The Chaffee Cookbook

Brace yourself, because this is a long one.

The drive up to Chaffee was an ageless two hours fetched word-for-word from the scrapbook of my memory. We took a left where the road parted before the anomalous “Guitar Repair and Mattress Store.” It was more of a tent, really. The drive home would feature the similarly puzzling “Confederate Flag and Tie-Die T-Shirt” stand. Missouri had, after all, been a civil war border state, and Scott County scraped the southern border.

There was Logan’s Roadhouse, where I’d always been too bashful to throw the peanut shells on the floor. Such strange and familiar attractions became more recurrent the further we drove from the Springfield airport.  A small, quaint (and undyingly Christian) establishment, Chaffee had no need for an airport; its needs had hardly evolved out of the twentieth century that bore it, and the rail system cutting through its heart supported those needs just fine.

For the rail system was, in its day, the heart of Chaffee. The small town of under three thousand (and likely a great deal more cows) had emerged from a land acquisition struck between the Chaffee Real Estate Company and a local farmer. The new settlement was to serve as a rail-switching yard on the lines connecting St. Louis to the great west (with the curious assurance from the Company that the property would certainly not be used “for the dispensation of intoxicating liquors”). Chaffee, the “city with a smile,” was finally recognized by the state of Missouri in 1909, occupying all of 1.85 square miles.

The rail system supported a great many Chaffee citizens, including one Leon “Rainy” Miller, who, in turn, supported a great many Chaffee children: my mother and her four siblings. Their hometown harbored few attractions, save one of the few remaining Bintz aboveground pools where my mother spent her summers lifeguarding.

The small town of Chaffee could hardly sustain the big city dreams of my aunts and uncles, and they slowly drifted to various corners of the United States (except for the eldest, my Aunt Jane, who operates a gun range in Ozark called “The Sound of Freedom”). During the occasional summer, to pay homage to our roots under the tornado-ruffled Missouri sky, my family gathers to celebrate the Fourth of July in the way all good Midwestern folk know the Fourth is meant to be celebrated: with lightning bug-catching, sparklers, cobbler, and Bud Light.

My mom made sure we began each Missouri trip with a visit to Chaffee (though it lay in an entirely different direction from Tablerock Lake). My sister and I had weathered many moves, changes in schools, and one unfortunate divorce, so my grandmother’s house was a rare constant fixture. Adorned in needlepoint and the customary grandmotherly floral, the house was something of a relic to my Californian sensibilities. The basement doubled as a tornado shelter – and had been used for such purposes on numerous occasions – and as a social room. The yard intermingled seamlessly with the yards of neighbors on all sides in a testament to old-world hospitality. A plastic duck-head windsock perched atop the laundry line, though the head had long since lost its sock, and had begun to look rather morbid. Every hour, on the hour, a grandfather clock sounded, which terrified me in the night.

The real attraction was the pecan tree in the yard. It was a formidable feature, both brooding and proud, branches unapologetically snarled into the telephone wire as if to stake its claim in the landscape. It had undoubtedly stood longer than the rail system itself. For the price of two cents per good, unsplit pecan, my grandmother solicited our services in scouring the yard for the contents of her next pie.

Pecan pie! My grandma Margaret’s house was full of exciting treats shelved by my family’s oh-so-trendy, oh-so-west-coast diet. Close your ears, Dad! We ate syrupy baked beans, blackberry cobbler, creamed corn (if it was a vegetable, it was buttered or creamed), freezer pops, Pillsbury instant biscuits (“What’s Pillsbury? Is that the Ghostbusters monster on the can?”), and bacon.

Oh my, bacon. Truly, we had transcended.

Routine visits to Chaffee fed my bacon addition for a great many years. I am frequently reminded by my mother of an incident in which she woke up to the sight of a young me in my high chair demanding “More bake! More bake!” as my accommodating grandmother pumped out panful after panful of glistening, salty bacon.

Resultantly, this is the food I have come to associate most closely with the Show-Me State. Although the quintessential Missouri dish is not so easy to define, as one commenter on chowhound.com declared, “Whatever it is, you can bet it’s fried in bacon grease.”

When my mother and I were tasked with cooking a dish for my elementary school heritage potluck, we were at a loss: what would properly represent our family’s midwestern heritage? All of my classmates were busy preparing Banh Mi and Chilaquiles, so I wasn’t about to serve baked beans and potato, which were mainly so popular due to their affordability. We considered baking a pan of my grandma’s favorite cookies – “Scotcheroos” – but my grandma had clipped that recipe out of a Kellogg’s box. It was hardly a timeworn tradition representing our family’s rich history.

We ended up baking some chicken tenders and calling it ‘fried possum.’

As is the case with most American states, it is difficult to distinguish classic Missouri food from what has matriculated in. In 1834, 500 German settlers arrived in Missouri with the goal to establish a German utopia within the United States. Missouri’s German ancestry has contributed dishes such as “Knoephla” and “Zweibach.” “Brain sandwiches” (oh, that courageous German palette) were a short-lived menu feature, unceremoniously eradicated by the Mad Cow Disease scare, though a few stalwart menu boards still carry the frightening dish.

