Junk Food and Soda Not the Cause of Obesity?

I’ll never forget my first breakfast in Germany while waitressing over the summer, years ago, for a student work-exchange program: hot white bread rolls slathered in thick layers of butter and Nutella, washed down with whole milk and sugar mixed into coffee so strong that a second cup literally broke me into a sweat.

germanfoodWe also had full-fat yogurt with muesli mixed into it. You couldn’t even find full-fat yogurt in America, being as convinced of the evils of dietary fat as we were at the time.

Having just lost twenty pounds on a hardcore low-fat diet myself, I panicked at the prospect of endless spreadable meats and cheeses. But with nary an artificial sweetener or low-fat product in sight, I figured I’d have to suck it up and eat like a German.

I dove headlong into a sausage-and-potato lifestyle, taking walks in the Black Forest every day in hopes of mitigating the consequences. When I was later shocked to return home and find out I hadn’t gained an ounce, I figured daily exercise must’ve done the trick. What else could explain it?

lowcarbburger
This photo makes me sad

Years later, when the anti-fat philosophy shifted anti-carb, I was haunted by my childhood trips to France every time I bit into another sad little cheeseburger wrapped in lettuce leaves.  Like so many others, I jumped on board the low-carb craze, even though I knew damn well that French people eat fluffy croissants and buttered baguettes every morning.

Yet somehow, the French are still much thinner than we are.

Like so many other Americans, I keep fighting the obesity demons lurking just outside my door by doing whatever diet researchers tell me. This means I’ve been on a huge array of diets, because diet researchers can’t seem to keep their stories straight.

We’re supposed to take personal responsibility for our health, they keep telling us, but that’s tough to do when the game keeps changing. As soon as we’ve thrown out our butter and replaced our milk, cheese, and salad dressings with low-fat versions, we’re suddenly hearing simple carbs are the problem.

meanegg
STOP TALKING ABOUT US!

Oh, did we say simple carbs? Nah, we meant the glycemic index load. Fats are good, but definitely avoid saturated fat. Wait… we meant trans-fats, because saturated fats aren’t as bad as we thought.

What do you mean egg yolks are unhealthy? Did we say that? Your real problem is the eleven servings of carbs you eat every day. Who told you that was a good idea?

But definitely avoid salt. Or maybe not.

The truth is that it’s impossible to simultaneously follow all of the crazy-making nutritional advice we hear. You can’t avoid all sugars, starches, fats, carbs, meat, eggs, gluten, dairy, soy, and processed foods without starving to death. You can’t be vegan and eat like a caveman at the same time.

Sometimes I suspect these diets only work because they make our food less palatable, so we end up eating less of it. Salads and pasta don’t taste as good without creamy toppings. Digging into steaks and butter is fantastic during the honeymoon phase of low-carbing, but gets monotonous after a bit. Eventually, all you want is a cracker.

Yet we Americans keep scrambling to follow this week’s nutritional guidelines and currently, the idea of whole foods is all the rage. More important than counting calories, we are told, is eating fresh, unprocessed food.”Real” food, without sugar.

Then along comes this bombshell study from Cornell University showing that skinny people actually drink more soda and eat more junk food than the overweight. Kinda busts a gaping hole in the idea that you can eat whatever you want as long as it’s nutritious, right?

doughnutcoffee
So much kale, so little time

Dangerous studies like these leave me about a hair’s breadth away from chucking my morning kale shake in favor of little powdered doughnuts. Because in all honesty, who wouldn’t rather dip powdered doughnuts in coffee than choke down a bunch of kale?

And who wants to suffer years in bitter self-denial when it’s all begun to feel like a crapshoot, anyway?

But then, Giant Buzzkill Faye Flam comes along and makes a reasonable argument rebutting the latest research. Since overweight people may be reacting to their health problems by reducing junk food, she points out, it doesn’t mean junk food didn’t cause their problems in the first place. Believing that would be like thinking salt causes low blood pressure because hypertensives go on low-sodium diets.

On the other hand, we’ve got Jeff Wilser’s experiment in eating nothing BUT junk food for an entire month. After chowing down on Oreos, M&M’s and pretzels for thirty days, he was amazed to find not only his weight plummeting, but also his cholesterol readings improving.

Jeff’s experiment reminds me of Morgan Spurlock’s disastrous thirty-day fast-food binge in Supersize Me, with one major difference: whereas Morgan made a point of eating more calories than he normally would, Jeff followed the servings sizes on junk food packaging (though he allowed himself “cheat” days, where he binged).

morganspurlock
Who wouldn’t trust a mustache like this?

