Q&A with Happiness Diet co-author Tyler Graham on why Americans are eating 3000 times more sugar than previous generations, how Procter & Gamble turned a waste product into a disease producing cash cow and how the modern american diet creates mood disorders, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Tyler Graham is co-author (along with Drew Ramsey, M.D.) of The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body, published by Rodale Books. We spoke via email over a period of three weeks.
TODD HEFT: The Happiness Diet builds on Michael Pollan’s Food Rules and In Defense Of Food, as well as Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland . In those books the authors speak about how the food supply chain has been captured by big industries and the “foods” they produce have been reduced to calorie dense, sugary, starchy products with no nutritional value. Their conclusion: Don’t eat anything that comes in a bag, box, or bottle from a factory and eat whole foods. Is that essentially the premise of The Happiness Diet as well?
TYLER GRAHAM: No. Our premise is that the modern American diet — we call it MAD — is playing a direct role in the epidemics of mood disorders across the country. We’re talking about things like depression and attention deficit disorder. We want people to understand that junk food is not brain food. Are we promoting whole foods? Yes, of course. But what we want to make clear is the connection between how you eat and how you feel. Will you lose weight eating the Happiness Diet? Definitely. And are these the same foods that will help prevent chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes? Yes. And, yes, it’s also true that these foods don’t come off assembly lines in factories.
TODD: In The Happiness Diet you state that most Americans eat a ConAgra product every day. That’s a remarkable fact, as most Americans have never even heard of ConAgra. But you’re right. Among the hundreds of brands they own are Blue Bonnet, Fiddle Faddle, Jiffy Pop, La Choy, Libby’s, Manwich, Parkay, Wesson, Peter Pan, Swiss Miss, Van Camp’s, PAM, Chef Boyardee, David Seeds, Healthy Choice, Hunt’s, the list goes on an on. It seems like corporate food behemoths like ConAgra have such a stranglehold on the food industry that they literally control every facet of our food supply chain, from field or factory to table. How do we break that stranglehold?
TYLER: The food industry has a term for what you’re talking about. It’s called from semen to cellophane, and they want to control every step of food production. It’s been likened to an hourglass. As Eric Schlosser noted in Fast Food Nation, there are about two million ranchers and farmers at the top of this hourglass. At the bottom is something on the order of 300 million consumers. In the middle are about a dozen multinational corporations that want to make a profit on every transaction. How do we break that stranglehold? This conversation is a start.
For a long time people have focused on eating the cheapest foods possible. This is good for Big Food, but it’s bad for our health. The cheaper the food became, the sicker we became. Now we have the epidemics of obesity and diabetes — and we’d add depression — that are clearly linked to this way of eating. I think it’s safe to say that consuming the most inexpensive food possible isn’t the way to health or happiness. Look at the ingredient list of Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups and guess what you won’t find? Strawberries. Eating right takes time and thoughtfulness. It means reading ingredient lists and demanding better food. We need demand. And once that demand hits a tipping point we can get the government to stop subsidizing crops like corn and soy. It’s these subsidies that make it profitable for companies like ConAgra to sell us food that makes us sick.
But it’s going to take awhile before we get to the point where heirloom vegetable growers get as much government help as high fructose corn syrup farmers, and until then people need to realize that eating healthy isn’t as expensive as companies like ConAgra would like us to believe. If you’ve ever sliced up a cabbage and tossed it in some olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, you know how cheap — and delicious — it can be to eat healthy. If you’ve ever hardboiled a few eggs and turned them into an egg salad, you know how cheap it is to eat tasty, healthy food. A whole section of The Happiness Dietis devoted to teaching people how to source things like organic vegetables and grass-fed beef on the cheap. It’s a lot easier than most people think.
