ColumnDo we really know how to eat healthy, or do we just think we do?
I saw an image on Pinterest last week, a baking pan full of frozen fruit, being topped off with cake mix. Below it was this caption: “Frozen berries, dry cake mix, and 1 can of sprite. 350 for 35 min, yummy cobbler. I have done this a lot- it is so good and weight watcher friendly!” Whoever had posted it to Pinterest had also commented “I would use diet soda and what about an angel food cake mix?”
I sighed. You want a quick fruit cobbler? Whatever happened to frozen fruit topped with oats and honey? Why are we so quick to jump to products like cake mix and Sprite? And don’t even get me started on the belief that using a diet soda would be better.
I give nutrition and health a lot of thought, not just because I myself want to live a healthy lifestyle, but because I look at the escalating figures of obesity and health related issues in the U.S. and I wonder where we went wrong. And in a world where we think that we are more food conscious – simply because we watch more food television shows and read more food blogs, not because we actually take steps to eat better – I think this question is particularly important. Do we not know how to eat healthy?
We have an unhealthy relationship to food, one that is based on extremes. You’re either overweight and overindulgent, or you’re at the gym 4 hours a day, cutting yourself off from the pleasures of life. There’s rarely a happy medium.
Weight Watchers was founded in 1963, and since then it has built a global empire based on helping people to lose weight. That goal is admirable; there is nothing wrong with inspiring people to live healthier lives. Weight Watchers is one of many businesses that works in this field, and when I see things like the Pinterest comment above, it’s apparent that while there are many diet plans and books out there, we still have don’t have a solid understanding of nutrition.
A cobbler made with dry cake mix and a can of Sprite is far from “healthy,” even if it makes the cut on a diet-oriented point system, not to mention how many additives you are consuming. But that’s the problem about food, we think of eating more as a sum of individual parts than the whole. Which is how we end up in a situation where someone thinks that making something with cake mix and a can of Sprite is a smart weight choice. News flash: it isn’t.
But this isn’t to harp on Weight Watchers, they’re not the problem; our understanding of nutrition is. We don’t know how to eat healthy. We haven’t put a value on real food. We have forgotten how to keep things simple.
Living in France, I am often asked by visitors how it is that the French manage to eat all of their decadent delights yet stay so trim. The answer to that is multi-faceted, it has to do with smaller portion sizes, less time spent sitting in cars and more time walking, and being better in tune with your body to know when you are full, and when you are full, you stop. The French have mastered that one thing that in America we are slow to understand: you can eat real food and not feel guilty about it.
But there’s another component: while France abounds with supermarkets, and more and more people do their shopping in these places, the French diet is still made up of much fewer processed items than the American diet. Consider this: in a study done by U.S. and British researchers on high fructose corn syrup and the correlation to diabetes, it was found that in the U.S., the consumption of high fructose corn syrup per capita is 25 kilograms (55 pounds) per year. In France it’s less than 1 kilogram (2 pounds).
Why do Americans ingest so much high fructose corn syrup? It’s not because every American household has a gallon of it in the pantry and pours it over everything they eat. On the contrary, it’s a product that’s hidden in so many processed foods that have become staples in the average American diet. And it’s not just a problem for adults, kids are affected too. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 70 percent of toddler dinners studied contained too much salt, and most cereal bars, breakfast pastries and snacks aimed at infants and toddlers contained added sugars.
We don’t know how to eat healthy because we’re convinced that a packaged product that says is good for us actually is good for us, when it has been shown that the best diet out there isn’t a diet at all; it’s just a lifestyle based around eating real food.
In fact, it’s as if we are utterly shocked to find out that it’s not huge, decadent meals that are killing us, but instead all that snacking that we love to eat. All those quick, processed items that sneak their way into our diets without us even realizing it. In 1996, the average American consumed around 423 calories worth of snacks per day, compared to 580 calories in 2006, which accounts for 25 percent of the average Americans total calorie intake. Through snacking we have essentially added an entire additional meal’s worth of calories to our day.
If we are going to truly focus on how to eat healthy in the U.S., then we need to focus on better nutrition programs that educate people about real food.
Products won’t save your health, but real food will.
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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.