Sugar Salt Fat: Food Addiction

As a rule, I stay away from the comment section on any opinion page or editorial. The insanity that ensues as strangers hurl their hateful opinions is too overwhelming. But today, as I sat at my desk eating my black beans during my lunch break, I somehow ended up just in the place I try to avoid. The opinion piece was posted on CNN and it was about the American Medical Association's decision to label obese people "diseased" and, as expected, it was the fury of hateful comments that caught my attention. Specifically, the arguments that "there is no such thing a food addiction; cut the crap" and "lack of self control is of course the root to obesity." I am astounded by both the hatefulness and lack of understanding.

A few posts back I mentioned my concern that people are unaware that many of the foods they eat are intentionally engineered to be addictive. The readers’ comments above surprise me because they’re evidence of people who are aware of the idea that food can be addictive but firmly believe it’s not true. In February, the New York Times Magazine published an exert of Michael Moss's book, Sugar Sat Fat: How the food giants hooked us. The book details specific addictive traits food manufacturers work to capture in their products. Traits that intentionally trick both your mind and stomach into thinking you’re not full and you really want MORE. There are records of experiments, focus groups and memos – none of that is up for debate; it’s just true. I’m left to hope that people denying the addictive qualities of modern America’s diet are simply uninformed on the matter.

Personally, having spent the last four years working hard to overcome my own food addictions (starting with Lean Cuisines in 2009), I empathize with anyone who is trying to change their lifestyle but finding it nearly impossible. To look at the issue as an addiction may change the approach used when trying to break the habit. Assuming, shareholders will  continue to win over what's best for the common good, I do not look to lawmakers to solve this issue. This is a personal responsibility that each person must address for themselves. Doing so requires a bit of self-eduction.

In the case of children, it is the responsibility of both parents to work towards prevention of food addictions. But where does prevention of food addiction start? The womb? Formula? Baby food? Teething snacks? Five years ago I'd have given a toddler a box of Goldfish crackers without a second thought. Today I'd be unlikely to hand them a Cheerio. In fact, when O&I have children I anticipate the family looking at me as "that crazy hippy Mom" after I explain I'd prefer them to not offer my child processed snacks and sweets. You want to give my kid a squished grape or some smushed avocado - go right ahead!

The reality of this is a struggle, I know. My best friend from college, an amazingly successful and very cool art director, has a toddler in daycare. She has told me of the frustrations around limiting the amount of sugar her son is offered everyday. The only friend I have who seems to have no trouble raising a child on natural foods is a work-at-home Mom who has the ability to supervise (almost) everything that goes into her son's mouth. 

I'm not suggesting I have the answers to Food Addiction and Prevention. But I am saying it is time for EVERYONE to take ten minutes and realistically consider how it effects both their lives and the lives of people they love.=

*The NY Times article (exerted from the book) is very long but also fascinating and definitely worth the time it takes to read it. Link to full article here. Credit to MICHAEL MOSSHighlights: 
In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers...

The public and the food companies have known for decades now — or at the very least since this meeting — that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.

...“Sensory-specific satiety.” In lay terms, it is the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more. Sensory-specific satiety also became a guiding principle for the processed-food industry. The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating...

One of the company’s responses to criticism is that kids don’t eat the Lunchables every day — on top of which, when it came to trying to feed them more healthful foods, kids themselves were unreliable. When their parents packed fresh carrots, apples and water, they couldn’t be trusted to eat them. Once in school, they often trashed the healthful stuff in their brown bags to get right to the sweets.

This idea — that kids are in control — would become a key concept in the evolving marketing campaigns for the trays. In what would prove to be their greatest achievement of all, the Lunchables team would delve into adolescent psychology to discover that it wasn’t the food in the trays that excited the kids; it was the feeling of power it brought to their lives. As Bob Eckert, then the C.E.O. of Kraft, put it in 1999: “Lunchables aren’t about lunch. It’s about kids being able to put together what they want to eat, anytime, anywhere.”

