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I sent in my DNA to get a personalized diet plan. What I discovered disturbs me.

Habit, one of the latest disrupters in the food tech sector, tests biological samples for genetic variants and biomarkers, and then makes personalized meals for you based on the results. (Habit)

Today is National Ice Cream Pie Day. (It’s also the third week of National Crayon Collection Month, but who’s counting?) You know whose arteries ice cream pie is good for? No one. Plain and simple. But Habit, one of the latest disrupters in the food tech sector, suggests we rethink the very notion of foods that are good for everyone or bad for everyone. It’s part of a movement toward what is called personalized nutrition.

Habit, based in the San Francisco Bay area, tests for biomarkers and genetic variants using samples you provide, then generates a personalized report about how your body responds to food. It’s your unique “nutrition blueprint.” Then the company pairs you with a nutrition coach and offers you custom-made meals, containing your ideal ratio of carbs, fats and protein, delivered to your home. All in the name of sending you on the path to a new you.

I had to see for myself. So I endured the home test and shipped off my blood and DNA samples. (Gulp.) Then the company’s chief executive walked me through the results of my newfound eater identity, and I observed how the diagnosis began to affect my relationship with food. Here’s what happened — and what it could mean for the future of eating in America.

The Habit home kit is not for the faint of heart. After fasting for 10 hours, you answer lots of deeply personal questions, scrub DNA samples from your cheeks and puncture your fingertips with a self-pricking button (technical term: “lancet”). This sounds rough, but my lowest moment is actually chugging their special Habit Challenge™ Shake. It clocks in at 950 calories, 75 grams of sugar and 130 percent of daily saturated fat intake. It has a taste and smell I can only liken to Kahlúa. It makes me feel god-awful while drinking it — nose pinched, pinkie out, face scrunched — and even worse afterward. It was bad enough I had sacrificed my Saturday morning frittata ritual.

By the third blood sample, my dining table looks like a crime scene. I’ve got bandages on two fingers, mini disinfectant pads strewn around, and cherry red blood dripping down my forearm. I’m angling my elbow like a helicopter hovering over the little blood collection card, just trying to fill the darn box one last time so I can move on with my day. Finally, I pack it up and mail it all off in a rather alarming biohazard bag. The whole ordeal takes about three hours and costs $309.

I’m told I’ll receive my results in a few weeks. While I wait, I wander back to the Habit website and take a closer look at those pages and pages of fine print. I start to have second thoughts at sentences like, “You may experience stress, anxiety, or emotional or physical discomfort when you learn about health problems or potential health problems.”

Then there’s this: “Recommendations regarding diet provided to you may or may not be beneficial to you and may cause or exacerbate certain medical problems.”

Say what?

Thankfully, when the results come in, I get labeled a “Range Seeker.” In official Habit-speak, it means “you can be flexible with your macronutrient intake and thrive on a range of foods.” Well, that’s a relief.

There are seven Habit types, each with dozens of more specific sub-variations, varying from “Slow Seeker” (best suited for foods rich in fiber and carbs that are absorbed slowly) to “Fat Seeker” (“fat is a valuable fuel source for you”). Along with receiving your tribal designation, you’re assigned a personalized eating plan, depicting your ideal plate, suggested nutrient goals and daily calorie target.

I’d be lying if I said the results haven’t been affecting my food choices, or at least the way I feel about my food choices. For instance, since being told I have a genetic risk variant associated with slow production of omega-3s, I have been seeking salmon like a grizzly bear. Apparently, I’m also genetically predisposed to caffeine sensitivity. Many a morning, this news has me sitting at my desk thinking I must be tripping out on my cup of joe — despite the fact that I have consumed the exact same amount of coffee every day of my adult life.

After discovering that her genes mean she produces omega-3 fatty acids slowly, the author started seeking out salmon. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

On the face of it, personalized nutrition makes sense. Why wouldn’t I want to understand the unique dietary yearnings and land mines of my own DNA? Many people seem to feel that the existing national dietary guidance of one-size-fits-all has failed them. They’re sick, and they’re confused about what to buy and what to order.

But in reducing food to individualized nutrient optimization — equating food with fuel, really — what are we sacrificing? What are the implications for our food culture and the future of dining? “Oh, gosh, I’d love to go out for sushi with you, but I have to scurry home to my prearranged ‘Range Seeker’ box in the fridge.”

