I continue to see mention that obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are a risk factor for people contracting coronavirus. Besides that, these medical conditions are ticking time bombs on their own. 42% of American adults are obese, heart disease is the #1 killer among Americans, and with regard to diabetes over 10% of American’s have diabetes and over 35% of U.S. Adults are pre-diabetic. These are matters of grave concern not just for the individuals who suffer from these health problems but for our society as a whole that at some level permits if not encourages conditions that create and perpetuate these diseases.
Every time I am reminded of these statistics I am struck with a desire to help reverse these negative trends. I feel fortunate to be working for an organization that is dedicated to the well-being of individuals and our community as a whole. I am surrounded by people every day who have made the decision to invest in their own personal health by working out in the gym and engaging in physical activity through sports. I am especially encouraged by the number of kids I see on a daily basis choosing to spend their time shooting hoops, tossing a football, or training for the sport they are most passionate about as opposed to engaging in some of the more sedentary activities that are so tempting for young people these days. But physical activity alone is not the silver bullet that will solve these public health crises. You’ve heard the saying, “You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet.” That is the truth. The standard American diet of packaged and processed foods is making us sick and taking lives, despite our best efforts to stay physically active.
It can seem daunting, I know. Today’s diet wars are just as potent as the political polarization in our country and the deceptive marketing tactics of food labels are eerily reminiscent of cigarette promotion back in the day. So, where do you start? How can you begin to combat these forces and act with “nutritional intention” that is practical, non-dogmatic, and truly supports your health and that of your loved ones? Here are 3 thoughts I would offer:
Eat real food.
Real food (whole food, unprocessed food, unrefined food, clean food) is somewhat of a spectrum, but refers to food that is in, or close to its natural form and hasn’t been manipulated through processing.
By eating fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and for some, high-quality (grass-fed/finished) meats, wild-caught fish, and pasture-raised eggs, you are nourishing your body with the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that are essential for good health.
When you eat packaged and processed foods you don’t get this. Instead you are filling your body with “empty calories” that are devoid of nutritional value and constructed from synthetic ingredients and chemicals that originated in laboratories.
Understand the overwhelming presence of sugar and oils.
Sugars and oils are staple ingredients in packaged foods to make them taste “good,” last longer, and cheap to manufacture. Too much sugar is directly related to the “disease trifecta” I mentioned above and vegetable oils (sunflower, canola, corn, safflower, soybean) can be inflammatory and have also been linked to disease, especially when cooked at high temps. It is hard to find a packaged food without an oil on the ingredient list and it is estimated that over 70% of processed foods contain added sugars.
Learn to read food labels.
As I just mentioned, over 70% of processed foods contain added sugars. There are over 100 different names for sugars that can appear on the list of ingredients on a food label. Lookout for ingredients containing the words sugars, syrups, “oses,” “ides,” and artificial sweeteners. Foods we often associate with being healthy like yogurt, nutrition bars, granola, trail mix, salad dressings, and sauces are the worst offenders of being laced with disguised sugars.
Identify the presence of oils on ingredient lists and a standard rule of thumb is that if the ingredient list is more than 3 lines long, it should be considered “highly processed.”
Nutritional facts listed on food labels are based off of 1 serving size. To make the nutritional facts for an item look more favorable, serving sizes will often be more than 1 per package. So, you need to do the math to truly figure out how much sugar, carbs, fat, etc. you’re consuming by multiplying the grams for these categories, by the serving size.
As you begin eating more “real food” you will inevitably bump out the processed stuff. It’s a combination of learning and behavior and requires the willingness to experiment a little. You don’t have to be a chef to make this happen. There are many great resources that can provide you with recipes and cooking and food prep tips. And finally, it’s not about perfection. You will inevitably find yourself at a birthday party and have a cupcake. That’s okay. But the key is to be clear about your health principles that enable you to snap back quickly, so that cupcake doesn’t turn into a daily habit.
The coronavirus has highlighted our Nation’s struggle with health and disease as well as other disparities in our society. We are constantly putting ourselves at risk through the diet and lifestyle choices we are making. I am optimistic, however, that the pandemic has motivated people to pay attention to not only their own health, but the health and well-being of friends, relatives and neighbors as well as the nation as a whole. In addition to the “COVID curve,” we need to be concerned about “flattening the curve” of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Because those public health concerns are every bit as deadly.