Real Life 101, Lesson 15: Dieting, Fitness and Nutrition – do you know the difference?

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the fifteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

(Note: If you like this, you might also like Lesson 7 and Lesson 11.)

Young adults, you cannot get online without see articles on dieting, fitness and nutrition. Do you know the difference?

I confess I find it confusing at times. I know people think dieting must make them healthier. It can, but it can also make you sick. In some cases, if done without medical supervision, it can even kill you. So dieting is not necessarily healthy. I also know people who eat very nutritiously and yet it hasn’t made them any healthier. In addition, I know people who get plenty of exercise yet who are unhealthy. All these practices contribute to good health, but none of them guarantee health. Each has their pitfalls and misconceptions. Voluminous media reports on the latest scientific studies only muddles answers. I may be able to help you see through the mist a bit.

Let’s start with dieting. My bet is that any one time, most Americans are either on a diet or wish they had the willpower to go on a diet. They want to lose weight because the media drums it into them that being overweight or obese is unhealthy. They figure: if I can get to a normal weight, I’ll be healthy!

This is not necessarily true. I see many skinny things that are not healthy at all. Maybe it is because they smoke, take narcotics, are anorexic or never exercise. Having normal or below normal weight does not mean you are healthy and dieting to achieve a normal weight may or may not leave you healthier. You can be morbidly obese and still be healthy, with low cholesterol and blood pressure. However, a normal weight combined with good nutrition and regular exercise dramatically raises the probability that you will enjoy a healthy and a long life. Yet, there are never any guarantees. Even the healthiest person can contract a cancer or pick up a virulent infectious disease. Dieting alone is not a solution to your health. It is one of many means that may allow you to be healthy.

A legitimate diet followed rigorously will lower your weight. Nothing else is guaranteed. Losing weight is simple, but not necessarily easy. You must burn more calories than you take in. Diet plans merely offer different approaches for losing weight, but they can only succeed if you burn more calories than you ingest. Losing weight is often associated with reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, among other welcome changes, but there is no guarantee that these healthy goals will be achieved by losing weight.

Dieters often make the mistake of thinking they can lose weight by exercising more while they diet, reasoning they will burn more calories and thus take off weight more quickly. The research is now compelling: exercising has a number of healthful benefits but it may defeat your attempts to lose weight, at least if done to excess. If you do a lot of heavy work, like chopping wood, your blood sugar is lowered. This may cause your body to taunt you to eat more food to make up for the extra calories you burned. You may end up healthier from the exercise but your diet may fail. Over the years, I have experienced this, and I have seen it happen to too many of my friends as well. If you really want to lose weight, I would avoid the heavy cardiovascular exercises until after I was at my desired weight. Especially if I were obese, I would check with my doctor first about doing any heavy cardiovascular exercises.

Exercise, while a healthy practice, is actually a very inefficient way to burn calories. The vast majority of your calories are engaged in a much more Herculean task: maintaining your body. How inefficient is exercise? Men’s Health Magazine recently estimated that to consume a popular six hundred calorie entree, you would have to walk the stairs from the ground floor of the Empire State building to the observation deck twice. So counting calories to lose weight is much more effective than vigorously exercising and dieting, as it is more likely to succeed. Choosing mild, moderate or even no exercise is probably more effective at succeeding at dieting than heavy exercising. The most effective way to lose weight is actually simple: consume many measured, small mini-meals during the day so you never get hungry.

Is there a point to fitness given that it may not help you lose weight? Yes! Assuming you are exercising correctly, not overdoing things and not overly stressing joints and such, you are likely to have fewer aches and pains, you will feel a lot better and will have more energy to engage in life. If it’s been a long time since you have felt that way, you will be amazed how wonderful you will feel after a couple weeks of moderate exercising. In fact, the value of exercise arguably increases with age. What is the key factor for living to ninety and still being in good health? Good genetics certainly helps, but falling is what often kills or disables old people who haven’t succumbed to other disease. What causes most falls? It is a lack of exercise, both walking religiously and strengthening the muscles that maintain your balance, such as your thigh and hip muscles. My father, age 84, remains an avid and religious walker. He may be 84, but he goes to the gym regularly. That he walks without a stoop is proof of the value of regular exercise late in life.

While exercise is in general good, exercise is vastly improved by marrying it with good nutrition. Eating healthy while not exercising and being obese may help a little, but if you suffer from problems like high blood pressure, it is likely not a cure. As I mentioned in Lesson 7, nutrition is about giving your body the right stuff so that it can work optimally. If you are overweight or don’t exercise, it may make symptoms like adult diabetes less chronic, but it will probably not solve the problem. Proper nutrition does help you think clearer, feel better about yourself and aids all parts of the body.

