I am convinced that Hugo has pica. As soon as we first brought him home, I began to have suspicions.
We obviously have a serious problem on our hands. But as I spent some time thinking about how to explain to an 11-month old French bulldog that doesn’t speak English (my French is rusty) that rocks are not a good source of protein, I realized – almost everyone I know eats non-food items.
Diet soda. Kraft American Cheese Slices. Funyuns. Lunchables. The list goes on – you know the stuff: processed foods. Everyone has heard the Michael Pollan “don’t eat anything your grandmother doesn’t recognize as food” quote and the even more common advice of not buying things with ingredients you cannot pronounce, but rather than just brushing those statements aside, let’s think about them for a second. Those are non-food items. Yet we pay top dollar to put them into our bodies. Why? Because they taste good? Not always. Because they are cheap? Usually not the case. Because they are convenient? Now you’re on to something.
As an RD-to-be, the question I am most often asked is: “Really though, how bad is ______ for me?” Unless someone is asking about a daily habit of country fried steak sandwiches eaten while chain-smoking and downing a Big Gulp, my answer is usually “everything is fine, in moderation.” Moderation being the key word, my friends.
At our 4th of July BBQ a couple weeks back, a good friend (and recovering Diet Coke addict) excitedly came up to tell me that another nutrition friend of mine had said there was nothing wrong with drinking Diet Coke. I am very proud of my DC-addict for getting down to one can a day, and knew she was looking for a green light to up her numbers again. I also knew there was no way a comrade-in-arms against over-consumption of artificial sweeteners had given her thumbs-up without a caveat. Sure enough, she came trailing behind DC-addict to sternly state: “I said IN MODERATION!” A girl after my own heart.
Yes, what I am saying is that a Diet Coke a day doesn’t raise much of a blip on my radar. Nor does the occasional hot dog at a BBQ or (gasp!) some roadside McDonald’s (yes, I am aware that people are going to send me to nutrition h-e-double hockey sticks for saying that). But ARD, these are what you called non-food items! Right you are – however, relying on these foods once in a while due to their inherent convenience is a small drop in the bucket. What I needed DC-addict to understand was that neither my nutrition friend nor I would ever condone more than one diet soda a day. And that is where people tend to get confused.
We emphasize processed foods in our diets because they are easy. We trade a piece of fruit for a fruit roll-up or a slice of homemade pizza for a pizza-flavored Combo. It is more common in the typical American household to see a pantry full of boxed, shelf-stable products than it is to see a bowl brimming with fruit or a fridge filled with fresh dinner ingredients. We say it is because we don’t have the time or that these non-food items actually cost less. But what is the real cost of this convenient lifestyle?
A recent study published in the British Journal of Nutrition reviewed the dietary patterns and associated health consequences of 4,025 German adults. Researchers found that a high adherence to a processed diet (high in refined grains, processed meat, red meat, high-sugar beverages, eggs, potatoes, beer, sweets, cakes, snacks, and butter) was associated with 88% higher occurrence of abdominal obesity, a 34% higher occurrence of hypertension, a 59% higher occurrence of hypertriacylglycerolaemia (high blood triaclyglycerols), and a 64% higher occurrence of metabolic syndrome after adjusting results for age, sex, energy intake, socio-economic status, sports activity and smoking.
So what does that mean? Fair question. It means that, when compared to a diet high in vegetables, vegetable oils, legumes, fruits, fish and whole grains, the physical manifestations of a processed diet can be detrimental to your health status. Yes it may be easy. Yes it may seem cheap. And yes, it can often taste good. But there are consequences and they shouldn’t be ignored.
Additionally, instead of considering what you are eating, think about what you aren’t eating. What food items are the non-food items replacing in your diet? Are you choosing an orange soda over an orange? Along with your added sugars you are missing out on the vitamins, minerals and fiber associated with the fruit. It isn’t all about what 10 Diet Cokes will do to you, but also about the fact that your 10 Diet Cokes could be replacing 10 glasses of water.
These non-foods can absolutely have a place in the landscape of our diets; that place just needs to adjust from the starring role to a walk-on with no lines. As I told DC-addict, if I could get every single person to exercise for 30-60 minutes, 4 days a week, then I would allow everyone to have their daily Diet Coke. But rather than emphasizing the good, we have gotten in the habit of emphasizing the bad. Time to make it stop.
The new response to the “Really though, how bad is _____ for me?” question is: “Who cares? Tell me, do you think it is good for you?” These non-foods may be popular, but that doesn’t mean they are worth so much of your time. I am ready for the era of real food to begin. And am here to help it catch on.
An extremely fashionable woman in the Hearst elevator told me she thought my lunch box was “chic.” Huh. Single-serving containers of sugar-snap peas may not be cool yet, but we’re on our way.
- The “Chic” Aspiring RD
Some exciting updates below!
My first published piece, ‘Should Coconut Oil Replace Olive Oil in an Athlete’s Diet?’ was recently printed in the NSCA’s Performance Training Journal. Give it a looksie!
Allison Knott (of Choices Habits Lifestyle) and I will be driving from CT-UT starting tomorrow and will be blogging and tweeting along the way about our country’s food landscape – be sure tune in!