Monday, December 29, 2008

A story you won't read in 2009

A story you won’t read in 2009
No-one thought it was possible, except Craig Middlemass himself. Throughout 2008 Craig’s weight didn’t deviate more than half a kilogram from his ideal weight of 82kg. This was the second year in a row that his weight remained stable, making him eligible to enter Channel 7’s new season program “Stable Weight, Stable Mind” where 10 contestants, five men and five women, maintain a steady weight for six months without displaying a single high five or breaking down in tears.

“People just don’t understand us”, bemoaned Craig during a telephone interview. “We generally exercise 5-6 days a week and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Everyone just assumes that I’m on a diet of cabbage heads and Himalayan goats’ milk, and can’t see that I get most of my food from Coles and the farmers market”.

Middlemass doesn’t always comprehend the strange world in which he lives. What feels quite normal to him is seen as seriously weird by his colleagues at work. Only last week he was seen to eat some chocolate cake without a shred of guilt. One girl followed him everywhere for the remainder of the day expecting him to drop to his knees and repent.

“I get reminded of being different every time I go to the gym. The staff say I’m a freak because I bought a 12 month gym membership and went at least once a week for the 12 months. Apparently I was meant to stop after five weeks, but hey, I actually enjoyed going there”.

“Anyway, I’m looking forward to being on the program. I reckon I can win Stable Weight, Stable Mind and promote the concept that us stable-weighters are humans too and deserve acknowledgement and respect from the weight-extremists who get all the kudos and publicity”, were the parting words from MIddlemass.

Hippy hippy shake - bigger hips, smarter babies

What shape is your Mum in?

Part of nature’s grand design was for women to have curves, no matter what fashion promotes or Photoshop can change. Hips are for shaking and for placing infants so they don’t slide down your leg. A recent study suggest that hips are also for making that very same child smarter.

First you take the waist, then you take the hip
A study sample of over 16,000 women correlated their children’s mental development against their own “curvature” expressed as the Waist-Hip Ratio (WHR). The WHR is a simple measure of the waist circumference at the navel compared to the circumference at the widest part of the hips. A low WHR means that a person has less fat around the abdomen and more fat in the buttock, hip and thigh area – this is the preferred ratio.

It was clear that the lower the WHR in the mum, the smarter the child, and the more mature the mother, the smarter the child. In fact, the lower the WHR in the mum, the smarter the mum! Now, you will immediately twig to the notion that this is just a case of smart mums having smart kids. Well, the researchers were awake to that and determined that even when they took mum’s IQ out of the equation, the lower her WHR the smarter her child was likely to be.

Women have more body fat than men (under normal circumstances) and that fat is mainly distributed around the hips, thighs and buttocks. During puberty, women gain 10-20kg of body fat, most of it in the lower body, and it is fiercely protected by the body, being lost only during starvation. The lower body fat is the main source of long-chain polyunsaturated fats (LCPUFAs) such as docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fat better known as one the main fats in fish. These fats are critical in foetal and infant brain development.

There are much more LCPUFAs in lower body fat than found in abdominal fat. About 60-80% of the LCPUFAs in breast milk come from the mother’s lower body fat stores, with the remainder coming from the diet. It is thought that Mum’s diet would not be able to provide enough for the rapid brain development soon after birth (20% of the brain is LCPUFAs). Women with extra abdominal fat lower the level of an enzyme that helps the manufacture of LCPUFAs, so chubbier tummies meant less LCPUFAs getting around the body.

Under ideal situations, there is a sufficient gap between children to allow for replacement fat stores to be generated. This does not occur in poorly nourished women suffering famine and food shortages, or very young women who are still growing and developing themselves during their pregnancy.

What does it all mean?
Lower body fat in women is released later in pregnancy and during her infants first year to provide essential LCPUFAS for brain development. For years, musicians have been asking women to shake their hips. Clearly it was a ploy to allow quick determination of a lady’s IQ, and the likely IQ of her progeny. The curvature of the silhouette demonstrated nature at its smartest.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sound bites

The sound of the first bite
You know the sound of biting into a potato crisp (or potato chip). Being a good dietitian, I don’t of course. OK, once back in the 1980s I ate some. Maybe twice. Anyway, you know the sound that you are expecting. No crunch means that the crisp is stale or you have an ear wax problem.

