Food: Confusion

This is most of what The Boyfriend was served last week when he ordered a buffalo burger (the chips came from my plate, I had ordered fajitas). If a restaurant serves it to us, it’s OK to eat it, right?

If you were a single mom getting home from an 8-hour day to your hungry kids, would you rather cook a healthy meal or stop at Pizza Hut on the way home?

Even if a salad is full of ham, bacon, eggs, cheese, croutons, and creamy dressing, it’s still a salad, so that’s healthy, right?

If the FDA tells us that grains should be a big part of our diets and that “Fad Diets” like Atkins and Paleo don’t work, why would a reasonable person ever actually cut processed carbs from their diet?

If Diet Coke says “Diet” right there on the side, what would keep you from thinking it’s a healthy alternative?

If you are reading this blog, you are most likely a pretty health-conscious person, so the statements above seem pretty absurd. But if the answers to questions like these were as obvious as I wish they were, I wouldn’t be writing this.

Have you seen HBO’s The Weight of the Nation? It’s a mini-series about, well, the weight of the American people. You can watch it for free on HBO’s website, and I highly, highly recommend it.

While watching this over the past few weeks, I have learned a lot but have been struck by one thing in particular: In general, American people don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to food.

I am lucky that I grew up in a healthy, active community, hiking and playing in the pool every summer and skiing all winter. But I also remember spending hours in front of the TV, eating pizza for lunch at school, and snacking on Easy Mac and Oreos at home. When my step-mom married my Dad, she suddenly had 6 kids to cook for instead of just 2, so we ate a LOT of easy-to-prepare foods–Shake N Bake, Pasta-Roni, Hot Pockets, Pop Tarts… Not exactly healthy stuff. But I also remember when I would go to my mom’s house (my parents had joint custody and I spent 9 years switching houses every week), she would cook us food: baked chicken, steamed green beans, homemade breakfast burritos, turkey sandwiches on whole grain bread. Instead of Oreos and Doritos, I snacked on Wheat Thins and hummus. I knew what real food tasted like, and it was so much better than the salty pork chops and orange cheese that I got at my other house, I soaked it up. I think that those experiences helped me subconsciously form habits that have led me to an interest in healthy foods as an adult. But that’s not to say that I’m not tempted by junk food; I crave Chicken McNuggets and I have had the prep instructions for Annie’s Mac & Cheese memorized since I was 15. But I also know what those foods can do to me.

I am also lucky that I have never had a serious weight problem. I was a little chubby in late elementary school and middle school, but seemed to grow out of most of it by the time I made it to high school. I gained some weight after graduating college, weighing in at almost 140 lbs at my heaviest, but at 5’3 that didn’t even bump me into the “Overweight” category of the BMI scale.

But all you have to do is look around and it’s obvious that most people are not as lucky as I am. They don’t know what real food tastes like or how to prepare it–they don’t understand that there is a difference between buying spinach from the produce section and buying creamed spinach from the frozen food aisle. Kids are not encouraged to get outside and move around, we’ve all heard about the miserable state of school lunches, and they become obese without ever having a say in the matter. People don’t know that “zero calorie” soda still spikes their insulin levels, causing their bodies to store even more fat, or that bagels are actually way less healthy than eggs and bacon for breakfast.

This issue infuriates and saddens me. And it’s not just an issue of ignorance–many people in our culture are literally addicted to food. In an interview in “Weight of the Nation,” a young woman describes food as being her best friend, her boyfriend, a trip to the beach when she can’t afford one… What if giving up junk food came with the same feeling as breaking up with your boyfriend?

What can we do, as active, healthy people, to educate others? How can we help reverse this trend? Is it even our responsibility, or is there really no excuse for ignorance in this information age? What do you think?


4 thoughts on “Food: Confusion

  1. _You make some great points in this post and it just reminded me of another post I read about “weight of the nation” that makes some pretty interesting claims you might want to take a look at just to see if you agree or not.
    As you might have seen, there’s a new documentary this week on HBO that features the obesity crisis, and there’s some controversy as to the take home message of this show.

