Friday, August 24, 2012

Living proof that the food Fascists are wrong

Some more proof of extremely limited diets being quite viable

When William Staub died of natural causes at the age of 96 last month, his longevity seemed a tribute to the benefits of healthy living. After all, in the Sixties Staub invented the first mass-produced running treadmill, which found its way into millions of homes and gyms. He was still using his own treadmill right up to the last weeks of his life.

But there was also something odd about his lifestyle — an extremely restricted diet that runs contrary to all sensible ideas of nutrition. For most of his long life, Mr Staub lived solely on tomatoes, plain toast and tea — occasionally brightened by a slice of cheese and lettuce. How can anyone exist on such a regime for a month — let alone many decades?

Mr Staub’s story is just the latest in a long line of strange tales of people who, for years, will eat only a few odd foods, such as cheese and chips, or even just Monster Munch crisps (and only the one flavour, at that).

Why are they still alive? After all, we are constantly reminded how we must enjoy balanced diets that include five-a-day fruit and veg, along with the right proportions of protein, dairy and carbs, and all the vitamins, minerals that a body needs (and not too much of anything, remember!).

Nevertheless, thousands get along by eating far more restricted fare every day of their lives. Infamously, Lord Lucan would only ever have the same food for dinner: pork chops.

According to Muriel Spark, the novelist who researched Lucan’s life, the missing peer’s idea of variety was to have the chops glazed in gelatine during the summer months, while in winter he would have them grilled.  Lucan’s friends claimed this as evidence that he was too dull to have done anything so bold as to attempt to murder his wife, kill his nanny by mistake and then disappear.

But it is not only the famous or infamous who are affected. Last month Abi Stroud, an 18-year-old from Newport, South Wales, revealed that she has eaten only cheese and chips for the past eight years. The regime might sound like teenage heaven to some kids, but Stroud says it has been utter hell.  She eats three blocks of mature cheddar and three bags of chips a week. She will eat white bread — but only one particular brand.

The A-level student says that this is not through choice. She has a deep phobia of new foods. They terrify her, she says. Even the sight of a banana being peeled makes her gag.

As a result, her social life is as sorely restricted as her diet. ‘I never go out for dinner with friends or eat with other people because so I’m worried about being expected to eat something else,’ she told reporters.  ‘When people ask me to try something different, I feel sick and dizzy. A teacher tried to get me to eat a chicken nugget and I burst into tears.’

Now Miss Stroud has been diagnosed by specialists with a condition called Selective Eating Disorder. Her food aversion began when she was ten, and she believes it was linked to the death of her grandmother. Her condition saw her weight spiral to 15st when she was 16. Exercise then saw her slim down to 13st.

She is off to university next month, and she hopes her diagnosis can help her to break her phobic cycle. ‘Now I know it’s not just me being a fussy eater, I’m determined to try something new,’ she says.

Selective eating disorder (SED) is such a newly identified condition that it has not yet been accepted into the ‘bible’ of psychiatry, the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It is expected to be included in the 2013 edition.

Meanwhile, The British Journal of Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry has described SED as: ‘A little-studied phenomenon of eating a highly limited range of foods, associated with an unwillingness to try new foods. When this happens social avoidance, anxiety and conflict can result.’

Pilot studies in America have found many thousands of people who seem to fit the criteria for the disorder. But SED should not be confused with normal childhood fussiness.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, about 12 per cent of three-year-olds suffer from persistent selective eating — extremely faddy about their food — but fewer than one per cent carry it into adulthood.

Debbie Taylor is one of this minority. For more than a decade, the 32-year-old has eaten nothing but crisps. For the past two years, she has eaten only beef-flavoured Monster Munch for breakfast, lunch and dinner — two family-size bags a day.

The mother of a 12-year-old son, she says she has always been a fussy eater. ‘I can remember my mum trying everything to get me to eat healthily, cooking spaghetti bolognese and chopping up veg, which I refused to eat. She finally said: “If you don’t eat that, there’s nothing else.” I replied: “Fine. I don’t want anything.”’

Her food aversions led to anorexia and bulimia as a schoolgirl. In her late teens, she ate only dry-roasted peanuts, and bread sprinkled with salt. At the age of 25, she bought a packet of barbecue-flavoured crisps and fell in love with them.  ‘I didn’t eat anything else for the next eight years, until the day I decided to go wild and try Monster Munch. They had been a childhood treat, and they became my crisp of choice,’ she has said.

The amazing thing is that Ms Taylor looks remarkably healthy, as do many selective eaters.

So how on earth do their bodies manage to survive? The secret lies in the human frame’s remarkable diversity and adaptability, according to Rick Miller, a registered dietitian and spokesman for the British Dietetic Association.

He says the dietary guidelines put out by Government experts are our best scientific guess at a one-size-fits-all recommendation. But our individual nutritional needs vary widely — and at the far edges of this spectrum are people whose bodies exist happily on strange diets.

‘The human body is a fascinating organism. It has been built for survival, and people’s nutritional requirements can differ from person to person,’ Mr Miller explains.

‘The official recommended daily intakes of nutrients — called Dietary Reference Values (DRVs) are only a guide. There are individuals who can survive on very little, as well as those who need a lot more every day. So some people can be apparently healthy on very restricted diets. However, they may be missing out on vital vitamins and minerals.’

