How Diet Choices Are Like Religious Choices: Evaluating “The Gluten Lie”

Y’all know I’m pretty passionate about science. And I care a lot about food and healthy eating choices.

Well, I’ve been reading a book called The Gluten Lie (please pay no attention to the stupid clickbait title), and although I haven’t finished it, I’m finding it interesting so far. The book is written buy a guy who studies religions, meaning he’s used to evaluating cultural beliefs and myths, and looking for patterns in those areas. He brings this interesting perspective to the field of nutrition.

What this means is that, while he does allude to scientific research, he’s not presenting rock-solid scientific arguments with tons of research studies backing up his discussion points. For example, he discusses the current cultural fad of thinking gluten is “bad” for you and that all people would be healthier avoiding gluten. While he does offer some counter-research and some investigation of why those claims probably aren’t accurate, he isn’t trying to completely dismantle the claims of people advocating low- or no-gluten diets. Instead, he explores historical context for avoiding grains and how we came to hold this belief — and he calls on the reader to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a belief, ultimately taken on faith.

Because, as he points out, nutrition research is incredibly difficult. How do you run a controlled study on what people eat? How do you get a statistically meaningful number of people to let you control every molecule of what they put into their mouths every day, probably for years? Alternatively, when you ask people to self-report what they’ve eaten, who wants to admit they ate a dozen 2″-square brownies after dinner when they could simply round down to a half-dozen 1″ brownies? Or if people aren’t intentionally lying, they aren’t remembering accurately: How many brownies was it, again? and how big were they?

So when people object to all the conflicting reports we hear about different foods — are eggs full of dangerous cholesterol, or are they actually healthful protein packages? — they’re right. Recommendations are constantly changing. That’s because, honestly, researchers don’t know. Add to this the fact that many news articles tend to take cautious scientific statements like “There was a statistically significant correlation between consumption of eggs and slightly increased HDL cholesterol, which may contribute to heart disease,” and turn it into “Eggs cause heart attacks!” and you’ve certainly got a recipe for setting the general public up for disillusionment and distrust of mainstream experts.

Okay, let’s take that, and then ask, “How do people decide what to eat?” If it’s not based on serious, rigorous science, what’s the basis for deciding what to put in our pie holes when it’s not pie?

Belief. Myth. Stories.

“You are what you eat,” for example. We scoff at the idea that eating a (ahem) part of a tiger could make a man more virile (a belief held in Asia), but we still think eating high-fat foods will make us fat. Uh, nope; that’s actually excess calories. Eating a piece of bacon or bread with real butter on it isn’t more likely to make you fat than eating an equivalent amount of other calories — at least, there’s no research demonstrating that yet.

Yet this belief that eating fat makes you fat has persisted from the time of the ancient Greeks to today. I grew up eating nonfat everything, including nonfat frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, margarine instead of butter, and seeing my parents showing every evidence of obsessively avoiding fat. And look what it’s brought us: Gross fake substitutes and mountains of guilt over indulging in “sinful pleasures.”

Oh, yes, notice the religious language there? The author points out that we use quite a few religious terms when talking about food, such as the way we talk about “good” and “bad” foods rather than “nutritious/healthy” or “non-nutritious/unhealthy” foods.

Another common belief he discusses is that food and eating were healthier in the past. He calls it the “paradise past,” where we think that the way people ate at some point in history–be it 10,000 years ago or 100–is better than today, and that people in that time lived healthier lives because of their mythical perfect diets. The funny thing is that this belief has been around for a long time. When people 100 years ago said diets need to go back to a healthier past diet, what does that mean for us today claiming that diets 100 years ago were the ideal we should strive for?

That idea of an eating “paradise past” ties in not only with the idea of the Paleo diet’s claim that we haven’t “evolved” to eat grains, but also the suspicion of “chemicals” in our food, the mistrust of GMO foods, and the whole “only use ingredients your great-grandmother would recognize” claim. (Good thing it doesn’t say “grandmother,” or else we might be going back to the 1950s era of lime Jell-O mixed with canned spinach and topped with whipped cream and grapes. It’s all green!)

