Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bring on the Butter, Meat, and Cheese!

Is it just me, or does every new study and food book offer conflicting advice? I'm not happy to hear that we should limit fat and eat lots of whole grains and vegetables; but nor am I thrilled to hear saturated animal fats are back on the menu and carbs are the new bad guys. Can't I love both? Can't we all get along???

This week I took on Nina Teicholtz's The Big Fat Surprise.

Like Gary Taubes' WHY WE GET FAT, Teicholtz takes on some 50 years of dietary advice from the government, academy, food-, and health-powers-that-be. You know the drill: reduce saturated fat in the diet. The higher your heart attack risk, the more drastically you should reduce it. That means cutting out red meat, eggs, milk, cheese--and voila! You'll lower your LDL and live long enough to die of cancer instead.

Teicholtz traces the ascendancy of this advice and the effects of personal biases, statistical hand-waving, and academic infighting on the conclusions drawn or suppressed. She looks in depth at the original studies done and cited, rather than taking the abstract's or another person's word for it, with surprising results. As it happens, rates of heart disease have not declined, despite a 17% increase in American consumption of fruits and vegetables, a 29% increase in grains, and a reduction of fats to 33% of calories. In place of animal fats we now consume 8% of calories by way of vegetables oils (mainly soy and canola), and, in the meantime, obesity, diabetes, and cancer rates have boomed. What went wrong?

A few things:
- We found "lowering cholesterol" was not the cure-all we hoped for. Lowfat diets (and statin drugs) can lower LDL, but it turns out general LDL levels do not correlate closely with heart disease. Having high, small-particle LDL levels does seem to correlate, but the best way to sway the balance to big, floaty LDL particles is to eat animal fats.

- The "Mediterranean Diet" was somewhat an arbitrary invention, but a diet favoring olive oil does seem to improve health factors better than a lowfat diet, although not as well as a diet rich in animal fats.

- At first animal fats were replaced in processed/fast foods with trans fats, but when these started to be frowned upon, everyone switched back to liquid vegetable oils, which oxidize and put out toxic aldehydes when they are heated.

- Calcium and vitamins A, D, K, and E are fat-soluble, meaning they cannot be fully absorbed if not accompanied by fat. That goes for the calcium in nonfat milk and all the spiffy vegetables sprinkled in fat-free dressing.

- Women and children were recommended to follow lowfat diets by extension, but it turns out women with low cholesterol had higher mortality rates that women with high cholesterol, and women on lowfat diets see a greater drop in their good HDL levels than men. Kids need saturated fat for ideal growth.

- When not replacing trans fats with liquid oils, food processors have to rely on fat replacers, which are additional carbohydrate substances.

- Liquid vegetable oils are pro-inflammatory and tied to increased rates of cancer.

...There's more to say, but I'll stop here. Suffice to say, I found the arguments convincing, if depressing, given my deep love for bread and pasta. My kids have been drinking whole milk for years now, and I am determined to wean us at least two days a week from breakfast cereals, but I just don't know how the world can support everyone on a diet high in animal fats. Not to mention, meat is expensive, especially since we do grass-fed. I suppose I'll have to settle for increasing our ratio of animal fats and reducing our refined carbs and liquid vegetable oil.

 At least I can fry in butter and bacon fat without a twinge of guilt now, but I guess this means my homemade pot stickers fried in vegetable oil literally are to die for!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Get Out and Garden to Save the Planet!

I think I've mentioned before that I have the opposite of a green thumb. I kill everything. Herbs, houseplants, cacti(!). Even cut flowers don't last long around me. Maybe because I have three kids, it seems I cannot handle one more living thing that requires something from me. So pets are out of the question, and even plants suffer passive-aggressive neglect.

Which means it's up to the rest of you to save the planet.

The good news is, I'm reading a fascinating book about how easy it will be to do.

We knew plants were a good deal, global-warmingwise, locking away climate carbon dioxide as fast as they could grow, but who knew what an integral role healthy soil plays?

According to author Kristin Ohlson, a mere teaspoon of healthy soil contains 1-7 billion microorganisms--bacteria, fungi, protozoa, tiny worms called nematodes--all doing their microscopic part in "one of life's great biological partnerships." From the roots of the plant, "the microorganisms [receive] precious carbon sugars as well as protein and carbohydrates"; in return, they break down minerals in the soil and supply it to the plant. The minerals allow the plant to add mass (i.e., grow bigger and sock away more carbon for us). So long-evolved and specific is this system that 99% of soil organisms cannot be grown in a lab. Different ones come into play at different times, depending on temperature and moisture levels. Not only do the plants store carbon, but the soil does as well. Carbon richness gives healthy soil that black, crumbly appearance, like Oreo cookie crumbs after a soaking in butter, before you shape them into cheesecake crust...ahem--but I digress.

When healthy soil washes or blows away, due to plowing(!) or poor land management, all that carbon gets returned to the atmosphere. Ohlson writes that, "up until the 1950s most of the excess carbon dioxide in the air resulted from the ways humans used their land and forests." Certainly the Dust Bowl contributed mightily, when thousands of acres of soil blew away, after being plowed and exposed to merciless drought. Without the prairie grasses and their roots to tamp everything down, it all just took off in the next gust.

As much as 80% of the carbon has been depleted from soil, in places where people have farmed for millennia, but even more recent farmlands such as Ohio have lost 50% of their soil carbon in just a couple centuries. Alarming news, but not irreversible by any means. If we can replenish the carbon in depleted soils and preserve the rich soils that remain, Ohlson argues that we can dial back the thermostat on Planet Earth. Let the earth's natural systems regain the balance! It's enough to make me want to rip out the kids' play structure and let the blackberries take over.

How can we keep those precious organic systems in place, where soil is still healthy? Practice no-till farming. Don't overgraze. Leave organic mulch in place to hold soil down and feed it.

And what about the depleted soil? How can it be restored? Some of the solutions discussed in the book include controlled grazing (animals = poop and biomatter crunched into the soil); no-till farming; cover crops; and no artificial inputs. Let the multitudinous bugs come back, and a few weeds. One study found that, when a field was covered in a 2-3 species cover crop, sediment runoff decreased by 90% and fertilizer runoff by 50%!

Healthy soil filters water before it enters streams and aquifers. It mitigates flooding and wildfire. Its ability to store water, because it is not compacted, allows the plants it supports to resist drought. Good stuff.

The optimism of this book made me want to run out and start soil farming, but Ohlson points out that even we city-dwellers can contribute. American lawns constitute the largest irrigated crop in the country, occupying 3x the space of corn. We can build good soil right where we live. Let a little clover intermix--it's a nitrogen-fixing legume which makes added fertilizer unnecessary. (Made me wonder if our big patches of moss were also helping...) And, her second suggestion: compost compost compost.

In Bellevue we're fortunate that our city will compost for us, if we're too space-limited or lazy, but since I write this the day of the Mariners home opener, I will also mention Safeco Field's awesome composting efforts.

Last season at a game, local Cedar Grove handed out bags of soil made from yard waste. Since the Mariners had gone down in flames that day (or petered out with a whimper, more like), the bag of soil almost made up for it.

What could this year be like? A winning team and richer soil that might just save the world.