According to a new study1 by the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, 40 years of the NHANES American nutrition research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be completely invalid.
The reason for this, the researchers say, is because the method used to collect the nutrition data is seriously flawed. According to the study’s lead author, exercise scientist and epidemiologist Edward Archer:2
“These results suggest that without valid population-level data, speculations regarding the role of energy intake in the rise in the prevalence of obesity are without empirical support.”
It’s no secret that childhood obesity has become a lethal epidemic in the US and many other parts of the world. The trend is so serious, some food advocates, like British chef Jamie Oliver,3 are taking more “dramatic” measures to inspire a collective and cultural U-turn.
Above is the first episode of Oliver’s TV show Food Revolution, which began airing in 2010. A major part of the problem, which Oliver addresses head-on, is that our food culture has changed so drastically over the last 30 years that a majority of today’s youth do not know what fresh, whole food is.
They don’t know where food comes from, or what the food they do eat is made of. Even many adults are at a loss when it comes to understanding the difference between synthetic chemicals added to foods during processing, and bioavailable nutrients found in unprocessed foods.
Tackling one town at a time, Oliver is on a mission to reeducate the masses about what real food is, and how to cook meals that will promote health and longevity rather than obesity and chronic disease. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more noble effort. But as you will see, it’s not an easy task.
Resistance to change—even positive, life-affirming change—can be fierce, and when it comes to altering school lunches, it’s made worse by having to adhere to federal nutritional guidelines that are fatally flawed in more ways than one.
According to the featured study, caloric intake has been under reported for the past four decades, and the rise in obesity isn’t necessarily a side effect of increasing calorie consumption—it might just be an artifact of slight improvements in the reporting.
If that’s true, then what is really at the root of the obesity problem? Not addressed in this study is the fact that the entire “calorie in/calorie out” hypothesis is a myth as well! You don’t get fat because you eat too many calories. You gain weight because you eat the wrong kind of calories, which I’ll get into in a moment.
Federal Nutrition Data Found to Be ‘Physiologically Implausible’
In the US, nutrition and health data is compiled by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).4 It collects self-reported food and beverage consumption data of children and adults, along with physical examinations to evaluate the health status of the participants. This information is then used by researchers studying the effects of nutrition and diet on the health of Americans.
Now, researchers evaluating the NHANES data and collection methods have concluded that the data is simply “not physiologically credible,” and that blaming obesity on excessive calorie consumption is “without empirical support.” According to the featured article:5
“The study6 examined data from 28,993 men and 34,369 women, 20 to 74 years old, from NHANES I (1971 – 1974) through NHANES (2009 – 2010), and looked at the caloric intake of the participants and their energy expenditure, predicted by height, weight, age and sex.
The results show that – based on the self-reported recall of food and beverages — the vast majority of the NHANES data ‘are physiologically implausible, and therefore invalid,’ Archer said. In other words, the ‘calories in’ reported by participants and the ‘calories out,’ don’t add up and it would be impossible to survive on most of the reported energy intakes.
This misreporting of energy intake varied among participants, and was greatest in obese men and women who underreported their intake by an average 25 percent and 41 percent (i.e., 716 and 856 calories per-day respectively).”
The failure to provide accurate estimates of Americans’ habitual caloric consumption can have far-reaching ramifications when it comes to federal nutritional guidelines. First of all, it points out the limited ability to create public policy that accurately reflects the connections between diet and health.
It also suggests that much of the nutritional research produced over the past four decades is unreliable at best, as it’s not an accurate reflection of people’s actual calorie intake. According to Archer:
“The nation’s major surveillance tool for studying the relationships between nutrition and health is not valid. It is time to stop spending tens of millions of health research dollars collecting invalid data and find more accurate measures.”
Reality Check—Health Is Dependent on Real Food
I agree we should stop wasting money on collecting invalid data. The question is, what would constitute “more accurate measures”? I’ve long advocated againstcounting calories at all, as they’re a poor way to evaluate the actual healthfulnessof your meal.
You’re not going to improve your health by eating fewer cookies than you did before if your entire diet consists of different kinds of pastries. If you really want to lose weight and, more importantly, improve your health, then you must replace“empty” calories from processed, denatured foods with nutrients from real, whole foods—especially healthful fats, which I’ll address below.
Three decades ago, the food available was mostly fresh and grown locally. Today, the majority of foods served, whether at home, in school or in restaurants, are highly processed foods, filled with sugars and chemical additives. During that same time, childhood obesity has more than tripled. In the US, more than one-third of children and adolescents are now overweight or obese.
