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Thought for Food

Thought for Food
Karrie Kalich critiques an industry fueled by fads and ads

Karrie Kalich with students Kristin Manwaring and Carolyn Payne. Photo by Ann Card.

As the Food Network whisks us along in its 11th year and Jacques Pépin, Wolfgang Puck, and Emeril Lagasse become household names, an obese teenager airs his diary on National Public Radio, grimly detailing his 1 a.m. battles with the fridge.

In January NPR began a series of weekly reports on food with a look at the current frenzy for the low-carb Atkins diet. Restaurant chains such as Subway and TGIF advertise Atkins-friendly meals, and Panera is developing low-carb breads. Applebee's formed a partnership with Weight Watchers, and, as the New York Times recently reported, some McDonald's restaurants are advertising – believe it or not – how their food can fit into a low-fat or low-carb diet.

Our nation's love-hate relationship with food is closely observed by Karrie Kalich, KSC instructor of health science, who is completing the doctoral program in nutrition at Tufts University.

Kalich discusses the food industry with irrepressible optimism, all the while dropping statistical bombshells with the swiftness of a cook breaking eggs on the rim of a bowl.

A course with Kalich is a watershed experience for many students. They may be asked to sit in stalls in restaurant bathrooms and listen for how many people wash their hands, to debate whether food stamps should pay for multivitamins, and to create kids' snacks that are truly nutritious but taste like junk food and, frankly, look like junk food.

Students may be asked to create kids' snacks that are truly nutritious but taste like junk food and, frankly, look like junk food.For the last they'll find inspiration in Kalich's office, a temporary dumping ground for some of the products with obscene amounts of fat and sugar that are packaged to increase kids' pester power: Lollipop Paintshop, a plastic bucket of colored sugar and a candy paintbrush that kids use to paint it on their tongues; tubes of peanut butter (more hydrogenated oil makes it squeezable); boxes of Mud & Bugs, the cereal tie-in to The Lion King, by Kellogg Disney Cereals; packages of fluorescent-colored Goldfish; and plastic cups of Oreos meant to be held in one hand while the other hand plays video games.

Kalich sees the corporate food industry and companies like Disney as marketing masterminds that the health food and whole-food movement must learn from if Americans are to change their eating habits.

"The food industry now produces more food than Americans can eat," says Kalich. "So it's trying to get Americans to eat more." It starts by putting the littlest Americans on a steady diet of junk food advertising. "Kids see the movie, want the cereal, want the toys, want to go to the theme park," says Kalich. "How can we compete? We need to learn from the masters of marketing."

Marketing isn't all we're up against. Kalich counts the ways our girth has grown: "Watching more TV, using the remote, not trusting our neighborhoods and staying inside, not making home-cooked meals, going to huge one-stop supermarkets…A hundred steps got us into this, and a hundred steps will get us out. The solution isn't simple."

It's enough to make anyone run to the couch with a bag of Oreos.

Not Kalich.

While teaching full-time, she's analyzing data that she (and a KSC student she paid to help her) gathered for her dissertation on child obesity. As an Albert Schweitzer Fellow, Kalich is co-planning six health seminars and performing 200 hours of community service, some of which will include her students. For an academic whose work is the sedentary study of food, Kalich is slim and capable looking, the effect, perhaps, of power yoga sessions and volunteer labor for food at Lindentree Organic Farm.

She adds, "I'm reading constantly to stay on top of the scientific and lay literature. I have to. A lot of people are interested in weight and health issues."

The Nurses' Health Study showed that older women who drank two or more glasses of milk a day were just as likely to break a hip as those who drank milk once a month. If you're one of them, here's the latest, as observed by Kalich:

Percentage of adult Americans who are clinically overweight: "Fifty-five percent, according to the National Institutes of Health. In 1998-99 alone, the obesity rate went up 6 percent."

What we're up against: "More advertising dollars are spent by the food industry than by any other industry."

USDA food pyramid: "Kellogg's and the Dairy Council were financial backers of the research used to create the first USDA pyramid, which was revised in 1992. Many scientists are now publicly suggesting alternative pyramids. I would put fruits and vegetables on the bottom. I would give beans, nuts, and plant oils more prominent categories, putting nuts below plant oils. Nuts are better than processed plant oils, because they give us more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. And the pyramid should specify whole grains."