When one visits Missouri, though, it’s not “Knoephla,” “Zweibach”, or (God forbid) sandwiches of cow brain that the tourist thinks of as genuine Missouri fare, at least not if they’ve tried St. Louis BBQ Pork Steak or Catfish and Hushpuppies.

The culinary history of Missouri with which I am most familiar demonstrates a trend of invention in the face of limitations. Here’s a famous one: did you know that the St. Louis World’s Fair saw the invention of the waffle cone? As the story goes, an ice cream stall and a waffle stand were neighbors at the fair. The ice cream stall had run out of bowls, and the waffle stand had run out of customers. The two invented a strategy in order to solve their problems jointly, and the waffle cone was born.

Another Missouri dessert staple was born when a 1930s cake was prepared incorrectly. You may have heard of the Paula Dean-heralded Gooey Butter Cake.

Unfortunately, the need for culinary inventiveness has been encouraged within many households by unrelenting financial struggle. Missouri towns were subjected to raids during the civil war; as a border state, neighbors fought neighbors, and there was little stability within the region. Chaffee itself fell into distress when a number of regional textile manufacturing plants shut their doors, taking with them over 60% of the jobs in the region. Although one can hardly call Pillsbury instant biscuits and mashed potatoes classic Missouri cuisine, there is a reason that my mom’s childhood home was stocked with them and little else. With five children to sustain, Grandma Margaret had to stretch every dollar to the point of having the entire family share one tub of bathwater. As the youngest, my mom was last in the tub, a visible dirt ring having accumulated.

Needless to say, once my mom made her way to California after graduating with a degree in engineering, her diet underwent dramatic changes. Pillsbury instant biscuits were a thing of the past, and for my sister and I a strange, interesting window into the past.

My mom likes to visit me in my current city of Denver, where everything is sloshed in a spicy green chili. She loves being able to get almond milk in her chai tea and kombucha on tap. Denver and Chaffee exist in different worlds. As she prepared for a recent visit (it was only yesterday that she embarked on her return flight to Utah), she was surprised to hear me ask about Chaffee. Always tickled whenever I take an interest in her childhood, she obligingly packed one of grandma’s old cookbooks.

I was thrilled to receive it. The cover is a curdled yellow, fading since its publication in 1983. The cookbook was published by the PEO chapter of Chaffee, a women’s sisterhood standing for “Philanthropy Educational Organization,” and all of the recipes were submitted and compiled by PEO members. A calendar at the back of the book notes important dates in the years 1983, 1984, and 1985, including Lincoln’s Birthday, Ash Wednesday, and Yom Kippur.

The section on treating common household poisons is immediately followed by the “Where to look in the Bible” section, detailing the Bible passage numbers to consult should you ever find yourself “jealous” (Ps. 49; James 3.), “starting a new job” (Ps. 1; Prov. 16; Phil. 3:7-21.), “disobedient” (Isa. 6; Mark 12; Luke 5.), “bored” (Kings 5; Job 38; Ps. 103, 104; Eph 3.), or unable “to fall asleep” (Ps. 4, 56, 130.).

The recipe index’s alphabetical ordering of dishes was comprised of names like “Eva’s San Antonio Burgers”, “Lynn Thornton’s Sea Food Casserole”, and “Clara’s Special Potatoes”. Mom excitedly pointed out the recipes submitted by her grade school teachers, her piano instructor, and the women Grandma used to play bridge with. I couldn’t help but notice a few unnervingly racist entries (such as a taco listed as “Wet Back’s Delight”… shudder). The realization that, in a rural town in 1983, these terms would not have incurred scrutiny was uncomfortable.

Many of the recipes are familiar (hey, there’s Gooey Butter Cake on page 103), and the majority are standard, likely to be found in any American cookbook of the 1983s. Most of the names are self-explanatory, some are cryptic (one is listed simply as “The Recipe”), and I’m particularly intrigued by Hazel Thornton’s “Never* Fail Peanut Brittle”.

There is a section of the cookbook devoted to casseroles alone, which is strange to me, considering I’ve never had one. Most of the casseroles have a single-step preparation process: combine all ingredients together and freeze. The recipe book pays special heed to how leftovers can be stored and prepared, and what the leftovers can be served with to spice them up for the next day.

Even before the factory closings swept Chaffee, many families were still struggling to make ends meet. In small towns grasped tightly by Christian ideals, families of six or more get by on shoestring budgets and a single source of income. As my mom recalls, she and her siblings ate few vegetables. “It was a lot of pork, beans, biscuits, and potatoes”, she said to me as we sat down for a lunch of zucchini pasta and grape tomatoes in a walnut cheese sauce. Her favorite treat was sweet potato pie with brown sugar, which her grandmother would bake for her on special occasions.

Somewhere in a retirement home far from Chaffee, Margaret Miller passed away on September 12th, 2012. She was 83 years old, and had long suffered from a crippling dementia, a hereditary scare that my mom and I are hoping can be saved with better diet (I should go cook up some spinach…). I’m not sure if she remembered me during my last visit.