Putting this all together: diet to lose weight but as a part of a plan to keep yourself at a healthy weight for life. Yo-yo dieting is not healthy, and may be worse than not dieting at all. Exercise to feel better and so that you can live a long life with minimal health issues. Eat nutritiously so that your body is primed to work optimally.

While these are foundations to health, there are also many other factors that contribute to health. Washing your hands regularly, flu shots, dental checkups, physicals, getting eight hours of sleep a night and avoiding many of the preventable stresses in life, like toxic bosses also contribute enormously to your good health. Your goal should be optimal mental and physical health. All these strategies help achieve it but none of them by themselves guarantees it.

My sad prediction for today’s “biggest losers”

The Thinker by Rodin

My blog seems to be on something of a health kick lately. This is because over the last year I have been dealing with more than my usual number of health issues. It’s not just me. This week, my mother in law complained of chest pains. Doctors found a blockage near her heart and put in an emergency stint. She then suffered a heart attack that was followed a day later by another and worse heart attack. She was technically dead for ten minutes until they finally managed to restart her heart. She is still in intensive care and is delusional, a condition I saw my own mother go through since she also suffered from congestive heart failure. Her long-term prospects look dubious, but she is about eighty years old. She is fortunate to be alive in any condition, because she made lifetime habits of smoking and not exercising. My wife plans to fly out to Phoenix tomorrow to be with her mother. Her return date is unknown. If all this close-to-home health news were not enough, one of my sisters called me today to tell me that she has been diagnosed with the onset of adult diabetes.

So feeling my mortality, I am focused on healthy living, as are many other people including First Lady Michele Obama. Obama is busy planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, demonstrating healthy eating and fitness, and working to end childhood obesity. This is long overdue but of course, this being America, there is fierce resistance. The processed food industry is all up in arm about taxing nutritionally empty foods like soda that give us sugar highs and put us prematurely into the hospital. I heard one C-SPAN caller the other morning (a self professed Tea Party member) dreadfully upset that “big government” was trying to regulate sodium in our food and was thinking about raising taxes on nutritionally empty foods like sugared sodas. To me these are “better late than never” proposals, but it makes other American hopping mad. I wonder if they also object to nutritional information on packaged food. Apparently, it is more important to be nutritionally ignorant and cause millions to die prematurely and deal with wholly preventable diseases than it is to increase the size of government. You have to wonder if the nutritionally empty crap these people are likely eating is affecting their judgment.

I avoid “reality” TV shows but about a year ago, while stuck in a hotel room, I watched an entire episode of The Biggest Losers, which now has many international spinoffs. As with most of these “reality” shows, it seems to be much more about fostering unhealthy relationships between fellow contestants than losing weight. The more weight your team loses, the “better” you are doing. The grand prize of $250,000 would certainly be nice to win, but at what price? In any event, in addition to the constant sniping you can watch contestants downing protein shakes, dehydrating themselves, working with personal trainers and engaging in the vigorous cardiovascular exercise they ignored most of their lives.

If you are obese, losing weight is usually vital for your long-term health. If you are overweight, it is also a good idea. Still, losing twenty, 40, 80 and in some cases more than 100 pounds is not by itself healthy. First, if the calories you are ingesting are not nutritious, you are not being good to your body. Second, as I discovered, dehydration can result in syncopes (fainting spells), falls, concussions and even death. No wonder Biggest Loser contestants in case they should they end up in the hospital or drop dead sign forms disclaiming NBC from all responsibility. Perhaps the most likely thing that will happen when you lose weight is that soon after the cameras are tracking your progress, you will quickly rebound, putting back the weight you gained and often more, such as happened to actress Kirstie Alley. Arguably, if you were just going to gain it back, you might have been better off not dieting in the first place.

Granted I only watched one episode, but what I saw on The Biggest Losers appalled me. Not only does the extreme competition glorify sniping at fellow team members (hardly the sort of harmonious living the Dalai Lama would encourage) but extremely rapid dieting almost guarantees that you will gain back the weight. A real competition for The Biggest Losers would not emphasize how much weight contestants lost per week, but track the contestants on how long they maintained a healthy weight, ate sensibly and followed a moderate exercise regime. The show should reward those who took off lots of weight in a sensible manner: by taking off a pound a week. They should reward those who have also successfully kept the weight off. This, of course, would make for very uninteresting television, but seeing how others did it would be very instructive to the sixty percent of us either overweight or obese.