Neil Grimmer, Habit’s founder and chief executive, recognizes that food is social. He tells me that it “knots us together culturally,” so Habit is in the process of facilitating online communities for people with the same Habit type. Through a private Facebook page, they could share tips and the like. It’s better than going it alone, I guess, but a far cry from actually sharing a meal.

Remember the $300 you put down for the home test? It includes a coaching session, so a nutritionist helps you put all your information into practice. During my session, Jae Berman, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and head coach of Habit, is a great help. But things don’t look so rosy when I ask her how I’m supposed to integrate Habit into regular life.

“The family conversation has been one of the most common questions we have gotten,” she says. “It doesn’t occur to me as a problem because I just want people to take ownership of their story . . . have the empowerment to say, ‘This is what my plate looks like; that’s what your plate needs to look like,’ and move on.” Even, she says, if that means everyone at the table eating something different. Have you ever tried being the short-order cook in that scenario? It all but requires outsourcing the meal making.

If everybody is worried solely about their own eating plan, communal meals may become a thing of the past. (shironosov/Getty Images/iStock)

Imagine, Berman says, a mom who’s stressed out, with kids running around, “a husband who is a rail,” all the while she has no time for herself, is struggling with her weight, and trying to figure out what on earth to cook for dinner. “Most people don’t want to talk about uncomfortable things,” Berman says. “But let your kids eat mac and cheese, let your husband do what he needs, and let you have this plate for your dinner. You don’t need to do anything — it’s going to show up at your door.”

This desire to customize our food experiences stems from the uniquely American trait of individualism. Often subconscious, it’s a desire to be exceptional, distinct from those around us, as opposed to being part of a larger collective. By contrast, many other cultures around the world are characterized by interdependence. It turns out, individualism shapes our eating habits in stunning ways, from the rise of solo dining to customization as a firmly expected attribute of eating out.

Habit is the latest example of a new technology enabling that innate premium on personalization, and over time, these tools are pulling us further and further from the table. Think smartphones making us feel less alone while eating alone, and mobile ordering apps allowing us to tailor our meal delivery times and our restaurant orders with greater precision. With roughly half of all eating occasions now taking place when we’re by ourselves, we’re getting less and less practiced at eating with others.

This reality has major implications for our food culture, and for the rising rates of social isolation in the United States. You know what the single greatest predictor of happiness is? Social connectedness. And guess what: It’s one of the greatest predictors of longevity, too.

Of course I want people to eat food that’s right for them. But we also have to ask ourselves: Which is really going to make us live longer, and live better? The ability to pay more granular attention to our triglyceride levels, or the more holistic benefits of eating with family and friends?

My grandmother turned 100 this year. Between the birthday parties and the bridge club, her standing dinner dates and the three times a day she picks up her neighbors in their retirement home hallway to take their walkers down to the dining hall, a thriving social life is Alma’s secret to a long life. Whether I’m chomping on my salad, face glued to my iPhone, or waving off her breakfast offer by citing the low-glycemic Kind bar I just finished off, she tells me time after time: She’d take the cake — and the friendships — any day.

Egan is author of “Devoured: How What We Eat Defines Who We Are” (William Morrow/HarperCollins), recently released in paperback.

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Men, Listen Up: Women Like The Smell Of Guys Who Eat A Certain Diet

Your diet can influence your appearance. You knew that. But did you know that what you eat can also affect your body odor and your attractiveness to the opposite sex?

Lilli Carré for NPR

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Lilli Carré for NPR

Your diet can influence your appearance. You knew that. But did you know that what you eat can also affect your body odor and your attractiveness to the opposite sex?

Lilli Carré for NPR

What we eat can influence more than our waistlines. It turns out, our diets also help determine what we smell like.

A recent study found that women preferred the body odor of men who ate a lot of fruits and vegetables, whereas men who ate a lot of refined carbohydrates (think bread, pasta) gave off a smell that was less appealing.

Skeptical? At first, I was, too. I thought this line of inquiry must have been dreamed up by the produce industry. (Makes a good marketing campaign, right?)

But it’s legit. “We’ve known for a while that odor is an important component of attractiveness, especially for women,” says Ian Stephen of Macquarie University in Australia. He studies evolution, genetics and psychology and is an author of the study.

From an evolutionary perspective, scientists say our sweat can help signal our health status and could possibly play a role in helping to attract a mate.

How did scientists evaluate the link between diet and the attractiveness of body odor?