A couple of researchers from the University of Oxford, in the land where they love their crisps, placed headphones on subjects, got them to bite into a crisp and instantly played the sound back through the headphones, surreptitiously changing the sound the subjects heard.

Turning the volume up to 11
When the volume was increased, or when the higher frequency of the crunch was amplified, people believed the crisp to be fresher. A decrease in volume was perceived to mean a staler crisp. Now, this is pretty much what is to be expected. What this is likely to mean in the future is that for certain foods, the technologists will pay a bit more attention to the sound of that first bite, in addition to the flavour and aroma of a food.

When people discuss food, they rarely mention the importance of sound in preparing your mind for an eating experience – the sound of a barbeque cooking, the pop of the champagne bottle, the snap of a chocolate bar. You could argue that nature knew about the importance of sound all along when it gave you the apple.

Reference: Journal of Sensory Studies 2004; 19: 347-363

Portion sizes

The unexpected result of food in smaller portion sizes

One common suggestion to slow down the inexorable increase in human plumpness is to make sure we are offered snack foods in small packets. No doubt it stops some people overeating. For me, if I want chocolate, my taste buds demand 50g and is not satisfied by something prettily packed in 20g units. All the same, will creating snacks in small packets reduce the amount people eat?

The 100 Calorie packet
The 100 Calorie packet (420 kJ) has become popular internationally and has crept onto the Australian market. To see the response to food in smaller packs, researchers from the University of Kentucky and Arizona State University gave either small or large packets of M&Ms to people who were classified as either “restrained” or “unrestrained” eaters. In simple language, a restrained eater is one who is likely to have followed weight loss diets and be watchful, and probably concerned, about what and how much they eat in order to control their weight. In contrast, unrestrained eaters generally don’t get too fussed about kilojoules or fat content (this is not to suggest they eat poorly or overeat; food is just not a source of emotional concern).

The subjects were given four packets of either regular M&Ms or mini-M&Ms with 50 Cals (210 kJs) each or one packet with 200 Cals (840 kJ). When the snack was presented in small packets, people presumed that they were getting a ‘calorie controlled’ food, especially with the mini-M&Ms, yet also estimated the 4-pack of M&Ms Calorie content to be much higher than regular M&Ms in the single large packet (285 Cals v 205 Cals; 1200 kJ v 860 kJ).

Then it gets interesting
So, are you with me? Basically, the consumers thought that small foods in small packets were higher in kJs, but being in small packets meant that they were also seen as "calorie controlled" portions by the consumer. What I found interesting is that, not being aware that their snacking was being monitored, the restrained eaters ate 20% more M&Ms when they were in small packets than when they were given the large packet!

The researchers reckon that restrained eaters freak out when their brain sees something that is saying “We are small in size, and we are in a small diet packet because that means we are calorific and taste yummy”. The small packet makes the restrained eater stressful knowing that, on one hand the packet is small, yet on the other hand, the snack is high kilojoule, weight for weight. The attendant stress leads to uncontrolled eating and a greater consumption of the snack.

Naturally, the unrestrained eater is more likely to rely on internal appetite cues to tell them when enough is enough, so being given small packets meant they ate less than restrained eaters. However, it is not as simple as all that because unrestrained eaters ate more, comparatively, when given the large packet. Maybe they will benefit more from the smaller packs on the market.

What does it all mean?
Frankly, I don’t know. Why I tell you about the study is because it alerts us to the less tangible fact that how much we eat under different circumstances relates more to our relationship with food rather the food itself. The constant blabbering about being overweight, snack food fears, follow our latest diet, worry about the size of your bum style dialogue can only be creating more and more restrained eaters and that is just plain not healthy. The portion-controlled snack food may not help the restrained eater to control their eating at all and may, inadvertently, cause more stress than they need.

Reference: Journal of Consumer Research 2008; 35 (October): 391-405