TODD: When you say “government help,” I assume you’re referring to the U.S. Farm Bill, which subsidizes certain crops (like corn, wheat, soybeans and soybean products, sugar, vegetable oil products, even tobacco). The corn subsidies have made it very profitable to grow corn, but generally not the variety we eat on the cob. Farmers grow corn for use in ethanol and corn “products” like high fructose corn syrup. That’s why creating and using corn syrup is highly profitable. If farmers who actually grew local whole foods were subsidized, or if the farm bill subsidies were eliminated, we’d have a very different playing field. When you take a look at which crops are at the top of the farm bill subsidies it makes sense why you see so many products made from these crops. There’s an overabundance of wheat products, soy products, sugar products and vegetable oil concoctions.
TYLER: Exactly. You’ve just ticked off the ingredient list of pretty much every food found in a Circle K or 7-Eleven. Convenience stores are a recent invention. And their rise is an exact mirror of the subsidies on corn, soy, and wheat. Cut those ingredients out of the average American’s diet, and you’ve just gone a long way towards solving the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and, we argue, depression.
“As the waistline expands, the brain shrinks. But start eating better and you can make your brain grow, boosting memory, increasing processing speed, stabilizing your moods.“
TODD: Early in The Happiness Diet you mention a protein named BDNF, which you say can actually grow your brain. I hadn’t read anything about this substance before, and I found it fascinating. Please explain what it is.
TYLER: BDNF is essentially miracle grow for the brain. It’s a protein that is a sign of healthy brain, and it’s highest in people who are eating whole food diets. BDNF is lowest in people who over consume sugar and refined carbohydrates. Think about it this way, while people on the MAD diet are clearly overfed, they’re actually undernourished. The imaging studies make this clear. As the waistline expands, the brain shrinks. But start eating better and you can make your brain grow, boosting memory, increasing processing speed, stabilizing your moods. Eat right, feel right. Not so long ago scientists believed your number of brain cells was fixed. But, as it turns out, your brain is a lot more like a muscle. Eat right and you can make it grow, and BDNF is at the center of this mechanism. It’s encouraging news.
TODD: So I get BDNF from whole foods – is that why my whole family’s mood is better in the summer when we’re eating fresh produce from my organic garden? Besides the sunlight, I mean.
TYLER: The seasonality of food and its effect on mood is a great question. But before I get into that, I’d say, Todd, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be eating just as much fresh produce throughout the winter. That’s why The Happiness Diet is full of delicious recipes for stuff like Brussels sprouts, kale, and collard greens. I’m personally just as much a fan of the Brussels sprout season as I am of the tomato season. But to your question… One way to think about this is that animals that hibernate obviously don’t fatten up on fresh spring produce. They fatten up on seeds and nuts. That seems like an interesting anecdote at first until you consider that most of the calories that make up the modern American diet come from seeds and nuts. We don’t recognize these foods as such, but when you eat corn, wheat, soy, et cetera, that’s what you’re eating: the seed, if you will, of those plants. These are foods that are high in omega-6 fatty acids. Think of these as storage fats because they’re much more stable than another type of fat that I’ll get to in a second. So plants choose these fats to store energy long term in the form of seeds and nuts. Not coincidently, these are the types of fats processed food manufacturers prefer because they last forever on the convenience store shelf. And animals use these fats to bulk up and hibernate through the winter. Notice a problem here? Americans binge on these fats not only in the fall but all year long. Instead, we should be eating more omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in green leafy vegetables and seafood. Picture omega-3s and omega-6s as the yin and yang of fats as they compete with each other in our cell membranes. Today Americans are bombarded with way too many omega-6s. If you’re interested in more of the concept of seasonality in food, I highly recommend reading Susan Allport’s brilliant book The Queen of Fats. She’s a tremendous researcher and beautiful writer, and her book is about omega-3s meant for nutrition geeks, but it truly reads like a Stephen King mystery.
TODD: I’m a big proponent of eating local and in-season foods
. It blows me away that most or at least many Americans have no idea that apples ripen in the fall, raspberries and blueberries in June/July, tomatoes, corn, peaches and peppers in late summer. Perhaps because I’m a gardener I’m more aware, but anyone who pays attention to the prices in their local market can see that any fresh food is less expensive to buy in-season than out. Here in the Northeast not only is a peach bought in the market during the winter months rock solid, mealy, flavorless and expensive, but there’s a real absence of nutrition, too. When produce isn’t allowed to fully ripen on the vine or tree, it doesn’t become the vitamin-packed food it’s meant to be. So if we choose to eat out of season we’re really denying our bodies proper nutrition.
