Last year, I gained seven pounds studying abroad in Ecuador. In the grand scheme of things this isn’t a huge amount of weight gain, but on my small frame it was more than noticeable. (I came home and immediately ripped the first pair of old jeans I put on.) It was unfortunate I had let this happen, but fortunately I knew how I had done it, and- more importantly- how I could undo it.
For starters, I hadn’t been exercising regularly. Quito is almost 10,000 feet above sea level, which makes exercise difficult, especially for someone not acclimated to the elevation. Secondly, all I ate down there was carbohydrates. Three dollar smoothies and gourmet dollar cookies taunted me every lunch. Mora and coco popsicles were my kryptonite. Add rice with dinner almost every night, and I had a problem.
So when I got home, I started doing some research. As it turns out fat is not the end all be all for weight gain and heart disease- sugar is. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN, notes that the common knowledge linking heart disease to high fat intake is actually taken from two independent studies. The first connects heart disease risk to high cholesterol, and the second connects high cholesterol to a diet high in fat. Both were conducted in the late 1970’s, and common sense led everyone to assume that high fat diets lead to high rates of heart disease and obesity.
In the next 40 years or so, processed food products lowered their fat contents. To compensate for the flavor quality degradation though, many companies increased the sugar content of their products. Since then, cardiovascular disease remains the biggest killer in the United States. Additionally, diabetes rates are higher than ever, as is child obesity rates. Clearly, we don’t completely understand how diets affect our health.
The take away is this: fat doesn’t get a free pass per say, as the evidence that it causes high cholesterol remains. However, the United States needs to start paying attention to sugar much more carefully. Last March the World Health Organization changed its recommendations for daily sugar intake from 10% of total daily calories to 5%. For someone with a normal BMI and who needs 2000 calories a day, (read: moderately active adult female who weighs around 130 lbs.) this comes out to 25 grams of sugar a day. That’s less than a 12 oz. soda, which has about 40 grams of sugar. A Yoplait yogurt has 26 grams of sugar. A half cup of Prego Marinara has seven grams of sugar.
Health organizations are recognizing the importance of limiting sugar intake, now it’s up to food companies and individuals to follow suit. Since Ecuador, I have started exercising again and watching what I ate – especially my sugar intake.