One danger of forward-dating posts is that between the point when you write it and when you post it, something hits the news that changes the reader’s perception of everything. Seriously, what are the odds that in the week in between my writing of a post involving fiber and it’s scheduled posting, that fiber would be in the news? Particularly the exact kind of fiber involved in the post?

Slate has an buyer-beware article on faux-fibers such as polydextrose and inulin. These don’t constitute real fiber, Jacob Gershman says, and Megan McArdle agrees. The implication, of course, is that people reading this need to go eat raw roots, nuts, and berries if they want to be healthy.

Unfortunately, I think this attitude has precisely the opposite effect. Instead of telling people what the true and good things to eat are, they sort of lead us to throw our hands in the air and say “What’s the point?” It’s sort of like that guy that, whenever you say so-and-so is bad, points to the alternative and says “that’s bad, too!” And we sort of end in this no-man’s land of nutritional post-modernism wherein whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Boiled roots and steamed beans are good for you. No one really contests that. And I get it. I get the notion that as long as I’m not eating things that I have no use for, I am a dietary sinner. I might as well be eating pig lard covered in triple-refined sugar.

One of the problems I have with the medical establishment in general is that they often have the perfect tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good. I tell my phys ed coach that I’m drinking orange juice, and I’m warned about the sugar. People get excited by new games and game systems like DDR and the Wii that encourage exercise and they go out of their way to say that the exercise isn’t as good as the exercise you might get on the treadmill. I half-expect them to complain that the treadmill isn’t as good as jogging, which isn’t as good as carrying logs, which isn’t as good as pushing boulders in persuit of building a cave.

The problem I have with this is that for most people, the alternative to natural orange juice is not prune juice, it’s Sunny Delight or Mountain Dew Livewire. The alternative to the Wii is the XBox. The alternative fake fiber is not a breakfast of… I actually don’t know of any breakfast that they haven’t told us is killing us at some point in the last ten years. Eggs, bacon, oats, orange juice. Maybe a pear and a grass salad is okay. Or eggs, if you strip it of the part that tastes good and don’t add anything to add taste (cause it probably contains sodium, which as well all know will kill you).

The more personal problem I have with it is that more than any other product I can think of, the one thing that has helped my life more than any other is the fake fiber discussed in this article.

When I moved to Cascadia, I made only one conscious dietary decision: to eat more fiber. I decided to do this with fiber-enriched FiberONE cereal. FiberONE contains inulin, which is discussed in the Slate article. Since making that decision, I have lost 35 pounds.

I drink three or four cokes a day. I eat McDonald’s for breakfast once a week. Donuts once a week. If I really want a burger or a couple pieces of pizza, I eat it. I put cheese in the canned pasta I not-infrequently have for dinner. I have not once said “That’s unhealthy. I shouldn’t eat that.” But the weight nonetheless came off.

It would be silly to attribute it all to the cereal. But what happened was the cereal replaced the far, far less healthy breakfasts that I had been eating. It got me to stop skipping The Most Important Meal of the Day. It kept my bowels regular. It suppressed my appetite. It got me started on the right foot. So when it came to lunch, unless I actively wanted something unhealthy, I would continue the trend that I set myself in the morning and get a boca burger. Since I’m less hungry (or have been hungry for less time), I’ll eat less.

If I had read this article before I’d made that decision, I never would have started eating the cereal. I mean, what’s the point? It’s not real fiber. You might get the impression reading the article that there was nothing worthwhile in the product at all. A waste of time. I might as well be eating at McDonald’s.

McArdle makes the comment that the FDA should release a statement saying “If it tastes that good, it isn’t good for you.”

In some people’s minds, it’s as though something tasting good is immaterial. Or that, if they really tried, they’d learn to like brussel sprouts. Maybe, if raised on it, they would.

But things like taste and convenience matter. They matter a great deal. Because without it, people will not continue to eat it. They will likely default to something far, far less healthy. If putting a cheese on a veggie burger makes me like it, it’s worth the added fat because it means that I will have liked my veggie burger and will eat it again. Struggling with no cheese or soy cheese may be acceptable, but it won’t have me coming back for more. That double cheese-burger, which I know will satisfy me, will call to me evermore loudly.

Granted, I am fortunate in that if I do the right things (and even some of the wrong ones), I will lose weight. I recognize that others don’t have it so easy. For whatever reason, they have to sacrifice a lot more to get a lot less loss in return. So for them, maybe these articles are worthwhile if they wonder why their high-“fiber” breakfast isn’t doing the trick.