Regardless of whether our federal nutrition guidelines are based on accurate calorie intake or not, cutting down on calories alone is not going to fix the problem of childhood obesity and the alarming rise of chronic disease in children and teens. Children need to be fed properly, and Oliver’s TV show clearly pinpoints what’s wrong with the American diet.
Why Counting Calories Doesn’t Work
In a nutshell, it’s FAR more important to look at the source of the calories than counting them. Contrary to popular belief, you do NOT need 45-65 percent of your daily calories in the form of carbs, as recommended by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.7
It’s these kinds of nutritional guidelines that are responsible for promoting obesity in the first place! It would be one thing if the recommendation was that half of your diet should consist of vegetable carbs, but that’s not the case. No, the federal recommendations for carbs touted by health agencies and nutritionists around the country include starches, fiber, grains, sugar alcohols, and naturally-occurring and added sugars—the very things that drive obesity and chronic disease rates skyward… According to the 2010 Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,8 the top 10 sources of calories in the American diet are:
1. Grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars), 139 calories a day 6. Alcoholic beverages 2. Yeast breads, 129 calories a day 7. Pasta and pasta dishes 3. Chicken and chicken-mixed dishes, 121 calories a day 8. Mexican mixed dishes 4. Soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks, 114 calories a day 9. Beef and beef-mixed dishes 5. Pizza, 98 calories a day 10. Dairy desserts
Looking at this list, it should be fairly easy to see the dietary roots of the American weight problem. Four of the top five sources of calories are carbs—sugars (primarily fructose) and grains—just as recommended. And while soda has dropped down to number four (it used to be number one), I still believe a lot of people, particularly teenagers, probably get a majority of their calories from sugary beverages like soda.
To Optimize Your Health, Pay Attention to the SOURCE of Your Calories
In order to curb the current obesity epidemic, we do not need more accurate reporting of calories; we need to start focusing on eating the right kind of calories. I firmly believe that the primary keys for successful weight management and optimal health are:
- Severely restricting carbohydrates (sugars, fructose, and grains) in your diet
- Increasing healthy fat consumption
- Unlimited consumption of non starchy vegetables. Because they are so low calorie, the majority of the food on your plate will be vegetables
- Limit the use of protein to less than one half gram per pound of body weight
Healthful fat can be rich in calories, but these calories will not affect your body in the same way as calories from non-vegetable carbs. As explained by Dr. Robert Lustig, fructose in particular is “isocaloric but not isometabolic.” This means you can have the same amount of calories from fructose or glucose, fructose and protein, or fructose and fat, but the metabolic effect will be entirely different despite the identical calorie count. Eating dietary fat isn’t what’s making you pack on the pounds. It’s the sugar/fructose and grains that are adding the padding.
So please, don’t fall for the low-fat myth, as this too is a factor in the rise in chronic health problems such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Your brain, heart and cardiovascular system need healthy fat for optimal functioning. In fact, emerging evidencesuggests most people need at least half of their daily calories from healthy fat, and possibly as high as 70 percent. My personal diet is about 60-70 percent healthy fat. Add to that a small to medium amount of high-quality protein and plenty of vegetables. You actually need very few carbs besides vegetables; so you see, the federal guidelines are about as lopsided as they could be… pushing you toward obesity and poor health, if you follow them.
Hunger Can Be Used as a Guide to Determine How Much Fat You Need
Many do not realize this, but frequent hunger may be a major clue that you’re not eating correctly and are using carbs as your primary fuel. Not only is it an indication that you’re consuming the wrong types of food, but it’s also a sign that you’re likely consuming them in lopsided ratios for your individual biochemistry, and the timing of your eating may benefit from adjustment. Fat is far more satiating than carbs, so if you have cut down on carbs and feel ravenous, thinking you “can’t do without the carbs,” remember this is a sign that you haven’t replaced them with sufficient amounts of fat. So go ahead and add a bit more. You do want to make sure you’re adding the correct types of fat though. And vegetable oils like canola and corn oil, with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends is NOT on the healthy list… Sources of healthy fats include:
Olives and olive oil Coconuts and coconut oil Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk Raw nuts, such as almonds or pecans Organic pastured egg yolks Avocados Grass-fed meats Palm oil Unheated organic nut oils
Another healthful fat you want to be mindful of is animal-based omega-3. Deficiency in this essential fat can cause or contribute to very serious health problems, both mental and physical, and may be a significant underlying factor of up to 96,000 premature deaths each year. For more information about omega-3s and the best sources of this fat, please review this previous article.
Healthy Eating Starts at Home
Home used to be the heart of passing on food culture. This rarely happens anymore, and children are suffering the consequences. School lunches also used to be far more nutritious. Today, as evidenced in the video above, most of the food served at school is processed food, requiring only to be reheated.
