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Stop! Put down that maple-drizzled oat-pecan scone and back away, slowly. Now think: Are those 440 empty calories worth of sugar, fat and carbs truly the best way for a lawyer to refuel in the afternoon? While you chew on that, consider what Jen Sacheck, Harvard nutritionist and co-author of Thinner This Year, says about eating “bad stuff” in this rather pointed excerpt from the best-selling book.
You can eat almost anything once in a while and get away with it, especially if you’re exercising on a regular basis. What you cannot do is eat Bad Stuff all the time, which is what too many of us do. It makes you sick, and ultimately it can kill you as it kills so many in this country. Before it gets that bad, a Bad Stuff diet makes you fat and saps your energy and enthusiasm for life. Not to mention it can wreak havoc on your looks.
Bad Stuff represents about 50 percent of the average American diet—and by that I mean fatty cuts of meat, especially red meat, fried foods, overly processed and refined grains (white bread and pasta), fast food, ice cream, butter, pizza oozing with cheese, heavy salad dressings, and many kinds of crackers and chips. Oh, and let’s not forget the obvious—candy—from the beloved Twizzler to the infamous M&M’s. Adults eat these, too. A whopping 35 percent of the total average daily calorie intake comes from added sugars and solid fats. Here is a modest attempt at my prioritized “Short List of Rotten Food.”
1. Fried Foods. The tiptop of the Mountain of Slop and Despair is very slippery, which is not surprising because it is made of grease that comes out of a deep fryer—French fries, onion rings and most commercial chips, along with other foods that are coated with breading and plunged into a vat of boiling oil. Our appetite for this stuff is astonishing: There are places in the country (like the Iowa State Fair) where you can get a fried stick of butter, not to mention fried Twinkies. All of these items are loaded with artery-clogging fat, refined grains and starches, and are extremely calorie dense.
2. Sweet Stuff. This list includes doughnuts, scones, cake, cookies, candy, muffins and pastries of all kinds—and anything with a crust. What makes a great flaky crust? Crisco has got butter beat on that one according to many baking fanatic friends. Delicious and stone-cold bad for you because it contains, in part, trans and saturated fats, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated soybean and palm oils. Of course, they are also high in refined sugars, including high fructose corn syrup.
3. Butter and Related Goop. Do what you can to avoid butter. Ditto for all types of cream, sour cream, and mayo, including food made with these items, such as coleslaw, coated fruit salads, and potato salad. With deep, personal regret, I note that this group also includes my beloved ice cream. They are almost pure fat and/or sugar with a whopping number of calories. I confess that I cannot conceive of a life without ice cream, so I work like crazy to make it a special treat—even for my children. It is not easy.
4. Processed and Cured Meats. Bologna, salami, sausages, hot dogs, and bacon are awfully hard for some people to give up, but it would be a great idea if they could. It may help if you see them the way I do: All these meatlike products come alarmingly close to being fat in a tube, or just fat altogether.
5. Sweetened Drinks and Booze. The quickest way to get a blood sugar high and a subsequent low, and to take in a ton of useless calories, is to drink soda and sweetened and artificially flavored juices and waters. That goes for alcohol and foo-foo coffee drinks, too. These drinks contribute so many useless calories to our diets. Best to stay hydrated with no- or low-calorie beverages such as water, seltzer (my favorite), tea and, yes, even coffee in moderation, without all the cream and sugar.
The trouble with a list like this is there are so many deserving candidates that are left out. One could reasonably say that the very peak of the Mountain should be crowned with an enormous fast-food place. Do not go to fast-food places, and don’t give your kids a “treat” by taking them there. What you’re really doing is training them at their most impressionable to see bad food as something special and wonderful. That is not good parenting. I actually freaked out about a year ago when our babysitter took my kids to Wendy’s—yes, I admit, I might have overreacted. But do everything in your power to withstand the very real and seductive pressure from the advertisers who lure your children into wanting high-calorie garbage and the so-called free toys.
Why is the Bad Stuff so bad? Obviously if you eat a little bit of these foods once in a blue moon, they won’t kill you. However, every time you eat these things your body chemistry changes. Bad food does not dissolve or become something else. If you eat bacon, which has a high amount of saturated fat, the saturated fat gets digested and absorbed as saturated fat. The same with sugar—you eat it, digest it, absorb it, and it circulates around as sugar. There is no magic. Solid fat and refined sugar are absolutely dreadful for you, and they are not made any better or different in the digestion process. Your blood sugar or “glucose” goes up as result of eating sugar, and your blood fat or “lipids” content goes up from eating fat. It’s not “normal” to saturate your bloodstream with sugar and fat. Your body goes a little nuts, and both the fat and sugar try desperately to find a place to go. The options are limited. Only so much sugar is needed to replace the glycogen stores in your muscle and liver, especially if you’re idle and don’t burn much. You need glycogen stores in your muscles for movement and a steady drip of glucose from your liver into your bloodstream to fuel your brain (your body is happiest when your blood sugar is between 80–100 mg/dL). What’s left over has to go somewhere else. Similarly, you need only so much fat for the operation of your body and for fuel. Some is for cell structure and synthesis of other compounds. What happens to the excess sugar and fat?
Sugar is fat, as fat is fat. All that homeless sugar and fat keeps pumping through your body, and when levels get too high they cause damage but in different ways. Excess sugar initially gets converted to fat and stored in your fat cells. Much of it gets stored as adipose tissue including belly fat that comes with its own set of problems. When there is too much blood sugar, it starts coating everything in its path—from proteins to your DNA. Things that get coated with sugar do not work right. Even your red blood cells get a nice sticky coat of sugar.
On the road to heart disease. Extra fat works a little differently. When you eat a lot of fat, it stays in your circulation longer. It promotes the synthesis of cholesterol, especially the bad cholesterol, the low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Your LDL rises and is more susceptible to attack by free radicals (molecules missing a critical electron, which search out and devour electrons from other molecules to make themselves stable). Once LDL is attacked, it becomes “oxidized” (damaged) and lays itself down along your artery walls. This is the critical first step on the road to heart disease. Moreover, when you overeat, and especially when you overeat fat, it is stored for future use. The potential storage is huge because fat cells are almost endlessly accommodating. A fat cell can swell to fifty times its original size to accommodate more fat. Then it can split in two and start the process again. We have the potential to hold an almost infinite amount of fat. It is a storage system that works much too well.
The depot of ill health. During the process of storing fat, it often accumulates around your middle. That development—more common with men than women before they hit menopause—may become your number-one health problem. Because belly fat, for some reason, is a great breeder of inflammation, and it’s in an area right next to vital organs where it can do the most harm. You cannot see the inflammation, but you can see your belly. As a practical matter, you are looking at a depot of ill health.
Jennifer Sacheck, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Nutrition in the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and a Scientist at Tufts University. After completing her doctoral studies in nutrition, exercise, and muscle physiology, Dr. Sacheck completed a four-year post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School further examining factors influencing muscle health. She is an active member of the American College of Sports Medicine and the Obesity Society. Follow her on Twitter @drjensacheck.
Excerpted from Thinner This Year. Copyright © 2012 Chris Crowley and Jennifer Sacheck. Reprinted with permission from Workman Publishing.
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