Americans are in the midst of one of the most serious health epidemics of all time. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world and it considers itself one of the most “health-conscious”. Ironically, the standard American diet consists primarily of meats and processed foods at the expense of raw, unrefined vegetables. The imbalance of nutrients and quality food may be the reason the obesity rate has escalated to its current state.
Here are some enlightening statistics about obesity in the United States:
- Americans spend more than 120 billion dollars a year on fast food (in most fast food chains, you can double the calories of a meal for less than a dollar).
- More than one third of American children are overweight or obese.
- 1 in 3 children in the United States will be diagnosed with type II diabetes in their lifetime (1 in 2 if they happen to be African American or Hispanic).
There isn’t a quick fix or magic bullet that exists today that will solve the problem. Each year, pharmaceutical companies continue their research to find a “cure” for obesity, hundreds of weight loss books are published and new weight loss programs and “fad diets” are showcased in infomercials or in weight loss clinics across the country. Until we face the underlying problems (i.e. the choices we make in what we eat and how we live our lives), the majority of consumers will continue to be disappointed, spending their hard earned money on ineffective solutions, and not improving their overall health for the long term.
The solution is simple, but it’s not the easiest choice to make. It takes time, effort and commitment to get the best results. It’s a difficult choice because it requires changing one’s eating habits … habits that have been reinforced for many years. These habits are especially hard to break when they are associated with shifts in hormone levels, emotions or come as a function of one’s budget and economic situation.
One recommended solution isn’t right for everyone. There are several factors to consider when it comes to a nutritional plan and lifestyle strategy. To get things started, let’s focus on the actions that can make a difference almost immediately and get you on the right track! The top three tips for improving your health through good food choices are:
- Cut back on sugar
- Maintain a slight alkaline body pH
- Increase your intake of “super foods”
Cut Back on Sugar
Sugars are organic compounds that occur naturally in most plants. The white granules of sugar that most people are used to seeing is sucrose (one of many types of sugar compounds). Most of the sugar we eat comes from sugarcane plants where it is used to add sweetness to foods and is the main ingredient in most types of candy.
Sugar ages our bodies very quickly. It does this through a chemical process called “glycation”. Glycation occurs when the sugar in your blood combines with a protein molecule (i.e. tryptophan, lysine, and arginine). As a result, byproducts called “advanced glycation end-products” (AGEs) are formed. When the proteins in your blood vessels undergo glycation, the result is stiffer, less flexible, arteries, which can lead to increases in blood pressure, plaque build-up, incidences of blockages and coronary heart disease (i.e. stroke or heart attack). The smallest blood vessels are the ones that experience the most damage, including the ones in the back of the eyes, the kidneys and the brain. The simple solution … less sugar equals less damage to the body.
Ways to Cut Back on Sugar
Cutting back on sugar isn’t just about eating less of it. It’s also about choices that dictates how sugar affects our bodies. Here are a few simple ways to decrease the amount of sugar in your diet when planning your meals, beverages and snacks:
- Read food labels
- Include fiber-rich foods
- Choose fruit instead of sugar
- Choose natural sweeteners instead of sugar
Read Food Labels
The easiest way to cut back on refined sugars is to read food labels and make sure any form of sugar is not one of the first five ingredients on the label. Look specifically for:
- High-fructose corn syrup
For information on how to read dietary food labels, click here.
Include Fiber-Rich Foods
Dietary fiber includes nutrients in the diet that are not digested by gastrointestinal enzymes (also known as roughage). It is the indigestible part of plant foods that pushes through our digestive system. There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble dietary fiber dissolves in water, while insoluble dietary fiber does not.
Dietary fiber is an essential part of a healthy diet because it improves digestive system function. It pushes through the entire length of the digestive system, absorbs water along the way and helps with bowel movement regularity. Soluble dietary fiber, in particular, helps to slow the release of sugar directly into the bloodstream. This can be beneficial when eating processed foods high in sugar.
Sources of dietary fiber include:
- Dark, leafy vegetables (insoluble)
- Root vegetable skins (insoluble)
- Nuts and seeds (insoluble)
- Wheat bran (insoluble)
- Kidney beans (soluble)
- Prunes (soluble)
- Raw fruits (soluble)
- Whole wheat bread (soluble)
Fresh fruit (or frozen) is always a good choice when you’ve got a sweet tooth or need fast energy for the activities of the day. Even though fruits inherently contain fructose, they also have built-in dietary fiber, antioxidants and minerals that slow the release of sugar into the body and help to prevent glycation. Choose a wide variety of fruits (including all colors of the rainbow) to ensure you get all the vitamins and minerals you need each day.
Choose Natural Sweeteners
If you insist on adding sweetener to your food, choose natural sweeteners like stevia and Xylitol instead of table sugar or artificial sweeteners. Unlike sugar, stevia doesn’t trigger glycation or elevations in blood sugar. Unlike artificial sweeteners, stevia has no aftertaste, side effects, chemical additives and has not been linked to increased cancer rates. Xylitol is a compound found in some fruits, vegetables and hardwood trees. Because Xylitol has a more complex chemical structure than table sugar, it doesn’t trigger the release of insulin, making it ideal for people with diabetes. As an added bonus, it has 40 percent fewer calories than sugar.
Food for Thought …
Changing your health situation can be as simple as changing your nutritional choices and habits. Good choices result in improved health. Bad choices result in diminished health and greater risk of preventable disease. Focusing on sugar is the easiest one to start with because it is clearly labeled on virtually all packaged foods and what isn’t labeled (i.e. fruits and vegetables) is good food choice!
Stay tuned for “Nutrition for Optimal Health – Part Two” where we focus on body pH (acidity and alkalinity).