With the majority of the U.S. population now living in urban areas, Americans have lost so much of their agricultural wisdom that even with a massive educational effort it’s going to be decades until we see a significant change in eating habits.
TYLER: The fastest growing segment of the food industry is the farmer’s market. That makes me hopeful. Once you get a taste of ripe Cherokee Purple tomato in late summer it’s hard to ever go back to a mealy winter tomato that’s been shipped halfway across the globe. The same goes with quality meat or wild salmon over farmed salmon. So taste is a big thing, but another factor that might be even more powerful is the vanity factor. These are the same foods that will keep you skinny. As we talked about with all those subsidized foods, if you want to stay slim you’ve got to avoid soy, wheat, corn, and sugar. And what’s left when you cut those out of your diet are fresh vegetables and sustainably raised meats.
“There’s a growing chorus in the field of nutrition who are making it clear that saturated fat and cholesterol aren’t the cause of heart disease.”
TODD: Do you consider the lipid theory of heart disease to be completely obsolete now? Dr Robert Atkins, author of the famous Atkins Diet books, was criticized in his time for suggesting that refined carbohydrates were the leading cause of heart disease and diabetes, when the medical community was solely focused on fats. Will Atkins be vindicated for at least pointing science in the right direction?
TYLER: It’s becoming clear that the lipid theory of heart disease was misguided at best. And just in case anyone out there isn’t familiar with that term, it’s the idea that eating too much saturated fat and cholesterol causes heart disease. But it’s funny that what’s successful about the Atkins Diet is also what’s successful about any program out there, from the Zone to South Beach to Dean Ornish’s plan. What all these diets have in common is that they cut out sugar and refined carbs first. In other words, they forbid processed foods. Atkins, fortunately or unfortunately, got lambasted because his message was broadcast at the height of America’s unfounded freak out over dietary fat. The media loved this. They’d have Atkins on TV and ask him if it’s okay to eat bacon and eggs every morning. When he said yes, it was a ratings bonanza. It didn’t hurt that people who ate this way lost a lot of weight.
TODD: And they enjoyed their breakfasts a lot more.
TYLER: Yes. I’m not sure that Atkins will be vindicated any time soon because his name is such a lightning rod, but there’s a growing chorus in the field of nutrition who are making it clear that saturated fat and cholesterol aren’t the cause of heart disease. One of which is the Chair of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, Walter Willett. And when you stop to consider that your brain is made of fat, it makes sense that stripping your diet of this nutrient doesn’t make any sense. Still, the idea that fat is bad is so ingrained — fat free! Zero fat! No fat! — that I thought it was important for The Happiness Diet to give a solid history about why Americans got so obsessed with this non-issue. It’s amazing to see how a few misinformed people can have such sweeping influence over what’s for dinner.
TODD: Willet is the guy who came up with his own version of the food pyramid called the Healthy Eating Plate, right? I love that he could create a proper version without lobbyists interfering, unlike our government’s “My Plate” which doesn’t even mention that you should drink water! That’s an embarrassment.
TYLER: The USDA is in charge of getting Americans to eat healthier and to eat more of America’s farm products. So when you consider that it’s easy to see how we’ve gotten so misled. Add to this the revolving door between companies like Monsanto and the USDA, and it’s hard to see how we’d get another type of food system than the one we currently have. I think it’s time for a nutrition czar to cut through the special interests that are clouding the nutrition recommendations coming out of Washington.
