The past few days have brought more unwelcome news about the state of health in America. In one story, the FDA raised the alarm about the amount of sodium Americans are eating.1 A second, compelling article in the Atlantic Magazine, brought new attention to that age-old scourge, obesity.2
These stories are linked, but you may not realize this. After all, we worry about sodium because it’s related to blood pressure, not obesity, right? Salt contains no calories and no fat, carbohydrates, or protein.
It turns out that the underlying issue is one and the same. I refer to this as the “no dominant food culture” problem.
Salt and High Blood Pressure: Not What You Think
Sodium is one-half of the duo known as sodium chloride. Another name for sodium chloride is salt. It’s the sodium we care about. Chloride is just along for the ride.
The conventional wisdom links a salty diet to poor health through sodium’s connection to high blood pressure. Health experts used to believe that salt did all of its damage by raising blood pressure.
Only “salt sensitive” people needed to worry about getting too much sodium, or so the theory goes. If you aren’t one of the people whose blood pressure increases greatly in response to sodium, you’re home free. Not so fast.
The latest research shows that sodium has an effect on cardiovascular health, independent of blood pressure.3 Even if your blood pressure is rock-bottom low, too much salt still damages your health.
Salt and Obesity
Sodium may not contain calories, but the company it keeps does. The highly processed diet favored by Americans is not only loaded with salt. It’s positively overflowing with calories.
The typical American is up from around 2,200 calories in 1970 to 2,700 calories today. An excess of 500 calories per day translates into about a pound a week of weight gain in an average person. That’s 52 pounds per year! We’re moving our bodies less than ever too, further compounding the problem.
Swimming in A Sea of Salty Foods
Where did all this salty, calorie-rich food come from? It’s anything processed. Most people think of potato chips and crackers as salty processed foods. But it goes much further than this.
Processed foods include everything people put in their mouths today. Fast food? Check. Sit down restaurants? Check. Microwave meals? Check. Cereals, cookies, and cakes? Check. Granola bars and breakfast tarts? Check. Even the bread most of us eat is highly processed and sodium-loaded.
Bread is a great example. Up until about the past 40 years (coincidence?), we baked our own bread. We controlled the amount of salt in it. Salt was added, but not in large amounts. Salt was a precious commodity.
As salt has become more abundant and food processing the norm, sodium levels in the American diet have increased dramatically. Calories quickly followed suit.
Reasons for the caloric gorge-fest are many. They range from food commodity programs to agricultural subsidies and the evolution of farming to large mono-crops, such as corn and soy. These mono-crops form the basis of our calorie-dense, processed food culture.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but regardless, salt and calories go hand in hand in the American food supply. The underlying cause is the same. We simply have no dominant food culture here.
From Japan to the Mediterranean
As America’s waistline has expanded, researchers have studied our thinner counterparts around the world. It’s not hard; we have the dubious distinction of being the fattest nation on earth.
What the research has uncovered is surprising. Food culture plays an important role in keeping people healthy…and thin.
Over the years, many diet books have touted the slimming benefits of eating a particular ethnic cuisine. The Mediterranean diet receives accolades for keeping people healthy. Ditto for the Japanese diet. And don’t forget about the French paradox. How do French people, who eat loads of cheese, meat, and wine, stay so thin?
At first glance, these diets may appear to have nothing in common. Yet there is a common “theme” among these diets.
Fresh is Best
Slimmer societies’ traditional diets lack highly processed food. Just like that, the connection between heavily processed, salty, high-calorie food and obesity emerges.
No matter the ethnic diet, if it’s an important part of the culture, the people who eat it are thinner than Americans. By a lot. Sadly, the American diet is gaining ground in other countries. As this has happened obesity rates have started to climb in these other countries as well.
But the bottom line is this: whether a diet contains soy like the Japanese diet, cheese like the French diet, or copious amounts of olive oil like the Mediterranean diet, if it’s prepared fresh, savored as an important part of the culture, and respected as a “glue” for social interactions, it seems to prevent obesity.
Getting Back to Basics
There are lots of reasons for this. For one, these foods have a lower calorie density than processed American foods. This means that they contain fewer calories per volume of food.
As well, an established culinary culture has “rules”. One common rule lays out where and when it’s appropriate to eat. In most cultures, it’s not considered acceptable to eat in the car or snack constantly between meals. Food isn’t served at every meeting and event. It’s simply considered rude to nosh all the time.
Plus, people rarely eat alone. They sit down to planned meals with friends and family. They take at least as long eating a meal as it took to prepare, from scratch. And they don’t count the drive-thru as preparation.
Finally, remember that cultural food rules aren’t designed to punish. It’s not about a diet or a diet plan. It’s about eating to live, not living to eat. So do yourself a favor and develop some of your own food rules. Or borrow some from the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Greeks…
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