They began by recruiting a bunch of healthy, young men. They assessed the men’s skin using an instrument called a spectrophotometer. When people eat a lot of colorful veggies, their skin takes on the hue of carotenoids, the plant pigments that are responsible for bright red, yellow and orange foods.

“The carotenoids get deposited in our skin,” explains Stephen. The spectrophotometer “flashes a light onto your skin and measures the color reflected back,” says Stephen. The results are “a good indicator of how much fruits and vegetables we’re eating,” he says.

Stephen and his colleagues also had the men in the study complete food frequency questionnaires so they could determine the men’s overall patterns of eating. Then the men were given clean T-shirts and asked to do some exercise.

Afterward, women in the study were asked to sniff the sweat. (Note: The methodology was much more scientific and precise than my breezy explanation, but you get the picture.) “We asked the women to rate how much they liked it, how floral, how fruity,” and a bunch of other descriptors, explains Stephen.

It’s a small study, but the results were pretty consistent. “Women basically found that men who ate more vegetables smelled nicer,” Stephen told us.

Men who ate a lot of meat did not produce a sweat that was any more — or less — attractive to women. But meat did tend to make men’s odor more intense.

“This is not the first study to show that diet influences body odor,” says George Preti, an adjunct professor in the dermatology department at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

A study published in 2006 found that women preferred the odor of men who ate a non-meat diet, “characterized by increased intakes of eggs, cheese, soy, fruit and vegetables.”

But Preti points out that the relationship between diet and body odor is indirect.

Some people think if they eat a garlic or onion — or a piece of meat — they will smell like that food. “But that’s not what happens,” Preti says. Your breath might smell like the food you eat, but not your sweat.

Body odor is created when the bacteria on our skin metabolize the compounds that come out of our sweat glands.

“The sweat doesn’t come out smelly,” Preti explains. “It must be metabolized by the bacteria that live on the surface of the skin.”

Now, of course, at a time when good hygiene and deodorant use are commonplace, is the smell of our sweat a big concern?

I put that question to the happy hour crowd at a bar down the street from the NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“I’m pretty OK with my smell,” Stefan Ruffini told me. That evening he was ordering a burger on a bun and a side of fries, along with a beer. When I told him about the findings of the study, he laughed it off.

“I’ve got a girlfriend, so I don’t worry about these things,” he said.

The study did not assess diet and odor attractiveness among same-sex couples.

“As a lesbian, I haven’t smelled a man in several years,” Stacy Carroll, who was also at happy hour, told me. “I eat a lot of produce, I have a girlfriend, so it’s working out.”

Carroll says people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables are more likely to be interested in their health — “feeling good, looking fit” — than their smell.

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Diet drinks and food actually trigger weight gain and diabetes, says new study

For the new study, scientists scanned the brains of 15 people when they were drinking diet drinks, and compared them to regular beverages. They also monitored how much energy was burned by the body.  

They found when there was a ‘mismatch’ between sweetness and calories – as is often the case with diet drinks or foods because they are not as sugary – the calories fail to trigger the body’s metabolism. Reward circuits in the brain also did not register that calories had been consumed, which could lead to eating more.

Commenting on the paper, Dominic Dwyer, Professor of Psychology at Cardiff University, said: “What the paper does imply, correctly in my view, is that mismatches between calories and sweetness interfere with metabolism of calories in a way that could have negative impact on weight gain, diabetes, heart disease etc. but that determining the link between the unprocessed calories and metabolic health needs future work.

“The most important implication is namely the fate of calories consumed in the mismatch conditions.

“These are not efficiently metabolised at the time of ingestion and thus processed later and/or stored either of which could drive weight gain and interfere with metabolism.”

Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, added: “This research should be enough to convince you that artificial ingredients, whether they be in food or drink, can screw up your system even though they may sound healthy. 

“They may be free of calories but not of consequences and diabetes is only one of them. “

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The Raw Food Diet Facts You Need to Know

Every other month, some new diet is trending. Remember that time when South Beach was huge? Or when you walked into a CrossFit box and heard the word “paleo” 32 times within five minutes? Sure, buzzy diets go in and out of the limelight, but one recent GrubHub study reveals that the raw food diet is soaring in popularity. With a 92 percent increase in raw food orders over the past year, it appears that customers like their food uncooked and with a lack of preservatives.