He doesn’t call this out specifically, but all this got me thinking about how people really do treat food choices like a religion. Ever talked to someone who’s on the Paleo diet? They have the evangelistic zeal of a Mormon missionary: Boy do they know they’re right and want to convert you to their thinking. They aren’t alone; many people, when you scratch the surface, hold equally powerful beliefs around food. Similarly, the rules and rituals around food and the avoiding of specific foods parallels religious behavior in many ways.

Most of all, like when a person believes in a certain religion, no amount of counter-evidence is going to change the believer’s mind. They know they feel better when they cut out gluten (never mind the other lifestyle changes that may have contributed), and that’s much more powerful than a discussion of the nocebo effect and sociogenic illness. Plus, once you buy into a specific diet or food belief system, it becomes a fundamental part of how you think of yourself. It’s incredibly hard to ask someone to then evaluate that decision in a cool, rational way.

What does all this mean?

Well, I haven’t finished the book yet, so I don’t know how the author wraps it up. But it reminds me of a few things:

  1. Respect other people’s food choices, even if I think they’re ridiculous. Odds are I’m making dietary decisions on an equally flimsy foundation.
  2. Don’t worry too much about the exact foods I’m eating. Instead, eat in moderation when I’m hungry, and choose foods that have high nutritional value: Carbs for energy, protein for building muscle, and vitamins and minerals my body needs to be healthy. Try not to obsess about avoiding certain things or adding in certain things because of some study that claims sugar causes Alzheimer’s or something.
  3. Don’t try to change anyone’s mind about food. This ultimately is a matter of faith, not subject to rational analysis and evaluation. In fact, maybe food is another topic like religion and politics, best left untouched in the workplace and at family gatherings.

That’s most of what I’ve got so far. There’s more, but I’ll save it for another day. I’d love to hear what y’all think about all this.

Eating Time and Dessert Nights

My relationship with food is definitely a love/hate thing. It’s like a combination of the feeling of getting to stay up late at night when you’re a kid, the feeling of having to take some nasty pink antibiotics, and the feeling of having to mow the lawn.

Well, when Benji came along, Ian and I decided to take a stand in two areas: Sleep and food. I wanted Benji to have a healthier relationship with food than I did.

Throughout the littlest-kid years, we defended naps with the vigilance of a mother tiger over her cubs. Sleep was tough, sure, especially during sleep regressions and when we hit developmental milestones. Is it time to go from two naps to one? How do we do it? Yet, ultimately, we controlled that to a great extent. That is, we could at least control when we put Benji in his room and when he was allowed to come out: We carved out the time for healthy rest, and for the most part, he took it.

Only since school started this September has he really seemed to give up napping, and even so, he still falls asleep occasionally during “quiet time,” which we still do for at least an hour a day after lunch.

Anyway, boy, food has proved tougher. You can’t make a kid eat! Eating or not eating — from Day 1, it’s the first place that little person asserts his independence. You can’t make me eat!

Long story short, we eventually settled on offering a variety of mostly healthy foods and telling him to eat until his tummy wasn’t hungry anymore.

But over time this evolved into Benji wanting us to quantify how much food he had to eat to be done. We would suggest a number, and he’d take that many bites, no more or less.

Then it got worse as, at dinner time, the question turned into: “How many bites do I have to eat to get dessert?” No matter what we said, this always resulted in whining and negotiating, claims that no reasonable human being could eat six bites of pasta AND all the peas, we were practically monsters in parent form, etc., etc.

About a month ago, I was talking with a friend at church about this misery and she mentioned that they just have dessert nights at their house. The kids pick two nights a week when they have dessert; the other nights, they just don’t.

