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Fork in the road: You are what you eat—more than ever

Good science, once again, puts the ‘lead’ in leadership
Glenda sept 23
A new study truly confirms that you are what you eat.

Fall brings change in more ways than one. As I write this, the leader of our fair nation is being determined at the ballot box. By the time you read it, the results will be in.

(Another Liberal minority government, in case you missed the news.)

And as the biggest crisis ever threatening we humans totters on the brink—namely our climate emergency, which world leaders will face at the Oct. 31 UN COP 26 (Conference of the Parties) meeting in Glasgow—it shines a spotlight on the critical role of science: how it can shape our world for the better, how it operates equally well on the grand scale of global politics, and the micro-scale of what we shove into our mouths to fuel our bodies. 

Unfortunately for us all, another fall election, the upcoming September one in Germany—before the COP climate conference—will see the departure of Angela Merkel from the chancellor’s chair, a position she’s held unpretentiously and with aplomb since 2005, putting both Germany and good leadership in the driver’s seat in more ways than one. 

Leaders and leading scientific journals around the world have been bemoaning Ms. Merkel’s imminent retirement, and lauding her achievements. How she brought good, solid science to the table alongside her political decisions (many people don’t realize she was a quantum chemist, studying the quantum mechanics of gas-particle collisions, long before she led Germany to be the powerhouse of Europe). How she kept a steady hand on the tiller through crisis after crisis, like phasing out nuclear power and facing COVID-19 (many don’t realize she grew up in East Germany, when decision-making under duress was an everyday thing taken in stride). How her legacy will endure.

Science, especially women in science, or the fringe of it, has been on my mind, too, with a recent report in Science Daily that concludes we may well be more about what we eat than how much we eat of it. 

The report, from the American Society of Nutrition, which, I’m happy to report actually has more women as board directors than it does men, concludes that overeating is not the main cause of obesity. It’s more what we eat, than how much.

This all echoes the time-worn axiom, “You are what you eat” which harkens back to the early 1800s but was popularized by Adelle Davis, the most famous nutritionist of her day. 

Through the ’50s and ’60s, Ms. Davis was a mover and shaker, a kind of food guru, especially in hippie and hipster circles, highly regarded for some of her good conclusions—like diets high in salt, refined sugars, pesticides, growth hormones, preservatives and other additives are definitely unhealthy. Or that we should eat way more whole grains and unprocessed foods, even a macrobiotic diet. But later, Ms. Davis was also rightly disparaged for some of her flakey nutritional claims not grounded in science—like taking large doses of magnesium to prevent epilepsy. Her legacy withered.

But back to the American Society of Nutrition report on this new “carbohydrate-insulin” model, which is based in science and concludes that obesity is more of a metabolic disorder, and that the process of getting fat actually triggers overeating. 

“The energy balance model, which says weight gain is caused by consuming more energy than we expend, ‘restates a principle of physics without considering the biological mechanisms driving weight gain,’” the report says. It’s more that excessively consuming foods with a high glycemic load—“in particular, processed, rapidly digestible carbohydrates” like white bread, or fructose/glucose syrup, jack up blood sugar, trigger the pancreas to make insulin, and make us fat. So we need to better focus on what we eat to better manage weight.

In other words, the century-old energy balance model that tells us we put on weight because we simply eat too many calories, so just exercise more, is, at its simplest, tosh. No surprise, eh?, since we could pretty much tell just by looking around or at our own habits as we exercise ourselves, well, not to death, but often to the limits, and still have to buy a bigger pant-size or three. 

Now, before you do something silly, like tweet how Bar-tosh (wink, wink) said some dietary model was tosh, note that science is complicated. Not to confuse things further, but this latest report also advocates for more investigation and more examination of both obesity theories.

Remember, too, that good science, like most good things, is a work in progress—it’s constantly being tweaked, challenged, enriched by new research, new understanding. But it’s also guided by the eternally sound principle known as the scientific method you might have learned in Grade 5 science:

1. Make an observation; 

2. Create a hypothesis then test it; 

3. Form a conclusion, then refine your hypothesis. 

I love it when new science gives old science the boot! But I also get that this kind of constantly changing science can flummox or frustrate people, maybe drive them to cling to old, overly simplistic ideas. Or super-angry social media. Or just say the hell with it, and grab some pop or crappy candy filled with glucose-fructose to get that faulty sugar-high.

So maybe try a handful of nuts, instead, and think of Angela Merkel growing up in East Germany— her resiliency and wisdom in making fast but good decisions that flow from solid science and stand the test of time. And if you have energy to spare, maybe channel it to all the new leaders in Ottawa and beyond as they head to the fall COP climate meeting. They’ll need it!

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who supports the World Federation of Science Journalists and Evidence for Democracy.