Some basics about nutrition and metabolism that can improve your life

August 12, 2010

With obesity on the rise in more and more countries and legions of diets with little results, if any, I had been thinking about writing something about proper nutrition and some of the key physiological mechanisms involved in human metabolism. It is a bit away from envisioning the future, although the fight against obesity will gain momentum in the years to come.

There are many misconceptions out there. For instance, we all have heard that carbohydrates are not good, fat is not good or meat is not good. This is total non-sense. Carbohydrates, fat and protein are good. Actually, they are indispensable to our health. What is bad is too much, especially too much of the nutritionally poor quality carbohydrates, fats and protein sources.

Obesity and overweight are increasing health issues. In the world there are about as many overweight people as they are people suffering from hunger: around one billion people in each group. What causes overweight? The answer is simple. A person gains weight when he/she ingests more calories than he/she burns. The cause can be either too rich a diet and/or not enough physical activity. In most cases, it is a combination of both. The source of unburned calories are metabolized into fat and stored in the fat tissues. This is a problem, because fat tissues are poorly irrigated with blood vessels. This makes the stored fat difficult to eliminate. The body will use calories coming from the meals before it uses the fat reserves. This is why it is so difficult to get rid of extra pounds. The only way to use the fat reserves is through long intensive physical activity.

Some might wonder why our body does not tell us when to stop eating. Actually the body does, through two physiological mechanisms. One is a mechanical mechanism. When the stomach is stretched, the nervous system sends the information to the brain that the stomach is full and the brain makes us stop eating. The other mechanism is biochemical, through the blood composition, the brain sensors can detect when we have ingested enough energy, and the brain makes us stop eating. We feel “full”.

This could make you think that we should never overeat because the brain would let us know on time. Theoretically, this is true but the modern lifestyle has found a way of deceiving the brain. The biochemical mechanism takes time to react. It needs to detect a glycaemia level high enough to act. When we eat food and beverages that are highly concentrated in energy, and therefore have a relatively small volume, we ingest more calories than we would need before the stomach gets stretched, and before the glycaemia level rises in the blood to the normal level. Such foods are generally low in fibre and high in fat, such as fried foods. Soft drinks are not filling and they contain many calories. You can imagine the result of a combo bacon cheeseburger-French fries-pop package meal! The carbohydrates that they contain pass in the blood almost instantaneously. One of the advantages of fibre-rich food, such as fruit and vegetables, is that they fill the stomach and contain relatively few calories per volume unit. This activates the mechanical nervous mechanism and limits our food intake much faster than foods with little fibre. Do not fool yourself! The little leaf of lettuce in your burger is not enough to protect you.

This brings me to talk about carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates: the slow ones and the fast ones. The main representative of slow carbohydrate is starch. Starch is a long molecule that does not get into the blood stream as such. When we consume starch in bread, rice, pasta or potatoes, the starch gets cuts in a smaller component, called glycogen. The glycogen is stored in the liver where it waits for instructions from the brain to be released in the blood stream. This happens through a biochemical mechanism. The brain sensors detect a state of hypoglycaemia, and it orders the liver to release the glycogen. As long as our liver still has glycogen in store, we do not feel hungry. The system regulates itself smoothly. When we run out of glycogen, which is between 2 and 4 hours after the meal, we get into a hypoglycaemic state and we feel hungry. Usually it happens around 11.00 am and noon. That is why lunch exists! Same thing happens around 5.00 pm. Starch is good and necessary for us (as mentioned before, too much, on the other hand, is not).

The second group of carbohydrates, the fast ones, follows a different process. This group consists of what we call sugars, such as saccharose, fructose or glucose. When ingested, they do not get stored for later release, unlike starch. They flow into the bloodstream almost instantaneously and there are two possible scenarios. If our activity level is high enough when we consume them, they are burned to provide us with energy. If our activity level is too low for the amount we consume, our metabolism deals with the fast carbohydrates in only one manner: it transforms the sugars into fat that then get stored in the fat tissue. This is why drinking large amounts of pop or snacking on candy bars while sitting on your couch watching TV or playing video games will make you fat. There again, the rule is enough sugar to sustain yourself is good, too much consumption is bad.

About fat, I can tell a similar story. Within the amount necessary to allow all our functions to work properly, fats are fine. As their name indicates, essential fatty acids are indispensable. Even the dreaded cholesterol is an essential element for us. What is not good is to consume too much fat, and to consume too much of the less good ones. The length of the carbon chain, the level of saturation and the configuration of the molecules also affect your health. The excess of fat in your diet will end up as fat deposit in your body. This is why potato chips while watching TV will hurt you, too.

