Tag Archives: diet

Sweet Thais

In more ways than one.

As a generalization, the Thai people are more outwardly sweet than most cultures.  It’s evident in the way they greet others, including their own, by folding their hands while slightly bowing their heads.  They are typically smiling, pleasant, and respectful.  Compared to other societies, the sweetness of the Thai people stands out.  The Land of Smiles, while it may be an outward appearance, is one of the many charms of Thailand.

One of the other attractions is the distinctiveness of their food.  But, and it’s a big but, over the past couple of generations, Thai’s have embraced the use of sugar in most of their meals.  Almost every prepared dish has sugar as an added ingredient.  Even sautéed vegetables are sugared.  Most savory dishes have added sugar.  It’s a phenomenon.

These buckets of sugars (and msg) are at the ready for all Thai street food.

When I see young school-age Thai folk, it’s evident that a large chunk does not appear in ideal physical condition.  A bulk of them look out of shape, with more extra weight in the wrong places than young people should have, especially youthful Asians.  If I didn’t know better, I’d predict that Thailand is headed for a health crisis in the next few generations.

Out of interest, I took several Thai cooking courses at different Bangkok schools.  In each, the students prepare and eat their individual dishes.  In each, I declared that I  wanted to cook without sugar.  I was the oddball out in every workshop.  In one class, six students were grouped together to prepare a dish, but I was castigated on my own due to my sugarless request.  The chef in that school tasted the sugar-free chili paste, peanut sauce, and Tom Yam soup I had prepared and liked them all.  Of course, she could have been fibbing to be polite.  But then again she admitted she had eliminated sugar from her diet the prior year to slim down.  An instructor in another school disclosed that her sister, a doctor, recommended that she stop cooking with sugar because it was unhealthy.  (Hmm,…yet she continues to instruct cooking with sugar).

Pad Thai Noodles, may be prepared with a double dose of sweetness.

When I ask Thai chefs/cooks why they add sugar to most dishes, the answer almost uniformly is “it makes the food tastes better.”  Really?  Adding sweetness to already flavorful food so it tastes even better?  Couldn’t that be considered a form of crafty trickery?

As a fan of Thai food, it’s more than a little disconcerting to know that sugar is being added to most dishes.   To be clear, I’m not referring to desserts and sweet treats, of which, as in most cultures these days, there are plenty.  In Thai dishes, sugar is added to main meal dishes, those that typically don’t have, or need, added sugar.  Popular dishes such as Pad Thai and green papaya salad, (Som Tum) — both have added sugar.  Peanut sauce used for sauteés — added sugar.   Stir-fried vegetables — added sugar.  Savory soups — added sugar.

Stir-fried vegetables with sugar. Really?

The Thai food on the street is damn tasty.  But to order a dish with no sugar is a challenge.  When I do, the smile is replaced by forehead wrinkles.  If sugar is left out, the tendency is to add more msg, Maggie seasoning, and/or honey.  It’s become reflexive to add processed flavoring to the food.  There are so many natural spices available that adding a tablespoon or two of sugar and msg seems like overkill.  And indeed it might be.

Smart people who study cognitive neuroscience know that sugar is a deceptive drug and acts on the brain the same way that cocaine, opioids, and for that matter, any other pleasure substance does.  The more we have, the more we want, and the more it takes to satisfy us.  Credible researchers have shown that the world’s consumption of sugar has grown almost exponentially over the last few hundred years.  Concerning evolution, that means we’ve just started gorging (overdosing?) on sweetness.  During that same time, we’ve seen a parallel increase in lifestyle diseases, as well as epigenetic disorders (which we now know are hereditary).

In a savory dish, it can be hard to detect the addition of a teaspoon of white sugar.  Sure the dish tastes good.  Everyone in the world loves a subtle touch of sweetness.  We gobble down good tasting food without a second thought.  But if we are to believe an extensive body of recent evidence showing that processed sugar in our diet promotes toxicity and has detrimental long-term health effects, then it may be prudent to pay attention.  All foods have natural trace amounts of sugars.  So if food can’t stand on its own without the added sweetness, then the results may eventually turn slightly sour.

In the ideal world, we’d see a revolution in Thailand with the elimination of sugar as a key ingredient.  But given that won’t happen anytime soon, the Thai’s will stay double sweet.

Not to pick on Thais, this sign on 23rd Street in Manhattan last week says it all.

A slice of half-baked pie

It’s tricky being in the advice business, especially the “what is right to eat” one.  There are thousands of diet books enthusiastically embracing a “correct way to eat.”  I’ve read a few recently published, written by smart, educated, scientific minds, several with medical degrees — strongly advising us what we ‘should eat’ to be our healthiest, giving us our best chance to avoid disease.  They all agree on one thing:  we should be eating real whole food and avoiding highly processed (junk).  That makes sense to any dummy.  Eating an apple, they agree, is healthier than a Snickers bar.  Duh.  

Since we are all so “food group” conscious, what the books don’t agree on are the ideal proportions of those whole food groups.  Some are polar opposites over saturated fats, particularly from meats and dairy, whether they are good or harmful.  One camp exposes a strictly plant based diet, showing studies of how animal fats are directly related to our maladies.  Others point to similar studies showing why animal fats and good dairy may help cure them.  Some champion low fat in general.  Others high fat.  Some encourage whole grains, yet others endorse avoiding them.  There are loads of conflicting beliefs and recommendations.  How can smart, educated, studied, professionals be so at odds about what whole foods we should eat?  They all can’t be right.  Or can they?