Nutrition label: "Nine items relate to fat content. It's a sign of the times and how large a role we thought fat played in the 1980s."

Atkins diet: "When we went carb-crazy in the '80s and gained weight doing so, it set the stage for a diet as extreme as the Atkins, which is low in carbs and high in protein and fat. Hopefully we'll soon find a middle ground."

What's so bad about the Atkins? "The majority of scientific studies show that saturated fat is the evil, increasing the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. Once your weight plateaus, your cholesterol level can skyrocket. You lose the antioxidants you'd get if you ate fruit and vegetables, and your risk of many cancers goes up. Excess protein intake from animal sources can leach calcium from bones and cause kidney stones. I worked as an outpatient counselor at a cardiology practice, and I saw people on the Atkins diet come in with kidney stones."

Weight Watchers: "Probably the most soundly based of the popular diets. I also recommend Volumetrics: Feel Full on Fewer Calories, by Barbara Rolls and Robert Barnett. It offers creative ways to eat more fruits and vegetables."

Dairy: "Pediatricians now recommend that babies go from formula straight to low-fat milk, because of the country's obesity problem. The Nurses' Health Study showed that older women who drank two or more glasses of milk a day were just as likely to break a hip as those who drank milk once a month. The protein in milk contains nitrogen, which may take calcium out of bones. Also if the growth hormones in milk build up over a lifetime, they may reduce bone density. It's better to get calcium from dark leafy greens."

Juice: "Child obesity is being related to sports drinks and fruit juice with too much added sugar and empty calories. Better to eat the whole fruit and get the fiber."

The big switch we need to make: "From processed carbs to whole grains. There are 25 kinds – wheat berry, rye berry, oats, quinoa, millet, barley, to name a few."

Cheese: "Replace with pine nuts or avocado."

Bagels: "Bagels have been supersized. If I have to eat a bagel, I try to choose whole grain and dig out the doughy part and eat just the edge."

Omega-3s: "Plants and fish that live in harsh climates tend to be healthful for us. Fish that swim in the coldest, deepest waters, like Atlantic sturgeon, anchovies, and salmon, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help keep our heartbeat regular, slightly thin our blood, and act as an anti-inflammatory. Essentially, they reduce our risk for heart disease."

Eating out: "We spend 60 percent of our food dollar outside the home."

Size of a dinner plate at a typical restaurant: "Twelve inches across."

Feel full yet? "Fat and fiber are the only two things that make us feel full."

Glycemic index: "Once ignored, the glycemic index is now getting scientific attention. Scientists are working on how to measure it, because a precise testing device hasn't been invented yet. It's becoming clear that not all carbs are created equal. Those with a low GI are released more slowly into the bloodstream and help stabilize blood sugars. They also seem to make us feel full longer. The popular press often generalizes low-GI foods as simply whole grains, which are a type of complex carbs. But not all complex carbs are low GI. White rice and potatoes are complex carbs and have a high GI. But parboiling rice lowers the GI. Certain fruits have lower GIs than other fruits; certain whole grains have lower GIs than others."

Recommended reading: "Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, by Walter Willett, M.D. Nutrition newsletters from universities such as Johns Hopkins, Tufts, and Berkeley. Many universities serve as the middleman for reliable nutrition information."

Read it and weep: "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, by Marion Nestle; Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, by Greg Critser; Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser."

Organic food industry: "The fastest growing segment of the food industry. The small health food companies are being bought by the conglomerates: Unilever bought Ben and Jerry's, Philip Morris owns Boca Burgers. Coke owns Fresh Samantha and Odwalla, Dannon owns 40 percent of Stonyfield Farm."

Downside of the organic trend: "Now that the USDA has developed national standards for what can be labeled organic, small organic farmers are being squeezed out. There's a $5,000 fee to have your land tested and get certified. Many local farmers make about $250 a week. They can't afford it."

Food philosophy: "As best you can, know where your food comes from. I really value being connected to my food supply. I do a farmshare. I try to buy local food from small organic farms. If I can't, I buy, say, nuts from Florida instead of South America, and so on."

Where Kalich gets her energy: "Fruit and nuts."

Reason for hope: "McDonald's is test-marketing fruit in Happy Meals."

A former writer and editor in the College Relations Office, Deborah Klenotic now wields her pen for the Communications Office of UMass-Amherst.