Saturday, March 23, 2013

"Salt Sugar Fat" by Michael Moss

Elsewhere on this blog I've mentioned the changes in food and exercise my husband and I have taken over the last few years, and more significantly, over the last six months or so. We're now both at our ideal weights and fitness levels, something for which I'm very proud. I knew there were a lot of things wrong with our diets beforehand, but after reading Salt Sugar Fat, a condemnation of processed foods, I'm even more aware of where we went wrong originally and how our recent changes have improved our lives for the better. Here are a few areas I learned about from Salt Sugar Fat:

1. Soda
I've pretty much always been a diet soda drinker, so I never had much guilt around my daily consumption of diet coke. But about three years ago, something about my heavy consumption--mostly vague concerns about aspartame--began to bother me. One day, I quit cold turkey and have never gone back. Moss points to sugary sodas as perhaps the greatest contributor to the rising obesity problem, particularly because of the way the drink industry has formulated their beverages. They are sugary and desirable without sating the appetite or making people tired of the taste. And the marketing that goes into companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi is simply astronomical. Though diet sodas like I was drinking are preferable to the full-calorie version, studies show that even diet colas stimulate the appetite, still causing weight gain.

2. Cheese
When my husband and I were first married, I supported both of us on a teacher's salary while my husband was in grad school. We pinched at every corner, and part of that pinching involved taking advantage of our local grocery store's $5 pizza deal every Friday. We knew pizza wasn't healthy, but the cost was so low that we couldn't resist. And though I would have thought the pizza was problematic mostly because of the grease, the real problem with pizza is the cheese. Surprisingly to me, cheese (along with red meat) is the largest contributor of saturated fat to our diet. Through decades of marketing, companies like Kraft have changed cheese from a snack or after-dinner dessert to an ingredient in every meal of the day. Couple that with the fact that it's nearly impossible to make palatable low-fat cheese, and you've got one bad food. Now a days we occasionally add an ounce or two of parmesan, goat cheese, or feta to our meals, but that's it.

3. Red meat
As I mentioned above, cheese and red meats are two strong contributors of fat in our diet. Like with cheese, though, I didn't always immediately picture meat as a "bad" food the way I associated potato chips or ice cream with unhealthy eating. Yet my husband and I were using beef--mostly ground--several times a week, usually buying the 70% lean (read--30% fat) kind that was cheapest. Now we work hard to have red meat no more than twice a month.

4. Cereal
I've had cereal for breakfast in the morning for as along as I can remember. And, truthfully, it was something I was proud of. I never skipped breakfast like other people I knew, and, really, wasn't I having a healthy morning meal? All the commercials told me I was. But cereal is absolutely loaded with sugar. In fact, the worst kids' cereals are 70% sugar. And cereal companies are perhaps the most deceptive when it comes to marketing cereals and the most insidious in their ability to market to kids. My daily breakfast today consists of plain oatmeal with fresh berries and a dash of cinnamon.

5. Processed snacks
I love Fritos. When I first started working (making $25,000/year in Washington D.C. and living in a $1200/month apartment... the math does not work out), I'd regularly bring several Tostinos pizza rolls in to work for lunch. Or if I was feeling really decadent, I'd spring on those gooey Toaster Strudels... And, again, I knew these were bad for me, but I didn't realize just how much the food industry has manipulated their sugar, salt, and fat makeup to maximize my pleasure. But the truth is, these foods simply don't taste good and aren't shelf stable without the presence of the three. Needless to say, none of these are in my pantry now.

Salt Sugar Fat covers all these areas and more, exploring why we desire processed foods and how the food giants have manipulated their products to increase our desire for them. Moss also talks about the marketing practices behind America's most successful products. Most of the information wasn't brand new to me, but Moss gives more depth to the knowledge I already had. Occasionally the book seemed repetitive, but there were enough new details to make it worthwhile. (I would mention, though, that the excerpt from the book published in The New York Times on March 17 highlights most of the book's salient points.)

Mostly, though, it was interesting to learn more about why the changes my husband and I made have been successful: things like removing breakfast cereal, eliminating lunchmeat and chips, and excising cheese, prepackaged sides, and Campbells cream of whatever soups from dinner. Though Moss offers some suggestions to combat the increasing obesity in America, I was more struck by how impossible to overcome the challenge seems. After all, though I'm a much healthier eater now, I also know how easy it is to give in--particularly when parents bring in a table of desserts each month for teachers' birthdays, or when we go out and a friend orders the loaded nachos. I succeed overall solely by not having those things in my home, but my resistance goes out the door when it's placed in front of me. Sugar, salt, and fat are just stronger than we are--and more knowledge is perhaps out only hope of standing a chance against them.

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