TODD: In The Happiness Diet, you state that the average American eats 3 pounds of sugar every week – 156 pounds each year, much of it hidden in the foods we buy. Dr Robert Lustig from UC San Francisco recently published a paper in the journal Nature , which compares our consumption of sugar to drug addiction. Excessive sugar he says alters our biochemistry and is the leading culprit in heart disease and diabetes. Lustig wrote that since sugar is so entrenched in our diet, a public health intervention is the only way to address the issue, akin to what happened with tobacco. Is that the only way we’ll collectively reduce sugar consumption? After all, the majority of Americans are ill informed and careless about their diet until they develop serious health problems.
“There’s nothing more American than supporting your local farmer”
TYLER: Clearly public health intervention is needed. We’re all paying for these epidemics. However, there are some big holes in Lustig’s proposal. First and foremost is that refined carbs — bread, pasta, cereal — do the same thing to our bodies as sugar. I don’t see the government regulating bread consumption anytime soon. Fruit juice, as Lustig dutifully notes, is a serious contribution to our overconsumption of sugar. I don’t see the government mandating the use of orange juice in my lifetime. It’s going to take awhile to educate the public that fruit juice and pasta are just as unhealthy and unnatural for the body as candy. But to Lustig’s credit, he’s pointing out something that we all need to be aware of, and that’s that Big Food is using the playbook of Big Tobacco. We had light cigarettes and now we have low-fat cookies. This isn’t a coincidence. Big Tobacco was once all about how smoking was a freedom and it shouldn’t be taxed or regulated. Now we have the food industry funding an army of lobbyists calling people who promote healthy food and farmers markets “food nannies” and elitists. That’s nonsense. There’s nothing more American than supporting your local farmer. And, as Lustig also argues, eating right isn’t just about personal responsibility. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are addictive. This stuff is rewiring our bodies to want more and more. We go through all of this in the book.
TODD: I loved the section about how Procter & Gamble invented and marketed Crisco and how it became a staple in American homes. They spent boatloads of marketing money capitalizing on the bad image the pork industry (makers of lard) had in the early 20th century. Can you elaborate?
TYLER: Actually Procter and Gamble played a major role in shaping the image of pork fat — aka lard — as unhealthy. This is one of my favorite stories in the book. It shows how quickly we switched traditional foods, foods we’ve been eating for tens of thousands of years, for a new substance produced in a factory. It couldn’t have happened without food marketing. It’s powerful stuff. It’s why it’s taken me a decade to get my mom off margarine.
Up until the late 1800s Procter and Gamble didn’t make food. They simply produced candles and soap, both of which were made from animal fat. Unlike vegetable oil, animal fat is solid at room temperature. But in 1906 a German scientist sent a telegraph to the company that he had an invention that “would be of the greatest of importance for candle manufacturers.” He traveled across the Atlantic to P&G’s headquarters in Cincinnati and demonstrated his ability to turn vegetable oil into a hard substance at room temperature through a process called hydrogenation. They used cottonseed oil because at the time it was a waste product of America’s number one industry. Cottonseed oil is highly toxic unless it’s refined. Today a plant chemical derived from cottonseed oil, gossypol, is used as male birth control in China. P&G realized that the new man made substance looked a lot like the most popular cooking fat across the country: lard. I won’t go into the marketing campaign they created, which was unprecedented at the time, but they built a massive advertising machine to promote a new food: Crisco. They marketed it as healthier than animal fat. This was literally before the discovery of vitamins! These guys had no idea what they were talking about. One hundred years later we discovered this new, “healthy” spread was the number one source of trans fats in the Modern American Diet. People were eating it to avoid heart disease, but it was 50 percent trans fat! It’s estimated that every 2 percent increase in consumption of trans fat increases the risk of heart disease by 23 percent. There’s nothing worse for your heart. How’s that for irony?
“We really need to stop thinking about fat as harmful… Animal fats are essential. They’re full of… essential omega-3s and vitamin B12 — stuff you can only get from eating animal products.”
