Mark Bittman Talks Turkey

Hope you’re enjoying your weekend, friends. Here in NC, we’ve had a marvelous one so far, having attended a thoroughbread racing event yesterday with good friends against a backdrop of blue sky with poofs of red and orange leaves fluttering down. Even though today is kind of a catch-up day, after my to-do list is done enough, I’ll be picking up a good read. How about you?

If you’re seeking some engaging reading related to health, in his recent blog entry, food culture writer Mark Bittman shares several thoughtful sources in the timely form of a list of things for which he is thankful. As you scroll down the list, you’ll notice that his range of topics extends far wider than just food. The texts he cites cover everything from changing our laws to shaping our shopping. A long leap from food, to be sure. But when you start thinking about food, it’s quite natural to find that your interests wander. At least that is what’s been happing to me.

Although nutrition information is central to my efforts in learning and sharing knowledge about health, I’m realizing that nutrition is connected to the world in nearly every way. It is of the world, in the world, and for the world. It destroys and cures, and it influences individual things (like brains) and vast expanses (like economies). So I don’t mind the topics Bittman includes outside of the plain old nutrition stuff. It’s all connected. Check out his list here, and make a couple of picks of your own! “No Turkeys Here”

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The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts

People often ask, “If you were to eat just a few foods, which would be the very best ones to eat?”…but I believe that is what my grandfather used to refer to as a “sucker’s question.” It tries to narrow the response to a small number of options–too small to provide an accurate picture to the broader issue at hand, which is eating to promote health.

In fact, no matter how heroic a particular food is, the truth is that a full variety of vittles seems to be much better than any single option. (Digressing for a moment, this assumes we are all on the same page already as far as “vittles” = real foods, in the most whole forms available).

Ok, makes sense. Only a variety of foods can provide the full range of nourishment our bodies need. Although we know this, still we succumb to the loud lauding of one wondrous nutrient when it hits mainstream media, and then seek foods with a ton of THAT nutrient. But thinking bigger is the better answer.

Case in point: While the article from MSNBC at the link below reminds us that some foods are super-providers of antioxidants, the main point is that we take in antioxidants from many food sources, so don’t sacrifice the good nutrition that a variety of foods provides in search of an overabundance of one great nutrient. Take a look: “Beyond Blueberries: 8 Unexpected Antioxidants”

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A Bill to Help Local/Regional Farmers & More

Take a look at the link below to read a bit about a bill proposed by Maine’s Chellie Pingree (D-ME) that attempts to change the nation’s food policy by supporting local and regional farmers.

The bill, known as the Local Farm, Food, and Jobs Act, contains some elements intended to improve the distribution systems used by these smaller farmers. But it has other items as well, including an attempt to make it easier for food stamps to be redeemed at farmers markets.

Of course we need to read the fine print and consider the political intent, etc., etc. …But it seems like there are some great ideas here, and it should be interesting to see where it goes. “Bill to Support Farms”

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Wise Words on Change

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

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Phat News About Saturated Fat

Recently, Experience L!fe posted an article that pulls together and explains some of the past “competing” theories about saturated fats (Good? Bad? Needed? Avoid?). I like how this piece provides some insight as to considering the theories together, based on current science.

One point I took away from the article was this:  Theories about the health value of saturated fat are converging to at least one general point of agreement–that consumption of several servings of fruits and vegetables each day is good. Further, if you are removing things from your diet that the collective knowledge says are probably bad for you, replacing them with good old fruits and veggies is positive.

Want to know how it all comes together? Take a look at the article (and the sidebars they have provided too): “A Big Fat Mistake”

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Steve Jobs

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to loose.” –Steve Jobs

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It’s Social

I was about half way through David Brooks’ book  The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement (Random House, 2011) when it hit me: It’s social.

I first noticed Brooks’ book cradled in Renee Zellweger’s arm in a tabloid photo, after her break-up with Bradley Cooper. Maybe she was trying to find some closure, or plot her next move in the Hollywood dating scene. Anyway, after reading a few reviews, I finally picked up my own copy. An entertaining read, it’s an excellent follow-up to Daniel Goleman’s iconic book from 1995, Emotional Intelligence, which, incidentally, was required reading recently for some leadership training at my company. Seems like everywhere you go, people are socializing about our social-ness.

When Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence, he was a science reporter for The New York Times. By exploring the evolutionary wiring of the human brain and the impact of our environment in the user-friendly style of a newspaper writer, he educated the non-scientist about the science behind our actions. Brooks’ Social Animal is an updated real-life application of Goleman’s work, told through the story of two characters, from before birth through the life they shared as a married couple.