Living in Denver, I still attend the occasional potluck, though they are hardly as raucous as my Missouri family gatherings. Many of my friends have erred on the side of vegetarianism, so my bacon addiction has been quelled over time, and I do prefer Colorado’s immense selection of craft brews to the typical Bud Light. That being said, I’m looking forward to this Fourth of July on the shores of Tablerock. Perhaps I’ll even cook up some Scotcheroos.

Will this be the dish I finally cook for heritage day with my children? After diving so thoroughly into the history of Chaffee, I’ve learned that there may not be any proper dish to represent my family line.

Fried possum it is.

Exploring Health Trends

This site is all about exploring “how we think, learn, and feel” about health, and a particular interest of mine has been how those feelings and thoughts have changed over time. How have societal interests in certain health topics grown or declined as years have gone by? Previously, these sorts of trends would have been difficult to chronicle, requiring extensive study and an unfortunate amount of good memory.

In the current age, our reliance on the Internet has afforded the opportunity to keep impressively accurate and accessible sociological records. The search engine Google is the most popular online tool in the world for probing the breadth of information that the Internet has to offer, and Google Trends allows users to visualize the popularity of various search terms over time.

A term’s search frequency demonstrates its societal importance during one period of time as evidenced by the volume of people who were interested enough to look it up. While it’s unfortunate that we can only look back to 2004, Google Trends is a fantastic tool for visualizing variations in the popularity of specific search terms over time.

I decided to conduct a little research to see which search terms have waxed and waned throughout our society’s complicated history with health.

I started with the obvious: “health”. As I watched the Trends graph populate itself with data dredged from the history of the Internet, I was immediately surprised to find that, contrary to what I would have thought, the search term “health” has declined in use by 45% since 2004. Oddly enough, “healthy” has seen a proportional uptick.

“Health”

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“Healthy”

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See those slight fluctuations in the graph’s data? Google Trends records search popularity on a monthly basis. Each point on the graph represents the search popularity of the term for the duration of that month. Look again at the graph for “healthy” and you will notice that each year follows a similar pattern: a sudden spike in popularity followed by a gradual decline throughout the rest of the year.

Can you guess when that spike in searches hits?

Yep! January. New Year’s Resolution season!

Just for fun, let’s look at another graph, and try to guess the search term that it corresponds to. When you’re done thinking, click on graph title to find out if you guessed correctly.

Test Your Guess

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Did you guess right? 🙂 As you can imagine, that spike in popularity during January is pretty common amongst the rest of the health-related terms we’ll be looking at.

Back to business. I was intrigued by this sudden spike in January and attempted to replicate it using other search terms.

Following naturally from our earlier mystery search term, “Fitness” and “Get Fit” both saw dramatic upswings in popularity during January, but trickled off as the year progressed. One can only hope that the searches dropped off because the January kick-off was incredibly successful, and not because the New Year’s Resolution pressure relaxed as January closed.

“Fitness”

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“Get Fit”

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It is curious that “Fitness” retained a consistent level of popularity between 2004 and 2015, but “Get Fit” saw a steady increase over time. It is noteworthy that “Get Fit” is the active, intentioned counterpart to “Fitness”. Perhaps current Internet users have begun to favor the active search term because of the way bloggers tend to structure their titles (“how to be skinny” and “ten foods to eat every day”, rather than simply “skinny” or “healthy foods”).

For a rather dramatic example of this periodic popularity-climbing, take a look at the graph for “Healthy Recipes”.

“Healthy Recipes”

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As before, the largest uptick in popularity comes in January, and falls off quickly afterwards (again, hopefully because the aspiring cooks found all of the recipes they needed). The falloff is not immediate, as February tends to sit about 70% of the way between the values of January and December, which is when the search for “Healthy Recipes” hits its ultimate low point for the year.

This makes sense! For a majority of Christian America, December is a time for toffee and ham and fudge and turkey and pudding and gravy, not for quinoa and salads.

For a hilarious opposite, observe the graph for “butter”:

“Butter”

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In most years, the solitary spike occurs in December, when holiday cooking takes over, followed by an eleven-month-long period of dormancy.

The New Year’s Resolution spike warrants a devoted research project all its own, for it was everywhere.

“Weight Watchers”

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One observation I made was that terms such as “health”, “healthy”, “fitness”, and “get fit” saw less dramatic spikes and downswings in popularity than did the more specific, motivated terms such as “Weight Watchers” or “gym membership”. This may be incorrect, but my hypothesis is that people with internal health motivations will search year-round and for more general health guidelines and tips, whereas individuals with less health motivation are simultaneously more likely to search only once prompted and to seek out straightforward programs rather than attempt to make their own. Thus we may see enormous spikes in popularity of very specific health programs around January followed by an immediate drop off once New Year’s Resolutions give way to tax season.

Moving on…

Many of the terms I searched were predictably modern, such as Juice Cleanse.

“Juice Cleanse”

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Most of these came to no surprise, such as “Skinny”, which saw a 300% increase in search frequency since 2004.

