published Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Cleaveland: A fight against food makers

By Dr. Clif Cleaveland

Left unchecked, America's rising rate of obesity will erode the health of millions of our people. Unsustainable pressures will be placed on our health care system as diabetes, vascular disease, cancers and other weight-related illnesses steadily increase.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control show 30 percent of American adults and 20 percent of children are obese. Obesity levels for states range from West Virginia with its high of 35 percent to Colorado at 21 percent.

We can determine the components of a healthy diet by consulting the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (www.cnpp.usda.gov/dietaryguidelines). Countless other diets and fitness programs are available. Yet weight control is

a battle that we are losing as a society. The USDA guidelines for adults are straight-forward:

• Calories: Control daily consumption to maintain appropriate weight for age and activity.

• Sodium: Limit of 2.3 grams daily; 1.5 grams for children and, if older than 51, black or diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.

• Fats: Less than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fatty acids; maximum 300 milligrams daily; avoid trans-fat altogether.

• Refined grains: Limit them, especially those containing solid fats, sugar and sodium.

• Alcohol: A maximum of one drink daily for women, two for men.

The website presents sound advice for the proper nutrition for children from infancy to teen years.

Whether we shop for food in grocery or convenience stores, the odds are stacked against our selecting healthful foods by the giants of food processing. This is the message of Michael Moss' Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation: "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us." Read his detailed, investigative report and you will be an informed consumer.

The narrative begins with a report of a secret meeting in 1999 of leaders of the processed food industry. Their concern was America's epidemic of obesity. Links of rising weight to their products could hurt sales and profits.

Rivalries were put aside to assess the threat and to consider counter-measures. Subsequently, more intensive research into product appeal along with aggressive advertising has allowed the industry to prosper despite worries about an obesity backlash.

Using sophisticated scanning technology, scientists have determined that food activates the same brain pathways as addictive drugs.

They have defined a "bliss point" at which a balanced formulation of salt, sugar and fat will cause maximum satisfaction. The challenge for food manufacturers is to devise a continuing variety of foods that will maximize this stimulation. Appetite can be replaced by craving. Sales increase. Shareholders are happy.

Sugar immediately stimulates the taste buds for sweetness on our tongues. Comforting signals are sent to our brains. Sugar is everywhere in processed foods -- snack cakes, candy and desserts obviously, but also sauces, cereals, pizzas. Refined sugars, especially in carbonated drinks, and fruit-flavored beverages, are rapidly absorbed. Their concentration in blood peaks then rapidly falls, and the consumer needs more.

We have specialized taste receptors for salt with similar signals of pleasure to the brain. Chronic overuse of salt is a major contributor to high blood pressure and vascular disease, a risk that becomes more pronounced as we age.

Fat adds pleasing texture to processed foods. Research panels look for the ideal proportion of fat to add crunch to chips and cookies or smoothness to pastries and dairy treats. Each gram of fat in our diet contributes nine calories. A gram of carbohydrate or protein yields five calories.

Detailed labeling of most foods has been required since 1994. The data can be misleading in that it is based upon serving size. Packages of cookies, chips and cereals may list absurdly small serving sizes.

Armed with the knowledge from "Salt Sugar Fat," each of us can make healthier food purchases. The challenge is to take this knowledge further to assure nutritious school lunches and choices of food in all stores selling groceries.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at cleaveland1000@cmcast.net.

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