For a country where the closest thing to a national dish is often served at a drive-through window, Americans sure are obsessed with what they eat. Publishers added two new titles this week to the already bloated compendium of books offering insight into the nature of the food we put in our mouths; and in case you missed memo, the news isn’t all that encouraging.
In Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Foods Took Over the American Meal, author Melanie Warner provides a cringe-worthy trip through the annals of food processing—from the invention of cheese that never spoils (J.L. Kraft, 1914) to the preparation of “fresh” store-made guacamole that contains an ingredient used in the manufacture of cosmetics and is still edible after nine months in the fridge. (And even that’s better than Kraft’s version, which contains less than two percent avocado.)
Speaking on Tuesday with Dave Davies on Fresh Air, Michael Moss—author of the new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us—revealed how large food companies make us crave their products even when we’re not hungry:
“I mean, these products … are yummy. These scientists do a terrific job of making them irresistible. And it’s clear that there’s very serious health effects from all this stuff we’re eating. So it raises a question, really, I think, of whether … a competitive capitalist system is capable of dealing with it.”
This is a question that’s been asked periodically since the USDA published its first set of nutritional guidelines, “Food for Young Children,” in 1916. How much government intervention is appropriate to keep us healthy? Some think the answer is “a lot.”
I, for one, am skeptical of additional regulatory efforts (including bans on large sugary drinks) that are designed to manipulate consumer eating behavior by limiting choices. It’s not because I don’t recognize the government’s role in promoting public health. As someone who once had to drop 40 pounds of excess weight, I’m a firm supporter of packaged food labeling. But I can tell you from experience, all the information you need to maintain a healthy diet is already out there for the taking. (The most recent set of USDA Dietary Guidelines, published in 2010, are about as clear as it gets.)
The point is, it doesn’t take a licensed nutritionist—or government bureaucrat—to figure out what’s good for you. Michael Pollan offers the best advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But if that’s a little too vague for you, here are five steps to a better diet that don’t require anything new from Uncle Sam.
Make Your Own Food
Okay so not everyone wants to be on Top Chef, I get it. But preparing simple, nutritionally sound meals without opening a box is not as hard as you might think. People have done it for centuries. Today, fewer than half of us report cooking most of our dinners from scratch. Do yourself a favor and start reversing that trend.
Don’t Be Fooled by Foolish Labels on Packaged Food
Anything that supplies “100 percent Daily Value of 12 essential vitamins” can’t be that bad, can it? You bet it can. Just because a food says it’s “whole grain” or “low fat” doesn’t mean it’s balanced and nutritious. If you want to know what’s in that package of broccoli rice, don’t look at the front of the box, turn it over and …
Read Food Labels
All you need to know about whether a packaged food product is healthy for you is right there on the back of the box. Look for red flags like high levels of sodium and fat, and pay close attention to calories and serving size. New research suggests that even when calories are listed, they’re not always accurate. But they’re still a great resource for comparison shopping. Take bread, for example. A single slice of bread can have anywhere from 45 to 200 calories. Choose wisely. And remember, as long as you stay active, you’re better off getting more wholesome calories than fewer empty ones.
Avoid Spontaneous Food Shopping
We’ve all heard the popular adage “don’t go to the grocery store hungry,” but research shows that consumers who go food shopping without a game plan are also more likely to load up their carts with unhealthy foods.
Not All Processed Foods Are Bad!
For some people, the idea of having to avoid every single processed ingredient is so daunting that it’s easier to just skip the whole thing. But not all processed foods are created equally. Most store-bought pretzels (and a host of other products) contain something called modified food starch, a harmless additive usually derived from corn. Another popular food additive, maltodextrin, while lacking any nutritionally value, isn’t likely to harm you either. A good rule of thumb is to avoid packaged foods with more than five ingredients. But if you can’t do that, at least stay away from ingredients that contain MSG and its derivatives (like yeast extract), artificial flavors, and high fructose corn syrup.