“Skinny”

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Some were tragic:

“Why Am I Fat”

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Especially considering the countries responsible for most of the searching:

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Some were inspired:

“Foods To Avoid”

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Some were puzzling, such as the graph below of “How To Eat Well”. I noticed the odd, Half Dome-shaped surge in 2011 (it climbed from 46 in April to 100 in June) and wondered what caused it.

“How To Eat Well”

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As it turns out, June 2, 2011 was when the USDA introduced its new MyPlate nutritional guide. While it’s impossible to tell if this was the cause of the surge in searches for this particular term, the timing is suspicious!

A more dramatic example is featured below:

“Baby Food Diet”

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Wow. What happened just as the baby food diet hit an all-time high? Well, May 2010 marks Jennifer Anniston’s public endorsement of the baby food diet. It was less likely that people were searching this diet in May because they wanted to get on board, and more likely they had just heard of some wacky new Hollywood tale that they just had to read for themselves.

I searched many more terms than I could possibly cover in one post, but a few of my other favorites were “Multigrain” (compare to “Whole Grain”), “Lose Weight”, and the similar searches of “Low Fat”“Low Sugar”“Low Calorie”, and “Low Carb”. (Careful, because hyphenating “low-sugar” results in a very different trend line…)

Final tidbit: the huge starting point for “Low Carb” at the end of 2004 is probably due to the low-carb Atkins diet being declared among the most popular diets of 2004 by numerous magazines. Few people practice the Atkins diet today.

“Low Carb”

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“Atkins Diet”

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Trends are fun! Go poke around on Google Trends and see what you can discover!

The things we do for love(handles)

Oh, boy. 🙂 This topic is going to be fun.

A while back, I remember reading some funny article called the “ALL DONUT DIET” (yes, in all caps). Can you guess the punch line? Those undertaking the donut diet pledge to eat only donuts for thirty days.

“Discovered” by “doctors at the University of Miami”, The diet is backed by an interesting premise: if one eats nothing but donuts for a month, they will get sick of donuts and under-eat during that month, creating a caloric deficit. Furthermore, after the month is over, they would never want to look at another donut again.

Don’t believe me? Just listen to this testimonial from the diet’s fictional creator:

“‘Donuts are the perfect diet food,’ said Dr. Moses. ‘They’re almost 65% air, which means there low in calories and won’t clog your arteries. They contain sugar, flour, and oil – all of which come from vegetables products.’

‘They’re essentially a well-balanced meal in the shape of tasty, deep-fried circle,’ added Dr. Moses” (Smitts, “ALL DONUT DIET”).

So, to pay tribute to the donut diet, I’d like to rattle off my personal list of the 10 craziest real diets.

(Today’s comedy brought to you courtesy of this old blog, where I managed to dredge up the “ALL DONUT DIET” article.)

10. The Tapeworm Diet

This is the lowest item on the list because it can help you lose weight, and has actually been advised at multiple points throughout history. Still, this is the only item on the list that actually suggests infesting yourself with a dangerous parasite. Tapeworms have been used for hundreds of years to slim down. The parasites can grow up to three feet(!) long and dwell in the intestines, munching on your leftovers. While it is technically true that a tapeworm can help you lose weight, tapeworms can also spread throughout the body, going on to infest more than just your intestines.

Honestly, the weight loss probably isn’t worth it in this case.

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9. The Baby Food Diet

Another diet a little farther down on the crazy scale. Scores of Hollywood celebrities have embraced the Baby Food Diet, pointing out that baby food comes in healthy varieties such as split pea and banana. The reason this diet is so far down the list is that dietitians do admit that baby food contains healthy vitamins and comes in multiple varieties. So, yes, eating baby food will keep you healthy. After all, baby food is made to sustain humans, albeit smaller humans.

The only advantage to eating baby food comes in the way it’s packaged. Eating out of smaller containers has been shown to help people eat less: portion control is a great way to start on the road to weight loss. An issue with the baby food diet is that liquid and puréed foods may not satisfy the appetite as well as a solid foods, leading the dieter to eat more later (or worse, binge).

Because this diet can be replaced with a small tupperware container, I’m going to say that subjecting oneself to endless Gerber is not the ideal adult diet. Still, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

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8. The Cigarette Diet

Interested in trading one health issue for another?

We all now know that cigarettes cause a host of health-related issues, many of which are life-threatening, but did you know that cigarettes were once widely marketed as a weight loss supplement? “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” was the slogan touted by the Lucky Strike Cigarette Company in the 1920s to take advantage of the appetite-curbing properties of nicotine. This ‘diet’ is still in use today, though its popularity has declined since cigarettes became colloquially synonymous with cancer. Not exactly what you want from a diet plan.

You would be hard pressed to find a dietitian who would recommend taking a cigarette with every meal. Next!

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7. The Werewolf Diet

This is also known as the Moon Diet, but that’s less fun. Honestly, the name is half of the reason the diet made it so high up on this list, and 100% of the reason for which I would ever try it. “Sorry, I can’t go out to dinner. I’m on the werewolf diet.” Just being able to say that would make this entire diet worth it.