How do people manage to lose and keep the weight off? My last post is perhaps instructive, but my method is but one of many. Methods that work will be tailored to the personality of the person and work with their eating and exercise preferences. Like alcoholism, I see obesity as a lifelong disease. I will forever be at risk of being overweight and obese. It is only through incorporating effective eating and exercise strategies into my life in a natural way that I will succeed in my real goal: being at a normal weight and remaining at a normal weight. Of course, I want all this, plus I want to be fit, to have a healthy heart, get optimal nutrition and never have to worry about high blood pressure or high cholesterol. I want to pass away gently in my sleep sometime in my nineties. I’ve kind of figured out this means I won’t be eating many French fries or getting double cones at Baskin Robbins.

In sum up, The Biggest Losers contestants are almost predestined to be tomorrow’s biggest gainers, an inconvenient fact that the producers will not bother to highlight. What we need is much more clinical research into the best techniques for losing and maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, we need research on staying optimally healthy while spending our working days in office buildings typing on keyboards.

I would like to see billboards highlighting people who have taken off significant amounts of weight and have successfully maintained a healthy weight for five, ten or more years. These billboards should come with URLs to websites so people can learn more about how they did it. Like Miss America contestants, these real Biggest Losers should tour American classrooms and give public lectures spreading their gospel. Maybe this way, along with reducing sodium, calorie and fat content in our foods and restaurants and encouraging fitness both at home and work, Americans will revert to being fit and healthy again.

I would not waste your time looking for useful tips on how you can weather our obesity crisis by watching The Biggest Losers. Instead, you might want to make an appointment with your physician.

Devour these sites

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s a food jungle out there and you as a consumer are at a distinct disadvantage. Most packaged goods available in supermarkets at least have standard labeling. Eat out, which most of us do at least several times a week, and you generally have no idea how many calories you are consuming. It’s not just calories that have major consequences on our health, but also the fat, sugar, sodium and absence of dietary fiber in these foods.

Not all restaurants are evil. Many of the major fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Wendy’s are at least courteous enough to post the information on a wall in their restaurants. It is often on the side somewhere, and the type may be small, but at least it is there. Most restaurants will deliberately leave you in the dark. If you take the time to go to their web sites, you may find nutritional information there. Most restaurants, like, America’s quintessential neighborhood bar Applebees, prefer to leave you obese and ignorant. After all, if you knew just how caloric and toxic their food was, you would never patronize the place.

For someone like me who is back to a normal weight and plans to remain there, navigating through these endless food choices is like walking through a minefield. In part, I am succeeding because I eat out a lot less. At places I eat at all the time, like the cafeteria at work, I have learned and stick to the safe foods: the salad bar and the broth oriented soups. Yet, sometimes I cannot escape encounters with unhealthy restaurants. This weekend, because my daughter turned twenty, we let her pick a restaurant to celebrate. Being young and immortal, my daughter naturally chose one of the greasiest of joints, Red Robin in this case. Red Robin, like Applebees, prefers that you remain nutritionally ignorant. What is a smart restaurant consumer supposed to do?

One could buy one of the many books on the market that estimate the nutrition in dishes at popular restaurants, although regional chains may or may not be in these books. Most of us though don’t have time to buy these books or carry them around with us. They are also of limited value because restaurants tend to change their menus regularly. However, you could go to CalorieKing.com. That’s where I went Sunday to figure out what food I could eat at Red Robin that would not spike my blood sugar nor expand my waistline.

CalorieKing.com of course would prefer that you buy one of their many books too. However, you can also use their search engine and it will often give you the nutritional lowdown. It is quite comprehensive. If you choose a national or regional restaurant chain, they most likely have the nutritional information in their database. I typed “Red Robin” into their search engine. It was somewhat tedious but I was able to browse through seven or so pages of items available at Red Robin. As I feared, although the restaurant’s food is undeniably tasty, it is one big fat and calorie cluster bomb. With a couple exceptions, even their salad should come with blinking red warning lights.

For example, you would think a turkey burger would be safe and healthy choice, right? Turkey is low in fat. Not so fast! In the calorie intensive and lard-loaded world of Red Robin, it is 704 calories, contains 43 grams of fat and has just 3 grams of fiber. (Naturally, the bun is not made with whole wheat so it, along with the fries, will quickly spike your blood sugar.) The Whiskey River Barbeque Burger? 975 calories. Many of their burgers easily top 1000 calories. Naturally fries come with the meal but are not included in the calorie count. Consume just two and a half turkey burgers, without eating any fries or a drink and the average woman has already consumed all her daily calories.