Protein is good, but with moderation as well. As for the other elements, too much protein can cause some problems, as protein stored in the intestine before release will not ferment, unlike fibre, but will undergo a rotting process, resulting in the production of harmful amines. The kidneys have also more work to do, and a long exposure to a diet too rich in protein may cause kidney problems.

So, what is the lesson from all of this? For me, it is that food one of the enjoyable things in life, as long as it is consumed with moderation (an incidental excess once in a while is fine, too; it means that you enjoy life) and it goes together with a healthy lifestyle. A person should have 7 hours of physical activity (the kind that makes you sweat) per week. Also, remember that the best is to not gain extra pounds in the first place, because the fat tissue is remarkably persistent.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consuting Ltd.


The ingredients of the Mediterranean diet nutritionists never talk about

October 16, 2009
Is the good lifestyle under threat?

Is the good lifestyle under threat?

In the world of the many diets, the Mediterranean one has a special place. Although, the people of these countries have extensive meals, they never seem to get fat, and that is a great puzzle to the obesity-plagued America.

The specialists will tell you it is the garlic, and the olive oil, and the wine, etc… that all contain substances that help your metabolism and your health. And you know what? It is true. They all have very positive qualities, but there is so much more to explain why Mediterranean people do not get obese.

They have long and extensive but properly sized meals
With a meal that starts with a soup or a salad, you already start to fill your stomach with relatively low calorie food, so there is less room left for the higher calorie food. Our brain has two ways of getting the message that we have eaten enough. The mechanical message is a simple nervous transmission to the brain from the stomach, when this one is extended because of food intake. It is as if the stomach says: “I am full, stop sending food!” The second way is a biochemical one sending a message through blood content and pH that says: “there is enough fuel in the tank, you can stop now!”
The mechanical message is rather instantaneous, while the biochemical one has a lag. This is why the appetizer is so useful. If you start with a dish that is highly concentrated in calories, you will pass the amount of calories that you need before your stomach can say to the brain that it is full, and the excess calories will be stored in fat.
A three-course menu means that the portion of every course is smaller, and that contributes to less calorie intake. Who has a 9-oz (270 g) steak for dinner, except in North America?

When you have big meals, you do not snack
The other advantage of extensive meals is that you have enough calorie intake for another four hours, which in Mediterranean society is the time of the next meal. Therefore, they do not snack between meals. When you graze on snacks all day long, which by the way are all loaded with sugar and/or fat, you end up eating more calories than you would with two large better-balanced structured meals.
Snacking on a bag of chips or salted nuts or scooping from a bucket of ice cream while watching TV is not common in those countries.

They may drink wine, but they do not drink pop
Do not think that Mediterranean people drink wine like it is a medicine, but their consumption of soft drinks is much lower than it is in North America. They also tend to drink more water as part of the meal. This in terms of calories makes a quite a difference, too. My story of the mechanical and biochemical messages applies for this superbly; there is no mechanical message, and by the time the blood tells the brain, the subject will have drunk more than a pint (~ ½ litre) of a drink containing 10% of sugar. That is about three tablespoons of raw sugar. Try to eat that up straight!

The weather is warm and sunny
That is another difference with more northern countries. When the weather is warm, you eat less, because your body needs fewer calories for maintaining its temperature.
Moreover, in nice climates, people tend to drink more water and spend more time walking or riding their bikes, instead of driving around.

They cook their own meals
Another component of many Mediterranean countries is the fact that people tend to like cooking much more, probably because of much more diverse and fragrant possibilities that their cultures have developed. Further, eating in Mediterranean countries is much more a social happening than in Northern countries, and you do not serve guests with a frozen meal!
The advantage of cooking your own meal, next to the fact that it is cheaper, ids that you have the possibility of choosing the ingredients and you can decide yourself of how much you put in the recipe. This way, you can manage much better, the origin, the quality and the quantity of your calories.
When you buy ready meals, very often you do not have as much flexibility. Although the food industry has developed low sodium and low calorie meals, it has been quite good at using relatively high levels of salt, sugar and fat, because they are cheap ingredients.

Is everything fine under the sun, then?
Unfortunately, over the last decade, changes in lifestyle and especially the popularity of fast food with the younger generation is changing the picture somehow. The rate of obesity is increasing there, too. Maybe Mediterranean people will have to rediscover their own diet sometime in the future.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Educating the consumer – Nutritional information only is not enough

October 15, 2009

Last week a survey was published in the US about whether fast food customers were using nutritional information to make their choice. The result was that although they could read how many calories their meal would include, they did not choose for a healthier lower calorie meal.

Apparently, this was a shocker. It was not to me, and this for a couple of simple reasons. First, people do not go to a fast food restaurant to nibble on a knackebrod. Secondly, information disclosed is never enough to make people change their habits, especially if they have a craving for what they buy. Otherwise, why do some people still smoke when they can read in big letters on the pack that it will kill them?

