As the holiday season kicks into high gear, so does the temptation to abandon all dietary discipline. Sugar- and salt-laden snacks are turning up everywhere, from store shelves to the office cubicle to the neighbor’s Christmas party.
And we have enough trouble resisting the sugar and/or salt cravings as it is during the rest of the year.
Not that we haven’t been warned. Over and over.
In fact, the year started off with the latest dietary guidelines from the federal departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. What should turn up as Public Enemy No. 1? Added sugar. Salt and saturated fats round out the top three saboteurs of our war against obesity and chronic diseases.
The guidelines are reflections of evolving scientific information, which establishes links between diet and chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and even some cancers and dementia.
American adult obesity rates have more than doubled since 1980 when the first guidelines appeared. Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled, according to the Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting the health of communities.
Obesity is considered a risk factor for developing chronic diseases, but just because you fall into the normal weight category, you are not exempt from the chronic diseases that may accompany a poor diet.
And yet it appears that many Americans take these guidelines with, ahem, a grain of salt. Why?
“Because of our agricultural policy, sugar is ubiquitous,” says locally based registered dietitian Andy Bellatti. “It is a very cheap ingredient, so therefore it is in almost everything.”
“We have to be mindful of the fact that, unfortunately, our current food environment is stacked against us,” says Bellatti, co-founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity. The organization believes: “The public deserves nutrition information that is not tainted by food industry interests.”
Allison Schnitzer, a registered dietitian and health educator with the Southern Nevada Health District’s Office of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, points out that “our food environment makes it very difficult for the average person to follow the dietary guidelines, because the food that’s being sold to us doesn’t follow these guidelines.”
Even frozen uncooked poultry is being “enhanced” with solutions containing salt and sugars, she notes.
“I don’t think people realize how much sugar is added to their processed and packaged foods along with sodium,” Schnitzer says. “These are two things the food industry has gone to over and over again to make their processed and packaged foods more palatable, but also (to) use them as preservatives.”
The dietary guidelines did offer something new this year to help make the process of adopting them easier: The USDA issued specific limits to the amount of added sugars allowed per day — no more than 10 percent of our daily overall calories should come from added sugars. For the average woman that is about 11 teaspoons (45 grams) per day and for the averaged man, 12.5 teaspoons (50 grams) per day.
It is estimated that 89 percent and 70 percent of the population, respectively, is eating more than the recommended amounts of sodium and sugar. For instance, experts contend that eating just one restaurant or fast-food meal usually exceeds the daily recommended limits of added sugar and salt.
By July 26, 2018, the FDA will require nutrition labels to include “added sugars” and reasonable serving sizes — except for food manufacturers with less than $10 million in annual food sales.
Even though the 2018 nutrition labels will help to level the playing field for consumers, Bellatti wishes the guidelines were food-based rather than nutrient based.
He uses the example of when people are told to add fiber to their diet, most have no idea how to increase their fiber unless a processed food product has the word fiber emboldened on the front of the package.
“I say things like — eat beans three to four times a week. Add different kinds of seeds to your oatmeal. Choose whole grains like oats or whole wheat bread,” Bellatti explains.
“I think it’s crucial to give people recipes so they know how to add foods in a way that is tasty and enjoyable,” Bellatti says. “When you have really fresh fruit and vegetables and you know how to prepare them, you want to eat them for the taste not because you have to.”
Kristen Bachhuber, a certified diabetes educator and registered dietitian with Health Plan of Nevada’s Health, Education and Wellness program, thinks small changes to our eating habits will pay off in the long run.
“For the most part, I think that patients are very receptive to the idea of trying to slowly start integrating healthier foods into the home and eliminating a lot of the highly processed, refined carbohydrates that are so unhealthy for us,” said Bachhuber.
She offers the suggestion to first look at the list of ingredients before tackling the nutrition label.
“Can you pronounce those things? I jokingly say, ‘If you can’t read it, don’t eat it,’ ” Bachhuber says.
Grocery shopping tours with key tips on navigating the supermarket is a popular class offered in the wellness program.
Bachhuber encourages people to individualize their goals because each person faces different struggles and barriers to change.
“Keeping consistent — that small little change adds up over time,” says Bachhuber. “No change is too small.”
Schnitzer recommends the Health District’s Get Healthy Clark County website — www.gethealthyclarkcounty.org — for more information on sugar-sweetened beverages, healthy vending initiatives, sodium reduction and helpful mobile apps.
Rhonda Kildea, a certified eating disorder specialist and licensed marriage and family therapist at New Horizons Counseling Center, sees our relationship to food as more complex than just guidelines and nutrients.
“It takes a high level of really just paying attention (not only) to our food intake but also to our emotions,” Kildea explains. “What is it that I need? How am I using food or any other thing to check out or numb out?”
Working with the dietitian in her office, they often use the “apple test” to get to the root of eating issues.
“When you are standing in the kitchen and you want to have something to eat, the question that you ask yourself is, ‘Would I eat an apple right now?’ ” Kildea says. If the answer is yes, then you are truly hungry. Go eat the apple. If an apple won’t cut your craving then it may be something else.
“The test (helps to) differentiate between what’s physical hunger and what’s emotional hunger,” Kildea says. “People want to find the culprit that’s outside of themselves — let’s blame sugar as opposed to hey, maybe we’re not the best at caring for our whole self.”