Sunday, March 23, 2014

Eating like a King. King Henry VIII

The last suit of armor made for King Henry VIII sits in the Tower of London. From it, historians determined that the 6-foot-three King had a 54 inch waistline, and probably weighed in around 300 pounds before his final illness. He was an extra-large man; four brawny men were required to carry him around in his stately chair.

Wealthy lords of Tudor England had a reputation as portly or obese people. They took pride in being fat. I mean, after all, if you were fat it meant you had plenty of tasty stuff to eat, any time you wanted it. And that was a privilege reserved for the few. Tudor peasants did not have year-round access to unlimited quantities of food, and could not stop in the middle of a workday for a long, leisurely, and large meal.

So the royal class tended towards obesity. They suffered from constipation, frequent infections, and black, rotting teeth, due largely to lack of good nutrition in their diets. This is very interesting, because in a lot of ways, the "typicial American diet" that still lingers on, descended from the preferences of Tudor England, and is preserved (pun intended) by today's food industry.

So, what eating styles did we inherit from King Henry VIII's court?

Oh how the royals loved sugar! They added it to ale, made marzipan to bake with, and created sugary sauces for meat and fish. The peasants couldn't afford sugar, but many became urban bee-keepers, harvesting their own honey.

Equipped with a team of the finest huntsmen in the land, Royal Tudor kitchens filled up with the cooking aromas of mutton, veal, wild boar, rabbit, pheasant, pork, badger, goose, and even blackbird! Bountiful plates of meats were a sign of wealth and essential for entertaining at the King's Court. In fact meat, dripping with fat, made up 75% of the royal court's diet.

The poor farmers and trades-folk ate far less meat... only a little bacon here, a couple of hens there, to cook up a winter stew marking a special occasion.

Since the "common people" used everything from artichokes, beets, and onions to kale, collards and peas for stews and one-dish meals, King Henry VIII's Court considered vegetables not fit for royalty, and so they shunned vegetables. They also believed raw fruit was unhealthy, so ate very little of it, except when adding it to a warm, sweet meat dressing.

Surely our dining habits have evolved since 1490. Right? Well, we certainly get our meals a lot faster, if you don't count the development time spent in food labs or the time things sit in the supermarket freezer. And your mutton chops wouldn't have come shrink wrapped back then. On the other hand, "in 1822, we ate the amount of added sugar in one 12 ounce can of soda every five days"* but now we gobble up sugar like we're Tudor Royals showing off our expensive taste. The big difference? Sugar's cheap now. But that's another blog.

Bread was served at nearly every meal. Bread and ale was served to travelers who stopped at inns to rest. Upper class Tudors ate wheat flour loaves called "Manchet", while the peasant breads were made of rye and barley flour.

When you think of the typical American diet, what comes to mind? Bacon cheeseburgers (on wheat flour bread), apple pie with ice-cream, cookies, french fries, toast (again, wheat flour) with eggs... honey-baked ham. Now let's look at the typical American dinner plate. What takes up most of the plate? Meat. And then bread or another starch. And then a little scoop of vegetables (such as coleslaw, or green beans). Where's the fruit? Oh yes, it's in the dessert topping. Where's the rye flour? The what?

Is this bad? Well, yes, unless you want excess fat covering your organs like King Henry VIII had, and to suffer from "painful swelling of the hands and feet". Leg ulcers, depression, and muscle weakness also plagued this King, and many historians believe he probably suffered from Type II Diabetes. Isn't this what is happening to so many Americans? For the first time in U.S. history, our children, the millennials, are predicted to have a shorter average lifespan than their parents, because of early onset heart disease. Which often comes with a history of obesity.

Why do we still follow unhealthy eating habits we inherited 524 years ago from King Henry VIII ? The peasant farmers of 1490 set a much better example during harvest times with their vegetarian main dishes, whole grains and plentiful fresh fruit. With everything we know today about how much we need fresh veggies and fruits to help us stay slim, build strong bones and brains and fight off toxins, it's time to stop imitating the diets of pompous Tudor royals.

It's definitely time to dig in to some fine, balanced recipes like this one from Blue Apron:


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Will the NEW Nutrition Labels Help You Eat Smarter?

Here's what's new about the proposed nutrition labels: not much.

image source: Forbes

First, the total calories will be printed in larger type. Second, many portion sizes will be larger, more like what people actually consider a serving, the FDA says. Third, you're going to see what percent of your daily vitamin D and potassium you get in a serving, instead of listings for vitamins A and C.  Fourth, the amount of "added sugar" will be listed on the new labels.

In other words, if you're counting calories, you might find the proposed new labels useful. If you know what "added sugar" means, you might be intrigued for awhile by those numbers. But basically, the "new" nutrition labels are about as different as size 8 and size 10 of the same prom dress your mom wore 20 years ago.

Modern day nutrition and weight loss science has come a long way, and it's needed now more than ever. Check any of the major web sites, Web-MD, the ADA (American Dietetic Association, or U.S. News' "Top 10" diets, and all of them recommend eating more fruits, vegetables, and "good" fats in addition to, or sometimes instead of counting calories. Today's dietitians stress knowing how big a healthy portion size is, rather than counting the calories of every single bite you eat in a day.

By law, the FDA food label's portion size has to reflect "actual" portion sizes that people tend to eat. With what we know now, wouldn't it be far better to show what a portion size of ice-cream, for example, should look like, than have a nutrition label give people "the OK" to eat an average super-sized portion? Should the law be changed to reflect the times, rather than trying to fit the nutrition labels to an outdated law?

80s prom dress from promfashionguide
Would you really wear that oh-so-1980's taffeta prom dress to your 2015 prom, just because your mom added a bigger bow?

Another thing that has changed over the past 20 years is how much lab-created flavoring and additives are sold in food. Large chunks of today's food industry do not want you to know or notice how many "artificial" ingredients were used to create your frozen breakfast sandwich. If not artificial, then certainly not plant- or dairy-derived. Because the word "natural" is not regulated by the FDA, so food producers can write "natural" in big letters on the front of a package of food containing things you'd never find in your home pantry.

I would like to see a few yes/no check-boxes:

  • Y/N   High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Y/N   Non-plant or artificial food coloring
  • Y/N   BHA or BHT
  • Y/N   MSG or other chemical flavor enhancers
  • Y/N   Growth Hormones used (in meat, dairy, egg-laying hens)
I think I speak for the majority of mothers of young children when I ask to see that on the new food labels. And finally, I would like to see more prominence given to fiber content, and a reminder to eat 8 to 10 portions of colorful vegetables and fruits per day.

Guess what's being removed from the nutrition label? Calories from fat. The number I find most useful in figuring out whether my daily fat-to-protein intake is reasonable.

So, the proposed new labels take a few tentative steps forwards and a giant step back. The original food label was at least a fairly accurate reflection of what dietitians knew in the 1980's about how our bodies used food. The proposed "new" label does not reflect how much more we know now about healthy eating and maintaining a healthy weight.

You can submit your comments to the FDA during the remainder of the 90-day comment period.