We all know Americans have a weight problem. For years we have blamed fat people for their inability to “exercise more and eat less.” We need to rethink that attitude. Research is now showing that much of the food in the typical American diet does not play fair with our body’s natural mechanisms for signaling satiety. The more we eat, the hungrier we feel.
Scientists are seeing evidence that our processed food, especially the food that is deliciously high in sugar and fat, affects the pleasure centers of our brain in much the same way cocaine does. The food gives us a nice hit of happy endorphins that override our appetite-regulating hormones. Complicating matters is the caloric density of our convenience foods. Normally, as we eat our stomach recognizes both the physical sensation of becoming filled and the more chemical knowledge that calories have refueled us. Our modern, processed food lets us meet and exceed our caloric needs long before our stomachs are physically filled. For example, compare the physical space needed for 500 calories of fresh vegetables vs 500 calories of french fries. Thus craveable processed food pack an obesity encouraging double punch — decreasing our satiety signals while giving our pleasure centers a delightful ping.
Packaged foods, convenience foods, fast food, and school lunches are the top culprits. They leave us paradoxically both hungry and full. They contribute to sluggish afternoons. They decrease productivity at work and learning in our schools.
A quick look at the school lunch menu for my kids’ first week of school shows a highly processed diet of pizza, popcorn (breaded & deep-fried) chicken, fried french toast sticks with fried tater tots, and pasta. Yes, there are vegetables served as well but they are frequently unappetizing and uneaten. Now I know school lunches are horribly underfunded and they feel they need to fix what kids will eat. However, the inexpensive foods served in school lunches reflect our agricultural policies and the heavy lobbying of the meat and dairy industries, not the nutritional needs of our students. The Department of Agriculture sets our official nutritional policies, not an independent, health and science based entity. Given the emerging science about processed food, this needs to change.
Compelling evidence shows higher levels of meat consumption associated with increased cancer risk and links excess iron to Alzheimer’s disease. According to the documentary Forks over Knives, in the early part of the 20th century, Americans ate 120 pounds of meat (beef, pork and chicken combined), 40 pounds of processed sugar, and 295 pounds of dairy each year. All these numbers have more than doubled and along with them cancers, heart disease, and obesity.
We have known for years that we should eat more vegetable and we as a nation have struggled to do so. Now that we are starting to understand some of the body chemistry involved, perhaps it is no wonder that despite all the obvious health benefits, we can’t eat just one.