Or it might, if the diet itself weren’t so complicated. It advocates eating different foods corresponding to the cycle of the moon, and fasting for the duration of the full moon. The idea is that the moon’s gravitational exertion on the tides should exert a similar force on the watery makeup of your body, helping you detoxify, or… you know, I’m not sure. But the werewolf diet! That’s cool enough that I don’t care.

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6. Fletcherizing

“Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.”
– Horace Fletcher, the man, the legend

Born in 1849 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Horace “The Great Masticator” Fletcher strongly preached the dominance of the denticle. He believed that you could chew your way to health by following his special technique: chew your food. A lot. No, more.

He was famous for coming up with elaborate justifications for his belief that food – including liquids – had to be chewed thoroughly in order to mix properly with the mouth’s saliva. He also believed that food should not be consumed while angry or sad (which is a problem, because 90% of the food I consume is eaten while I’m angry or sad).

Most of the sources I encountered disagreed on how exactly to follow Fletcher’s advice. WeightLossForAll.com claims that you must chew each piece of food 32 times (once for each tooth) and then not swallow it. Wikipedia claims that the food must be chewed 100 times per minute before being swallowed. The Listverse version of Fletcherizing claims that the head must be tilted forward while chewing, and afterward, the head should be tilted back to allow the food to slide down the throat. Most sources agreed with the WeightLossForAll version of Fletcherizing, but at least everyone could agree that it is extremely silly by all accounts.

Fletcher died a millionaire due to the popularity of his diet.

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5. Ear Stapling

Oh God, please don’t do this.

Ear Stapling entails piercing the cartilage of the ear – ouch – with small staples that will remain in place for weeks or months. The staples allegedly poke at a pressure point in the ear that controls appetite, helping participants of this ‘diet’ control their cravings. Not only has this not been proven to be effective, the risk of infection makes this ‘diet’ dangerous, especially when performed by a less-skilled practitioner.

Let’s be honest: it will probably be very difficult to find a skilled ear stapler. I repeat: please don’t do this.

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4. The Cotton Ball Diet

This strange diet arose in the modeling industry, where the thin covergirls would consume cotton balls soaked in juice to feel full without taking in calories. Not only do cotton balls contain few calories, they contain no useful nutrients, and are in fact indigestible by the human body, leading to various health complications such as intestinal obstructions and malnutrition. To make matters worse, many cotton balls are treated with bleach and other chemicals since they’re, you know, not meant to be eaten.

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3. The Vision Diet

What could be less appealing than a tasty bowl of pasta? A tasty bowl of blue pasta.

Participants of the Vision Diet wear blue- or green-tinted glasses while eating in order to make their food appear less appetizing and, as a result, eat less of it. The creator noticed that red and yellow foods appear appetizing (which may be why so may fast food logos incorporate these colors), so blue-tinting foods could hopefully make them appear less tasty and make dieters less likely to engorge themselves. Unfortunately, testing of this diet has revealed no change in the amount participants wearing the glasses will eat.

Interestingly enough, there is a vision-related diet that does help dieters eat up to 10% less. Reportedly, dieters wearing special augmented reality glasses that make their food appear larger will eat less food, and dieters wearing glasses that make their food appear smaller will eat up to 15% more.

Unfortunately, only the first pair of glasses is actually on the market.

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2. Breatharianism

The easiest way to lose weight is to eat nothing. Just ask Tom Hanks in Castaway!

Breatharianism is the belief that humans can subsist off of sunlight and prana. While some Breatharians recognize prana as the force of life in Hinduism, some believe that the major source of prana is generated by an immense invisible spaceship hovering over North America.

This diet has become notable for the number of deaths of its practitioners by dehydration, starvation, and malnutrition. According to the RationalWiki article on Breatharianism, “anyone claiming to live on light and/or air alone is most certainly lying. In 1983, most of the leadership of the movement in California resigned when Wiley Brooks, a notable proponent of breatharianism, was caught sneaking into a hotel and ordering a chicken pie. Under controlled conditions where people are actually watched to see if they can do it without sneaking some real food, they fail.”

Don’t invest your time in impossible diets. Hey, speaking of impossible diets…

Learn More and even more

1. The Slimming Soap Diet

This diet makes the top of the list for being both ludicrous and exploitative. Yes, a soap was actually marketed as a ‘slimming soap’: that is, as a soap that will make you slimmer if you wash with it. Fat sits right under the skin, so slimming soap could ideally penetrate through skin and smooth you down from the outside in. This would be much easier than the inconvenient alternative: eating well and exercising.

You can’t make this stuff up!

Well, that’s obviously not true, considering someone fabricated this entire diet trend. Believe it or not, it actually caught on, and it’s still in use today. I’m sure you’ve heard of anti-cellulite cream.

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So there you have it, my list of the top 12 least effective, arguably silly diet trends that people have actually used in hopes to shave off weight.

What’s in a label? The relationship between nutritional content and food packaging.