A generation ago, people went to places like McDonalds or A&W and ate what were then considered to be normally-sized hamburgers. While not exactly healthy, by themselves they were unlikely to expand your waistline. A plain McDonald’s hamburger, for example, is 250 calories. A small order of French fries is 231 calories. With a 2000 calorie a day diet, this was a reasonable meal. Unbelievably, there was a time before the Big Macs and the Quarter Pounders with Cheese when plain hamburgers and cheeseburgers were what we ate when we went to a burger joint, and we were completely satisfied by our portions. The word “supersize” had not yet been invented.

I am no fan of McDonalds, but I wish I could have persuaded my daughter to go there instead. I ended up eating Red Robin’s Garden Burger, still pretty hefty at 422 calories and 18 grams of fat. CalorieKing.com does not list the calories in the fries they place on the side of your plate, but it was likely in the 300-400 calorie range. Had I eaten at McDonalds I could have likely saved myself at least 300 calories, enjoyed some meat, and likely would have been just as satisfied.

Aside from eating out less, it helps to get regular information to keep you mindful of your eating choices. EatThis.com is my favorite web site for this kind of information. It is a treasure of practical information, attractively arranged, interesting to read and you might say, easily digestable. For most of us, trying to estimate calories is more hassle than it is worth. What we need are some good strategies. EatThis.com offers an email newsletter to which I subscribed. Most days I get a colorful email where they offer some particular advice, and warn you about a particular toxic food while providing a healthier alternative. The articles are often packed with useful information. For example, most of us are unaware that blueberries are both oh so healthy (stuffed with antioxidants) and great brain food. Perhaps I should encourage my students to have a cup of blueberries before their test on Saturday.

EatThis.com, in addition to publishing some handy books of their own that I find useful and fun to browse, also attempts to rate restaurants. Unfortunately, it does not keep a comprehensive and up to date list of all items on all popular restaurants, but it can help you make informed choices. It also rates chain restaurants based on how nutritious their food is and how well they help you make informed dietary choices. Browsing the Restaurant and Grocery tabs on their web pages, or simply using their search engine, could easily save you thousands of unneeded calories a year. I often learn things I did not expect. For example, did you know a cup of Wendy’s chili is reasonably healthy and high in fiber? The site also includes areas for kids, great swaps for various kinds of food that are less caloric and healthier but taste just as good, as well as extensive articles and tips that help you navigate the caloric landmines all around us.

I look forward to reading their near daily emails, and frequently follow the links to the articles of interest. Slowly I am becoming an informed eater. While the news is mostly unsettling (it is amazing the extent to which restaurants go to make us obese), it is also hopeful and full of pragmatic advice.

Until we get some common sense restaurant labeling laws, your health may depend on regularly reading sites like these.

Do you have a better web site to recommend? If so please leave a comment.

Real Life 101, Lesson 11: The skinny on nutrition

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the eleventh in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

An indigent and obese friend of my wife tonight sits critically ill in a hospital in Lanchester County, Pennsylvania, her abdomen a mass of bloated polyps and at least one large tumor. She has had one surgery already that removed many of them and is scheduled for another shortly, however her prognosis for a full recovery is almost nonexistent. She is in her fifties. What is unstated, but is quite possible, is that she is dying. With so many masses in her abdomen, the chance that one of them is malignant is very high.

I have met her only twice. While a nice person, she appears to have spent a lifetime treating her body with contempt. Between her regular smoking (which she only recently she gave up) and the voluminous crap she has been eating over the years, she passively chose the miserable experience that she is now enduring. (Yes, I am aware obesity is a disease like alcoholism. It required treatment that it appears she either could not afford or refused.) She also chose the substandard life she has lived these many years because the result was she became officially disabled and is hobbled by her obesity. Her joints often hurt. She is rarely mobile enough to even take a shower, and she is able to move only with great effort. She is morbidly obese.

When she visited us recently, she asked her partner to make a run through the local Burger King drive thru. I do not know whether her partner indulged her or not, but it is clear that to her junk food has the lure of a narcotic. Like too many of us overweight and obese Americans, she is addicted to stuff that seems destined to kill her prematurely.

