See the new movie “Fed Up,” narrated and co-produced by Katie Couric. Even if you’ve kept up with advances in our understanding of nutrition, “Fed Up” will change your view of what is, and what isn’t, healthy food and why our nation has a weight problem. The causes may be different from what you thought. For one, kids are not getting fat just because they watch TV and play video games. The real reason is right in front of our noses, and we’ve been seeing it and not seeing it. Fed Up will make you hit the side of your head and say, “oooh, right.”
I remember when the mass weight gain started in the mid 70s. I was in my 20s living in New York City. Back in college in the 60s, I’d followed Adele Davis, the top diet guru of her day, who advocated a balanced diet of meat, veggies and whole grains with no processed foods. Then suddenly Adele Davis was out, replaced by a new, exciting advance in nutrition: food with its fat content reduced or removed altogether! Everyone, including myself, believed that the new low and non-fat foods would make it easy to be thin. We rushed to buy whatever had on its label “reduced fat” or “fat free!”
There was, however, a catch that we weren’t aware of. As one nutritionist interviewed in “Fed Up” explains, food with its fat reduced or removed tastes terrible. To solve this problem the food industry added sugar to the products from which they’d removed fat. If we knew this at the time, we paid it no mind. Sugar is innocuous, we thought. It’s what you put in your coffee. So we started innocently consuming more sugar. Since then, we Americans have doubled our daily sugar intake. The result, as the chart above shows, was an upsurge in overweight and obesity rates starting right then in the mid-70s. It was as if a shot had been fired.
Why does sugar cause us to gain weight? Because when more sugar than we need flows into our digestive system, our liver can’t metabolize it as energy, so it converts the sugar into fat. Too much sugar over-stresses the liver similar to the way excess alcohol does. Sugar then does its damage, organ by organ, including to your pancreas, your heart, your digestive system, your immune system and your brain.
These stresses cause diseases, foremost among them heart disease, diabetes and of course, obesity and all its health consequences. Sugar causes obesity because it doesn’t satisfy your appetite and doesn’t nourish you. Instead, it lowers your energy level, and makes you feel starving all the time. Sugar has been proved (in research studies on rats) to be more addicting than cocaine, and when you’re hooked on sugar, you HAVE to eat, and you’re going to chose to eat more sugar, only to become more endlessly more hungry. The obese kids profiled in Fed Up are not at fault because they lack will power. They’re obese because they started life with baby bottles of fruit juice, kid’s cereals, pop tarts and soft drinks. Sugar had them by the throat before they knew what was happening.
How much sugar is okay to eat every day? The American Heart Association (the ADA) recommends that 10% of your diet consist of sugar. That’s about 20 grams for women and 36 grams for men. One Coke has 40 grams of sugar. An Odwalla juice and a “Naked” (brand) Green Machine with “NO SUGAR ADDED” have 28 grams of sugar each. Starbucks “Evolution Defense Up” juice has 34 grams of sugar. Today I was at the supermarket and bought a seemingly good-for-you meal called “Simply Asian” noodles. At home I looked at the package and discovered that Simply Asian noodles contains 16 grams of added sugar, ¾ of my recommended daily intake. Don’t get me started on energy bars (candy), gluten-free energy bars (same bad-for-you candy), dried fruit snacks, “natural” cereals, and all-fruit diets. To your liver the sugar in these foods is identical. What your liver can’t metabolize, it turns into fat.
In 1770, the average American ate about 9 grams of sugar a day. Today the average American consumes 186.4 grams a sugar a day, 20 times more. The miserable, trapped obese kids profiled in “Fed Up” were willing to be in the movie to show the world the result of this diet.
But if you’re healthy in other ways, can’t your body deal with moderately more sugar? Well, I can tell you that my body couldn’t in spite of all the exercise I do. Two years ago on this blog, I showed a photo of myself walking out of Starbucks with a non-fat Chai latte and another photo of my frig with stacked Activa yogurt. I didn’t get fat, but my looks and energy level suffered from all the sugar in my diet. My skin became dry and dull, a disquieting bulge of fat appeared around my middle, and I became more and more tired and achy. Last year, I tried switching to a lower sugar diet. I gave up Chai lattes and switched to unsweetened coffee and fresh fruit such as bananas and pears. My skin became smoother, and my waist trimmed down. However, I still battled fatigue during the day. The problem was that I was grabbing sweet pastries for breakfast when I was in a hurry, plus eating two bananas a day. Many of today’s common fruits tend to be sugary because humans cultivated them over centuries to be more and more sweet. Bananas, it turns out, are one of the fruits that is highest in sugar, 18 grams a cup — a fact to bear in mind if you are trying to eat healthy by throwing heaps of these fruits into a juicer – even if you add in some green stuff — and gulping down its contents. Doing so could assault your system with 500% of its daily recommended dose of sugar in a few moments!
After seeing “Fed Up,” I gave up bananas and avoided sweet foods altogether, and what a difference it’s made! Almost right away, my energy level increased, I found I needed less sleep, I didn’t feel hungry, food tasted better, I was stronger in class, and I noticed to my amazement that, even at age 67, my skin looked rosier.
Regardless, the food industry is not about to take sugar back out of all these foods. Big food producers, among them Pepsico and Coca-Cola, want to keep us addicted. Such companies now supply more than half our public schools with fast foods for school lunches, and food industry lobbyists have forced the government to delete the “daily values” for sugar on nutrition labels. Look at the next processed food you buy and notice that the “daily value” percentage for sugar (how many grams you should eat of this type of nutrient in a day) is mysteriously missing. Lobbyists also won on getting pizza and Ketchup categorized as vegetables, and a 20% sugar diet – not 10% as recommended by nutritionists – cited by the government as healthy. Today, 80% of processed foods contains added sugar, much of it disguised by obscure sounding aliases on nutrition labels such as “Xylose,” “Lactose,” “Maltodextrin,” “Sorghum,” and others.
- 64% of Americans are now overweight or obese. By mid-century, half of all Americans will be obese if trends continue.
- Since 2000, obesity has overtaken tobacco use as our country’s leading cause of death.
- In the 1960s, type 2 diabetes in children was pretty much unheard of. There are now hundreds of thousands of cases of of this disease among children.
- In six years, 20% of all health care spending will be on obesity related diseases and conditions.
- World obesity has risen over 7% in the last 23 years.
- Americans are the fattest people in the world.
- Fast food, including soft drinks, is served in more than half of American schools.
- Our kids are the first generation in 200 years who will live shorter lives than their parents.
“Fed Up” tried to on an upbeat note, but it’s hard for me to be optimistic about the world acting on its message any time soon. Unlike tobacco, sugar is everywhere, and it’s being pitched to us from all sides. My mother, who grew up during the Depression, got an orange in her stocking every Christmas as a treat. She always believed that people get fat because they have no will power but now wants to see the movie and is open to changing her mind. Nonetheless, many people who have seen “Fed Up,” reviewers included, aren’t taking the message seriously. One critic, who admits to being overweight, called the movie “slick” and said, “we’ve heard it all before.” I’d love to be wrong about the poor odds that we’ll start to change our eating habits. Maybe in my lifetime I’ll go to the supermarket and be surprised to find a wide assortment of processed foods that say on their label: “less than 5% of the AHA’s recommended daily serving of sugars.” That will be the day.
Next month: Healthy snacks that are low in sugar