Kraft’s early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers. They might be too distracted by work to make a lunch, but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift. But as the focus swung toward kids, Saturday-morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message: “All day, you gotta do what they say,” the ads said. “But lunchtime is all yours.”

Frito-Lay had a formidable research complex near Dallas, where nearly 500 chemists, psychologists and technicians conducted research that cost up to $30 million a year, and the science corps focused intense amounts of resources on questions of crunch, mouth feel and aroma for each of these items. Their tools included a $40,000 device that simulated a chewing mouth to test and perfect the chips, discovering things like the perfect break point: people like a chip that snaps with about four pounds of pressure per square inch.

To get a better feel for their work, I called on Steven Witherly, a food scientist who wrote a fascinating guide for industry insiders titled, “Why Humans Like Junk Food.” I brought him two shopping bags filled with a variety of chips to taste. He zeroed right in on the Cheetos. “This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.”

Carey’s quote reminded me of something I read in the early stages of my reporting, a 24-page report prepared for Frito-Lay in 1957 by a psychologist named Ernest Dichter. The company’s chips, he wrote, were not selling as well as they could for one simple reason: “While people like and enjoy potato chips, they feel guilty about liking them. . . . Unconsciously, people expect to be punished for ‘letting themselves go’ and enjoying them.” Dichter listed seven “fears and resistances” to the chips: “You can’t stop eating them; they’re fattening; they’re not good for you; they’re greasy and messy to eat; they’re too expensive; it’s hard to store the leftovers; and they’re bad for children.” He spent the rest of his memo laying out his prescriptions, which in time would become widely used not just by Frito-Lay but also by the entire industry. Dichter suggested that Frito-Lay avoid using the word “fried” in referring to its chips and adopt instead the more healthful-sounding term “toasted.” To counteract the “fear of letting oneself go,” he suggested repacking the chips into smaller bags. “The more-anxious consumers, the ones who have the deepest fears about their capacity to control their appetite, will tend to sense the function of the new pack and select it,” he said.

Dichter advised Frito-Lay to move its chips out of the realm of between-meals snacking and turn them into an ever-present item in the American diet. “The increased use of potato chips and other Lay’s products as a part of the regular fare served by restaurants and sandwich bars should be encouraged in a concentrated way,” Dichter said, citing a string of examples: “potato chips with soup, with fruit or vegetable juice appetizers; potato chips served as a vegetable on the main dish; potato chips with salad; potato chips with egg dishes for breakfast; potato chips with sandwich orders.”

“Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” published by Random House. Michael Moss won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reporting on the meat industry.

134lb by 34: UPDATE

It's been four months since my 34th birthday and the final day of my personal weight loss challenge. The goal had been to lose eleven pounds in ten weeks with the intention of lowering my high blood pressure. My final weigh in was two pounds shy of my goal but there was still a noticeable difference in my blood pressure. Since then I've continued to lose weight but at a slower pace. I've gone from a pound a week to a pound a month. This morning I weighed in 131.6lbs. My blood pressure is looking so good that I'm going to make an appointment with my doctor to discuss going off the blood pressure medicine. I'm not sure what she'll say but I promise to pass on the info. 

*Fancy Beer Friday is still on the way! We're having some trouble procuring the beer we want. Check back tomorrow! 

What's for lunch? Split pea soup!

Today we polished off the last of our week's supply of homemade split pea soup. It was a nice change from beans but now I'm looking forward to a week of chopped mixed greens.

We're also pretty much out of food so it looks like dinner tonight will be omelets with goat cheese, shallots and pickled tomatoes and peppers. Tomorrow night is a trip to YDFM.