I hope all that food and nicotine that she enjoyed earlier in her life is worth the pain, misery, inconvenience and heartache that she is now experiencing and has been experiencing for probably at least a decade. What is clear is that she allowed these forces to control her, rather than the other way around. Had she embraced other choices earlier in her life she might have a couple more quality decades of a life ahead of her. She might have the time to watch her young granddaughter, who she dotes on, graduate college. She may also have enjoyed much more the last few decades instead of being hobbled by the consequences of these addictions.

Particularly in your younger years, the consequences of eating pizza, drinking sugar-rich beers and sodas, and smoking are fully reversible. As you age, the effect of these choices takes an increasingly larger toll on your body. The probability of gaining control over these demons lessens too with age.

Many young adults reach maturity with little to no training on nutrition. Maybe they studied the USDA food pyramid in class, but it is unlikely they received the coaching to use it effectively. The more I learn about nutrition in my middle years, the more I understand how complex it is. What is clear is that temptations abound, and the unhealthy food is artificially cheap. Paradoxically, the healthy food is increasingly more expensive.

How do young adults in particular navigate the complex issue of basic nutrition, particularly when their forebrain tells them they should eat healthy but their emotional side has them craving a processed food diet? Perhaps it starts with some understanding of what nutrition is. Based on younger adults in my own family who shall remain nameless, I don’t think most teenagers and young adults really understand. On one level, they may understand there are “bad foods” and that they tend to be the ones they want. They may also infer that “good foods” are boring and not very tasty.

The essence of nutrition is readily understandable. It is about giving your body the food it needs to operate optimally. It is also about giving your body the right amount of food so that you can maintain a healthy weight. The good thing about eating nutritious food is that it tends to naturally correct the desire to overeat. Conversely, one of the many bad things about unhealthy food is that it tends to make you want to eat more of it. You can enjoy an apple. Will a tasty apple make you reach for a second? Perhaps. Will one slice of pizza be enough? Probably not.

What is the difference? Aside from the ingredients in an apple, which are either benign or healthy, and a pizza, which is overloaded with saturated fats and quickly absorbed carbohydrates, an apple has two important attributes. First, it is not calorie dense, which means there are fewer calories for the same volume of food compared with a pizza. An apple also is rich in something called dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is simply benign non-food, or bulk if you will. It has zero calories because it is not absorbed; it just passes through you. While it does not go to your waist, dietary fiber is also good because roughage helps keep you regular and reduces your chances of colon cancer.

If an apple were a candle, it would burn slow and steady. A pizza is more like a fuse. It burns brightly and quickly. Because a pizza’s carbohydrates and fat are readily absorbed (they are rather simple), the excess is not needed by the body, so it tends to get stored instead. In addition, since the carbohydrates are quickly absorbed, your blood sugar will spike and then drop like a rock, and you will feel hungrier. You get a double whammy and unsurprisingly your waistline is likely to expand.

Nutritious food is also often loaded with natural vitamins and minerals. Many fast or processed foods are enriched with vitamins. Does this make them healthy? No, these foods are no healthier than eating a wheat donut is healthy. In other words, these processed foods still have virtually all the bad stuff, and the manufacturers are hoping to convince you that by adding vitamins and minerals it has morphed itself into something healthy. It’s still junk.

If you are overweight or obese, you might think that exercise will take off the pounds even if you keep eating the same fast and processed foods you are used to eating. Yet, most people who try this strategy fail. Why? Because exercise also depletes the body’s immediate stores of energy, i.e. your blood sugar. Your body will try to make up the difference by burning fat, but it will also send a strong signal to your brain: feed me. Exercise is still good, but you need to do it smartly. Eat a small snack with slow burning carbohydrates before and after exercise instead, this way you will not feel so hungry. While exercise has many healthy aspects to it, it is not a silver bullet for losing weight. In particular, if you are trying to lose weight, exercise in moderation, as too much exercise will simply drive you to eat more calories. Eating the same processed food you always ate while regularly exercising will not help your body be healthy either. Nor does exercise add any nutrition to your diet, unless you exercise outside in the sunlight and catch a little free Vitamin D. Fifteen minutes a week of sunshine (skip the sunscreen) is all you need to get your Vitamin D.

And speaking of Vitamin D, there is likelihood that you are Vitamin D deficient. Many Americans are these days. Why? Because we have become indoor denizens. Our jobs put us in cubicles. Moreover, we prefer to be tethered to our televisions and computers. Vitamin D deficiency is bad because it puts you at even greater risk of health complications, and markedly increases the chance of acquiring heart disease in particular. At any age, you should never take your health for granted. Make sure you are getting regular physicals so you can detect and correct these problems early.

