Christopher Millette, Erie Times-News
In this Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014 file photo, fast food restaurant signs line Peach Street in Erie, Pa. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018 finds that one in three U.S. adults eat fast food on any given day.

Keto is in. Transfat is out. Low-fat diets were in. Butter is out — except grass-fed butter. Carbs are out. Plant/Slant is in. Wheat is out. High protein diets are in. Heart healthy diets are in. Antioxidants are key. Gluten intolerance is a thing. Lactose intolerance is another thing. Soda is out. Dairy is so out. Non-GMO foods are in. Genetic engineering is out. Kale and hummus are in. Red meat is out. The DASH, Mediterranean and Paleo diets are in. Keto diets are really in. Diet soda is out. Organic is in. Processed deli meats are out. Fresh is in.

How is it that the average American consumer, even intelligent, educated, reasonably well-informed people, don’t always know what they should eat?

Kevin Hall, senior investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, said in Nutrition Action, July/August 2018:

“The Nixon administration had to deal with complaints about food prices going up. So (in the 1970s and 80s) the USDA made some dramatic changes to alter the incentives for farmers to produce. … And who could blame the USDA? Those officials lived through the Great Depression, when people were starving. I’m sure the idea that you could create an obesity epidemic was not on their minds. So with all good intentions, policy changes generated this flood of cheap commodity crops.

“The changes drove down the price of ingredients like high fructose corn syrup. And ingenious engineers figured out how to make stable, convenient, inexpensive and tasty processed foods.”

The result was a cascade of ultra-processed fast food and ubiquitous snacks like chips, cereal, cereal bars, cookies, ice cream, soda and more and more soda.

Also, as the country’s leading cause of death, heart disease gained lots of attention some years ago. Dietary fat and cholesterol were identified as the culprits. Fat in food was mistakenly equated with fat in the body, giving rise to a raft of fad diets and advertising campaigns.

With public awareness of the dangers of high cholesterol, foods that reduce low-density cholesterol, or LDL, the bad cholesterol, like oatmeal, became overnight stars. Suddenly, everything "oat" was in, regardless of sugar content. We got all this “heart healthy” food that pointed at cholesterol but largely ignored sugar content.

Medical experts realized that in fixating on fat, we ignored one of two main villains — added sugar. Researchers say Americans ate an average of 40 pounds of sugar in 1900, 70 pounds in 1950 and currently an amazing 100 pounds.

The other problem is that we eat way too many calories. At 2,500 per day, the average American eats 25 percent more calories than the 2,000 we averaged in 1970. As the calories have gone up, so has our girth.

Fast food not only tastes good but is relatively cheap. Five dollars gets you pizza and pop at a whopping 1,640 calories. A leading fast-food chain serves fries, soft drink, chicken nuggets and a cheeseburger for only $4, topping 1,000 calories. For $6 you get eggs, pancakes, sausage, bacon and hash browns at a leading breakfast chain, which weighs in at around 1,000 calories. The fat and sodium content are off the map.

In just the last 20 years, portions have ballooned: serving sizes for bagels, fries, soda, muffins and pastries, pasta with meatballs have either doubled or tripled. Traditional Mexican restaurants commonly serve platters of burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, refried beans smothered in cheese that top 1,500 and even 2,000 calories. Plate sizes and servings at most restaurants have increased significantly.

9 comments on this story

Recent news that 40 percent of American adults are obese, meaning at least 30 percent overweight, is deeply disturbing. An estimated 160 million Americans are either obese or overweight. Nearly three-quarters of American men and more than 60 percent of women are obese or overweight. Sadly, nearly 30 percent of boys and girls under age 20 are either obese or overweight, up from 19 percent in 1980.

Our poor and often confused food choices are making us unhealthy, increasing disease, impairing our activities, decreasing longevity, affecting self-image and giving rise to serious eating disorders.

Let’s all enhance our health and vitality by eating responsibly and influencing our families, workplaces and church and community groups to deal with food in healthy, sustainable ways.