But why? Well, eating a slew of raw foods means you’re getting an abundance of good-for-you minerals, vitamins, phytochemicals, and fiber in your diet. One University of Giessen study of 200 people eating a raw food diet found that they had higher levels of beta-carotene, which is commonly associated with disease prevention. But what other reasons are there to hop on board the raw food diet train? Here’s everything you need to know about the raw food diet.

The Rules of a Raw Food Diet

The raw food diet involves exactly what it sounds like: a whole lot of raw food. The foods you consume can be raw (cold) or slightly warm, but nothing can be over 118 degrees. While some followers of the raw food diet allow raw fish, eggs, meat, and unpasteurized dairy into their ingredients list, it’s more common to stick to mostly organic, uncooked, and unprocessed foods. Think vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits, and some sprouted grains. Vegans and vegetarians may feel right at home on this plan.

Off-limits? A whole lot. Essentially anything on the inside aisles of your grocery store is out of the picture here, like pasta, junk food, salt, flours, sugars, juices, and anything processed or pasteurized.

And although everything is raw, you’ll need to channel your inner Martha Stewart if you want to do this diet well and not just eat salad after salad. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Through preparation techniques involving blending, dehydrating, and food processing, you can make loads of meal options. For example, you can make zucchini chips that fall into the green zone of this diet by slicing zucchini thinly and dehydrating for about 24 hours until they’re dry.

The Benefits of a Raw Food Diet

Cooking food may decrease the amount of certain water-soluble vitamins and minerals. Plus, a diet high in fruits and vegetables can be great for digestion and lower blood pressure, according to one University of Southern California study. It can also lower your chance of stomach cancer and stroke, and halt the progression of kidney disease.

And there are some unique benefits of consuming produce raw: “Raw foods require more chewing than cooked food,” says Deanna Minich, Ph.D., C.N., author of The Complete Handbook of Quantum Healing. “And when we chew, we stimulate different parts of the brain that correspond to learning and memory.” One Cardiff University study of 133 volunteers zeroed in on the benefits of chewing gum (which isn’t allowed on the raw food diet, FTR) during a testing period. Those who chewed gum reported a more positive mood, greater alertness, and improved selective and sustained attention than those who didn’t.

Plus, eating a raw food diet means you’re slashing the consumption of processed foods. That’s a good-for-you idea whether or not you’re following the raw food diet, as cutting them out could prevent weight gain, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers analyzed the diets of more than 120,000 Americans over two decades, and they found that people who consumed sugary drinks, processed meat, and chips regularly were most likely to put on the pounds.

The Negatives of the Raw Food Diet

First off, it’s really restrictive. Limiting yourself to raw foods means you unfortunately need to cut out some healthy non-raw foods, like a lot of whole grains (think quinoa, brown rice, freekeh). No one wants to feel frustrated when they walk into their kitchen, and just like with any diet, that’s possible here when you’re tired of eating the same things day after day. If that’s not enough, you’ll likely have to skip out on the restaurants. As with any diet, it’s tough to eat out when you have so many limitations.

It’s also pretty pricey. Shopping organic can cost an average of 47 percent more than standard produce. While you can follow a raw diet without going organic, most traditionalists would say you’re not doing it right because, well, chemicals. The pesticides applied to food can have detrimental effects on the body (ruining some of the purposes of going raw in the first place).

Eating raw or undercooked foods can also put you at risk for food poisoning, as bacteria, molds, and parasites might be in your eats (eeek!). Just because you may not be cooking your food doesn’t mean you can’t protect yourself, though. The FDA recommends you run both fruits and vegetables under water before eating or cutting them.

And although losing excess weight can be great for your health and a major reason why most women choose diets in the first place, this meal plan may take you a step too far. Dieter, beware: In the numerous studies done on the raw food diet, experts agree that weight loss should be monitored. One University of Giessen study cautions fans of the trend, saying that 30 percent of the 297 women under age 45 who were involved in the study developed partial or complete amenorrhea (aka losing your period, which isn’t a good thing). Make sure to continually check in on your progress. Evidence shows that people who lose pounds gradually and steadily (at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds per week) are more successful at keeping weight off, according to the CDC.

Is the Raw Food Diet for You?

First and foremost, Minich recommends that anyone who is interested in starting a raw food diet consult with a health professional. If you get the go-ahead and feel like you have all the tools to execute this new diet safely, make sure to do a pulse check every once in a while and gauge how you’re feeling.

“Always be in tune with your body,” says Minich. “You’re not supposed to feel horrible, and if you do, the diet isn’t for you.”