So does it all really come down to calories in vs calories out? Maybe.

I suspect, in the end, that portion control is the root of our problems. Fifty years ago, before the American obesity epidemic hit, we didn’t have this dazzling array of low-fat and gluten-free products, but our portion sizes were drastically smaller.

Apparently, today’s Happy Meal at McDonalds would’ve been considered an adult-sized portion back then.

And we’ve been conditioned to think of ridiculous portion sizes as normal. Since Americans believe a good deal means getting more for your money, restaurants have responded to market demand with an exploding portion-size arms race over the past several decades.

In short, portion sizes have gotten huge and we’re used to them. We’ve been conditioned to think anything less than a massive amount of food means we’re getting ripped off, while simultaneously assuming that whatever entree we’re served represents a “normal” meal.

cookie-monster
Finally vindicated

My takeaway? Just eat less, but maybe don’t stress so much about the nutritional makeup of every last morsel. We have nutritional needs that go beyond the number on your scale, so it’s not a great idea to live off sodas and Twizzlers. But maybe a little bit won’t hurt .

So, if you really want that cookie, go ahead and eat that cookie.

Just not the whole box.

 

 

 

16 Comments

    1. Thank you! After spending so may years paying attention to the research and trying to follow the guidelines, I can’t help but notice how much it contradicts itself and changes. You hear about all these different studies slamming food with cholesterol, for example, and then suddenly it vanishes like it never happened…

      Figured I couldn’t be the only one getting frustrated with it. I’m on Team Moderation from now on 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely. Being told things like one glass of wine per night is good for you heart, and then it headlines next week that that’s the worst thing for your health… It’s just too much hassle to keep up with the contradictions. Team Moderations all the way :).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I was just reading about wine! Some article about how they got it all wrong and we should’t ever touch a drop.

          Finally wore out and decided it was too much. At least with moderation, you’re not too far off-track, whatever the “truth” ends up being 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Whoa! You’re all different now! It took me a moment to adjust to the change haha.

    I kind of love that you posted this today, because I had a very similar conversation earlier. A coworker of mine is a bit of a carb nazi, and was criticizing someone else’s lunch choice. I made the point that people in other countries eat tons of bread & other carbs, and are often healthier & slimmer than we are. There’s no need to cut out an entire food group from your diet just to lose weight.

    On the other hand, all this talk of Nutella and buttery croissants is making me want to stuff my face 😀

    Like

    1. Yes, I’ve been playing with the format lately and am not sure whether the new changes are better or not. I’ll probably keep tinkering for a bit 🙂

      Funny that you just had that convo–people can be very dogmatic about their dieting style and I have to wonder if they are trying to convince themselves as much as everyone else.

      It can be very confusing and frustrating, since dieting takes so much effort. Low fat, low carb, vegetarian, etc gurus make very convincing arguments, but they can’t all be right!

      I was a low-carber for a few years but kept wondering why Asians tended to be slimmer even though they eat so much rice. One time I asked a Chinese friend about it, and his answer stuck with me: “People have been doing Atkins for maybe 70 years, but Chinese people have eaten Chinese diets for 10,000 years.”

      All I know is that Europeans are (on average) much thinner, despite eating carbs, fat, gluten, and salt… in smaller portion sizes. You couldn’t get a nonfat latte with Splenda over there for love or money, yet it seems to be working out fine.

      I’m wondering if the best way to slim down is to just follow the serving sizes on all our packaging. It’s not a philosophy that would sell many books, but maybe it’s that simple.

      Plus, I don’t want a life without freshly baked bread and full-fat cheese.

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      1. You make a good point that they’re probably trying to convince themselves as much as everyone else. I’m thinking there’s likely also a bit of, “I’m unhappy that I can’t have carbs, so I’m going to make sure nobody else gets to enjoy them either.”

        I’m with you – I tend to eat pretty small, reasonably healthy meals, but this is the only life I get, so if someone offers me baked goods fresh from the oven, you can bet I’ll take one! (Or more than one.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Your probably right about that. There’s so much sin and redemption and “deserving” psychology wrapped into food issues that being pure becomes one of the perks.

          It’s hard to beat fresh, hot bread. Or cheese fondue.

