“No rice, please.” I keep hearing this disturbing sentence from Asian American friends. Many are fighting the battle of the bulge and some are convinced that rice is the enemy. Or maybe it’s gluten. Wait, was it sugar, or eating late at night? Despite an endless stream of nutrition information, we seem more confused than ever about what to eat to stay fit and feel good. As for myself, a rice-less future is not one I want to participate in! To add to the problem, the food and pharmaceutical industries often pay nutritionists as spokespeople, so sorting out truth from ads can be near impossible. The result: voodoo attempts at weight loss.
For help, I reached out to Professor Marion Nestle, a UC Berkeley grad and one of America’s leading experts on health, nutrition and weight loss. She is the author of the popular blog Food Politics and a professor at New York University. Her newest book is Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics, and I hoped reading it would help me understand whether one of my favorite foods, rice, was leading to my eventual ruin.
I can’t say that I fully understood calories until this book: they are “units of heat energy,” but what does that really mean for a living, breathing body? What about so-called “good calories” and “bad calories”? How many calories do we really eat in the real world?
The book starts with a fascinating history of scientists attempting to measure calories and understand their effects on the body, particularly if you take in too much or too little. These extremes have special relevance to Asian Americans, whom studies have found are facing increased health problems the longer we are in America, and hence eating American food. From a caloric standpoint, most of us have gone from consuming zero to 60 in a relatively short period of time. The appearance (and stereotype) of thinness is deceptive for Asian Americans, many of whom still suffer from hypertension or diabetes as metabolisms struggle to adjust to new diets.
“The rapid increase in calories, increase in fat, increase in different kinds of food patterns, higher density foods, is what the body isn’t used to and causes metabolic problems that result in disease,” says Nestle. “The body doesn’t like to have too many calories for what it needs. Metabolism is set up to burn all the calories that you eat, and not to store many of them. ”
But calories are hard to understand viscerally -- even Nestle admits it’s hard for her to gauge calorie counts in restaurant foods, which are often are loaded with fats, sugars and other yummy calorie-loaders. Researchers like Dr. David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating, argue that the fat, salt and sugar in processed foods actually rewire our brain to want and need more of them. So don’t feel bad if you have no idea how many calories are in a Twinkie or frozen enchilada. As Americans eat more processed foods, research indicates that our diet-related health problems are increasing. This way of eating is now being exported around the world. According to Nestle, “As it’s becoming apparent that the major American and multinational food companies aren’t making money in the US anymore, they are pushing junk foods on India and China and other places. We are exporting obesity and its consequences.”
For foods a little closer to nature, like rice, it all comes down to quantity. “We know, from historical epidemiology, that rice-based diets were healthy for the populations consuming it. But they weren’t eating too much of it,” says Nestle. This made me think about food-specific bowls and plates in many Asian cuisines. Take the single-serving Chinese or Japanese rice bowl. It’s a standard size. You know when you’re eating one, or three. Its general size hasn’t changed in hundreds, or thousands of years. Same with the flat metal bowls some Indian dishes are served in. Might this be one secret to calorie control we should continue to use in America? For me, when food is served in a trough, I tend to eat like a pig.
Good news for Asian traditional foods: Marion Nestle considers them great. “There are lots of examples of best possible diets, and Asian diets are one of them: lots of rice and vegetables, a small amount of meat, little sugar. Just eat that,” she says. By controlling quantity, there’s more latitude to eat fun foods and not worry about it.
Finally, Nestle’s book pivots back to politics. The way society interprets what we should consume is not neutral, and through all her books (she’s published seven) she touches on the political aspects of science, nutrition and food. Which lobbyist paid whom? Why does this regulation make sense, and that one doesn’t? These political players and variables ultimately affect the food we eat and disturbingly, the decisions we make (especially if price or perception are involved, which of course they are in something as intimate as food). I like that Nestle empowers readers to understand larger social forces behind the food they’re eating, and then get right in and try to change them. You’ll need a bowl of rice for energy.