If you want to give it a try, consider not going 100 percent raw. Instead, try eating high raw (80 to 99 percent raw foods) or what is commonly referred to as “raw until dinner.” Making a gradual transition to raw can help ease into a new habit and make it easier to maintain.

These Cauliflower Recipes Taste Nothing Like Your Sad Diet Food

But cauliflower is not just about being healthy, it can also just be straight-up delicious. And those are the kind of cauliflower recipes we have for you right here. We have the recipes that’ll make you think of cauliflower when you want something comforting, something umami-filled and yes, even something a little healthy.

The diet paradox: why your subconscious makes you crave naughty foods

The UK’s diet industry is thriving to say the least. More than half of British adults try to lose weight by controlling their calorie intake each year. Unfortunately, losing weight is not as easy as turning down a biscuit, or opting for salad. And even those who have been successful in their dieting endeavours find it difficult to do.

So why is it that even when we have the best of intentions, dieting is so difficult? Why can’t we control those cravings?

Food cues

We’ve all done it: walked past a tasty-looking supermarket stand, or smelled something delicious and immediately started drooling over whatever treat is on display, regardless of calorie content or nutrition. Sensory food cues like these can be difficult to ignore and aren’t just triggered by taste or smell – advertising or brand logos can tempt us in, too.

When we are hungry, the hormone gherlin stimulates the brain, which means that we notice food cues more. Researchers have also found that our brains pay more attention to cues for unhealthy foods – those which are high in sugar and fat – than healthy foods, when we are hungry. In studies where pictures of high-calorie foods were shown to participants, it was found that the cues elicited anticipatory appetite responses, such as salivation, cravings and a reported desire to eat.

All of this together means that the attention-grabbing properties of high-calorie foods are likely to present a significant challenge for individuals who are attempting to lose weight – particularly if their diet makes them feel hungry.

On a positive note, it may be possible to train ourselves to ignore tempting cues. One study has shown that participants who were taught to ignore high-calorie food cues on a computer-based task consumed fewer snack foods than those who were trained to pay attention to them.

Forbidden foods are more tempting

Dieting often involves “giving up” more pleasurable foods in an attempt to reduce calorie intake. But if we are asked to avoid eating a food we enjoy, researchers have found that we will crave it – and even have a greater desire to consume the forbidden item than if we have not been deprived.


In another study, frequent consumers of chocolate were asked not to eat any for a week. In this case, the participants found images of chocolate and other high-calorie food items more salient – the deprivation had made them want the high-calorie foods more – than the chocolate eaters who had not been deprived. In addition, when asked to taste a forbidden food, it has been found that research participants who have been deprived of it will typically consume more calories.

All of this means that even when dieters attempt to avoid foods that are pleasurable, the behavioural and cognitive response to deprivation may inadvertently be creating more temptation.

The “what-the-hell” effect

When trying to lose weight, choices about what to eat and when it should be eaten are usually constrained by the rules of a chosen diet plan. But rigid dieting rules are problematic, as any eating behaviour that does not rely on the physiological signals of hunger increases the risk of overeating.

Another problem with dieting rules is that only a small violation – a sneaky slice of cake, for example – is enough to derail the whole diet. Researchers call this the “what-the-hell effect” – and it has been demonstrated in a number of laboratory experiments. Studies consistently show that dieters who believe they have consumed a high-calorie snack – and so have broken the rules of their diet – will consume more calories during a later meal than those who do not think they have violated the rules.

Although in real terms eating a few extra calories is unlikely to have a major impact on a diet, such lapses can have a bigger psychological impact. Dieting “failure” is likely to trigger negative emotions such as guilt or stress, both of which are known to cause overeating.

So what can be learned from all of this? Diets which require the dieter to follow rigid rules or forbid them from consuming foods they enjoy appear to be problematic, as they paradoxically increase the risk of overeating. Instead, it may be useful for dieters to acknowledge that humans are inherently drawn to high-calorie foods and that these cues present the most temptation if we are hungry.

Rising rates of obesity mean that many more of us are turning to diets to lose weight. However, while there is no perfect diet to help us achieve our health goals, understanding how the brain works, and recognising the psychological effects of dieting may help us regain control in the face of temptation.

Dr Heidi Seage is a lecturer in psychology at Cardiff Metropolitan University. This article was originally published on The Conversation (www.theconversation.com) 

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