TODD: That’s an astonishing statistic. My Father died of massive heart disease in the 1960s. They called his condition then “thick blood” — like cholesterol today. So until I read differently I thought that vegetable fats, margarine, low dairy, low animal fats, etc were the way to remain healthy. Fortunately, I exercised a lot and used olive oil mostly, but it really bums me out that I was eating that way for 30 plus years only to find out that my grandmother was right: she cooked everything in lard, never removed the skin from the chicken and never trimmed the fat from the beef. And of course, it was all delicious. I understand that Omega-6s are the problem child of the vegetable fats — but what is it that makes animal fats less harmful?
TYLER: It’s not that they’re less harmful. We really need to stop thinking about fat as harmful, and it’s hard to do. Animal fats are essential. They’re full of things like essential omega-3s and vitamin B12 — stuff you can only get from eating animal products. The book cites a study led by researchers at the University of California’s San Diego School of Medicine that looked at the lipid profile of human blood. They found more than 600 types of fat in our blood. They think there may be thousands. These all have different biological functions, the vast majority of which we’re not yet aware. These fats that are so complex and barely understood are animal fats. You’re not going to find this kind of complexity in a soybean.
TODD: You write about food synergies: foods whose flavors and nutritional components compliment one another. After hundreds, maybe thousands of years of eating these combinations, perhaps our bodies, brains and especially our taste buds have adapted to these combinations. Is that why it’s so difficult to change our diets?
TYLER: It’s generally hard to change our diets when we get too addicted to sugars and refined carbohydrates. Food synergy is all about why it’s so unhealthy to break ways with traditional food. Many of the dishes humans have eaten for generations—like rice and beans or tomatoes and olive oil—have withstood the test of time not simply because the ingredients taste good together. It’s because they’re more nutritious together than on their own. As in the case of tomatoes and olive oil, the fat in the oil helps your body absorb the fat-soluble nutrients known as carotenoids that fight cancer and heart disease. You’ve probably heard about the popular Indian spice turmeric and its potential for preventing cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease. You might be surprised to know that you absorb a thousand times more of its active ingredient (curcumin) when you eat it with black pepper. The book covers a lot of these synergies.
TODD: I understand the sugar addiction part. Years ago I went on a cleansing diet and wasn’t allowed any sugar, wheat, carbs — not one molecule. I tell you, I thought I was going to lose it. I was grumpy all the time, felt unsatisfied, and craved sugar and pasta constantly. That was for the first few days. Then the craving stopped. The funny thing was, I ate every two hours on that diet (lots of apples and brazil nuts) and I actually lost weight, as you mentioned above. That was a huge wake up call for me, as I hadn’t intended to drop ten pounds.
Do you think the carb and sugar addiction comes from the rush of glucose our bodies and brains get from it? It does after all, feel very satisfying (for a few minutes) when we eat those foods.
TYLER: I think it’s very complicated and that science is just starting to uncover the mechanisms behind the power of sugar’s addictiveness. But what is certain is that not very long ago, on an evolutionary scale, humans rarely consumed any measurable amount of sugar. When they did it was in the form of fruit and only during limited times of the year. Our tongues have more than two-dozen receptors to taste bitterness. That’s to protect us from poison in the environment. We only have one receptor for sweetness. Sugar is nature’s universal signal for safe energy. Fruits are bitter and green and hard to spot in the forest when they’re unripe and not ready to spread their seed. As soon as they’re ready to be eaten they get sweet and brightly colored. This system developed over millions of years. There’s science that actually shows the sugar in fruit shuts off our sense of fullness, encouraging us to eat more. It’s fascinating, and I think soon we’ll be hearing a lot more about why sugar is so addictive. I often wonder if the reason people have such problems with alcohol is because it’s made out of sugar. It’s certainly why so many people have problems with donuts.
TODD: A reductionist might sum up The Happiness Diet like this: EAT leafy greens, eggs, grass-fed, non-factory meat, beans, whole grains, whole milk, fruit, non-farmed seafood, nuts, olive oil and lard. DON’T EAT anything in a box, bag or bottle that’s made in a factory. Agree or disagree?
TYLER: I agree whole-heartedly. Eat right, feel right. Change your body, change the world.