The good news from a recent study about our eating habits is that, as a nation, the average adult is consuming fewer calories a day than they were in 2003. The dip isn’t a massive one (only about 100 calories), but it’s a step in the right direction. We generally are aware of what horrible foods we put into our bodies. How many times have you eaten a meal and known you’ll be useless for the rest of the day? Maybe my kids will get the hint and have healthier eating habits, but it’s hard to say for sure.
There’s more good news: We’re drinking a lot more water than we used to. Although it’s not always easy to break our soda habits, who doesn’t know how bad the empty calories from a Coca-Cola or Pepsi can be for us these days?
So Americans are more aware of potential health concerns, but plenty of people aren’t doing anything with that knowledge. Here are some common dietary mistakes we’re still making day after day.
Too much sugar
I’ve talked before about the worrying side effects of our low-fat, high-sugar diets. More and more health experts believe that sugar is the biggest reason that heart disease remains the No. 1 killer in our country. Our bodies (and especially our livers) weren’t made to digest the 230 calories of added sugar around 60 percent of us are eating every day. That sugar is known as fructose, and it provides our bodies with no essential nutrients. Each day you eat more than your body needs to maintain your current weight, those empty calories get turned into fat.
Forget the fat vs. sugar debate for a second. I know it can be tiring, because it seems experts flip-flop constantly and can never make up their minds which is worse. Let’s stick with what we know for sure: Added sugar rots our teeth, raises our bad cholesterol, increases our risk of heart disease and diabetes, and disrupts our metabolism-therefore increasing weight gain.
I know feeling hungry can be absolutely miserable. You’re lethargic. Your head hurts. Your stomach growls. All you want to do is feel normal again, so you reach for whatever food you can find. Too often, though, those snacks are high in added sugar and calories we do not need. You don’t need to leave your midday snacks up to chance. Bring a bag of unsalted nuts or fruit with you to work. If you’re not going to bother bagging your own food, find a snack bar that’s actually healthy. Don’t trust the front of the box. Look at the nutrition label. You want less sugar and more protein. That way, you’ll feel full longer and actually receive some nutrients in the process. More fiber is generally a good thing, too, as most people don’t eat enough of it on a daily basis.
Also, if you’re snacking when you aren’t even hungry, stop! Chew gum, drink some water, or keep yourself busy with chores or a new hobby. I don’t care what you have to do, but snacking the day away is an absolute no-no. Not only are you taking in calories you don’t need, but you’re usually on the couch the whole time. All those carbs you’re eating will end up going straight to your gut.
Black coffee is still the way to go. Some flavored espressos or coffees at Starbucks can have over 600 calories. Think any of those calories are full of healthy and delicious nutrients? Yeah, they’re not. It’s loads and loads of added sugar. I’m sure they’re delicious. There’s a reason coffee shops are so popular, and I’ve had more than a few caramel macchiatos over the years myself. But it doesn’t matter how delicious those drinks are; they’re simply not worth it. One of those 600-calorie drinks could take two hours of medium-intensity cardio to burn off. The much better option is to learn to love black coffee (with one or two servings of milk if you absolutely can’t stand the taste) or drink more tea and water instead.
Unfortunately, we’re still getting a huge percentage of calories a day by going out to eat. Part of the reason for that is fast-food menus have increased portion sizes and total calories of individual items, even as we’ve started eating less food each day. Realistically, most people eating fast food aren’t going to figure out the nutritional value of their food before or after they eat it. They’ll order what they like and keep coming back if the food is good enough, priced right and remains convenient. Fast-food companies don’t care about your health. They care about their profits. Eating at home remains by far the best option, especially as our diets don’t include nearly enough fruits and vegetables, often absent at fast-food eateries.
Cooking our own meals isn’t always easy or even possible, but at the very least, know what you’re ordering. Don’t assume any numbers when it comes to the food you eat. We’re not very good at guessing those. At least try to make dinner at home when it’s an option. Prepare a casserole the night before; freeze some ready-made meals on the weekend so that when you come home exhausted on a Wednesday, all you have to do is put them in the oven. Those are changes you can make. I hope you at least try.
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He’s on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.