I loved this idea, and combined it with another idea I heard elsewhere many years ago: Serve dessert as part of dinner. It isn’t a reward, it isn’t some kind of treasure you have to dig through a pile of gross food to get to. It’s just another part of the meal: You get protein, veggies, carbs, and a little bit of something sweet — emphasis on little. Dessert should be small enough that the kid isn’t full, and still wants some real food after eating the sweet part.

We started implementing the dessert night idea immediately, and I have to say, it’s been great. We don’t negotiate anymore. If it’s a dessert night (Benji picked Monday and Friday), I give Benji dessert along with everything else on his plate. Of course he eats it first — but then he goes on to eat a pretty substantial amount of his real dinner, too, with no complaints, whining, or stalling… or at least, none related to how many bites he has to eat. He’s still a kid, after all, and I don’t expect him to fall upon kohlrabi with cries of rapture (I know I don’t!).

We aren’t being completely straight-laced about this, mind you. Sweet treats happen at other times and on other days — with grandparents, at a friend’s house, at church, whatever — but dinner has sure gotten a lot nicer. But we are trying to focus on healthier foods that provide real nutrients, so this fits with that goal synergistically (if that’s a word, and if it’s not, it SHOULD be).

So that’s that! For now, anyway, we’ve broken free from the tyranny of dessert. Hooray!

The Longest Weekend

I remember back when the phrase long weekend meant good things to me. It meant a couple days of sleeping in, maybe going for a bike ride if the weather was nice, going for walks with Ian, reading books. Thanksgiving weekend meant a nice long day cooking, eating, and playing Rummy Royal or Scrabble. Such a relaxing break from the usual grind!

Now, little strikes fear into my heart like the phrase long weekend. Some people wish for 25 hours in a day, right? Well, I’d be happy to loan them our darling beloved child, because I swear days actually are longer with him. Alas, that comes with the caveat that you’ll get a negative amount done, because not only will no productive work happen, you’ll actually end up with more to do cleaning up at the end than when you started.

The remainder of this is a parental whine, which makes me wonder if whining is contagious. If so, I’m sure to catch it, because I had some serious exposure this weekend.

Continue reading “The Longest Weekend”

When Life Gives You a Broken Oven…

…make no-bake cookies and a gigantic box space ship. At least, that’s what we did.

Two weeks ago, I mixed up a batch of coffee cake from a new recipe (which was delicious, but sadly in the kerfuffle I lost closed the tab with the recipe, alas). I turned on our oven and it made the usual gas burning sound. When I put the cake into the oven, it didn’t feel particularly hot. I figured, “It’s only 350; that’s why.” Not that I’d hang out in a 350-degree oven, or anything, but in the scheme of baking it’s just normal.

Well, 40 minutes later, I checked on the coffee cake and found it entirely batter still. I mean, it actually still sloshed when I moved it. A quick phone call to Mom confirmed that her oven was available. Benji and I zipped over there, still wearing our pajamas.

Well, actually, zip doesn’t describe it so well as delicately minced along. The drive proved surprisingly harrowing, with a very full pan of liquid sloshing first one way and then another as we traversed the innumerable up-and-down hills between our house and my parents’ house. I spent a good portion of the drive leaned over, trying to level the pan while still seeing out the windshield well enough to drive. Good thing I didn’t get pulled over.

Anyway, Mom had neglected to mention she had guests arriving within 30 minutes of our starting the 40-minute bake of our coffee cake. Needless to say, I might have chosen to wear regular clothes and brush my hair if I’d known that.

While Benji and I baked the cake, Ian researched new ovens. We easily chose to replace our old one, which had previously broken once already. When the repair man fixed it at the time, maybe two years ago, he mentioned that parts weren’t available because the oven was too old. On the bright side, he said, it was so low-bidder that the control panel was extremely simple. So simple that the repair man simply rewired the control panel so our “bake” setting worked. We agreed at the time that, if the oven broke again, we would retire it for good.