But I think that a large part of the problem with obesity in this country has less to do with too many people thinking that faux-fiber is actual fiber and a lot more to do with being made to feel guilty any time they eat something that they didn’t pluck from the ground themselves. Diets are notorious for being short-lived and ultimately resulting in weight gain. They tell us that we need to not just go on a diet, but change our lifestyle. But anything convenient or tasty is off-limits.

That’s a recipe for failure.


Category: Hospital, Kitchen

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

17 Responses to In Defense of Inulin

  1. Peter says:

    You’ve lost 35 pounds since moving to Cascadia? It’s been what, not even a year? That’s an amazing amount to lose.

  2. a_c says:

    I think that the big problem with diets is that people find it harder to make incremental but significant changes, as compared to toeing a bright red line. The red line feels virtuous, and gives them something to focus on…until their willpower runs out.

    Think about how easy it is to lose track of time playing video games. Theoretically I could optimize my utility by playing a short period of time, get a good bit of pleasure out of that, then cut it out and get back to work. But in reality I’m not going to get anything done until I toe the line. With limited willpower, a drastic change is easier to follow than a incremental one.

  3. Webmaster says:

    It’s a hard line to draw – when is something “bad enough” to not recommend it, or “good enough” even if something is technically “better”… and even the “good things” and “healthy choices” can be bad taken to excess, just like overexercising can result in torn and abused muscles and tendons.

  4. kevin says:

    great post. I lost 25 lbs by eating peanut butter mixed with oatmeal in the mornings and then eating smaller portions of lunch and dinner. Granted, the oatmeal was instant oatmeal, so it wasn’t as good for me as if I had harvested the oats myself. But it worked. Tell the food fascists to stick it in their ear. Congrats on losing the 35 lbs. Tell Slate to stick it in their ear!

  5. econoholic says:

    Fantastic post. You had me at “no-man’s land of nutritional post-modernism.”

    Like Voltaire said, the better is the enemy of the good. There is no better way to short-circuit the route to improvement than to make a person feel like they aren’t making any real improvements to their life.

    Which one was Cascadia again? 😉 You ought to sell a laminated decoder key for $5.95+shipping&handling so that we can read this blog.

  6. Kirk says:

    Back when I was having to drive 65 miles just to get to my classes, I ate eggs for breakfast. In terms of calories, it worked better than anything else, as I was pretty well satiated all the way from 7 a.m. until noon. Other, lighter-calorie breakfasts would leave me starving by 9 a.m. So, the eggs worked.

    As for obesity, my pet theory is that people don’t have enought muscle mass to burn off what they eat. As a pound of muscle burns 30-40 calories a day, gaining ten pounds of muscle will cause a person to consume an extra 300-400 calories per day, every day, even on days they don’t exercise. This makes it easier to tackle the weight problem. (And, lacking that muscle makes it tougher.)

    At the risk of repeating myself, people need to lift weights to be healthy. It’s a shame that weighlifting is seen as being only for bodybuilders.

  7. trumwill says:

    I think that the big problem with diets is that people find it harder to make incremental but significant changes, as compared to toeing a bright red line.

    I think it varies from person to person. Some people absolutely have to have a Diet Bible to work. A comprehensive list of do’s and dont’s. I think a lot of people, though, think that they need that sort of thing when they don’t. They think they need it because that’s when they get results, but they fail to really consider sustainability. The advantage to incrementalism is that it’s more in line with “life-style changes” that are (IMO) more sustainable.

    At least that’s my current line of thinking. It used to be that I could do the whole all-or-nothing changes and maybe even had to do them. More recently whenever I’ve tried that I’ve met with success and then a spectacular collapse of the diet. But right now, with my more incremental changes, I don’t feel like I’m struggling so I don’t even have the inclination to start screwing up. That’s invaluable.

    I remember a while back reading about a study that compared diets. The results were that they all worked to varying degrees for the people that stuck with them. It then mention, in passing, that some had compliance rates of 67% and others of 20%, as though that were a control rather than the really important part.

  8. trumwill says:

    and even the “good things” and “healthy choices” can be bad taken to excess,

    This is another relatively important thing. Sometimes a “good change” can be nutritionally value-neutral, but it helps on the “excess” front. I don’t think that my sugar-free candies are a while lot healthier than regular candy, but they are self-limiting, preventing you from eating too many and therefore, if you have a sweet tooth, switching can be a positive development even if they are exactly as bad for you.

