar

This is a sugar cane. Looks tasty, right? If only we stuck to eating things that look good before processing...

That term, ‘evaporated cane juice’, is everywhere now — because it sounds more natural. But it turns out evaporating cane juice is simply how sugar is made: you get the juice out of some cane, dry it out (meaning, evaporate it), then separate the molasses from the crystals and voila: white sugar. The only difference with evaporated cane juice is that the molasses aren’t fully separated out — so all the evil sugar is still in there, plus some brown goo. And no, molasses are not good for you.

In fact, juicing anything is not good for you: it’s like extracting the crack from a cocaine plant. An apple, orange or what have you contains a lot of fiber, so when you eat it you get its fructose — which has a lot of energy but is not great for you — but all the fiber will keep you from eating too much of it. (The fiber will also do wonders for your digestive system.)  But when you juice fruit, all you’re doing is getting rid of the great fiber and concentrating the high-calorie part of the plant into a liquid. So stop processing perfectly good plants:  just eat the much healthier unjuiced fruit.

But back to the main point: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice — same poison, different names.

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From NPR


The NYC Big Soda Ban Is Really Toothless

Filmmaker Casey Neistat made an interesting video explaining New York City’s proposed ban on sodas over 16 oz. At first glance, sodas at most fast food restaurants will be banned since, with some exceptions, most small sodas are somehow still over that size. The large ones are sometimes four times over the allowed size. But, the ban has a few caveats:

  • It only applies to restaurants that the city regulates. Fountain drinks at stores like 7-Eleven are not covered by the ban. Or you can buy a two-liter of Coke at Duane Reade and put a straw in it.
  • It only applies to sugar added by the vendor: you can still pour all the sugar you want into an unsweetened iced tea, coffee, or whatever.
  • It doesn’t apply to beverages containing more than 50% milk, so sugary lattes of any size are still fair game.
  • And of course, you can always buy three 16oz sodas and drink them one after the other, or even all at once.

So in effect, the only thing the ban does is to make it slightly harder for people to buy a lot of soda. What’s the point of it then? According to Mayor Bloomberg, it’s to educate people. Which begs the question of why laws are being used to educate people, rather than maybe a public health campaign. It’s kind of like banning unprotected sex to educate people about social diseases. Unfortunately, even though traditional means of public education have been proven to work quite well, more and more we see politicians passing morality laws in an effort to be our mom: they don’t just tell you that your choices are bad for you (not anyone else), but also add a penalty or ban, because the nanny state can’t trust you to make your own decisions about your own life.

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From YouTube, via Laughing Squid

Science Tells Us What Works For Weight Loss

AsapSCIENCE makes short videos in which they explain the science behind various things — like hangovers — and then give you tips that make your life better. Their latest video has the dos (and a don’t) for losing weight:

  • Exercise: big surprise. The calories you burn during exercise come mostly from carbs; later, while you rest, it has no more carbs to get energy from, so it burns fat instead. So after you exercise, eat meat or cheese — not pasta. Also, don’t work out hungry, and your exercise routine should include weights, interval training, and metabolic resistance.
  • Don’t skip meals: when your body gets stressed out, it will release a hormone called ghrelin that makes you want junk food. That stress can be from working too much, not getting enough sleep, being too hungry, getting in a fight with your mistress, or what have you. You can resist that urge for a while, but your will power is limited, and your body will win out since it obviously always wins — otherwise you wouldn’t need to lose weight. (Crash diets don’t work for a similar reason.) So rather than skip a meal, eat a chicken breast and an orange, because that’ll keep you from giving in to pizza and a hot fudge sundae later.
  • Sleep as much as you need: see above
  • Avoid stress: you better have read that bullet about the ghrelin!


Not Ghrelin


  • Eat breakfast: not necessarily when you wake up, but eat when you first get hungry. That will keep your metabolism burning faster the whole day, and bring your blood sugar and hormone levels to where they should be.
  • Eat more meat: a little bit more protein keeps you full a lot longer. The body’s response to protein is to release a large amount of the peptide YY, which reduces appetite.
  • Eat low-fat dairy: the calcium binds to fat in your stomach and makes a substance that can’t be absorbed. The result: less fat gets from your food to your spare tire.
  • Drink soup and smoothies: thick liquids take a lot longer for your stomach to process, making you feel full longer than if the liquid and solid food were separate.
  • Count calories: studies show it does wonders for weight loss. Besides telling your brain what your body forgot (i.e., when to stop eating), it also shows you the price of junk food, when you realize that a can of soda and two cups of cherries have the same calories.
  • Use smaller plates: this is a psychological trick that makes the same amount of food look bigger, only because we want our containers to be overflowing with food. If you use smaller plates, you’ll be more satisfied with less food. There are other psychological tricks you can play on your brain, like having people tell you a meal had more calories than it actually did (which makes you feel full), or that your exercise routine is more effective than it actually is.

