Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Food Norms, Marketing and Our Children's Health

The following, very thoughtful note by my friend Carmen was sent in response to the Bubblegum Incident. I thought I'd share it here in its entirety. Carmen retains more information about nutrition than I have EVER READ! She's a wealth of knowledge. Here's her take on our decision to withhold bubblegum from our children for the first 7-9 years of life (as well as lots of other candies):

Well! I was shocked to hear you were treated badly for not treating your kids carelessly. Having been raising children for 23 years now, it’s been a long time that I’ve been asking questions about health, diet, food preferences, brain function, and this encompassed all of my college years, which haven’t stopped yet. It would be false to say that children learn taste preferences early. They’re born with a taste for fat and sugar, the things which are essential to their development, and which predominate in breast milk. After that, our young have been given a long window of time, a sensitive period where their cultural food norms are absorbed.

In the physiologically normal sense, cultural food norms are refined over thousands of years and the winning ingredients, those which have been observed to support optimum health and development are passed on by wise elders. Cultural food norms fit a people to a place, and are climate specific and often become gene specific; like adult lactose tolerance, an acquired gene mutation that allows adults to continue making lactase, and thereby exploit a ready supply of nutrients from dairy animals. Those without the mutation only produce that digestive enzyme while they are milk-feeding infants.

Our problem today is that our modern food norms have not been time tested, and few of us lived close enough to our great-great-grandparents to have heard about the time-tested pre-industrial foodways that nourished our ancestors. Since it’s the job of all capitalist processed food manufacturers to inoculate our children’s minds with their ideas of food before that sensitive window closes, those of us that want our children to grow up healthy have to keep the junk out of our kitchen and out of our kids reach until our kids are in their teens. It’s not that just one cookie is going to do irreparable damage to their body, but it will do irreparable damage to their idea of what is right and wrong to eat. Just as you would not let your kids hear you tell lies, even though on rare occasions as an adult, that might be the wise, convenient or even altruistic thing to do, learning about foodways is like learning a moral code, and we all know how long it takes to make mature moral judgments. So we have to brace ourselves against the junk peddlers as they are using every tactic they can to fight for our children’s minds and lifelong dollars. That’s why processed food manufacturers like to get so cozy with school lunch programs. And that’s you can get hot dogs, cookies and juice, in baby food versions courtesy of Gerber.

Simplistic as that all sounds, it’s not just cultural learning that determines our grown childrens’ food choices. Scientists are now researching cellular communication via hormones, and other chemical messengers and discovering that high glycemic (sugar and starch) food exposure leads to surges not only in blood sugar, and it’s storage hormone-insulin, but also to another signaling molecule called leptin.

I’m sure by now you’ve heard of insulin-resistance where cells become more and more deaf to the ever present signal of insulin to squirrel away the excess blood sugar for hard times; but you probably haven’t heard of leptin resistance. Cells, both in the body and brain become resistant to excessive leptin signals too. Problem is, one of leptin’s jobs is to let you know you have accumulated enough body fat, and can start using energy instead of just storing it. Ever wonder why many overweight people seem to be so lethargic? It’s because their cells have become resistant to the signals of leptin. Cells in their hypothalamus (brain stem area) which control appetite and energy levels aren’t getting the message that they are abundantly endowed with stored energy and can afford to expend some. The receptors on the cell membrane have effectively quit picking up the phone, and quit answering the door, not letting the message get through.

This happens because the constant barrage of leptin signals from ingesting starch and sugar three meals and two snacks per day, has trained the hypothalamus to believe that there is no new information coming from the cellular communicators, and it doesn’t bother to listen anymore. It’s not just glycemic carbs, there are other things that alter the cellular communication too, like imbalances of fatty acids which make up the doors and windows of our cell membranes and misplaced look alike fats such as trans fats and even plasticizers. Cell membranes work poorly when they are made of the wrong materials and in the average American, trans-fats are the worst offenders.

The end problem of course is that the hypothalamus receptor cells are disabled and do not hear the the quiet background leptin signals sent out by your own fat cells, which are sent out to give the brain a constant status report on the amount of stored calories, enabling the brain to make important decisions, like whether the body could sustain a pregnancy and should ovulate or not this month; whether to eat or fast; whether to exercise or hibernate; whether it can afford to build muscle or must tear it down to keep other organs running; and even whether there are enough calories in reserve to take on long delayed healing projects. Can you imagine the havoc raised when a human body does not allow reproduction, can’t tolerate skipped meals, has no energy for exercise, bone or muscle building, healing? These issues practically define our modern miseries of infertility, compulsive snacking, depression, and the scores of people suffering from repetitive strain injuries, including arthritis, osteoporosis, and general malaise.

The worst part of leptin resistance is the hunger. When your hypothalamus gets poor information about your fat deposits, it concludes there is insufficient fat stored. It makes you hungry, craving sugary, calorie dense foods to build you up for the famine which you surely must be in. It sends out chemical messengers that cause you to delay healing injuries, in favor of putting the energy toward fat storage, more and more fat storage, even though it’s still ot hearing the signals from the abundant fat already on deposit.

Leptin resistance begins at a young age. Mouse studies have induced leptin resistance in immature egg follicles of gestating female fetuses. The result when the next generation is born, is mice that readily gorge on anything in front of them, with seemingly no ability to regulate their hunger, and even when placed on a calorie restricted diet, they still divert energy toward storing fat, at the expense of their muscle and bone mass.

The good news is: Leptin sensitivity can be restored, or substantially improved through dietary manipulations. The bad news is, girl children, because they carry the egg follicles for the next generation from a few weeks after they have been conceived, can transmit their mother’s dietary indiscretions down to their own children, a jump of two generations.

To learn more about how starchy/sugary foods affect leptin, which affects your metabolism and ultimately your whole health just chug through Google, paying special attention to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) studies.

Cheers, Carmen

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