          I think it’s much easier to just have a little bit than try to give up stuff you love. And for me, holidays and vacations are open season. Dieting on vacation just isn’t worth the grief.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. As a Brit I was overwhelmed by the portion sizes on my one visit to America – both in restaurants and the meals our hosts served at home, so you may have a point. Although us Brits have a weight problem too so who knows! There’s probably no single answer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting to hear your take, since you didn’t grow up here. Also, Americans think of Brits as our counterparts across the sea–a common background (and language), so the differences seem more “graspable” than in a more removed culture.

      Over here, when people praise a restaurant, they talk about how much food you get for your money more often than not. This is viewed as financially savvy, not gluttonous. Serving people small portions at your home would be taken as stingy.

      So by that logic, leaving food on your plate at a restaurant appears wasteful and at someone’s house, rude. We’re also raised on the idea that not finishing your food is disrespectful to people starving elsewhere.

      It’s not hard to connect the dots: our portions keep getting bigger as restaurants compete for customers (often with starchy sides) and customers feel they have to finish their food.

      Most people consider the serving sizes detailed on packaging to be ridiculously small, as though food manufacturers are deliberately reporting fewer calories to make their food look healthier. But I wonder if it’s actually because we’ve gotten used to huge portions.

      Everyone I know who has travelled abroad lost weight on vacation, though they didn’t expect to. I think it’s because portions are reasonable.

      Do people in the UK tend to use low-fat and non-fat products? I mean, do grocery stores offer low-fat cheese and milk?

      I ask because I didn’t see them in France or Germany, but haven’t traveled in the UK since I was a little girl.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, guess I must have seemed really rude the night our hosts served lobster, steak and I don’t know what else, and I just ate the salad… oops! I think the ‘clear your plate, there’s people starving in the world’ is a very common attitude here as well, but increasingly restaurants do offer you the choice of having a starter or side dish as your main course – or maybe that’s just the restaurants I like with my tiny appetite, there’s plenty of ‘all you can eat’ buffets as well! Plenty of low fat stuff on offer in our supermarkets here too, and whole ranges of ‘diet’ ready meals – although I suspect they’re just stuffed full of sugar instead of fat to make them taste better!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Erin 🙂 Love the new look haha, now we got the same theme!!! What you raised in this post is interesting, but I’m skeptical of some of the ‘experiments’ that have been conducted. Jeff Wilser could have been exercising doubly hard during his junk food intensive period so who knows for sure. Amidst all the frenzy, I agree that we gotta cut down on high fat-high cholestrol foods and not stress out if we ever feel like having a snack or two.
    For me I gotta eat so much in a day just to maintain because I have super high metabolism and it’s a struggle to put on weight LOL. Totally different problem here 😉

    How are you anyway? Doing good 🙂 ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We do?? I didn’t realize that, wasn’t trying to copy, haha.

      Felt like changing up my look, so I’ve tried a few different themes and decided this was nice. Maybe it’s a trend 😀

      You’re lucky! I keep my weight down, but I have to really watch it. So I keep an eye on all the studies that go by and sometimes, I’ve about had it with conflicting advice.

      Other than that, good! Just saw 10 Cloverfield Lane, so I’ve been meaning to comment on your review. Hope you’re doing well too!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeap!! Isn’t the theme cool? We’ll make it a trend hahah 🙂
        Ok, can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
        Kinda, but I wish I could put on weight easier given that I gym often. I’d say find what works best for you, hey, a doughnut never hurts once in a while right? I’m a little skeptical about kale and all, you see all these trendy modern foods like green juice and all, I feel like it’s just a fad yknow, there’s so many good foods out there but people get caught up with what’s trendy and miss the point.
        I’m doing good as well, I’m having a little dilemma thinking about where to go for my uni though, been bugging me these few days.

        Like

  4. When I lived in Edinburgh there was a lot of media attention not he high rate of heart attacks and high cholesterol in the UK. People were skinny since they walked everywhere, and there were few lifts/elevators in the city center but their health was still crap. It is definitely calories in vs calories for obesity. Unfortunately the veins still aren’t super thrilled with a diet of everything fried regardless of how much walking you do.

    Anyway, you’re absolutely right. A lunch taco salad here can feed a family of 5, or more, in the EU.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True, these are separate issues. I’m sure someone could be bone thin if they ate just 500 calories of Twinkies every day, but they wouldn’t be in good shape.

      I think it’s actually more important to eat well if you’re restricting calories, because there’s more chance of being deficient in something.

      Either way though, I can’t help noticing how much health advice changes over the years. Twenty years ago, fat was public enemy #1 with egg yolks right behind it. Then it was carbs. These things can drive you mad.

      Like

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