Those of you who have been reading And Topher Too for several months already know we are not a weight loss blog (rather, we are a healthy living lifestyle blog) but weight loss has recently become a topic as I make a bigger effort to lower my blood pressure. The resolution started back in November when I was diagnosed with high blood pressure during a physical exam. My doctor's first response was to prescribe a blood pressure pill. When I returned a month later the medicine had not made a noticeable enough difference so my doctor changed my birth control pill to a low estrogen option. Even that did not bring my diastolic reading (bottom number) to the needed "below 80" number; I was stuck around 85. That is when I decided to lose weight. 11lbs in two months would put me at 134lbs by my 34th birthday.  Well, I'm 34 days in and I've got great news and news I'd hoped would be better.

The great news is: holy cow it worked!!! I've lost 5lbs pounds in five weeks and my diastolic reading has dropped 20 points. It's now averaging 66! I hadn't even dreamed 5lbs could change my blood pressure so dramatically. Hooray!

The news I'd hoped would be better: I'm holding steady at 140lbs. I just can't crack into the 130s. I've even added a 4th day of exercise by signing up for 8 weeks of kickboxing. I'd been warned the last 5lbs would be the hardest... so I'm not giving up just yet. My fingers are crossed that more exercise, less booze and another 4 weeks of determination gets me where I want to be. If it doesn't - then fine - I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. 

Weight Loss Check-In
Day 34, start of week six: 140.2lbs (4.8lbs lost)

Valentine's Day - let's eat!

For dinner: strip steak, medium rare, with a mushroom wine pan sauce. Sides of asparagus, quartered roasted Yukon gold potatoes and a wilted spinach salad with goat cheese.
For lunch: deli sliced turkey, cucumber, mixed greens, red onion and cream cheese on YDFM whole wheat sourdough. (Along with a surprise delivery of two dozen, long stem, red roses and my favorite chocolate bar!)
Pregym: slice of bread with avocado, lemon juice and red pepper flakes.

Weight Loss Update
Day 22
(weigh in is Thursday)
It can be difficult to lose weight in an environment that often offers free sweets... but I am relieved to say I made it through Valentine's Day without giving into temptation. It was not easy (especially when I found myself hungry at 3pm) but it was doable. One co-worker brought in a dozen heart shaped Dunkin' Donuts. Another brought in homemade mini "Pop Tarts". And because said "Pop Tarts" were both mini and made with homemade cherry filling (from real cherries) I had just enough of an excuse to eat one... but I did not. Instead I enjoyed the small Valentine's snack I'd brought from home: three mejool dates and ten raw almonds. Even so, I'm doubtful that I'll have lost weight this week so my current goal is to not have gained any back.

Jerk chicken, jerk chicken, jerk chicken, Mitt Romney

It's been an unusually busy week around here for the And Topher Too family. During a normal week we sit down for dinner together every night; dinner usually being a variation of one large, previously cooked protein (pork shoulder, london broil, etc). This week (as I mentioned earlier) my job called for 12 and 13 hour days at the office - and we also had a surplus of jerk chicken legs and thighs (an unrelated yet odd combination). Therefore, every night we've either had jerk chicken over greens or jerk chicken with a side of black beans - we just haven't eaten them sitting together. Tuesday Oliver even delivered my dinner to me at the office! And now, now the work deadline has passed, I've come home on time and  Oliver is at the Georgia Tech basketball game! Left on my own to create dinner with greens and jerk chicken I decided to try and change things up.

For starters I created a dressing using the ginger scallion sauce Oliver made for the Bo ssam. I just added the juice of one lemon and splash of olive oil. Then, I mixed spinach with mixed greens and chopped them both (Alon's style). I topped it all with goat cheese and roast red peppers. Finally, rather then cutting my chicken from the bone I ate it over the sink like a normal home alone person . Fortunately for our readers, that was the last piece of jerk chicken! So by this weekend we will be back to more interesting healthy meals

The unexpected surprise of the intense work week was a visit from Mitt Romney. He didn't actually come to our design studio but he did have a campaign rally in the warehouse directly next door. We began to suspect something was up when a police car parked itself outside of our office during lunch. That was followed by an entourage of news vans and a bevy of men dressed like MIB agents. After a quick Google search we figured out what was going on so we were prepared when Mitt drove by with a police escort and a wave (crappy photo below). Regardless of who I plan to vote for it's always fun to see a possible future American president in person! Thanks to Mitt for the drive-by. It certainly spiced up a hard day of work.