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

If we want to make people change their eating habits, information is necessary, but by far not sufficient. When it comes to food, we are dealing with many complex issues that have to do with psychology and with taste and a behaviour that we have acquired at a very young and developed as we grow up in the environment that our parents have provided. Further, we all know how skillfully marketing has use these psychological “weaknesses”.

In the US, there is currently quite a debate on health care and obesity is one of the main issues. In many ways, our eating habits are a reflection of our life style and of our society, as I have mentioned in my article “If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?” Therefore, trying to induce a change in our eating habits can only succeed if we make broader changes in the way we live.

Next to information, what consumers need is education. Unless they have an understanding of what the data they get really means, how can we expect them to act upon it?

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

We need to teach children about the basics of nutrition and of metabolism as early as possible, and this education must include their parents, too. There is no big mystery behind what causes obesity, diabetes and other food excesses related ailments. It is quite easy to explain what functions the different food groups fill and how to compose healthy meals, as it is really just a matter of adding up and keeping the right proportions.

It would be highly useful to educate everyone about where food comes from and how it is produced. A program like “Know your food, know your farmer” introduced in the US is useful, but “Know your farming” is just as needed.

What parents also need to understand is that it is their duty to give their children a balanced diet, although it might mean that they, too, should have one, but most importantly, when it comes to decide what is on the table, the children do not dictate what they want simply based on what they like.

Education, though, goes much further than just parents and schools, and retailers, restaurants and the agribusiness need to co-operate more than they currently do, even though some are more active than others in this field. If we want to solve a society problem, the whole society must participate. It is rather interesting to see how the meat industry in the US is reacting to the proposal of a meat-free Monday in school cafeterias. I can understand the resistance to government intervention in telling how people should feed themselves, although when this leads to many health issues, one could argue that if the people cannot make the right choices, maybe someone else should set stricter rules to help them. I also can understand that such a meat-free Monday is a bit threatening to the meat industry, as it means (a tiny little) bit less business in the short-term and maybe quite a bit more if it meant that the next generation might cut on meat consumption. On the other hand, what the meat industry in developed countries needs to realize is that there are plenty of people in other countries who are longing for meat, and these new markets have more than the potential to replace the volumes lost in their domestic markets.

Another great source of information is consumers’ organizations, like the ones I know in Europe. They are independent and they provide many surveys and comparisons on consumer products. They have been very useful in helping consumers gain more awareness about what they consume. Unfortunately, such open and objective information is not directly available in all countries and this is a weakness in the fight for health.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


The dining of the future

September 6, 2009

With the current development of software and technology on the one hand, and all the concerns that consumer express about food, health and environment, on the other hand, I believe that it is only a matter of time before we all can have the information and tools we need to make our own eating (and nutritional) choices.

Can I eat this?

May I eat this?

Today, we have nutritional information on all food items labels, but few of us use it much. This could soon change.
As many among us have computers at home, we can expect software to come on the market, and maybe even already installed with the computer at purchase, that will allow us to determine and set up our own diets.
Already numerous websites have interactive programs telling you, depending on your weight and life style, how many calories you should eat per day and other websites help you calculate the nutritional value of your meal if you enter the quantities of your menu’s components.

In animal nutrition, optimization programs to compose the feed ration by entering the nutritional value of the different possible ingredients and set limits to the level of inclusion of some ingredients based on nutritional and technical parameters have been in use for many years. Last, but not least, these programs also include the price of the different ingredients, so that the best-balanced “meal” that meets the nutritional needs can be composed at the lowest cost possible.

Therefore, it is just a matter of time before we all can have at home a system that will take into account, or weight, our age, our level of physical activity, our health risks and calculate for us what our meals could be made of and how much we should eat, depending on which menu combination we would like to have for that particular meal or day. The nutritional information could be either from a database or directly transferable from the nutritional value label present on the food packaging we bought.

Following the same idea, I expect most restaurants to present their menus with thorough nutritional information on the side, in a similar way as food labels show, with indication of health benefits or restrictions. There also would be the possibility for a customer to enter their personal information to have the meal tailor-made for them, with probably the relevant price adjustment when needed. All of the above includes of course the drinks as well, as they definitely can contribute to the overall nutritional value of the meal.

Any action encouraging healthier eating will be supported by the government and by health insurances, which should help accelerate the introduction of such programs.

As environment and sustainability are among the main concerns of consumers today, I expect food items in the retail and the dishes on restaurant menus to include environmental information, similar to the ones mentioned and appearing on the label shown in my article “Environmental performance on food labels“. Today, a number of restaurants have already joined programs setup by MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) to indicate they serve only sustainable seafood. Seafood is probably just the first item that will be followed with similar information and programs for other food sources.

We have entered the era of information, and we will eat accordingly.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.