We’ve all been somewhat dimwitted when it comes to what we’ve been sticking in our mouths over the last century as we’ve radically changed our diets away from natural whole to processed food.  We gain weight and have health problems, then try to reverse years of bad habits, so we listen to what we hope is smart advice.  The thing is, most well-intentioned smart, nutritional advice givers, dedicated to helping people, don’t really know what is the best formula for eating. They can only look at slices of the pie.

We know that our bodies are a collection of atoms, too numerous to put a number to.  We’ve learned that atoms join together to form molecules and that these molecules are in constant communication with each other.  Life at the molecular level is highly dynamic and interactive.  What we eat and breath, ends up communicating with our cells, made up of those molecules.  Throw in coded messages from our non-stop thoughts and the quality of sleep, and our internal systems, from brain to toes, are constantly buzzing with vibrant interactions.

In affect, the advice-business folks make blanket claims about what is good or bad with blinders on.  We are learning that our molecular messaging system is so complex that  effects are sometimes not known for decades, or even generations, leaving us little choice but to make assumptions by looking at slices.

As a complex species we are somewhat the same, but each with unique messaging systems.  Is there a “best diet” for everyone?  From a logical perspective it’s highly unlikely.  At the same time, what is also logical is that food (including the food’s source) which has been manipulated (altering the original intended message) is most probably sending less-than-desirable information to our cells, whether that food is processed, whole fruits and vegetables, or animal origin.

So a hearty thanks to those doing the hard research and giving sound advice, particularly those warning that vegetable oils and sugars are highly toxic.  At the same time, it might be helpful for certain advise givers to qualify their advice and offer caveats, that studies have limitations and that their advice may not be for everyone.  Anything less is a half-baked slice of delicious home-made pie.

Let’s talk diet

But before we do, something to keep in mind:  Many slightly heavy people are healthy and many thin people are not.  Most people are after diets to loose weight, not a bad thing, as long as we know that thin and healthy are mutually exclusive.  (But being overly heavy and unhealthy may not be).

A few weeks ago a friend emailed me asking to recommend a diet to loose a little weight. My response was that I’m not a diet expert, but I’d suggest general principles, focused on overall health, that may help.

Sifting through the morass of diet information is complex and tedious, made even more so by the complexity of our endocrine system, the way we live our lives, and the differences in genetic makeup.

Two popular, almost polar opposite diets are: 1) raw organic vegetarian whole food, and 2) paleo, primarily meat and saturated fat.  And there are hundreds of diet variations in between.  There are smart, educated people who espouse low fat, while others tell us high fat is where it’s at. There are so many smart people saying different things it’s hard to know which smart people to believe.

No matter who or what you believe, everyone must find what works for them.  There is no one-size-fits-all for diets, but there are several truths that collectively, many smart people agree on:

  • whole foods are preferable to processed foods
  • fresh seasonal food is preferable to packaged
  • drinking sodas, diet or otherwise, is not a good idea
  • eating fat doesn’t make you fat, or unhealthy
  • eating (dietary) cholesterol does not correlate to raising blood cholesterol
  • hydrogenated oils (or trans fats) are toxic
  • foods with a list of unrecognizable ingredients is better left avoided

And other concepts some smart people know:

  • all calories are not created equal — so counting them, in or out, is a futile effort
  • proteins, carbohydrates, and fats burn differently
  • some foods require more calories to digest and assimilate than they contain
  • we have complex systems of enzymes throughout our digestive system which can be thrown off by many factors, including our ability to handle stress
  • good sleep on a consistent basis is an important component of good diet & health

And other general considerations:

  • pointing to single individuals is not an example of how diets work
  • we’re better off focusing on quality of food over quantity
  • too much sugar is harmful
  • carbohydrates turn into sugar in the bloodstream

Gary Taubes, an investigative reporter who has made a career exposing bad science, wrote a provocative article in the New York Times several years ago, followed by a couple of books, on how the low-fat emphasis we’ve been fed may actually be the cause of many problems.  And Dr. Peter Attia addresses here, in part, how our food pyramid may be upside down.

Since most of us buy food that others have raised or prepared, and much of the food business is focused on how food tastes and not how it affects us after it passes our taste buds, finding good, wholesome food, especially while traveling, is a challenge. We can only do our best with the choices at hand.

Bottom line, a diet is one aspect of the weight/health equation.  Our metabolic balance is affected by a few other components, all connected:

  • Sleep — affects how we process nutrition while we’re awake
  • Stress — unavoidable and not a bad thing, but how we handle stress affects our health & digestion process
  • Physical Activity — important for keeping our overall endocrine, muscular, and skeletal systems strong and functioning with vitality

The recommendation to my friend?

  1. Eat whole foods, whether raw or cooked
  2. When eating animals, as much as possible, try to ensure they were raised well
  3. When eating produce, try to make sure it was raised well (organic, non-GMO)
  4. Don’t be afraid of a little fat, whether it’s chicken skin, coconut oil, nuts, olives, or avocado
  5. Limit starches like rice, potatoes and corn
  6. Limit or eliminate refined grains such as cereal, flour baked products, and pasta
  7. Avoid drinking sugar or sugar-free (diet) drinks, they mess with your system’s digestive enzymes
  8. Avoid packaged foods with long ingredient lists
  9. Avoid anything made with sugar, including most sugar substitutes
  10. Avoid most heated vegetable oils (many are genetically modified anyhow)
  11. Start daily semi-vigorous walks in the morning — or something similarly active
  12. Don’t compromise on sleep
  13. Drink a glass of water when waking
  14. Be physically active for 45 minutes before eating breakfast (and don’t skip breakfast)

My friend’s response?  “What you recommend is impossible, but thanks anyway.”