Weight Loss Check-In
Day 17: 140.8lbs (4.2lbs lost)
I was prepared to have made no progress this week. I indulged Friday and Saturday at lunch. Then again on Sunday at a Super Bowl party with more beers then are weight loss appropriate. But I did my best to make up for it all while I sitting motionless at my desk for 12 hours at a time - which is to say I didn't eat much. Then on Wednesday and Thurday I ran my heart out at the gym. To my good fortune everything seems to have balanced out.
Monday: breakfast - Kashi Crunch cereal
lunch - roast beef sandwich (no mayo, no cheese)
dinner - jerk chicken with broccoli 
no gym, no alcohol
Tuesday: breakfast - oatmeal
lunch - black beans with rice
dinner - jerk chicken over mixed greens
no gym, no alcohol
Wednesday: breakfast - oatmeal
lunch - black beans with greek yogurt
dinner: jerk chicken with black beans
500 calories burned on the elliptical (level 10/hills setting/ 30 minutes)/ one glass of pinot grigio
Thursday: breakfast - oatmeal
lunch - black beans (solo, we're out of everything else)
dinner: jerk chicken near mixed greens and spinach
500 calories burned on the elliptical (level 9/hills setting/ 25 minutes followed by weights)/ two glasses of pinot grigio

Physical health: an update

In early November I went to a general practitioner for my first physical exam in ten years.  I was relieved to discover my cholesterol levels are fine (LDL:106, Good: 51, Bad: 98, Total: 177) but I was surprised to discover my blood pressure is stubbornly high (130/90). The doctor immediately put me on Lisinoril, a blood pressure medicine, with the hopes of lowering my diastolic reading. 

A month later I returned for a check up. We were both disappointed to discover that the medicine had not yet made a difference. At that point my doctor changed my birth control pill to a lower estrogen option (it was the first time I'd altered it in 15 years). Since then my diastolic reading has lowered between 5 and 8 points (depending on the reading). Honestly, I've been thrilled. I thought I had something to be excited about. But that ended this morning when I went in for my yearly gyno exam. This doctor was not pleased with my diastolic reading of 83. And to my disappointment she didn't even seem to acknowledge the progress I felt I'd made. Rather she reminded me that if I planned to conceive sometime this year that I needed to lower my blood pressure unless I wanted a high risk pregnancy. 


I go to the gym and work out HARD, three times a week. I've given up all processed and fake foods. I consciously eat a high fiber diet... and here I was being scolded by a doctor at 7:45 in the morning. 

So, what to do now?

Sigh, weight loss. It's taken me almost two decades to appreciate and accept my body the way it is. I accept that I'm 10 to 15 pounds overweight and I don't let it get me down. I'm naturally curvy. My Mom would call me voluptuous, "an hourglass", but in reality I'm a pear. I've accepted that I will never have the lean, sinewy body of a runner and I'm okay with being the heaviest girl in the design studio [at work]. I've been okay with it because I know I am healthy, I truly enjoy good food and drink and I have more to offer then my looks. I'm a talented professional and contributing member of society - I don't need to be an overt sexpot to have value. 

But now... Now I have a reason to finally lose the last 10 or 15 pounds. I want to live until 2075 when I'll be 97 years old. It's too soon to be worrying about a stroke or high-risk pregnancy. So here goes: my goal is to weigh 134lbs by my 34th birthday. That's 11lbs in 10 weeks.  I'll be sure to keep everyone updated along the way... And thanks in advance for your support. 

To learn more about blood pressure please visit the American Heart Association's website. They have an easy to understand page explaining everything. If you haven't had yours checked recently then I recommend taking a few minutes to do so the next time you're at a pharmacy (it's that fun cuff that expands up on your arm). Even though high blood pressure usually has no symptoms - it can have deadly consequences.