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April 9, 2013 / Tracy Fernandez Rysavy

Sugar, Salt, and Fat: A Trio for Ill Health

SaltSugarFatHave you read Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Michael Moss’s new book Salt, Sugar, and Fat? If not, I encourage you to consider it. Not to be all dramatic, but what I learned between the covers of this book changed my diet for good.

I’ve always tried to follow author Michael Pollan’s advice to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But I do tend to reach for sugary snacks when I’m under stress. As I mentioned in the inaugural blog post of the Green America editors’ series on sugar, what I learned from our research for the Green American magazine into the health impacts of fructose—the sweet ingredient in both table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup—scared me enough to cause me to limit my table sugar to the American Heart Association’s (AHA) recommended levels of six teaspoons (30 g) of added sugars per day for women. (Men get nine teaspoons, or 45 g.)

Moss let me know that what I was doing wasn’t enough. Let me explain….

Back in the 1970s, people started becoming concerned about the fat content in their food. So what did the processed food manufacturers do? They lowered the fat content and labeled their products “low fat” and “lite”—but they also quietly upped the salt and sugar levels to make up for it. And we fell for it.

They still do this today, writes Moss, and we’re still falling for it.

Moss went inside the processed food industry and uncovered how companies carefully manipulate the three unhealthy core ingredients in his book title to entice consumers into craving more, eating more, and buying more. “Any improvement to the nutritional profile of a product can in no way diminish its allure,” writes Moss, “and this has led to one of the industry’s most devious moves: lowering one bad-boy ingredient like fat while quietly adding more [of another, like] sugar to keep people hooked.”

In fact, he writes, “To make a new soda guaranteed to create a craving requires calculating what industry insiders call the ‘bliss point,’ or the precise amount of sugar or fat or salt that will send customers over the moon.”

No, it’s not their fault that we’re overeating—we have brains and willpower after all. But they slap labels on their “foods” like “Low Fat!” or “Lite!” or “Low-Sodium!” to make us believe they’ve given us a healthier version of their foods, but they haven’t. Once you start looking at the labels of your seemingly healthy snacks, you’ll most often find that if that granola bar is low in salt and fat, the sugar content is through the roof. If those pretzels are low in sugar and fat, their salt content goes a long way toward the 1500 mg (a bit under three-fourths of a teaspoon) you should have per day, if you’re following AHA guidelines.

I’m a busy working mom who tries to eat healthy and serve good food to my family when it’s my turn to cook. But it was then that I realized that limiting our fructose (table sugar or HFCS) isn’t enough. So I revamped my entire diet as a first step to revamping my entire family’s diet.

On the advice of a holistic nutritionist friend, I embarked on a three-day “cleanse” where I’d eat mostly vegetables and raw seeds for three days. The food was mind-numbingly boring, to be truthful, but I took it as a meditation on gratitude and focused on how lucky I was to have access to three square meals of healthy fare a day.

When the three days were over, I spent several weeks adding in tastier but still good food each day, all with an eye toward emphasizing vegetables and keeping my sugar, salt, and fat intake below AHA guidelines.

To my everlasting shock, I found that those three days of blah-but-good-for-me food had “reset” my palate.

The organic vinegar and olive oil salad dressing I’d previously found dull suddenly zinged with flavor. The brown rice I’d tolerated in the past took on a rich, nutty taste it never had before. I could tell that roasting vegetables brought out more of their natural sugars than steaming—a distinction I don’t think I could have made in the past. And when one of my daughters gave me a gummy bear out of her (respectably small) stash of Easter candy, I was surprised to find that one of my favorite sugary treats had turned unpleasantly sour.

Americans have grown so used to tasting salt- and sugar-overload, that that’s all we’re tuned for, and we’re truly missing a rainbow of flavors.

I thought I ate healthy before this challenge, but now I’m eating super-healthy. And those sugary snacks I used to reach for when stressed? Mostly gone and hardly missed. Not that I won’t indulge once in a while (my mom’s cinnamon pull-apart bread cannot be denied), but I feel like it can truly be once in a while—not in the middle of every work day when I’m on a deadline.

In a nutshell, here’s what I did (This is not intended to be a comprehensive diet plan, so please consult your doctor or a nutritionist—or at least a good nutrition book from a reputable source—before radically shifting your own diet.):

  • For three days, I went cold turkey off of added sugars and salt, sticking to a diet of mostly vegetables and high-protein seeds like chia and raw sunflower or pumpkin.
  • I ate a high-protein breakfast (flax-seed granola with raisins and dried cranberries and rice milk), per the recommendation of Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California-San Francisco who’s made a name for himself decrying the evils of fructose. Dr. Lustig says that the surest way to reduce ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates hunger, is to eat a breakfast that includes a lot of protein and little or no carbohydrates or sweets like cinnamon rolls.
  • I limited myself to one snack and three meals a day.
  • I limited healthy carbs, like brown rice or quinoa, to one serving a day.
  • I drank at least eight 8-oz. glasses of water.

After the three days, I started adding in a few more carbs, fruits, and other healthy foods, with an eye to keeping my added sugar and sodium intake below AHA recommendations and still eating mostly vegetables. I also added in two small indulgences: an ounce of Fair Trade chocolate for dessert after dinner, and a glass of red wine before bedtime.

And you know what? Even when I was stressed, that ounce of chocolate is truly enough. Which is weird if you know how much I love chocolate, but there it is. I feel better, and I firmly believe this time, I’ve changed my relationship with sugar for good. Sure, I’ll indulge every once in a while, but it will truly be once in a while.

In a future blog, I’ll share some of our Green America staff’s best tips for detoxing from sugar, and we’ll have holistic nutritionist Tricia McCauley will be here to offer professional advice.

Meanwhile, here’s a link to a lovely sugar-lite treat from one of my favorite new healthy recipe bloggers, the Detoxinista, for Chocolate Peanut Butter Milkshakes—I used local, organic honey instead of maple syrup, because that’s what I had on hand. Do you have any favorite healthy and sugar-lite or -free treats or even recipes to share? 

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