Sometimes I crave unhealthy breakfast cereal. The brighter the artificial color and higher the sugar content, the better. I attribute this to years of being forced to eat cardboard-like homemade muesli made even less palatable by thin, gray-colored powdered milk. I can remember waking up with a delicious feeling of anticipation at my friend Jennifer's house. I knew the moment would soon arrive when her cupboard doors would open to reveal the forbidden sugar cereals I longed for: the pink, purple and yellow loops of joy and the flakes dusted with a coating of purest white processed sugar, all drowning in the creamy whole-milk elixir denied me by a health and money conscious mother.
I've recovered from my resentment about this childhood deprivation but I've always wondered what harm a daily dose of sugary cereal and whole milk would have done. Jennifer grew up to be a professional nutritionist, after all, and she's skinny as a twig. While I, on the other hand, have a history of battling binge eating and sugar cravings.
That's why I find myself sneaking out to a grocery store early one morning while my boyfriend is at work. I walk down the aisle looking at the familiar objects of my childhood longings. A father and his two young daughters are engaged in a battle of willsit's Cocoa Puffs versus Honey Nut Cheerios. The Cocoa Puffs win. As I watch this exchange, I realize that something is very different in the cereal aisle. All of the familiar Kellogg's brands have twin boxes sitting next to them that state in bold lettering "1/3 Less Sugar," while all of the General Mills cereals have alternative boxes with splashy gold and orange lettering that reads "Whole Grain!" Are these cereals truly healthy versions of their former selves?
No, says Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition at New York University and author of the book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. "The whole grain cereals now have one gram of fiber instead of none. The one-third less sugar cereals have the same number of calories. This is about marketing, not health," she says. She also believes that it is in direct response to the threat of lawsuits about misleading advertising to children. Along with these threats, the food industry is responding to a host of other factors including the furor surrounding fad diets (like the Atkins craze), and the recent public scrutiny (from movies like Super Size Me) that has raised public awareness of what some are calling an obesity epidemic in America.
Even the government has realized that it is time to overhaul their beloved Food Pyramid and a new symbol is set to launch any day now. The pyramid is the public image of the United States Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines. These guidelines are published every five years, but the food pyramid hasn't substantially changed since 1992 when it replaced the basic four food groups campaign that was started in the 1950's. The new symbol will reflect the 2005 guideline's focus on increasing the amount of fruits, vegetables and whole grains we eat, limiting sugar, salt and saturated fat intake, and getting 60-90 minutes of moderate exercise every day. The new guidelines are immensely important because they shape the food policies of the agencies governing school lunches, food stamp programs and nutrition programs. They also have direct impact on consumer groups, nutritionists and, of course, the food industry.
But the guidelines are also mired in controversy. Questions have been raised about the impartiality of the agency responsible for promoting the sugar, cheese and tobacco produced by U.S. farmers. Also questioned is the idea that there can be one diet that is right for everyone. Critics argue that a diet should be personalized and take into account family history, ethnicity, income level, cultural food preferences, and food intolerances or allergies.
Amid the controversy, alternative pyramids thrive. The Harvard School of Public Health touts its own version called the "Healthy Eating Pyramid." It differs from the USDA's by incorporating exercise at the base of the pyramid, encouraging the consumption of unsaturated fats found in plant oils like olive, soy and corn, increasing the vegetable servings, limiting protein intake to fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and legumes, and limiting dairy intake to one or two servings a day (which can even be in the form of a dairy supplement). They place red meat and butter along with white rice, white bread, potatoes, pasta and sweets at the top of their pyramid as the items to use sparingly. They also give a nod to alcohol in moderation and the need for a daily multiple vitamin.
Controversy aside, researching the different pyramids makes me realize what I've become: an inflexible anti-dieter. As a teenager I used to try weight loss diets even though I was a healthy size 6 or 8. Nothing I tried ever worked. I always ended up gaining back whatever weight I lost in an endless cycle of deprivation and binge eating. Because of this failure, I gave up on dieting and developed an extreme aversion to calorie counting. I felt smug when I saw skinny women skipping dessert at restaurants while I reveled in the sensual pleasures of my chocolate mousse or créme brulee. I existed in a fog of denial, ruled by Epicureanism, exhibiting a willful disregard for the health content of my food. The base of my diet's pyramid consisted of cheese, bread, pastries and chocolate. No wonder I've been slowly but steadily gaining weight since college. Is it time for some governmental tough love?
