Last night I watched a fantastic documentary called Fed Up, which is narrated by Katie Couric and discusses the reason behind today’s obesity epidemic in the United States. It fired me up and reminded me why I am so passionate about nutrition and health. I want to shout about it from the rooftops and share with as many people as I can the concepts this film introduces. So naturally I start writing and come to my favorite place to share my knowledge.
We live in a society that is obsessed with weight and how we look. We jump from diet craze to diet craze, force ourselves to go to the gym, count our calories and eat low fat foods. Yet we are bigger than ever. Approximately 30% of Americans are obese and 40% of those who are thin have the same metabolic issues as those who are obese (just because you are thin doesn’t mean you are healthy). If we keep it up at this rate, 95% of all Americans will be overweight or obese in 2 decades and by 2050, 1 in 3 will have diabetes. YIKES. What on earth happened?
The film introduces a novel concept – maybe our approach has been wrong all along. Nutrition and health leaders in our society tell us to eat less and exercise more, but is this really working? Case in point – from 1980 to 2000 fitness memberships doubled, but over this same time period the rate of overweight Americans also doubled. And they say exercise will solve the issue? I don’t think so, not by itself at least. So what has changed in the past 30 or so years that has gotten us to where we are today? Food.
Let’s start with a quick history lesson. It all goes back to 1977 when the first dietary standards for Americans were released. They stressed the importance of a low fat diet, giving birth to the low fat and fat free diet craze. But it’s important to note that when fat is taken out of food it doesn’t taste that great. So what did food companies add to make their food taste good? Sugar. Since 1977, Americans have doubled their daily intake of sugar. It is in everything. Imagine the aisles of your local grocery store. About 90-95% of the processed foods on those shelves have added sugar.
So why is all of this sugar so bad? Fructose, one of the key components in sugar, can only be processed by the liver. When the liver is overworked (say when you are consuming a sugary beverage), it relies on the pancreas to help it out. The pancreas then releases excess amounts a lovely little hormone called insulin. Insulin is an energy storage hormone and stores the sugar your body is processing as fat. At the same time, insulin blocks messages from getting to your brain that you are full. The result? Excess fat is stored while at the same time your body feels hungry, tired, and cranky.
The film also says that calorie counting does not work. Yep, you heard me. Let’s explain with a little example. Imagine you have a handful of almonds in your palm, which is approximately 160 calories, and a soft drink that is also 160 calories. If we use the calories in/calories out concept, these two foods should have the same effect on our body right? Not so much. The almonds have fiber in them and take longer to digest, so they will keep you full and satisfied for a longer period of time. The soda, as I explained above, will be stored as fat. And diet drinks with no calories? They are just as bad. Artificial sweeteners produce the same insulin response, make you crave more and trick you body into thinking that more sugar is coming.
How about instead of focusing on calories, tracking every single thing you put into your body, and buying low fat instead of full fat we focus on quality, not quantity. Eating real foods grown from the earth and cooking more at home. If you consume the majority of your diet from natural foods calorie counting will not be necessary. So where can you start? Here are five things you can start today to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet.
- Stop consuming soda (diet and regular), fruit juices and sports drinks. These are all laden with sugar, including your morning orange juice, which has about 4 tsp (for perspective, the American Heart Association recommends a daily allowance of 6-9 tsp). Drink more water! Don’t like the taste? Add lemon, lime or fresh/frozen fruit.
- Switch from white bread products to whole wheat bread products. Most of the nutrients in flour are removed in white bread, the most important of which is fiber. Fiber keeps you full for longer, so you are less likely to crash and be starving 2 hours after your morning cereal (sound familiar?). Look for 100% whole grain on your food label.
- Stop eating low fat and fat-free. Hopefully I have explained this above. Just remember that when the fat is removed, sugar is added back to make the food taste better. I find that when I eat full fat products I am satisfied quicker and end up eating less.
- Stop adding table sugar to your food. This includes in your cereal, grapefruit or coffee. Give your body a chance to get used to the flavor of natural, unsweetened food.
- Read your food labels. Understand all of the different names for sugar (cane sugar, corn sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, honey, fructose, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, carbitol, concentrated fruit juice, galactose, xylitol, maltodextrin, sorbitol and zylose, to name a few). No matter the type, your body processes them all the same. Focus on packaged foods with small ingredient listings and remember that they are in order based on the amount in the food, with the first ingredient being the most.
For more information on sugar and how to reduce the amount you consume, check out the website www.iquitsugar.com, which is my favorite source of knowledge on the topic.
Peace, love and real food,