Salt, Sugar, Fat

A Trinity of Dietary Evils? Or Just Misused Nutrients?

Sugar, salt and fat are hot topics in the media these days thanks to the release of a new book by Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.  Excerpts from this book are being featured in the National Post and the Globe and Mail reviewed the book.

Mr. Moss, a Pulitzer-winning writer, pulls back the veil on the food industry to demonstrate the lengths to which it will go to make products practically irresistible.

The chemical engineering behind the more-ishness of potato chips, as one example, echoes the efforts that were undertaken to make tobacco more addictive.  In fact, tobacco giant Phillip Morris is now a giant in the food industry, and has brought the marketing tactics of tobacco to processed foods.

Obvious connections are being drawn between this kind of food engineering and the obesity epidemic.  While I agree that excess consumption of sugar and fat contribute to obesity, I also think that it’s a poorly understood mult-factor condition that will not subside simply by making junk food harder or more expensive to get. Demonizing nutrients is not the answer.

So how do we save ourselves from the machinations of junk food engineers?

To quote my mom, “Don’t eat out of boxes”.  What she means by that is avoid processed foods.  I recognize that, when processed foods are so readily available, this can be easier said than done.  That’s why you need a strategy.

Remember KISS

I don’t mean the rock group.  I mean the acronym: Keep It Super Simple.

Use the KISS strategy to help you develop a “Don’t eat out of boxes” lifestyle.  Set a few rules for yourself:

  • Eat something healthy before you go grocery shopping.  You’ll be more susceptible to the lure of junk/processed food if you shop when you’re hungry.
  • Stick to the perimeter of the store and avoid the aisles as much as possible.  Most grocery stores have whole or close-to-whole foods on display around the perimeter of the store.  The aisles have canned and packaged foods.  This is the danger zone.
  • Go for products with simple, natural ingredients.  Watch out for “problem ingredients” such as high fructose corn syrup, and any ingredient containing the word “sodium”.
  • Learn how to read labels.  “Low fat” does not mean “low calorie”.  Look at how many calories are contained in a serving.  Does the serving size seem reasonable?  Are you going to stop at 20 chips or 1 cookie?  Be honest with yourself.
  • Do a little math.  Learn to convert grams of nutrients into calories to be able to gauge if the product is in the right zone for you.  Protein and carbohydrates each provide 4 calories per gram while alcohol provides 7 and fat gives 9.

Product promotion can be misleading.  Some products may call themselves “low fat” based on the number of grams of fat per serving.  What you should focus on is the proportion of calories coming from fat, and this should be in the range of 25 – 30%, which is a healthy target for most people.  For example, let’s say a “low fat” lasagna offers “only” 10 grams of fat in a 250 calorie serving.  That’s 36%.  Maybe it’s not so low after all.

Now, that you’ve seen how to set limits on your fat consumption, you can easily develop similar approaches to defining your limits for sugar and salt, thereby avoiding enslavement to the “unholy trinity”.