I have been on the diet roller-coaster before. Maybe some of you have been along with me? First we counted fat. Companies came out with all kinds of low-fat, then no-fat solutions. Then there was counting carbs. Next the Atkins diet where you can’t eat ANY carbs. Again, companies came out with low-carb, no-carb solutions. (And Mr. Atkins is rumored to have died of his own diet, by the way…) Then there was “the Zone” diet and similar South Beach diet where you count your fat, protein AND carbs. (Now THAT was a lot of counting and nutrition fact reading.) And many of us have likely touched the low-sugar or no-sugar craze with fake sweeteners. I have even tried the vegan route, with no-dairy and no-meat options. And the latest is gluten free/wheat free. So if we total that all up, we are supposed to eat no-fat, no-carb, no-sugar, no-meat, no-dairy, no-gluten, no wheat. So what the heck DO we eat?
Whether it’s frustration from all of the roller-coaster diet fads, or trying to figure out what to feed my kids that won’t make them grow a second head, get ADHD or cancer… I have decided to throw all of it (well, most of it) out the window in favor of common sense. Imagine that. Our food chain has unfortunately become so far removed from the farm to table status, and in some instances so overly processed, we have no idea what we are putting into our bodies anymore.
So, instead of focusing on how many fat, calories, carbs, etc… are listed on the nutrition label, I suggest FIRST reading the ingredients. Focus on foods that have fewer ingredients, words that you recognize/can pronounce, and that are closest in form to how mother nature made them. I try to avoid preservatives, food coloring, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners. In moderation, perhaps these things can be fine, however I don’t think there is enough research done on the cumulative effects of when these things are in many foods we eat without even realizing it.
So why these items?
- Preservatives and food dyes just scare me. Preservatives are believed to cause allergic reactions, birth defects, cancer, and other health problems. So why do we use them? They are designed to keep us from getting food poisoning (a noble cause!) but have become so commonplace that again the cumulative effect can be very negative and is still largely unknown. Not to mention that the whole idea of “preserving food” gets it further and further away from the fresh, farm to table concept. Maybe there’s a reason we shouldn’t eat food that has been dead/picked/harvested for that long? So what do we watch for? The list is ENDLESS, and you can’t possibly memorize this whole thing, so I will pick on food coloring sodium nitrates and any long unrecognizable words. I have heard personal stories about kids having night terrors that have linked back to allergies to certain food coloring Also specifically bad in my mind are sodium nitrates, chemicals frequently found in hot dogs, lunchmeats, and other meats which are known to cause cancer and can be especially dangerous for children and pregnant women. In general, the less preserved a food is (theoretically) the fresher it must be.
- High fructose corn syrup. While high fructose corn syrup has gotten an increasingly bad rap lately, the truth is it’s more about how MUCH we eat than whether we eat it. High fructose corn syrup was introduced in the 1970’s offering a low cost sweet alternative to the food industry. And we DO love sweet! To quote a great informative article from gizmodo, “There also happened to be big jump in obesity which started in the 1970s, right around the same time HFCS entered the food and beverage industry, and has continued on the upswing. That might seem like pretty damning evidence. But it’s likely that this cheaper way to make sweets only led to easier, less-expensive access to high sugar foods, which in turn led to a jump in consumption; it doesn’t necessarily mean HFCS is some magic make-you-fat bullet.” There is some evidence that high fructose corn syrup is more difficult for your body to digest than plain sugar, however the overarching case is that the problem lies in the quantity we eat. Ingredients are listed in the order of quantity in your food. So as you look at nutrition labels, if sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or other sweeteners are in the first couple of ingredients on the label (or split up into high fructose corn syrup AND sugar to make it appear less) it’s better to put it back on the shelf, or save your sugar consumption for the places you really “need” it (a.k.a. your “special treats.”) and be sure it’s not the second ingredient listed in all twelve of the different foods you eat in a day.
- Artificial sweeteners. (Well, artificial anything, really…). As we think through all the foods we are potentially supposed to avoid mentioned above, it’s easy to jump to the substitutes. We now have sugar free sugar, fat free fat and carb-free carbohydrates. So do we really think all of these no-______ substitutes are any better for us? If anyone ever accidentally ate a whole bag of “WOW chips” you will probably agree they can’t possibly be good for us. (I know some of you know what I am talking about!) The substitutes just CAN’T be any better for us. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about which sweeteners are OK and which aren’t. The truth is that in moderation, they probably are OK, but many of us lean on the substitutes to be a magic solution to a food craving we have (insert sugar, carbs, or fatty foods here). According to a 2009 Time article, no evidence indicates that sweeteners cause obesity; people with weight problems simply tend to eat more of it. So when you replace ____ (Sugar/fat/carbs) with fake ____ (Sugar/fat/carbs) the likelihood that you are consuming in higher-than-moderation levels is where the danger comes in.
So, your challenge this week is to read the ingredients FIRST. You may count calories, carbs, fat, whatever strikes your fancy in addition to this, but FIRST read the label. Be sure you recognize what you are putting into your body! Choose foods with short ingredient lists and recognizable words. If you’re like me when I started doing this… it may be a shocking week!