Sadly, many parents today don’t even know how to cook with fresh ingredients, because their parents embraced the novel convenience of the TV dinner back in the 50s. I’ve said this for many years, and it’s worth repeating many times over because it’s one of the main solutions to the obesity epidemic—Cook your food from scratch, at home!
Many people are under the mistaken impression that cooking from scratch is an extremely complicated affair that takes lots of time and costs more than they could possibly afford. Part of Jamie Oliver’s mission is to show the fallacy of this kind of thinking. There are plenty of sources for simple recipes, many of which are free if you have access to the internet. In a previous article, Colleen Huber offers a list of helpful guidelines on how to cook whole food from scratch while keeping your day job.
It does require some pre-planning in many cases, but remember that learning to plan your meals may actually reduce your stress levels rather than increase them! Many people resort to fast foods and processed foods simply because they’re too frazzled at the end of their work day to figure out what to cook. Planning a menu and shopping ahead could actually turn meal time into a more relaxed time spent with family.
Also, remember that whatever money you think you’re saving now by using processed foods, you’ll end up paying many times over later on when your health begins to fail. Proper nutrition, consisting mainly of whole, fresh foods, really is your number one health insurance policy. Likewise, children will not know which foods are healthy unless you, as a parent, teach it to them. Please, understand that poor eating habits at home, combined with poor food selections at school, may set your child up for long-term physical and behavioral problems.
Are You Trying to Eat Healthy on a Budget?
While it may not be immediately obvious for people who have grown up relying on ready-made, pre-packaged foods and snacks, you can replace those foods with something equally satisfying that will support, rather than wreck, your health. This requires some strategy, especially if you’re working with a tight budget, but it can be done:
- Identify a person to prepare meals. Someone has to invest some time in the kitchen. It will be necessary for either you, your spouse, or perhaps someone in your family prepare the meals from locally grown healthful foods. This includes packing lunches for your kids to take to school.
- Become resourceful: This is an area where your grandmother can be a wealth of information, as how to use up every morsel of food and stretch out a good meal was common knowledge to generations past. Seek to get back to the basics of cooking – using the bones from a roast chicken to make stock for a pot of soup, extending a Sunday roast to use for weekday dinners, learning how to make hearty stews from inexpensive cuts of meat, using up leftovers and so on.
- Plan your meals: If you fail to plan you are planning to fail. This is essential, as you will need to be prepared for mealtimes in advance to be successful. Ideally, this will involve scouting out your local farmer’s markets for in-season produce that is priced to sell, and planning your meals accordingly, but you can also use this same premise with supermarket sales.You can generally plan a week of meals at a time, make sure you have all ingredients necessary on hand, and then do any prep work you can ahead of time so that dinner is easy to prepare if you’re short on time in the evenings.
- It is no mystery that you will be eating lunch around noon every day so rather than rely on fast food at work, before you go to bed make a plan as to what you are going to take to work the next day. This is a marvelous simple strategy that will let you eat healthier, especially if you take healthy food from home in to work.
- Avoid food waste: According to a study published in the journal PloS One, Americans waste an estimated 1,400 calories of food per person, each and every day. The two steps above will help you to mitigate food waste in your home. You may also have seen my article titled “14 Ways to Save Money on Groceries.” Among those tips are suggestions for keeping your groceries fresher, longer, and I suggest reviewing those tips now.
- Buy organic animal foods. The most important foods to buy organic are animal, not vegetable, products (meat, eggs, butter, etc.), because animal foods tend to concentrate pesticides in higher amounts. If you cannot afford to buy all of your food organic, opt for organic animal foods first.
- Keep costs down on grass-fed beef.Pasture-finished beef is far healthier than grain-fed beef (which I don’t recommend consuming). To keep cost down, look for inexpensive roasts or ground meat. You may also save money by buying an entire side of beef (or splitting one with two or three other families), if you have enough freezer space to store it.
- Buy in bulk when non-perishable items go on sale. If you are fortunate to live near a buyer’s club or a co-op, you may also be able to take advantage of buying by the pound from bins, saving both you and the supplier the cost of expensive packaging.
- Frequent farmer’s markets or grow your own produce. You may be surprised to find out that by going directly to the source you can get amazingly healthy, locally grown, organic food for less than you can find at your supermarket. This gives you the best of both worlds: food that is grown near to you, cutting down on its carbon footprint and giving you optimal freshness, as well as grown without chemicals, genetically modified seeds, and other potential toxins.
Just as restaurants are able to keep their costs down by getting food directly from a supplier, you, too, can take advantage of a direct farm-to-consumer relationship, either on an individual basis or by joining a food coop in your area. Many farmer’s markets are also now accepting food stamps, so this is an opportunity most everyone can join in on.