On top of this, our systems can hoard scarce nutrients, which may also help people to survive on bizarre food regimes.

Mr Miller adds: ‘The body can store minerals, iron and B vitamins in the liver, so people on restricted diets can rely on their own stores for a while. People with SED may also have tastes that reflect their body’s vital nutritional needs.  ‘We see cravings for certain nutrients in pregnant women, and there might be something similar happening with some selective eaters.’

And he has a warning for healthy-diet evangelists: the worst thing you could ever do to someone with SED is to make them suddenly eat a ‘proper’ meal.

‘If you force someone with SED to suddenly take on lots of other nutrients, it can send their body into a form of shock,’ he says, ‘This is called “re-feeding syndrome” and can have serious consequences, such as causing heart attacks.’

Of course, no one with conventional tastes should try voluntarily eating a severely restricted diet. But if one had to do it, what would be the best thing to eat?

Scientists have looked into this question and found that Sophie Ray, 19, from Wrexham, North Wales, might be on the right track.   She has reportedly eaten nothing but cheese and tomato pizza for the past eight years after a attack of the stomach bug gastroenteritis left her with an extreme fear of food.  She says: ‘I love pizza. The thought of trying other foods makes me very anxious, I feel sick and clam up.’

Naturally, she would be healthier on a full-spectrum diet, but an investigation in 1997 by Dr Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, has shown real cheese pizza with real tomato sauce can provide us with sufficient nutrients to survive.

Professor Nestle says pizza mixes a lot of ingredients and can provide protein (from wheat crust and cheese) and essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12 (again from cheese) and vitamin C (from tomato), along with antioxidants and other nutrients. The olive oil used for good Italian pizza provides both calories and vitamin E.

‘Vitamin D can come from the sun, there is a fair amount of vitamin A in tomatoes,’ she says. ‘And to top it off, tomato sauce is a good source of nutrients such as lycopenes, with their rich anti-oxidant potential.  ‘If you are stuck on a desert island that happened to have a pizza parlour, you could do a lot worse.’

Only one food might be better — it is the food that many of us consumed solely for six months or more. And that is breast milk.

According to Jo Ann Hattner, a nutrition consultant and the author of Gut Insight, a book about digestive health: ‘Mother’s milk is a complete food. We may add some solid foods to an infant’s diet in the first year of life to provide more iron and other nutrients, but there is a little bit of everything in human milk.’

Technically, adults could survive on breast milk, too. The only problem (outside of the comedy world of Little Britain) would be finding a woman willing to provide it — and in sufficient quantities to keep a grown-up supplied.


Junk science about junk food

In the fight against obesity, should science matter? It depends on whom you ask. The answer may surprise you, and could make you realize that you shouldn't always trust the do-gooders.

A study published in Pediatrics magazine this month shows an association between obesity reduction and states with strict school rules against salty and fatty foods and sugary drinks. The researchers were properly prudent to caution that while they found a link between less obesity and rules against goodies, their study did not prove causation.

They noted that they did not control for key factors that could explain the results some other way. The conclusion of the study is clear and should be undisputed: These laws may, but don't necessarily, make a difference -- the same way umbrellas may be a leading cause of rain.

But consider the reaction from the executive director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance: In response to the accurate NBC News headline, "School junk food bans may really help curb obesity," Nancy Huehnergarth tweeted, "Worth repeating. School food policy works!" But that's not repeating; it's distorting. Neither the study, the headline nor the story said the bans work.

There's nothing wrong with promoting a policy agenda, but it's wrong to mislead the public by knowingly twisting the findings of a study to serve that agenda. Unfortunately, policymakers and the public tend to give a free ride to anyone fighting obesity, smoking or any societal ill. If science is to determine policy, that is a mistake. We shouldn't blindly trust those who mislead us even if they want to save the world.

Similar fuzzy thinking applies in what turns out to be an asymmetrical battle over disclosure of funding and the credibility of scientific research. The study itself appears to be scientifically sound and comes with appropriate caveats. It was partially funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, or RWJF, which most media outlets disclosed. However, that disclosure is woefully incomplete; a distortion by omission. The typical reader would consider the funding source to bolster the credibility of the report. But I've found no coverage that also discloses that critical fact that the RWJF is one of the nation's leading proponents of the very laws being evaluated for their efficacy. Everyone might safely assume pretzel purveyors oppose the laws, but not everyone will know that RWJF has a dog in the fight.

Don't disbelieve the study just because it was funded by the RWJF, but be aware of the potential for bias, just as you would if a study funded by Coca-Cola reached the opposite result.

The same caution is also in order even for today's government-funded studies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is pushing the limits of federal law by using taxpayer dollars, first from the stimulus bill and now from the health care law, to lobby for policy changes at the state and local level. Remember the Bloomberg administration's controversial (and unscientific) subway ads, where soda turned into globs of fat? Those were the type of federally funded campaigns meant to lay the groundwork for soda taxes. Less controversial are federally funded studies meant to justify the policies. The government isn't funding studies to determine whether these laws work; it is funding them to justify a position it has already taken.

If you ignore these principles you aren't following the science -- you are biased in favor of nanny state laws. That's fine, but in that case, don't pretend the science is on your side.


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