In light of recent reports that we are only consuming a small fraction of the fruits and vegetables we need to foster good health, it is also important to acknowledge that some progress has been made in recent years in improving the American diet. For example, people are slowly starting to consume fewer calories.
According to a report this week in The New York Times, calories consumed daily by the typical American adult are in the midst of their first sustained decline since federal statistics began to track the subject more than 40 years ago. Since 2003, caloric intake of the average American child has also slowly dropped.
The shift is credited to mounting attention given to American eating and drinking habits because of troubling scientific findings starting in the late 1990s, followed by public health campaigns wagging a finger at our habits and explaining the preventable dangers these habits pose to public health.
"I think people are hearing the message, and diet is slowly improving," Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, told the Times.
Still, it is but a teaspoon taste of good news. The recent reductions recoded represent a mere smidgen of change; the obesity epidemic remains an epidemic. Americans, as a rule, are not eating fruits and vegetables or frequenting farmers markets en masse. So we continue to eat too much junk food; we're just eating somewhat less of it.
Eating changes have been found to be most substantial in households with children. The trend does not appear to extend to the very heaviest Americans. Among the most overweight people, weight and waist circumference have continued to increase. According to Kevin Hall, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, for Americans to return to the body weights of 1978, an average adult would need to reduce consumption by 220 calories a day over the next five years.
The primary focus of anti-obesity public health campaigns beginning in the 1990s — and the area of greatest success — has been on sugar-heavy beverages. According to the New York Times report, Americans, on average, purchased about 40 gallons of full-calorie soda a year in 1998, an amount that has dropped to 30 gallons and seems to be continuing a slow decline.
Are you ready for another quick taste of good news? Last year, for the first time, the Food and Drug Administration proposed that companies list added sugars on nutrition labels. As I've mentioned before, the problem is that there is no context provided for consumers to understand what, for example, 66 grams of sugar found in a 20-ounce soda bottle means. It is up to the consumer to do the math to convert the amount into calories. But all that may change. Last week, the FDA proposed that nutrition labels on packaged foods cite the amount of added sugar products contain as a percentage of the recommended daily caloric intake. Should the proposal pass the mandatory review period and be enacted, it would mean that you could know that 66 grams represents 132 percent of the recommended daily intake. The FDA researchers have determined that 50 grams of added sugar should be the daily limit for people 4 or older. Officials further recommend that Americans limit added sugar to just 10 percent of their daily calories.
The hope was that the proposal would encourage and incentivize food manufacturers to look harder at finding ways to cut down on added sugar in their products. No such luck. It brought immediate criticism from manufacturers of foods and beverages. The industry fired back with claims that the labels would "confuse" customers and that dietary limits on added sugar are not "scientifically justified."
Behind this salvo is a simple and unspoken industry truth: Food and beverage manufacturers love sugar. It covers all manner of shortcomings. Extra sugar generally makes products taste better. This is especially true when fat is removed from processed food. Sugar disguises the blander taste of low-fat foods. Like salt, sugar is routinely packed into processed foods to help extend the shelf life of a product, thus helping the manufacturer's bottom line.
Meanwhile, as we wait to see whether this one little consumer victory holds against industry pressure, still waiting in the wings to be addressed by both industry and government regulators is the real issue at hand: the danger hidden sugar poses and the consequences of consuming so much of it in processed foods and drinks.
When we consume more sugar than we need, our liver converts the excess into fat. Some of this fat is stored around the body. Repeatedly eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain and obesity, as well as an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and liver disease.
We should feel good that people are starting to consume fewer calories. At the same time, we should be deeply concerned that according to market research, processed foods account for 70 percent of the American diet.
Says Barry Popkin, a University of North Carolina professor who has studied food data extensively, "The food part of our diet is horrendous and remains horrendous."
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.