"Humans deciding what to eat without expert help — something they have been doing with notable success since coming down out of the trees — is seriously unprofitable if you’re a food company, distinctly risky if you’re a nutritionist and just plain boring if you’re a newspaper editor or journalist."
So much has been written on the perennial issue of why U.S. citizens are in such terrible shape. Assuming you're more interested in getting in better shape instead of reading a dissertation on the American diet, let's look at a key part of our collective bloat: The Garbage Food Conspiracy.
This not a secret conspiracy, because the general facts are known, and if you have access to a modern grocery store, no one will physically stop you from buying whatever you like. However, large companies with powerful marketing arms will do everything they can to convince you to eat their garbage food, and they're succeeding. I say "conspiracy" because it is a concerted effort to get you to take action that is great for the food manufacturers and terrible for you.
Three things you need to know about garbage food
- Corn, wheat and soybeans are subsidized by the U.S. government, which gives food manufacturers a base of very cheap ingredients from which to make garbage food.
- Processed foods (chips, cookies, etc.) are very carefully engineered to trigger receptors in your brain which make you want more, more, more of it. They are engineered for addiction, not flavor. I'm using the word "engineered" because that's exactly the what they're doing. Even normally wholesome foods like pasta sauce will have sugar added for the same reasons. WTF? Recipe for pasta sauce: 1) Take some tomatoes and smash 'em. 2) Add olive oil and some basil. 3) Cook it for a while. That's pasta sauce. Why would you sprinkle sugar in there?
- The makers of Hot Pockets, Lunchables, Coca-Cola and thousands of other corporate food products don't give a shit about your health.
Garbage food has the quality of being relatively cheap, not good for your health, and marketed very, very well. Here's a simple test: if the food item you're looking at has a boatload of marketing behind it, it's probably crap. Not everything: California almonds are actually quiet healthy. But items with brand names and lots of ads? Probably crap.
Five simple, clear ways to improve your diet
Start simple—rarely do we make drastic changes overnight. If you're used to eating a lot of processed foods, it will take time to learn what's healthy.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables. Yes, this is the same advice you hear everywhere, but it's valid. If you want to refine this a bit further and cut out some of the health risks from them chemicals used to treat them, a good shortcut is EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
- Start reading food labels. Are you seeing weird ingredients that look more like chemicals and less like food, or two dozen ingredients on something as basic as a tortilla? (I like mine made from corn, lime, and salt.)
- Bring healthy food with you. If you know you're going to be away from home with nothing but lousy food options around, pack a lunch, or just bring something you know isn't junk. A Lärabar, handful of almonds, or piece of fruit can sustain you for a bit.
- Pay attention to how you feel after you eat something. Some years ago, my ex would return from a once-per-year trip to Taco Bell, feeling gross and rubbing her stomach, saying "it seemed like a good idea at the time..."
- Get used to being a contrarian. The truth is, many people, perhaps even a majority, simply don't eat very well. If these are your peers, you might take some criticism for eating well—because your attention to diet is an uncomfortable reminder that their sucks.
When I consider my diet from my 20s, I cringe—just as with the lack of fashion sense. But my bad diet was harming my health, while my oversize khakis were just limiting my appeal to the opposite sex. I'd like to think I got over both.
The young metabolism can stomach a lot of nasty things. If you're in college and subsisting on ramen and cheap beer, my sympathies. Most of us, at some point, develop a sense of awareness around what we're putting in our bodies. Whether that's because you just don't feel that great when you eat poorly, or you're gaining weight and want to reverse the trend, awareness is key.