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From YouTube, via Neatorama

Why Drinking Milk Is Just Not Right

Besides the fact that no one in their right mind would walk up to a cow’s udder and start suckling, the New York Times has an article that lists all the other reasons our dairy habits make absolutely no sense:

  • About 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant; that’s only about 17% of the entire country, but 90% of asians and 75% blacks, Mexicans and Jews. Why? Because the milk-drinking culture came from Northern Europe, where for some unknown reason — probably famine — people started drinking another species’ milk, as adults, and those whose bodies could still process milk as adults tended to have more kids than normal people. That mutation eventually became mainstream, and a few thousand years later pretty much all European adults are lactose tolerant; so, we make things like cheese and ice cream and the milk they sell in stores — which bears little resemblance to actual milk — and treat it like a sort of tonic that we actually need for our health.
  • Milk (even the non-fat kind) contains an amount of calories on par with soda, and half of it comes from sugars in the form of lactose.
  • Besides lactose intolerance, there’s a common food allergy called milk allergy, which most people have never heard of and which causes things like indigestion, constipation, headaches, and rashes. If you consume dairy often and have problems like that, try stopping for a week to make sure you don’t have an allergy or intolerance.
  • From a doctor quoted in the article: “It’s worth noting that milk and other dairy products are our biggest source of saturated fat, and there are very credible links between dairy consumption and both Type 1 diabetes and the most dangerous form of prostate cancer.”
  • Milk production is propped up by the Big Milk industry, which is composed of factories filled with tens of thousands of cows, since that level of production is the only way to make a living selling milk. The 9 million dairy cows in this industry live miserable lives and pollute the environment with a ton of methane.
  • But it’s good for you, right? Actually, you would get more calcium from green, leafy vegetables than from milk. And all your bones need to stay strong is exercise and sunshine, from which you get vitamin D.

The modern milk farm/factory. Photo from The Daily Mail.


Milk products like yogurt and cheese are a little better, since they’re easier to digest. But — with the exception of yogurt, which has been shown to help with weight loss — dairy should be treated more like a guilty pleasure than a tonic. And in the end, let’s face it: if you wouldn’t drink human milk, you shouldn’t drink bovine milk either.

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From The New York Times, via Lifehacker

Portions Have More Than Tripled Since The 1950s

The CDC has a website called MakingHealthEasier.org, and they put up the below infographic which shows that in the past 60 years, burgers have tripled in size, french fries quadrupled and sodas have gotten six times bigger. The page links to advice from the CDC, such as using to-go bags at restaurants, ordering half-portions, and substituting filling, but less calorie-dense foods like fruits and veggies for junk food like potatoes, bread and sweets.


As we’ve seen before, the obesity epidemic is caused by the overabundance of mostly bad food, and the way to fight the constant temptation is to either eat smaller portions of poor food — just enough to extinguish the craving — or to fill up on healthy food, of which you can’t really overeat.


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From Making Health Easier, via Neatorama

Pesticides On Produce Is A Non-Issue

NPR has a story about the “Dirty Dozen” list of produce, that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out, of the items which tested with the highest levels of pesticides. The tests are done, by scientists at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), on food as it would be eaten — apples are washed first, bananas peeled, etc. Results are posted on their website as part of the Pesticide Data Program. The EWG then analyzes this data to produce their Dirty Dozen and also the Clean 15 — the cleanest produce items.


Photo from EWG


But, as with anything, presence of pesticides isn’t the issue — concentration is what’s important. A little alcohol is fine for you, but a lot will make you sick, and more will kill you. Everything we touch and eat is the same: there are safe and unsafe levels. Even too much water will cause water poisoning. So the question then becomes: are the levels of pesticides found on produce high enough to be unsafe? According to the USDA, no: only 1 out of 744 samples they tested was too high, and most tested far below the safety limits. The EWG’s response? The government safety limits are too high. To settle the dispute, food scientists from UC Davis performed a study last year and found that there’s no scientific basis for the Dirty Dozen:

In summary, findings conclusively demonstrate that consumer exposures to the ten most frequently detected pesticides on EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” commodity list are at negligible levels and that the EWG methodology is insufficient to allow any meaningful rankings among commodities. We concur with EWG President Kenneth Cook who maintains that “We recommend that people eat healthy by eating more fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic” , but our findings do not indicate that substituting organic forms of the “Dirty Dozen” commodities for conventional forms will lead to any measurable consumer health benefit.

Given the results of this study, and that even organic produce contains pesticides (though generally at lower levels), and that the EWG itself states that the “health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure,” it’s pretty clear that the Dirty Dozen is just a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.

More about nutrition:

From NIH and EWG, via NPR