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Fat Free

I was staring, sort of dumb-founded, at the dairy case.  I'd stopped to pick up some cream for a pumpkin dessert that Lynn was planning.  These days, in America, there's a million varieties of everything, so I was scanning the shelf to see what my choices were.  Tucked among the rest, I came across the fat-free half-n'-half.

I thought I was inured to the idiocies of food marketing, but it seems they can still make me drop a step.  Fat-free half-n'-half?  What in the world can that be?  Wouldn't you have to make fat-free cream first?  And how can it be cream if you've taken out all the fat?

Turns out that it's milk loaded with corn syrup and a variety of chemicals.  No fat, fewer calories, lots more sugar.    Better living through chemistry.

I'm generally opposed, on principle, to fat-free foods, particularly when you get into the dairy areas where part of the point, it seems to me, is the fat.  Reduced fat cheese?  There's a better solution if you're concerned about the amount of fat you're ingesting -- eat less of it.  Better for you all 'round.  But consuming less is un-American.

A decade ago I was suffering from chronic gastric reflux.  Occasional heartburn had gradually developed into nearly daily discomfort, which I was treating principally with Tums (which turned out to be the main culprit in an attack of kidney stones around that same time).  I went to the doctor and he stuck the scope down my throat and said, yes, I can see that there's some scarring there, so you're definitely doing damage to the tissue of the lower esophagus.  He gave me a prescription for a short course of prilosec and then maintenance pepcid.  That would be two tablets a day -- forever.

"Is there anything that I need to change in my diet?"  I figured I was going to have to start cutting out some of the really spicy foods I like or he'd tell me to cut back on coffee or whisky...

"Oh, no.  The pepcid should take care of it."

And it did.  Better living through chemistry.  And for two years I dutifully took my pepcid and didn't have any problems.

When I hit forty-five, it seemed to me that I really wasn't feeling, in general, as good as I ought to at that age.  I was overweight, sluggish, easily winded, with lots of little body aches & pains.  I started a modest exercise program and cut back on portion sizes.  I didn't change my diet at all -- I just quit eating as much. 

I lost twenty pounds and between the weight loss and the exercise I was feeling much better.  I experimented with not taking the pepcid.  No more reflux. 

I imagine that the doctor knew that if I lost twenty pounds, the reflux would go away.  But he also knew that if he told me that I had to make lifestyle changes I'd be very unlikely to be able to stick to it, and I'd keep doing damage to my esophagus and stomach lining.  Better to just give me the drug.  The odds of my remembering to take my two pills a day were much higher than the chances of my actually changing the patterns of my life.

And so it goes.  I don't know what the answer is.  Lifestyle changes are tremendously difficult.  In Alabama 20% of the population is diabetic.  Much of that is directly related to the obesity epidemic.  Losing weight isn't complicated -- it is just incredibly difficult, particularly in this country where so much of our economy is driven by overconsumption. 

When you're bombarded on every side with messages to consume more, the challenge of simply eating less is overwhelming.  Better to convince people that they need fat-free half-n'-half. 

Not that it seems to be working.



Scott, this seems a rather inappropriate entry for Thanksgiving week. We are Americans after all. Our president has urged us, in this time of difficulty, to shop more. Don't you think it a bit unpatriotic to suggest eating (and therefore shopping) less on Thanksgiving?

I have always tried to live by a simple axiom; walk more eat (and drink) less. I think it has stood me well these past 30 years. I am a little thicker around the middle then I was 20 years ago, however I have managed to maintain my weight within a 10 pound weight range for over 20 years now. Simply by following my simple rule. People laugh at me because I always park a great distance from my destination. I tell people it is because I have bad parking karma - but the truth is - I purposely park far away from where I am going. And if I can, I just leave the car at home and walk.

As for fat-free foods, I agree with you. What is the point of dairy without fat? In many instance the substitutes in 'fat free' food are usually more dangerous than the fat itself - particularly for diabetics. However, in spite of all my virtue in this area. I too have developed reflux disease. I too was prescribed Losec daily for life, and I too have found an alternative approach. I still take Losec but I found I can control the disease by taking the pill only three times a week.

Anyway, it is Thanksgiving. Time to go back to the table and eat all the fat and sugar I can find!

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.


Interesting post Scott. For years Helen has disparaged artificially fat-free foods, especially (now that I think about it) fat free dairy products.

Perhaps this is the year for iconoclastic thoughts during Thanksgiving week, from this blog post to the new film "What Would Jesus Buy?" That's a good thing.

T Scott

I did have just a little twinge of guilt at posting this on Thanksgiving Day. But I got over it.

Bruce the Almighty

You and me both. I have lost about 15 pounds through eating less and exercising more (walking at least 45 minutes a day) and I feel great too. I had heartburn regularly which has now gone which certainly makes the whisky drinking easier....


Your story reminds me of when my martial arts instructor, who is in his early 70s, was diagnosed with diabetes a few years ago. His doctor put him on a healthy diet and told him to get more exercise.

He did both of these things, lost about 20-25 pounds, and when he returned to the doctor for his next appointment, the doctor checked his blood sugar and said in surprise, "It's normal."

"Of course it's normal. I did everything you told me to."


"Nobody EVER does what I tell them to!"

My instructor was startled that the doctor would give advice that he knew wouldn't be followed, but given the number of diabetics I know who don't adapt their diets for the sake of their health despite the risks, I can't say I'm surprised.

T Scott

I remember being startled when I first came across the MeSH heading "patient compliance" when I first went to work at NLM in the early eighties. I just checked PubMed and there are over 12,000 articles for which that's the main point of the article. One of the advantages of having a good personal physician is that someone who really knows you can tailor therapies and advice to what they think you are actually going to do. We've lost some of that in these days where you're just bounced from specialist to specialist who don't really have a chance to get to know anything about you.

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