Do not feel proud of yourself if you do not smoke but you do overeat. The evidence is clear: overeating and eating the wrong foods is at least as unhealthy for you as smoking. Overeating can trigger cancers, just like smoking. You are unlikely to die from heart disease because of smoking, however you can die of either cancer or heart disease because of poor eating habits and overeating. If I had to choose between the two habits, I would take up smoking, as disagreeable as the idea is to me.

How do you learn new habits that will last a lifetime? There are plenty of programs out there but if I had to pick one, I would choose Weight Watchers, for reasons I document here. Need more help? Try this site and buy a couple of their books, which are widely available. I think you will find them quite insightful.

Please, think carefully about what you put into your mouth, why you really do it and the long-term consequences of sticking with your habit. It may be too late for my wife’s friend, but your life is just unfolding. Do not eat yourself into an early grave.

A Republican worth memorializing

The Thinker by Rodin

No question about it. Republicans are in the doghouse, for reasons I outlined recently. Even prominent Republicans like Tom Ridge, former secretary of Homeland Security, who could probably wrest the Pennsylvania senate seat from new “Democrat” Arlen Specter, prefer to just so no. The brand is badly tarnished. You have to look hard to find Republicans worthy of admiration.

You might expect that if I were to memorialize a Republican, I would memorialize former New York state representative and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, who passed away recently. There is no question that Kemp had a distinguished career, which included being Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 election. Kemp was certainly a decent man but I will let others memorialize Kemp. Instead, I wish to draw your attention to Robert B. Choate Jr., who passed away on May 3, 2009 at the age of 84. Choate was a Republican. Today he would no longer fit inside the much smaller tent that is today’s insular Republican Party. Choate was more of the Rockefeller type of Republican, a wing that has virtually been purged from the Republican Party.

Choate inherited most of his wealth from his father, who published a newspaper. In spite of being a Republican, he was a progressive in the best sense of the word. In the 1950s while traveling overseas, he contracted hepatitis. During his convalescence, he read the memoirs of civil rights leader Walter White. The book transformed Choate’s life. Through the memoir, Choate learned just how horrible poverty actually was. He vowed to do his part to reduce poverty. He was a major force in Washington for the hunger lobby and worked closely with organizations like Citizens Crusade Against Poverty. Because of his Republican credentials, during Richard Nixon’s term in office, he was appointed to work with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. There he led a groundbreaking study child nutrition in America.

What he discovered appalled him. In many cases, he learned that children had enough calories, but lacked basic nutrition. He quickly focused on breakfast cereals. He discovered that most breakfast cereals had plenty of sugar but little in the way of the nutrition required by a growing body. Today’s Republicans would leave this as a problem for the free market to solve or ignore. Instead, in 1970 Choate directly took on the nation’s cereal manufacturers. Choate coined the term “empty calories”, which defined foods high in calories but with little nutrition. Of the sixty cereals he studied, he found 40 of them were full of empty calories.

The cereal industry protested, but his doggedness was effective. Within years, cereal manufacturers added nutritional labels to their cereals. Today we take food labeling for granted. Yet without Choate at the vanguard, we might still be ignorant of the calories and lack of nutrition in the many packaged products that we eat.

Call him Mr. “Empty Calories”. His term has stuck with us these last forty years. It is almost impossible to discuss nutrition in America today without using the phrase. America is clearly in the grip of an obesity epidemic but thanks to Choate, we at least know why. Essentially, we are eating a lot of crap that our body doesn’t need. Moreover, because the food we eat tastes good but does not fill us up, we want to eat more of it, which means that our waistlines keep expanding.

Americans at last are starting to heed the advice that Choate promulgated nearly forty years ago. In the last decade, we have seen an explosion of supermarkets emphasizing organic foods high in nutrition and taste. While it is easier to find nutritional information for groceries, for the most part we do not have the same information about the food we eat in restaurants. I suspect if Choate were alive today that he would be pressing Congress to have restaurants disclose the nutritional information of their dishes.

Choate, a mere citizen activist, transformed America. Americans today live longer lives, but in many ways due to our poor eating and exercise habits, our quality of life has deteriorated. I am hoping I will be one of those Americans that take Choate’s advice to heart. For many of us who do, we can look forward to long and healthy lives, giving us many decades of an extended quality life to enjoy.

Many people are concerned about choosing life, but fewer are concerned ensuring our quality of life. For that, we can thank Robert B. Choate.