I’ve spent a lot of time exploring how nutrition marketing influences the way we as consumers perceive a product (Exhibits A, B, and C). Even so, I hadn’t devoted much time to researching how nutrition and health marketing relates to the actual nutritional content of the food. I started to wonder if there was a relationship between how aggressively a product is marketed and how healthy the product truly is.

I planned a trip to the local supermarket to do some window shopping. My idea was to look at the front labels of packaged food items, record all of the health/nutrition marketing claims I could see, and record the food’s content of sodium, saturated fat, and sugar. I hoped to be able to find some trend between the frequency and types of health/nutrition marketing used and the actual nutritional content of the food. I was particularly interested in the labeling of foods that are meant to stand in as a full meal, so I surveyed a number of frozen dinners.

I was strangely disappointed to find that the frozen dinners were extremely responsible in their nutrition marketing. Most of the frozen dinners either had very little nutrition/health marketing at all or were entirely honest about the health benefits they provided.

On my way out, I took a stroll through the frozen breakfast section out of curiosity, and was amazed to find exactly the sort of outrageous marketing I had been looking for. Almost every box of frozen waffles, sausages, or egg sandwiches was stamped with one or more claims about the product’s nutritional content or health value.

I reworked my project: now, my plan was to compare the frequency of nutrition/health marketing claims on the packages of frozen breakfasts, frozen dinners, and prepackaged lunches (of which there were few).

The results are below.

Nutritional/Health
Claim
Frozen Breakfast
(N = 35)
Frozen Dinner
(N = 31)
Packaged Lunch
(N = 17)
Good Source Of… 9 0 2
Low… 5 1 3
Multigrain 6 0 0
Whole Grain 11 4 2
x Grams of Protein 3 4 0
Healthy 0 2 1
No Artificial Flavors/Colors 6 4 2
No High Fructose Corn Syrup 2 3 0
Natural 8 6 1
TOTAL 50 24 11
# OF NUTRITIONAL/HEALTH CLAIMS
No Claims 7 11 9
One Claim 11 16 5
Two Claims 12 4 3
Three Claims 5 0 0

As my first walk through the frozen section had suggested, nutrition/health marketing was much more common among the frozen breakfasts than either the frozen dinners or prepackaged lunches. In fact, the average frozen breakfast label had over double the nutrition/health claims as the average frozen dinner label.

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The majority of packages in all three categories have one or fewer claims. Only frozen breakfast labels were seen to have as many as three claims on a single label.

OBSERVATIONS

Overall, frozen breakfast were most likely to make health claims regarding a single nutrient, such as “a good source of calcium”, or “no high fructose corn syrup.”

Frozen dinners make common use of terms such as “hearty” or “now with 80% more x“. These terms were used more frequently than actual health- or nutrition-related terms. This leads me to believe that designers of frozen dinner packages expect consumers to be more interested in how much food they will be getting for their money rather than in how healthy the food is.

Packaged lunches were similar to frozen breakfasts in their use of nutritional claims regarding a single nutrient in the food (either containing plenty of or none of the nutrient in question). Packaged lunches were also more likely to make heavy use of non-health or -nutrition marketing terms such as “convenient” or “portable”, which makes sense, as they were the only variety of food intended to be eaten outside of the home.

As suspected, most nutrition or health claims ran in brands. A brand was either very likely to use a specific claim, or not at all likely. For example, all three frozen dinners advertising the protein content of the product were from the Tyson brand.

“Healthy” was the least-frequently used term across all three categories, and “Whole Grain” was the most frequently used. “Natural” was commonly used to refer to a single ingredient of the food, such as “All-Natural White Meat Chicken”.

In the end, while I still don’t know much about how nutrition and health marketing relates to the actual healthiness of the product, I have learned a great deal more about how different types of meals are marketed to consumers. In the future, I would love to continue this research by extending it to iconography. I noticed that a lot of packages that made specific health claims usually incorporated images like fruits, skinny actors, or measuring tape to reinforce the claims. Similarly, there were a lot of full sentences and phrases that didn’t use a specific health/nutrition claim (so I couldn’t record them), but that carried obvious health or nutritional connotations such as “start the day off right!” or “feel great all day long.”

It would be interesting to conduct a similar study to examine use of such phrases and images. A challenge for another time!

The Vegetable Monster

My Mom put a lot of effort into raising a well-rounded child. I took piano lessons, worked hard in school, and watched a lot of Spanish Sesame Street. (This was well before the era of Dora the Explorer.)

Yes, I watched Spanish Sesame Street. In case you’re wondering, Spanish Cookie Monster sounds pretty much the same as English Cookie Monster, though ‘me come galleta’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Next to Elmo, Grover, and Big Bird, Cookie Monster is one of the great idols of children’s television. Sesame Street complemented preschool in the molding of young minds, and within the cast of a show that taught children how to share, respect their elders, get along with their siblings, and tell the truth, a cookie-gobbling monster felt increasingly out of place. Faced with the childhood obesity epidemic earning mainstream media attention, Cookie Monster was forced to choose between his favorite snack and his duty to educate the impressionable youngsters.

It seemed the cookies had lost.

Now, Cookie Monster can be seen eating clementines, consorting with talking vegetables, and even learning to resist his cookie cravings.