I wanted to share with you a most interesting section of The Social Animal, in which Brooks compares two scientific ways of considering cause-and-effect relationships. The first is something called reductive reasoning. It is the process of breaking a problem down to its individual components, and determining the impact a given component might have on the problem. Though helpful for many situations when connecting cause to effect, it fails miserably for others. Take poverty, for example. It was evident that poor cultures seem to beget future poor generations, but Brooks found that when scientists tried to tie the impact of a specific variable to ongoing poverty, they came up with nothing.

So, he presents another way, citing something called the emergent system, which is better at explaining some self-perpetuating conditions like poverty. “Emergent systems exist when different elements come together and produce something that is far greater than the sum of their pieces. For example…sounds and syllables come together and produce a story that has an emotional power that is irreducible to its constituent parts,” Brooks writes.

In reductive reasoning, you assume that the condition in question is created by its components, but in the emergent system, the flow reverses. “Once a pattern is established in the emergent system, it has a downward influence of the behavior of the components,” Brooks explains. He continues, “Because of this, emergent systems are really good at passing down customs through generations. Once habits arise, future individuals adopt them unconsciously.”

Continuing with the example of poverty, as with any emergent system, “people who live in deep poverty are enmeshed in complex ecosystems no one can fully see and understand,” says Brooks. But he holds that this doesn’t mean you don’t try to alleviate the effects of poverty, rather, it means you don’t try to break down those effects into constituent parts. In an emergent system, no specific intervention is going to turn it around; you need a different approach: If you can surround a person with a new culture,” Brooks concludes, “they will absorb new habits of thought and behaviors in ways you will never be able to measure or understand. Kind of like osmosis.

What? I thought change came about only through hard work and willpower. But Brooks suggests “you cannot remain in your current environment and rely on the force of individual willpower to turn your prospects around, because you would still be subject to the same emotional cues, which overpower conscious intention.” However, you can always make a decision to change your environment. And changing your environment is much easier than changing your insides. So, again, change your environment and then let the new social cues do the work.

Eureka! As I finished the chapter about cause and effect, it hit me. How does all of this relate to our country’s health crises? Yep. Perfect example of an emergent system.

Perhaps those who make improvements in their health and wellness by modifying their lifestyles have been exposed to an environment in which behaviors–once new to them–are the norm in that environment.

I’ve often wondered just why and how an idea that we initially resist will later “catch” us, taking hold and setting our course in a different direction. The Social Animal has helped me to gain some tactical understanding around what most people know intuitively–that when it comes to our choices about health, society plays an enormous part. (And, as Goleman stated over 15 years ago, to understand is to begin to change. So, just by sitting through this here today, you’re on your way.)

Personally, I happen to be moved to change by what I read, more than anything else. So placing myself in the environment of Brooks’ entertaining book helped me absorb a new concept. But for you, maybe it’s something else.

So go on, get out of here. Read! See! Go! Do! Inject yourself into a better environment, and let its norms and cues go to work on you.

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Farmers Market in Summer

Berries anyone?

How have you cooked or served your farmers market booty (fine fruits and vegetables, that is) this summer? Do tell.

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Concerned About the Deficit?

A must-read: “How to Save a Trillion Dollars”
By Mark Bittman

…Positively brilliant.

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The Year 2020

It’s 7:30 on Sunday morning and we’re already awake at our house…Sanjay Gupta is on CNN (diabetes special: Diabetes 2020 by Sanjay Gupta, MD) opening his regular health show with “one half of Americans will be pre-diabetic or diabetic by the year 2020…” and “one third of Americans will have diabetes by 2050.” He shares some of the current stats: 25.8 Americans now have diabetes and 79 million are pre-diabetic. For good measure, they show the diabetes prevalence map of our country, overlaid by the obesity map, which roughly mimics it.

It’s about 7:40 and Sanjay’s just invited another expert to join the discussion… I can’t type fast enough to capture all the details, but this one is calling diabetes and obesity “twin diseases,” explaining that excess body weight causes all sorts of maladies. So, obesity causes structural problems in the body…diabetes causes physiological problems as a result…this becomes part of the vicious cycle exacerbating that healthcare crises in which we find ourselves. (I’m saving the diagram of that cycle, and the “lifetime morbidity compression analysis” discussion for future posts…it is only 7:45AM after all.)

Now we’re still following this, and they’ve begun discussing causes, saying that although most of us know that lifestyle is responsible for much of the problem, many of us are not making the connection between the causes and making the right personal choices, or we’re not operationalizing it…and considering our culture, we have to “swim upstream” to do the right things. They recommend smaller portions, less times in front of screens, and fewer sugared drinks. They also share a bit about some legislation and other macro initiatives that could help…impending national food labeling, better urban planning, and maybe taxing certain foods.

It’s 8:00 and Sanjay just wrapped up. I know if we we’d talk about this in a room with 50 people, we’d have the same number of opinions, and probably a heated debate. But at the moment, I’ve decided to go downstairs to have a cup of coffee and think about what to have for breakfast.

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