While most medical professionals agree that obesity raises one’s risk of health issues, the jury is out on what causes obesity. Body-positive activists say that our weight is largely genetic and dietary/lifestyle changes won’t do much to change it. Fitness gurus insist that you can drop 50 pounds with their intense exercise program. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs peddle laxatives and fiber supplements as magic slim-down solutions.
Who’s right? And how can you achieve a healthy weight for you and your children? The answer is complicated because in the United States, the game’s already been rigged. We’re consuming high-sugar, toxin-loaded foods — which means it may not matter how much we exercise and/or diet. When your primary source of nutrition is packed with artificial substances, it’s nearly impossible to reach your health goals — whatever they are.
Corn Syrup: The American Sweetener
Have you ever tried Coca-Cola or other soft drinks from other countries? You likely noticed a taste difference. That’s due to American Coke’s formulation with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) — a sweetener derived from corn byproducts. Read a few ingredient labels, and you’ll see HFCS pop up everywhere. It’s commonly used to sweeten and preserve processed food products. And because it’s so cheap in the U.S., it appears in all sorts of beverages, candies, and so on.
The problem is, our nor our children’s bodies are used to such high amounts of fructose. Normally, we’d get that from fruits and vegetables. But when your kids are consuming multiple grams per day, the excess fructose gets stored as fat in the liver — which impairs our natural detox function. Our brains don’t even register fructose as an appetite suppressant. This means that we still feel hungry after consuming foods high in HFCS. And of course, excess sugar intake contributes to type 2 diabetes.
If you’re exercising hard but following your workout with an HFCS-loaded smoothie, you could be undoing the work you just did. So, don’t feel bad if you’re not crushing your fitness goals — it may be your choice of beverage!
Try to eliminate HFCS from your diet. Satiate your sweet tooth with whole fruits and vegetables, and opt for 100% real juices rather than juice blends and sodas. Or better yet, drink water!
Salt: The American Spice
Many processed food products rely on salt as their dominant seasoning. Salt does help preserve food, and it’s a natural mineral that’s crucial to our nutrition. However, we do not require it as much as American food provides it. In excess, sodium contributes to high blood pressure and related cardiovascular issues — and weight gain.
According to the CDC, more than 70 percent of our sodium intake comes from pre-packaged food, where it’s used to fix the aftertastes of food processing. (Yuck!) It’s even used to thicken foods to trick you into thinking you’ve gotten more, as well as to retain moisture or texture. Restaurant food isn’t much better, as most of the key ingredients are prepared elsewhere before being shipped to the restaurant.
Americans also tend to use salt as their primary seasoning, adding yet more sodium from their table salt shaker. Altogether, this means that Americans consume more than 3,400mg of sodium per day — far above the recommended allotment of 2,300 mg or less.
To reduce your sodium intake, choose “low sodium” alternatives at the grocery store, and avoid eating out. Season food at home with the world’s other zesty spices rather than simply reaching for the salt shaker!
Speaking of which: monosodium glutamate has also been linked to a number of adverse effects, and it’s also used as a flavor enhancer and preservative. Some people also report increased headaches and other neurological symptoms after consuming MSG. It’s commonly found in many pre-packaged pasta or ramen dishes, as well as “instant” meals and many restaurant foods.
Partially Hydrogenated Oil: The American Oil
You’ve probably heard that “trans fats” are bad for you, and for good reason: our bodies can’t easily process these artificially hydrogenated oils. This means they increase your levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease your good cholesterol (HDL). In other words, they contribute to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes in one fell swoop. Also, they impair your digestion, which (a) raises your risk of nutritional deficiencies and (b) makes it more likely you’ll struggle with your diet or appetite.
Food manufacturers will “hydrogenate” oil to prevent spoilage and help it retain form in the product. Partially hydrogenated oil is a common ingredient in everything from margarine to microwave popcorn. However, it’s never good for the body, and in excess, it can truly become a detriment to your health.
Thankfully, consumer activists have taken note, and the FDA does not recognize trans fats as safe. Check labels for trans fats ingredients (partially hydrogenated oil and palm oil are dead giveaways) and use whole foods such as butter or olive oil instead of margarine or “vegetable oil.”
Red Meat and Dairy: The American Protein
Americans love their burgers and milkshakes. And their bacon and cheese. And their steak and ice cream. In short, we consume a lot of red meat and dairy products. While not inherently bad, these sources of protein quickly become dietary risks in excess. The U.S. consumes more than 20% of the world’s beef. Many studies have found possible links between high red meat consumption and intestinal/colon cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease.
While beef products are not necessarily higher in calories than other meats, our consumption is higher. For example, the USDA bases its nutritional recommendations on the 3-ounce steak. However, restaurants serve steaks measuring up to 14 ounces — which is a whopping 1,092 calories!
Unfortunately, the beef industry has a powerful pro-meat lobby. Their tactics range from associating red meat with masculinity to spreading the myth that people who don’t eat it are anemic, weak, and B12-deficient.
The dairy industry has also disseminated a lot of misinformation, especially claims that cow’s milk is the best source of calcium. Americans also love to add cheese to just about every meal. Dehydrated and processed cheese appear in everything from boxed dinners to snack foods.
This means we’re looking at a lot of sugar, salt, and saturated fats for our children! Worse, many Americans focus on red meat and dairy as their primary proteins. This makes it challenging to meet your weight and nutrition goals. How does one have room for vitamin-loaded vegetables or fiber-rich grains after chowing down a ground beef patty smothered in cheese and wrapped in bread?
You don’t have to give up red meat or dairy, as they do have health benefits in moderation. Try swapping out your families beef or milk for alternatives, such as lean proteins (poultry, seafood, mushrooms) and non-dairy beverages.
Our and our children’s health is a complex matter, but while our individual fitness levels and weight profiles vary, our common denominator is a highly artificial and fattening diet. Even if we try to eat healthily, American groceries and restaurants offer relatively few options that don’t have these high-risk ingredients. Whenever possible, choose natural, whole foods rather than processed or instant meals. Unlearn the idea that red meat must be at the center of every meal. Embrace non-sodium seasonings and herbal flavors. Get your sugar from luscious fruits rather than a box.
With these dietary changes, you’ll be better equipped to help yourself and your kids lose weight, prevent diabetes and heart disease, and, best of all, feel better. A body that isn’t fighting a bunch of artificial foodstuffs is better able to detox and extract nutrients from what you eat.
This article is inspired by an interview with nutrition coach Amy Lasser Bouer on the Green Living Gurus podcast.