Obesity is America's newest epidemic. "We are what we eat" is a thought that we all need to take even more seriously than we ever have before in our current civilized society.
Over the past fifty years, foods and the manner in which we eat have evolved dramatically from home cooked meals to prepared pre-package foods, loaded with salt, sugar and fat, according to a recent bestselling book by Michael Moss, entitled "Salt, Sugar, and Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."
The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar and two teaspoons of salt per day. Two teaspoons of salt equates to 4,650 milligrams. We don't even recognize that we are addicted to the taste, because we think it is the new normal.
Food scientists have a term called the "Bliss Point," that is actually a plateau where our taste buds and brain receptors become so accustomed to having these quantities, that they are necessary in order for us to think the food tastes good.
In actuality, newborns and infants like sweets; this is adaptive because they need the calories to double their weight in six months and triple it in a year. Infants, however, have no predilection for salt—at least not until they are exposed to these substances and grow up to want more.
Considering the increasing rates of diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes—not only in America but across the world—we have opportunities to better control our intake. There have been notable success stories within entire countries.
Finland succeeds in slashing salt consumption
Finland had an epidemic of heart attacks and strokes about forty years ago, presumably due to high blood pressure spurred by excessive salt consumption. At the time, the average consumption of a Finnish citizen was more than two teaspoons of salt per day. Most of that salt load was from processed foods that were subsequently labeled "High Salt Content."
This awareness, along with an ambitious public education program, had a dramatically positive effect. By 2007, Finland's per person consumption dropped by one third and there was an astounding 80 percent decrease in the number of deaths from strokes and heart attacks.
Processed foods are loaded with salt. A hamburger from a fast food outlet, for example, can contain 700 milligrams of salt—equivalent to a third of a teaspoon—compared to a hamburger prepared at home, which may have as little at 70 milligrams of salt.
Why we crave fat
Fat also has remarkable powers to make food more attractive, but is not healthful in the quantities we have become accustomed to in America. A hunk of cheddar cheese is one-third fat, and two-thirds of the calories in cheese are from fat.
While sugar and salt provide an instant sense of gratification when they hit our tongues, the effect of fat is far more subtle. Food scientists describe the sensation at "mouth feel." The wonderful feeling of premium ice cream melting in our mouths, the creaminess of cheesecake or cream cheese on a toasted bagel are all perfect examples of the power of mouth feel.
The quality and quantity of sugar, salt and fat in the modern American diet have accelerated our struggles with weight gain, and the unhealthy consequences of being overweight. Understanding that prepackaged foods, although convenient, are addictive and unhealthy is the first step towards adopting a healthier diet. Preparing food at home will take more effort initially, but it is well worth the investment in decreasing harmful side effects later on in life.
We are what we eat; and we can do better.