Armed with Ian’s research, during nap time Dad and I went to Albert Lee and looked at ovens. We found one that got good Consumer Reports ratings, and (only briefly distracted by the $4200 Wolf range) ordered it. They scheduled delivery for November 17, 10 days later; but said we needed to find someone else to install it, as their installers couldn’t come for a month and a half (!!). I privately wondered whether we’d have gotten an installer sooner if we’d bought the high-end range. Fortunately, Pat Zeller, the guy who did our fireplace, was available and came to help us out.

Because Pat loves cookies, I made a batch of Ian’s favorite cookie of all time, Chocolate Dreams.
Chocolate Dreams
This sparked a discussion about the definition of candy versus cookie, as Chocolate Dreams are pretty much entirely sugar and cocoa powder, with milk and Karo syrup to hold in some oats. Either way, they’re delicious. Turns out, Pat doesn’t care about no-bake cookies, so that just meant more for us.

On Thursday, the delivery guys arrived with our oven. When they asked if I wanted it in the box or not, I immediately realized that we absolutely did want that enormous box. Then, in a burst of (if I may abandon modesty for a moment) brilliance, I asked if they had any extra big boxes in the back of the truck. And they gladly handed over a huge refrigerator box along with our range. I gave them some Chocolate Dreams.

Boxed Range

These two boxes we turned into a really great box fort, currently a space ship. You can see Benji’s “bed” on the side, outside the space ship. I don’t ask how that works.
Box Spaceship

Inside the Space Ship

On Thursday, we got the range unpacked, but unfortunately Pat wasn’t able to come to install it until Friday morning.
Unpacking the Range

New Range Installed!
But fortunately Pat showed up and got it installed in plenty of time for me to bake for our “Friendsgiving Dinner” with our church group. I got a good trial of the new range as through the afternoon I cooked:

  • Mashed potatoes
  • Steamed carrots
  • Bacon
  • Roasted beets
  • Homemade dinner rolls

It was a veritable glut of oven-use after nearly two weeks without! And everything turned out delicious. Either that, or my friends were fibbing. But, in the ultimate tests — cooking bacon, and baking dinner rolls — the new range worked beautifully.

The new range has nice dual-size burner that boils things really fast with the inner small ring and the outer big ring both on; or simmers things really low with just the small inner ring on. I’m going to have to get used to burners of different sizes, but I think I’m going to like the broader range (har har) of this new stovetop.

The oven is a convection bake, but I didn’t use the convection setting for any of our baking yesterday. I need to experiment a bit to see what kind of difference it makes to baking time. But the oven heated up quickly, which was nice; and I think I’m going to like the rolling-sliding rack that lets you slide things in and out more easily than moving the whole shelf.

So, back to baking for me! Hooray! Let me know if you need any baked goods. I’m going to be keen for baking the next few weeks, I’m sure.

Two Sweet Round Things

I got some new wheels for my pink bike, the first step towards a significant parts upgrades I’m planning. It’s been a long time since I did any upgrades on this bike. I’ve been waiting for good, reasonably-priced road disc wheels for a number of years, and I’m pretty excited about these.

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I’m also excited in a whole different way about our first pumpkin pie of the season, made following (mostly) Martha’s recipe for pumpkin from scratch. Deborah and I spent a good part of the morning making these pies, starting with a whole sunshine Kabocha squash and ending with two lovely, delicious-looking pies.

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I know what WE are having for dinner… And breakfast.

Memorial Day and Birthday!

Well, this last weekend, I turned 31. My mom called me and told me what she always say, every year: “I remember exactly what I was doing at this time X years ago.” Now I have a kid, I can finally say it to him, too! Anyway this year Mom even elaborated that at that exact time 31 years ago, she was really hungry because the hospital had stopped serving lunch and wouldn’t be serving dinner for four hours, so she sent Dad to get Kidd Valley, and it was the best burger and shake she ever had. I have to say, the donut I ate after Benji was born sure did taste amazing, so I can understand where she’s coming from on that.