This was a controversial move to veteran Sesame Street fans, who remember the blue furball’s cookie-scarfing fondly. Some viewers were sad to see a beloved icon undergo such a dramatic rework, one that undermined the foundation of his entire character (I mean, come on. His name is literally the Cookie Monster). More dramatically, some “compared Cookie Monster to historical figures forced to recant their heretical religious beliefs, or celebrity drug defendants sentenced to make anti-drug commercials, and other debatable social experiments” (Hartman, 2011). Rumors circulated that cookie monster would be renamed the ‘veggie’ monster, as did edited images of the cookie monster sporting a green recolor.

Many expressed legitimate concerns over the blue puppet’s sudden character change. K.L. Marsala, for Canada Free Press, expresses the need for health education to come first and foremost from the child’s parents (Hartman, 2011). “If Cookie Monster is going to be the spokesmonster and begin the indoctrination process starting at the age of infancy — what will our poor confused children of the future become?” Marsala wrote. “Will their disorders be starvation related or obesity related? Either way they’re headed for problems.”

Valid as these concerns are, and while it is true that parents must have some responsibility for the habits of their children, Cookie Monster has not forsaken cookies, nor will he be undertaking a juice cleanse anytime soon. The blue, googly-eyed monster loves his favorite chocolatey treat just as much as ever, but unlike before, he now has the willpower to moderate his diet.

Don’t believe me? Just watch Cookie Monster’s interview with Matt Lauer in which he dismisses the rumors that he’s completely sworn off cookies.

 

 

Sesame Street has no intention of having the Cookie Monster swear off his favorite treat. Cookie Monster teaches children about the importance of eating from multiple food groups rather than to neglect their cravings and turn their backs on sweets entirely, which has been shown to be destructive.

In an interview with WebMD, Larrian Gillespie explains why this is. “‘It takes a week to lose two pounds,’ she says, ‘yet you can eat [those two pounds] on in a day. If you keep telling yourself not to eat something, you will just get in a cycle of hopelessness and eat things you don’t need'” (Lawrence, Zelman, 2004).

It seems that Cookie Monster has found a happy medium between eating what he wants and eating what his body needs. Personally, I am optimistic that this realization Cookie Monster has made will show children that they’re still allowed to love candy and sweets and ice cream, just as long as you don’t love them to the point of exclusivity. As he now sings, ‘Cookies are a sometimes food.’

And that’s okay.

 

Sources

Hartman, P. (2011, February 23). The Cookie Monster Controversy – Where Do You Stand? Retrieved May 06, 2016, from http://childhoodobesitynews.com/2011/02/23/the-cookie-monster-controversy/

Lawrence, J., Zelman, K. M. (2004, October 18). When It Comes To Sweets, Never Say Never. Retrieved May 05, 2016, from http://www.webmd.com/diet/when-it-comes-to-sweets-never-say-never

Cookie Monster Becomes Veggie Monster. (n.d.). Retrieved May 06, 2016, from http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/veggie.asp

Bernstein, L. (2014, February 28). How Cookie Monster Helps Promote Healthy Eating Habits. Retrieved May 06, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-lewis-bernstein/how-cookie-monster-helps-_b_4874714.html

Carter, C. J. (2005, April 8). Cookie Monster Changes His Tune. Retrieved May 05, 2016, from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/cookie-monster-changes-his-tune/

Battling The Obesity Crisis With A Ravenous Blue Monster And Singing Vegetables. (n.d.). Retrieved May 06, 2016, from http://www.sesameworkshop.org/what-we-do/our-initiatives/healthy-habits-for-life/

Melt off fat with these five easy steps!

Just kidding. I tricked you.

Wait, don’t leave! I might not have a simple, five-step program to help you squeeze into that <insert description of size> <insert item of clothing>, but I’m still full of good advice!

If you’ve ever looked for advice on the Internet (or even if you haven’t), I’m sure you’ve come across a similar headline proposing “<x> easy steps” to accomplish some shining, seemingly unattainable goal. Shed 30 pounds. Smooth out wrinkles. Get a six pack in three weeks. All with this one, simple trick, developed by a suburban mom! Doctors hate her!

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Let me put your mind at ease: it is very unlikely that ad providers on the Internet have figured out the secret to hack the human body. Still, you just have to click on it, don’t you?

I noticed a disgruntling phenomenon while doing research for my recent post on The French Paradox. I was probing Google with the search term “wine and the French Paradox” to explore the hypothesized health benefits of red wine. The first article to catch my attention bore the a tantalizing title: Skinny with wine: French Paradox diet. The article was surprisingly robust, exploring a few reasons for the mysterious effects of the French Paradox and only devoting a single short section to wine. However, an article bearing the title “potential sociological and medical explanations for the French Paradox” would garner many fewer readers than “how to stay skinny by drinking wine.”

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Sensationalist headlines aren’t exactly newsworthy (pardon the pun), nor can we fault bloggers for their desire to ensnare as many readers as possible. However, cleverly-worded titles aren’t the only ways in which content creators can skew information on the Internet.

The most dangerous form of sensationalism on the Internet may stem from our desire to make health something that it isn’t: black and white. We crave answers: is some food item healthy, or isn’t it? Will this diet or habit make that crucial difference? We’re always searching for that miracle solution; reading into the nuances and in-betweens is time-consuming, confusing, and often leaves us feeling that there is no right answer. It’s no wonder that readers prefer to click on articles with a headline that promises solutions and cuts out the messy gray areas! “Skinny with wine?” Yes, please! “An analysis of the health benefits and drawbacks of red wine consumption?” No, thanks!

Another food that has been subjected to this treatment is dark chocolate. Even WebMD is getting in on the trend! This article is actually named “Dark chocolate is healthy chocolate”! Yes, dark chocolate has fantastic properties, but I am willing to bet that someone out there read a headline like this and thought “wow, I can finally justify eating all of this chocolate!”

It doesn’t help that we generally use the Internet as a confirmation bias engine.

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If I search “dark chocolate is healthy”, the Internet will make it so!

It’s time we sorted out the difference between having health benefits and being healthy. A strawberry tart has health benefits due to its strawberry crown. A strawberry tart is not healthy.

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But it has all of this fruit on top!

As I learned from my Dad, there is no pure healthy and unhealthy. Beans are full of fiber and protein, but can cause leaky gut if improperly prepared. Collard greens are wonderful for lowering cholesterol, but may occasionally contain high levels of lead. Kombucha has helpful probiotics that can aid your stomach or upset it.

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Still think healthy eating can be black-and-white issue?

Should you be worried? No! People have survived under these gray-area health conditions for… well, as long as there have been people. The difference between now and then is the large quantity of research materials we have at our fingertips. Don’t fall into the shallow trap of sensationalism when there are so many other excellent resources that don’t shy away from the facts just for a few extra clicks.

So next time you read an article claiming that red wine “stops the effects of a high-fat diet“, take it with a grain of salt and remember that, unfortunately, health is not this simple, and that’s what makes it interesting!

The French Paradox

My boyfriend is eyeing me uneasily from the couch as I chow down on a bowl of sautéed onions. This is, to him, one of my stranger quirks; he insists that nobody else sits down to a meal of solitary onions. They are missing out!

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One well-known form of the versatile onion.

To many, onions are good for three things: topping burgers, lining rings of fried batter, and accompanying sour cream in potato chip seasoning. Despite their association with so many unhealthy foods, onions are a secret powerhouse. As I took to Google to recite their benefits to my onion-averse boyfriend, I found myself sidetracked by a web headline reading “Are Onions Responsible for the French Paradox?”

The what?

According to a mouthful of a sentence from Wikipedia, the French paradox “summarizes the apparently paradoxical epidemiological observation that French people have a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD), while having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats.” Many doctors believe (with strong supporting evidence) that the consumption of saturated fats is a major risk factor for developing CHD. Well, then why don’t we see much higher rates of CHD in France, a country well-known for its buttery pastries, creamy pastas, and rich cheeses?

That’s the French Paradox.

How is my favorite abnormal snack food related? According to the original article, onions contain compounds that improve blood lipid profiles, that decrease blood vessel stiffness, and that have anti-clotting properties. It submits that the consumption of onions may “reduce blood pressure, inhibit platelet clot formation, and help decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular diseases, and stroke.” It also points out that the French diet features onions prominently.

While this may be a contributing factor to the puzzling paradox, I have a hard time believing that this vegetable, amazing as it is, writes off all CHD diagnosis disparities between the French and other saturated fat-loving countries. Other explanations for the French Paradox have been proposed, such as the butyric acid contained in cheeses and, most famously, the piceatannol and resveratrol in red wine.

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This robust article also points out some cultural differences between the French and Americans that may contribute to lower incidences of CHD in France, such as their tendency to eat more leisurely meals, and the smaller average size of French portions.

Salon also has an interesting, if pessimistic, take on the French Paradox that supposes it’s only a matter of time before French rates of heart disease “catch up” to those of the Americans. Less interesting answers have also been proposed: Malcolm Law and Nicholas Wald, in their analysis, attribute as many as 20% of CHD-related deaths in France to undercertification of the disease. That is, as many as 20% of French deaths that would have been attributed to CHD in America or UK are classified otherwise.

To some, the French Paradox is hardly interesting at all; this blogger doesn’t believe that there is necessarily a causal relationship between saturated fats and heart disease at all, thereby rendering the paradox a nonissue.

Whatever the true reason for it, I find it fascinating that after decades of study this “paradox” is still baffling dietitians and sociologists. The topic of health is so vast, complex, and contentious that CHD incidence rates have been attributed to lifestyle choices, portion sizes, wine, onions, time, misdiagnosis, and to nothing at all.

It’s unlikely that we will discover the true nature of this “paradox” for quite some time. Still, even if they are unlikely to explain the French Paradox, at least I feel justified in indulging in my favorite weird snack.

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If you really want to dig deep, check out this Harvard study that really gets into the nitty-gritty about the benefits of resveratrol. It’s interesting stuff!