We’re a nation obsessed with weight: gaining it, losing it, keeping it off our kids and our significant other. We zigzag from eating fewer carbs to more protein, from no sugar to all soup, and still, the battle of the bulge rages on. Many of us hold steady at overweight, while an alarming number tips the scales to obese.
Why are we losing the battle? We’re eating more, moving less and relying more heavily on processed instead of fresh foods, says Valerie Edwards, MS, RD, LD, a clinical dietitian at Providence Portland Medical Center. What was once a special treat – a meal served in an aluminum tray, a fast-food snack or a glass of soda pop, for example – has become ubiquitous. “It’s not like they were evil to exist,” Edwards says of processed, or “convenience” foods, “but making these a daily choice is where we really get out of balance.”
Getting back to Grandma
Edwards encourages her patients – and the rest of us – to think in terms of what Grandma (or Great-Grandma) used to eat back then. “It’s just a different way to think about how reliant we’ve become on processed food. If we can think about Grandma, or great-Grandma, who made most food from scratch, it can help us get back to a healthier way of eating,” she says.
One hundred years ago, only one person out of 150 was obese. Today, it’s one in four.
How have things shifted so drastically?
In the early 1900s, 80 percent of individuals lived on family farms where physical activity was part of their livelihood and routine, Edwards says. Whether on farms or in smaller gardens, people grew their own vegetables. While canning was part of the culture, food preservation was a work in progress, and many enjoyed the fruits (and vegetables and meats) of their labor in relatively short order – from field or pasture to table. Edwards explains our unfortunate growth spurt simply: “We’re putting out less energy, but our caloric intake has continued to increase.”
How sickly sweet it is
From 1970 to 2003, individual intake has increased an average of 523 calories a day. In the 1950s, the average American consumed roughly 110 pounds of sugar each year. Today, that number has increased by roughly 40 pounds per person, per year. And this is in spite of our hyperconsciousness as a culture around the much-maligned high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. As Julie Andrews sang in the classic “Mary Poppins,” “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” But these days, it’s helping a lot more seem palatable, and creating an artificial expectation of sweetness in foods such as pasta sauce and bread, where there once was none.
“We’ve moved too much into liking things to be overly sweet,” Edwards says, cautioning against buying foods that contain added sugars, including soda pop and other sugary drinks, and advises helping younger taste buds develop naturally. “With kids, you’re training them to like these things,” she says. “By the time they’re adults, they’ve already established their taste preferences, so it’s much better if you don’t use overly sweetened foods in the first place.”
And what of artificial sweeteners? Sugar consumption continues to rise, even as we see a proliferation of artificially sweetened products, including yogurt, ice cream and soda.
Channeling change, one choice at a time
In general, Edwards shies away from becoming overly prescriptive; hers is not an “eat this, not that” dictate. Instead of seeking a silver bullet for bulging waistlines, she recommends incorporating new routines into your lifestyle that will slowly and effectively alter your relationship with food:
- Own your choices. We are responsible for our own health, and the health of those for whom we shop and cook. Edwards feels very strongly that purchasing packaged foods laden with preservatives and added fat, salt and sugar is disempowering to our well-being. While she refuses to name brands, think boxed rice mixes, meat mixes and noodles in cups, for starters. “When we buy foods like that, we’re giving up our control about making better food choices,” she says. So how can you make better choices? Keep reading. If you do incorporate these foods into your meals – which we all do from time to time – balance them out with a fresh vegetable or salad.
- Grocery shop at least once a week. “You can’t eat fresh, healthy foods if you’re going to the store only once or twice a month,” Edwards says. You can continue to shop for longer-lasting staples – rice, pasta, frozen vegetables – less frequently, but venture out weekly to replenish your pantry and refrigerator with fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and lean meats and dairy. If you aim to shop just once or twice a month, Edwards says, you’re more likely to buy processed foods, which have a longer shelf life – and longer-term consequences for your health.
- Shop smart. Bring a list. Know that the periphery of the store is where you’ll find most of the healthiest, freshest foods. Only visit the interior aisles for items on your list. And as soon as you get home, slice and store your vegetables (see No. 5) for use in meals and snacks throughout the week.
- Consider the long-term cost of food. Borrowing a statistic cited by food writer Michael Pollan, Edwards says that Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income (roughly 10 percent) on food than any other population in the developed world. We pride ourselves on frugal food shopping, which sometimes can come at a price: “Cheap and easy will wreak havoc on your health later on,” she says, noting that it’s still possible to bring home healthful foods on a lean budget.
- Just add vegetables (and fruits, too). “Include at least one serving at each meal,” Edwards says of vegetables, and fruits, too. “Whole fruit is fine,” she says, noting that the sugar in whole fruit is not prohibitive for one’s diet. “I almost never see someone overeating whole fruit.” Avoid canned vegetables and fruits, which contain added sugar and salt, and processed “fruit snacks” – the kind of thing that definitely wasn’t around in Grandma’s day. Frozen vegetables are a great option – especially with pasta and stir-fry dishes – and frozen fruit can help satisfy your sweet tooth.
- Commit to cooking a few times each week. You don’t have to cook every night (or day) to bring good health to your table. Edwards says that given our busy schedules today, cooking just a few times a week – and dining on leftovers or simpler meals the rest of the week – is perfectly acceptable. Hate to cook? She recommends a crock pot. Throw a bunch of ingredients in the pot before heading off for the day, and come home to dinner. One favorite in Edwards’ family is crock pot chili: start with lean ground turkey instead of beef, and throw in your favorite beans, vegetables and seasonings.
- Get up from your desk (or sofa). More studies are predicting that the longer you sit, the shorter you’ll live. It’s harsh, but if that doesn’t move you, what will? We’re not plowing the farm anymore; instead, we’re sitting in front of a computer all day, and perhaps a TV screen all evening. Edwards advises getting up – and often. “Right now I’m talking to you standing up,” she says as we chat. “Stand up when you can.” She advises a midday walk, even if it’s just to the bathroom – but around the block is preferable. Frequent breaks from your desk at work are just as important as frequent breaks from the TV at home. If you love your tube time, commit to doing something active during commercial breaks, whether it’s washing dishes, stretching or doing sit-ups. Wherever, whenever possible, be less sedentary.
- Don’t approach meals with an “all or nothing” mentality. The meals you prepare do not have to be inspired by the latest issue of Bon Appétit. Grilled chicken or salmon atop a salad, or whole grain toast and scrambled eggs with a side of fresh fruit qualify as wholesome, healthy fare. Edwards says being healthy doesn’t have to mean more work: whip up a tasty stir-fry by combining brown rice or whole wheat pasta with lean meats, vegetables and a salt-free spice blend. Adding a sauce isn’t out of the question for Edwards, as long as you “start with the foundation of foods that are in their natural form.”
Undoing our unnatural appetites for certain foods will take some time – and effort. And as with anything else, there are no absolutes: you don’t have to forsake all processed food – just set limits. “It’s important for people to find approaches that work for them,” says Edwards. For her, there is no “right” starting point – there is only the place where you are now, and where you want to be, and the plan that will get you there at a pace that’s comfortable for you. Whatever you do, just don’t stand still.