Last week I attended a fascinating panel discussion featuring integrative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Rules author Michael Pollan and Dr. Robert Lustig, the UCSF pediatrics professor recently made famous by his lecture about the evils of sugar, which over a million people have viewed on YouTube. The panel was part of the Nutrition and Health Conference, put on annually by the University of Arizona, and the official topic was "Food and Health: Public Policy and Personal Choice," but much of the conversation was devoted to how, and what, we should eat.
Here are six key points I took away from the event:
- The good news: Fat is in. Weil said, "Our culture labors under the assumption that dietary fat makes us fat, but that's not true. It's carbs and especially the way we've changed them in the past sixty years." I don't think he means that we can eat all the steaks and fettucine alfredo we want, and trans fats are still a big don't, but it's great to have more confirmation that the fat-free craze is kaput.
- The bad news: Sugar is out. As he spelled out in that viral video, Lustig has identified fructose as the driver of many modern diseases. Fructose is naturally found in fruits and some vegetables, in regular "table" sugar (aka sucrose, which is made up of both fructose and glucose) as well as in high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice, honey and maple syrup.
- Sugar is a drug. Said Weil, "We are programmed to get pleasure from sweets. Sugar works on the same reward systems in our brains as drugs and alcohol." Looking at sweets not as foods but as drugs may help us exert a little more self-control over our consumption of them.
- You can still eat fruit. Lustig said that the fructose in fruit doesn't do in your body because it's balanced out by fiber. "The amount of fructose in fruit is not that big," he explained. "And usually, except in the case of grapes, fruit contains an even ratio of fructose to fiber. Fiber slows down the absorption of the fructose, and studies show that fiber consumption increases insulin sensitivity." (FYI: Insulin sensitivity is a good thing, it's insulin resistance that's bad). Fruit juice, on the other hand, gives you a big, concentrated dose of fructose divorced from fiber—not a good thing.
- You can have dessert once a week. During the course of the talk Weil and Lustig admitted that they'd both polished off dessert at a faculty dinner the night before. That's proof that no amount of scholarly knowledge can overcome the siren song of sweets entirely, and you don't have to deny yourself all the time, said Lustig, but "dessert should be once a week, the way it used to be, not once a meal."
- You can eat as much "junk" food as you want, as long as you make it yourself. Michael Pollan said that he came up with this "food rule" because he wanted to give some leeway for people to eat pleasurable-but-unhealthy foods without overdoing it. He pointed out that few people would ever make homemade French fries or donuts more than occasionally because they're so labor-intensive and messy. And a general reminder of why it's better to make your own food: "When you allow corporations to decide how much sugar or salt to put in your food or drink, they are definitely going to overdo it."
More new discoveries about how to eat: