Do you want fries with that?
Is there a more beautiful sentence in the English language? They could be pencil-thin fries with super crisp outsides and practically nothing inside. They could be steak fries, meaty and large with plenty of fluffy, steaming potato bursting in each bite. They could be fried in beef tallow, roasted with garlic mayonnaise on the side, or even baked with a generous sprinkle of sea salt on top, and they would still emit their siren’s song, calling one and all.
Calling us to our doom, apparently. Or at least to obesity.
That was the conclusion of a federally funded study Harvard University conducted over a 20-year period. The findings were released last week in the New England Journal of Medicine (subscription required).
Fries were the evil enemy of the study, as they were associated with a 3.35-pound weight gain over four years.
Potato chips were bad, too, but here’s the really hard-to-digest news: Potatoes in any form packed on the pounds. That’s right: Boiled potatoes, baked potatoes, potato salad, mashed potatoes, baked potato chips … You name it; if it had potato attached to it, it was going to stick with you for a long, long time. You would even gain less weight eating cake than eating a baked potato with nothing on it, the study reported.
How can a potato with no fat and a host of beneficial vitamins and nutrients cause you to gain weight? The same way that fat-laden nuts (peanuts are not a nut) were cited among the good foods that cause you to lose weight, if eaten regularly. And the answer is, fat doesn’t cause fat. The body doesn’t work that simply. Not all fat grams are bad. Not all calories work the same way.
People not in the nutritional field have known this for ages. In the 19th century novel, “Anna Karenina,” the vain Count Vronsky rigidly adheres to a low-carbohydrate, eschewing potatoes in particular, as a way of maintaining his dashing officer’s figure. In “Vanity Fair,” one of Becky Sharp’s lovers follows the same path, though war proves more fatal than a potato to him.
When my doctor got after me recently about not monitoring my diabetes more closely, the first words out of his mouth were, “No potatoes, no white flour, no corn, no rice.” He didn’t include sugar on that list, because sugar isn’t as bad as the other foods mentioned. Why? Because sugar acts like sugar in the blood stream. It’s not great, but it doesn’t linger there like some time bomb waiting to screw up your system when it feels like it. The rest of those do.
Rice was not mentioned in the Harvard study, but refined white flour was. That would place many breads on the market (some whole wheat breads also include white flour, so you have to read labels closely or ask) and pasta on the list of baddies, though some at least one news agency (the Washington Post) that picked up on the story decided to show a white pasta salad as a healthy alternative.
Corn got its knocks indirectly. Sweet drinks, most made with corn syrup, caused weight gain as did red meat, which is raised on corn unless you are buying grass-fed.
Another factor related to weight gain was the amount of sleep one gets. If the total is either less than six hours a night or more than eight, then you should expect to be heavier. Smokers gained less, though the less said of that the better. (I gained plenty when I quit 19 years ago.) Those who had at least one alcoholic beverage a day were also more likely to add weight, though no breakdown was given of beer or wine versus hard liquor.
A few foods included in the weight loss study were, unsurprisingly, fruits and vegetables (potatoes are not a vegetable; get over it), whole grains and yogurt. Yogurt, in fact, was the biggest help with weight loss, though, once again, no information was offered on whether it was yogurt in general or a particular style (full fat versus fat-free).
The bottom line in terms of weight loss was another message people don’t want to hear: Exercise is the best diet there probably is. Those who walked instead of parking it in front of a TV or laptop keep the pounds off. So, I guess we should also get phones with access to the Internet and read articles like this while walking.