If I followed the USDA's plan, I would be allowed a 2,000 calorie diet divided into four servings of fruit (2 cups), five servings of vegetables (2.5 cups), six servings of grains (half whole grains), five and a half servings of protein (5.5 ounces of meat, poultry, fish or beans), and three servings of nonfat or lowfat dairy (3 cups). They also suggest limiting my saturated fat intake to less than 20 grams. So if I have one café mocha with whipped cream and one piece of coffee cake for breakfast, I've consumed more than half of my calories for the entire day and I'm already over my saturated fat limit at 22 grams. Oh dear.
This also means that with my typical diet of granola, fruit and whole-milk yogurt for breakfast, a deli sandwich loaded with meat, cheese, mayo and mustard, usually accompanied by chips for lunch, a candy bar as a mid-day snack and lots of fish, salads, bread and desserts for dinner, I'm both under and over their recommendations. I would need to eat two more fruit servings, three more vegetable servings, whole wheat bread instead of sourdough, two more protein portions, and two less portions in the dairy category. I'm about 600 calories over their 2,000-calorie limit and I usually fail miserably at keeping my saturated fat lower than 20 gramssometimes eating a whopping 45 grams of saturated fat per day.
I've strayed even further from Harvard's Healthy Eating Pyramid with my large servings of whole-milk dairy, processed flour products and junk food. It's a little discouraging to think about just how far off the goals I am. Now that I'm aware of my problem areas, I can try to adjust my eating habits accordingly. I can substitute whole-wheat bread for white, eat less cheese and more vegetables and take a multi-vitamin. But what do I do about those cravings?
"Never say anything is taboo or off-limits," says Jessi Halverson, Health Promotion Specialist with the Oregon Health and Science University's Wellness Program, "It's OK to indulge, but do it in moderation. It all goes back to moderation." She suggests pairing foods together to try and reduce hunger, like eating a little bit of protein with carbohydrates. She emphasizes that I need to find what works best for my body and makes me feel satisfied and full. I tell her that I'm way over the USDA's recommended saturated fat levels. She says I shouldn't beat myself up if I don't make the goals, "Being aware is step one. When we're aware we are more likely to make the right choices."
Making the right choices means increasing my exercise level. This is one component of a healthy lifestyle that I struggle with. I almost didn't graduate from college because I failed aerobics. I cursed that vindictive little spandex-clad instructor with her narrow hips and inspirational chants ("burn those thighs, get the guys!") as I swam long, arduous laps in my pool back at home in order to get my diploma. Halverson gently suggests a change of semantics, "Let's take away the word exercise and move toward physical activity or even joyful movement," she says. She asks me to think of a happy childhood memory that involved physical activity. I remember roller-skating on the pavement in front of our house and running through fields and picking strawberries and blueberries along the way. I remember how much I loved using my bright pink jump rope. She encourages me to find a way to be active that I can also enjoy. "Little things like taking the stairs and parking farther away can help too. If we do these things consciously they will add up," she says.
I know that changing ingrained habits and aversions won't be easy. No new symbol will be unveiled that reveals some secret, simple path. I like Halverson's emphasis on awareness though. Studying the guidelines and analyzing my typical diet has given me a deeper understanding of what it might mean for me to become healthier. I've also realized that it is just as dangerous to be stringently anti-diet as it is to be an obsessive dieter.
Now, when I get the urge for sugary pink hearts and yellow moons, I'll try to remember that day at the grocery store. My craving seemed to dissipate the longer I stood and read the content on the sides of the packages. I went home and made myself a frozen mango and low-fat yoghurt smoothie. I won that round, but battling the cravings takes constant work. At least now I know that it is possible for me to be more health conscious without taking all the pleasure away.
For more about the government guidelines: www.pueblo.gsa.gov
Illustration by Amelia Nash
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