In unrelated news, on my actual birthday, Dad and I rode to the Ramrod Training Series (hereafter RTS) ride we intended to do. But it was raining at the start, and the route actually rode towards more rain, so we gathered a group of people and rode off to do our own ride away from the showers. In that respect, the alternate plan was a total success; the rain stopped shortly after we headed back north, and the remainder of the ride proved dry. But in terms of riding, I’m not sure whether to classify it a success or not.

The group Dad and I collected turned out to be almost entirely guys way faster than us — and by way faster, I mean that if I ride at 20 mph, they ride at 25+ mph, steady. That’s a huge speed disparity. Fortunately, thanks to the physics of drafting, I can ride with those guys…when it’s flat and I don’t have to pull. But as soon as we hit a climb, I’m working twice as hard as those guys just to keep up, or even keep them in sight. After 40 moderately hilly miles with an average (average, mind you, including all the climbing) of 20 mph and speeds on the flats surging to the 27- and 28-mph range, Dad and I fell back.

We had a couple other guys going our speed, so we rode with them. But I’d burned up all my matches, the matchbox, even singed my fingers; I’d saved nothing. So instead of doing the 100+ miles I intended, I did 85 miles, but really hard ones, and felt a little frustrated with myself. I really wanted that 100-mile day. It was a great workout, but I didn’t achieve my goal.

This really made me think about what I want from my rides: To build power and strength, I should keep trying to ride with the fast guys until I can’t hang on anymore. Eventually I’ll be able to stay on longer and longer. If, however, I want to ride longer endurance rides and have a little more fun (if you’ve ever played a sport with someone a level above you, you know the feeling of just barely hanging on for dear life — fun for a while, but exhausting and ultimately a little discouraging, at least to me), I should probably slow down.

On Memorial Day, Dad and I had a great ride with one other guy, where we all went about 20 – 22 mph, steady, but took turns rotating through regularly. It felt great to contribute, and it also felt plenty hard. Pulling at 20 mph is like drafting at 25 mph…or so. Anyway, that reaffirmed for me the enjoyment to be had riding at a slightly less breakneck* pace, but working together with people of a similar skill level.

Also on my birthday, we had friends over in the evening and ate delicious sandwiches and amazing cake from Hoffman’s, played with kids, and then later played a party game called Concept. I’m thinking the Hoffman’s cake will become a family tradition. We had a really fun evening, and I appreciated the love of my friends. Sometimes I feel very alone, but I’ll try to remember that gathering when I’m feeling that way.

*Hopefully not literally.

Benji’s Weight in Cereal

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This is what 25 pounds* of freshly-milled (as in, August 13, five days ago) farro wheat porridge mix looks like. It’s grown by a farm in the Methow Valley called Bluebird Grain Farms, and they process and ship it directly to the consumer. I’ve tried several of their hot cereals, and liked this enough to make a big commitment.

I love this farro wheat; it’s delicious, slightly nutty and sweet. But it also has a significant amount of protein (unusual for a grain) and, naturally, tons of fiber as well as much less gluten than other wheat. I’m not anti-gluten, by any stretch, but if that matters to you, this is a wheat that fits with a low-gluten diet. I eat it for breakfast with in-season fruit of any kind and topped with an extremely generous serving of yogurt, but I’m also excited to try the pudding recipe enclosed in this shipment.

In short, nutrition-wise, this is serious fuel that keeps me going on long bike rides or, more important, on long mornings with an energetic toddler.

* In unrelated news, Benji had his 2-year checkup and now is 35.5″ tall and 25.2 lbs. I didn’t get the “compared to other kids percentile” numbers, so I can’t feel irrationally proud and/or bummed at his percentiles. He’s healthy and normal, got one shot, and we were outta there. See you next year, doc!