    One of the nutritionists out there that I highly respect his opinion has a few things to say about this documentary and this is worth paying attention to… I’ll let him take it from here…

    “The Weight of the Nation” Documentary Sends the Wrong Message
    by Dr. Jonny Bowden, Nutritionist, author of Unleash Your Thin

    This week, a new documentary about the obesity crisis premieres on HBO. It’s called “Weight of the Nation”. And it’s take-home message is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    You’ll be hearing a lot about this documentary, if you haven’t already. And with good reason. It’s the result of an unprecedented collaboration between the three major public-health institutions in America:

    1. the nonprofit Institute of Medicine (IOM)
    2. the CDC (Centers of Disease Control and Prevention)
    3. the NIH (National Institutes of Health)

    “Weight of the Nation” is a sincere attempt to confront an epidemic (obesity) that costs the US alone 147 billion (in 2008, up from 78.5 billion in 1998).

    “Obesity, and with it, diabetes are the only major health problems that are getting worse in this country, and they’re getting worse rapidly”, said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, MD, MPH, in a July 27 media briefing during the Weight of the Nation Conference. “Beyond the economic costs are the disability, the suffering and the early deaths caused by obesity”, he added.

    Yet the documentary—made by sincere and well-meaning people, mind you- draws the wrong conclusion and sends the wrong message. And it’s unlikely to make the slightest bit of difference in the obesity crisis because its focus is on the wrong enemy.

    Here’s why. For decades we’ve been being told that the reason we’re so fat is that we eat too much and we exercise too little. This diagnosis is so widely accepted that to question it makes you a heretic. We’ve variously blamed high-fat foods, saturated fat, too much protein and sedentary lifestyles for this situation, but what we haven’t blamed is the real cause of the problem:

    Carbohydrate intolerance and a toxic diet.

    The conventional wisdom is that we were never fatter, but the truth is we were fat during the depression, when bread lines and soup kitchens dotted the nation. As Gary Taubes asks in his superb Newsweek cover article The New Obesity Campaigns Have it All Wrong, “How can we blame the obesity epidemic on gluttony and sloth if we easily find epidemics of obesity throughout the past century in populations that barely had food to survive and had to work hard to earn it?”

    When you get real close to it, even the common idea that we’re fat because we don’t exercise doesn’t pass the smell test. “Why is the world full of obese individuals who exercise regularly?” asks Taubes. Indeed. The Weight of the Nation shows construction workers in Arkansas laboring at back-breaking jobs that involve running up ladders with the equivalent of a 50 pound backpack, and lifting very heavy stuff all day long. If it were all about exercise, guys like this should be svelte.

    They’re not.

    And if it were all about eating too many calories, how do you explain the fact that some medications have as a “side effect” weight gain of anywhere from 20-140 pounds? Did the folks who gained that weight on the meds all of a sudden start eating twice as much?


    The fact is that weight gain is driven by hormones, and the most important hormone for weight gain—insulin- is driven by the engine of carbohydrates. It’s not that we’re eating too many calories (though that may be a part of the problem). And it’s not that we’re not exercising— (that is a huge problem, but not just from the point of view of weight).

    The problem is that we’re eating too many carbohydrates. And the ones we’re eating are all the wrong ones.

    We’ve been blaming fat (especially saturated fat) for years. Our health “authorities” have been promoting for decades what one writer called “the greatest nutritional experiment in history”—a high carbohydrate low fat diet. This grain- and carb-heavy diet—very similar to what’s used to fatten cattle—was best illustrated by the god-awful, thankfully discredited USDA food pyramid of 1992. (Your tax dollars subsidize the production of the very foods that are making us fat and sick, in the form of a corporate giveaway known as the Farm Bill.)

    And of course, all these wonderful foods, made from corn, sugar and wheat, are virtually “fat-free”, so surely they’re healthy, right?

    But fat was never the enemy, though acting as if it were made a lot of companies a lot of money.

    The real enemy was- and is—sugar.

    In the 1980’s, the FDA decided- in its infinite wisdom—that sugar was perfectly OK since the evidence against it “wasn’t conclusive”. (If you think this decision wasn’t influenced by the sugar lobby, I’d like to talk to you about a lovely bridge I have for sale in beautiful Brooklyn.)