    On the weight-loss front, I think that the solution is relatively simple. The Roosevelt approach. Try something new. If after a couple months you haven’t lost any weight, then assume that it’s not doing any good (either because it’s health-neutral or its health content is counter-acted by leading you to commit other dietary sins). So if that doesn’t work, try something new. If you lose a little weight with that and then stop, add another thing into it. And another. Rinse and repeat.

    I’ve personally hit something of a plateau in my weight loss, so now I need to look at something else to lose more weight. Maybe cutting down on soft drinks or replacing one of my accepted sins with something a little less sinful. Maybe whatever I replace it with will be just as bad. In which case, I won’t lose weight and will try something else.

  9. trumwill says:

    Kevin,

    I’m sure there are lots of people that will tell you that you shouldn’t be eating that oatmeal. Then, when you explain how well it’s worked for you, they will probably tell you to imagine how much better you’d be doing if you made oatmeal from grass and pears. And they’re right… so long as you can eat grass and pairs.

    Like I said in the post, convenience is important. Cereal for me, instant oatmeal for you.

  10. trumwill says:

    Kirk,

    When I started doing my exercise bike workout, one of the concerns was that since I tend to do pretty high resistance that it might do more for muscles than the cardiovascular workout I was aiming for, but the more I’ve read up on it, the more I view any additional muscle I get as a pretty good thing in itself. Enough so that I would consider more along the weights if it were as convenient.

  11. trumwill says:

    Holic,

    Interestingly enough, I keep a spreadsheet called “decoder-ring.ods” that helps me keep names and locations straight.

    Cascadia is the Pacific Northwestern state where I currently live. Maybe I need to get around to actually writing the “City and States” page.

  12. Peter says:

    When I started doing my exercise bike workout, one of the concerns was that since I tend to do pretty high resistance that it might do more for muscles than the cardiovascular workout I was aiming for, but the more I’ve read up on it, the more I view any additional muscle I get as a pretty good thing in itself.

    Exercise bikes are tricky, if you keep the resistance on a low level they don’t provide much exercise value from either a cardiovascular or muscle-building perspective. Contrast them with treadmills, where running even at a very slow pace, for example 4 mph, still is reasonably useful.

    One thing that amuses me are people at the gym who read magazines while using exercise bikes (or sometimes ellipticals). If you can concentrate enough to read, you’re not pushing yourself had enough to get much exercise value.

  13. trumwill says:

    Peter,

    I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t read when I’m on the exercise bike, but I do watch TV. Television obviously doesn’t require the same degree of concentration (depending on what you’re watching), but I find that the more attention that I devote to the TV set, the better the work-out on my bike (the faster and longer I’ve gone). Mind diversion can be a helpful tool to keep your mind off the hard work your body is doing. Maybe reading is different from watching TV, though. That I wouldn’t know.

  14. Sheila Tone says:

    Yes, there’s a slightly fascist tone to the article.

    The Slate article was also wrong about fiber being the only nutrient ridiculed on SNL. They also ridiculed minerals in a commercial for “Quarry” breakfast cereal.

    What about psylium husk, the fiber in Metamucil? Is that “fake” fiber? And whatever happened to Olestra/Olean? It sounded like a great idea to me and I thought the chips tasted fine.

  15. trumwill says:

    I don’t know about Metamucil. Olean got something of a bad reputation for some of the side-effects. Nothing dangerous, but the phrase “may cause anal leakage” made it into more than one stand-up comedy routine.

  16. Peter says:

    I don’t read when I’m on the exercise bike, but I do watch TV. Television obviously doesn’t require the same degree of concentration (depending on what you’re watching), but I find that the more attention that I devote to the TV set, the better the work-out on my bike (the faster and longer I’ve gone).

    For my part I definitely see a difference between the two. The more intense concentration that reading requires just seems incompatible with any kind of serious exercise, which isn’t the case with TV.

    The treadmills and ellipticals at the gym have TV monitors, but I find it sort of difficult to see the pictures clearly without use of my glasses. Trying to keep my glasses on while using one of the machines is almost impossible. So what I usually end up doing is watching one of the larger monitors on the gym wall or sometimes a monitor on a treadmill or elliptical in the row in front of me.

  17. Webmaster says:

    As far as I know, metamucil is helpful.

    I’ve been using it and it seems to be helping… if nothing else, it’s helping clean out my system of some other annoying things and it helps prevent my getting hungry for Bad Things (or alternatively Worse Things depending on your choice of parlance).

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