    “While the government spent hundreds of millions trying to prove that salt and saturated fat are bad for our health, it spent virtually nothing on sugar”, writes Taubes. “Had it targeted sugar then…our entire food culture….might have changed”.

    And maybe we might have been told that the real culprits in our diet are not meat* and saturated fat, but the overwhelming amount of sugar and processed carbs that we consume on a daily basis, and that are increasingly being linked to diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and virtually every other disease of aging.**(Note that when I say “meat” isn’t to blame, I’m talking about pasture-raised meat, not the crap we get in supermarkets and restaurants.)

    Meanwhile, we have a lot of very overweight people who not only suffer with their weight, but have the added indignity of being blamed for not having any “willpower”.

    “Lack of will isn’t their problem”, says Taubes. “It’s the absence of advice that might actually work.”


    Thanks Jonny for that great insight! Dr Jonny shows you here what foods can make you lean permanently, and backs his claims with science.

    I’ll be back soon with more Lean-Body Secrets.

    >> To Watch A Free Video On What You Can Do Starting NOW To Naturally Lose Belly Fat — Click Here <<

    Mike Geary
    Certified Nutrition Specialist
    Certified Personal Trainer | |

    • Thanks for sharing that. I agree about carbs being a a major culprit in this–and I think that eating refined carbs and grains is a big part of people’s total lack of understanding of their bodies and nutrition in general. I agree that “Weight of the Nation” isn’t an exhaustive resource, and when one of the doctors in the documentary said something along the lines of, “A calorie is a calorie is a calorie” I wanted to scream. That is so NOT true. A calorie of protein or even fat doesn’t spike your insulin and trigger your body to store fat the way a calorie of carbs does. I personally have cut out almost all processed carbs from my diet and have never felt better. And I totally agree with the quote at the end of your post: “Lack of will isn’t their problem”, says Taubes. “It’s the absence of advice that might actually work.” But at the same time, I think that counting calories to lose weight is better than not doing anything, even if you are still eating carbs.

  2. You’re right… sadly. So many people are ignorant of food, because they believe the lies they are told on packaging, etc. Even more sad is that I’ve realized this: even if people knew the truth (or wanted to know), they would still need to find the true desire and motivation to apply it to their lives, and most people are just really lazy and expect someone else to do it for them.

    I was not a healthy eater growing up; I loved Pop-Tarts and peanut butter M&Ms and ranch Doritos. When I got to college I took a French cuisine class and it changed my life. I learned about food diversity and flavor and loving yourself by feeding yourself well. Only after my knee injury this year did my healthy BMI jump into the “overweight” category.

    So far I’ve lost half of what I’d gained through a mostly plant-based diet (I still love bacon), my CSA box, and juicing in the morning. My family is not healthy and hangs on my every word when they see my results and ask how I did it. And yet, all they do is complain that they don’t have the willpower/they don’t like juice/they are picky eaters… and then they sigh and wish they could be like me. Really? They want to be like ME? They want to fight every day to push through the pain of rebuilding atrophied knee muscles, all while watching their able-bodied loved ones sit back and complain that being healthy is TOO HARD? It breaks my heart.

    • Gah I know what you mean, and it infuriates me when people who know better still make the choice to not take care of themselves.

      I think I’ve talked about this before but there is a woman I work with who drinks literally 3 sodas a day and adds 3 creamers to every cup of coffee she drinks, then complains about being overweight. I went to lunch with her last week to Tokyo Joe’s, and ordered my food with no rice or sauce. In the meantime, she is sitting there eating white rice and sugary teriyaki sauce with a giant diet Coke, then looks at me and says, “You’re lucky you’re so naturally fit.” I said, “Actually I workout for an hour every day” and she said, “Yeah but it’s easy for you to workout!”

      I just about punched her. I wanted to say, “My workouts make me cry and puke. Does that sound easy? Maybe if you would just stop drinking soda or put one less creamer in your coffee…” But she is definitely the kind of person you’re talking about, who looks for any excuse to not take responsibility.

      I think you’re right–for every person who doesn’t know any better, there is someone who knows full well how to fix the problem and just WON’T.

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