A recent report suggesting sugar substitutes can lead to weight gain, a report this summer that diet foods can make us fat, and now today’s Chicago Trib article about how diet crazes shape our grocery shelves but fail to change our habits, fills me once again with astonishment.  It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.

                                                                          Silky fatback and kosher salt photo by Donna T. Ruhlman

We have a serious fat problem in America.  It has nothing to do with our obesity problem.  We also have a salt problem, and it’s not about hypertension.  Fat and salt are the leading bugaboos in America’s on-going national diet program, the wrench in the spokes of our quest for good nutrition, the evil forces which, in our fearful helpless craving for them, prevent Americans from achieving their whole-grain, high-fiber, all-natural, Rocky Mountain health.  And what can we do about it?

Eat more fat!  Salt your food naturally.

Americans have a hopelessly neurotic relationship with what they consume, of this there’s little disagreement, a neurosis that’s built into our culture from the broadest levels of agriculture and government, which demand that we subsidize farmers to grow crops you can’t eat without industrial processing, all the way down to our grocery store shelves, which are packed with confusing, marketing-spun messages about what’s good for us and what’s not.

Snackwells, for instance.   Who’s the clever executive who came up with that name?  Want a healthy snack?  Try buying … Snackwells!   Are Americans stupid enough to buy that?  You bet!  (More here from Trib article on the Snackwell story.)

Just about every box and bag on the grocery store shelves has some kind of  “low fat” version, sometimes even if the real version doesn’t require fat in the first place.  On a recent flight, I  was handed a Quaker Oats Granola Bar—granola, it’s good for you, and it’s low fat.  Granola doesn’t need much fat, if any, in the first place; but it does need sugar and you can bet that’s the reason my Quaker Oats “low fat” granola bar was every bit as sweet and chewy as a Milky Way bar.  And on the previous flight, the first ingredient in the blueberry muffin I’d been given was sugar, not flour.

The sad fact is that fresh food that is good for you is significantly more expensive than the processed crap that truly is bad for our diet, not to mention our food production system.  And the people who most need food to be healthy are the ones who can least afford it.  The millions of Americans on a restricted food budget will see little choice other than to buy the cheap calories provided by agribusiness corn.

What drives me crazy though is the American cook and the American consumer, who truly do care about food and cooking, but are continually mislead, largely by an uninformed media and unchecked marketing, notably with two of the most fundamental components of cooking—salt and fat.

I say unto you: Fat is good!  Fat is necessary.  Ask any chef.  Fat does not make you fat, eating too much makes you fat!  We aren’t filling our bodies with sodium because of the box of kosher salt we use to season our food, we’re doing it with all the processed food that’s loaded with hidden salt.  And American cooks and American diners need to understand the differences.

I hope it’s obvious that a diet composed of vast quantities of saturated animal fats is not good for anyone.  This kind of fat has been linked to elevated blood-cholesteral and heart disease—people who have issues with these problems need to be cautious.  And some people have serious issues with hypertension and high-blood pressure—salt will exacerbate these.

But most people don’t have these problems, and for them, fat is not bad, not evil, not dangerous.  It’s a pleasure in the right quantities and we shouldn’t be made to fear it.  If you eat natural foods, plenty of vegetables, and avoid foods that come in a box or bag or is in some way processed—food that’s often loaded with salt—you should be able to salt your food to pleasing levels.  Food needs to be seasoned for the best flavor. 

As ever the French can teach us about a healthy relationship with food.  American’s scratch their heads over the so-called French Paradox—how can the French eat all that rich fatty food and have lower levels of heart disease and associated problems.  I’ll bet their red wine does help, as has been suggested, but what is more likely the case, in my opinion, is that the French eat more natural foods than Americans, and they eat it in appropriate quantities.  That, I would bet money, is the root of their ability to eat a heavily salted duck confit, dripping with duck fat, and not have a problem with it, to luxuriate in Epoisse and Reblochon.  They can do this precisely because they don’t eat “low-fat” granola bars and blueberry muffins that have more sugar than flour and eggs.

The French paradox. It can’t be their diet—given all that evil stuff they eat. Must be that red wine they drink!  Can we really be so stupid?  You bet! 

Americans need to be better educated about the food they eat, what’s truly good, what’s harmful, quantities that are necessary, and super-sizes we don’t need.  Until we find out for ourselves from reliable sources the answers to these questions, instead of relying on knee-jerk media alarmism and marketing hooey, we’re not going to eat the food that both satisfies our souls and our bodies, and will perpetuate our fat and salt dysfunction.


132 Wonderful responses to “Food Rant: America’s Fat Problem”

  • cory

    Sugar Bad. Not a good thing for my business.

    But yes oh so true. 170 when i began as a pastry chef, 232 when i was In vegas. The truly scary sugars are the ones that are so refined; invert sugar, glucose, dextrose (you can’t even taste this shit, but all those calories are still there) corn syrup (how do we even digest this stuff). As for all the processed foods…

    The more you fuck with the root of some thing, the more you fuck it up, and the more it fucks you.

  • Detzel Pretzel

    Amen brother. I’m teaching a little cooking class right now where I’m attempting to educate several people, including myself, about healthy eating habits.

    The awesome part is that you can get way better tasting food, stay full longer, and lose weight at the same time. Moving away from processed foods is extremely hard for those of us who have grown accustom to it…but it’s so worth it. I feel better than I have in years and I’m chalking that one up to my healthier eating decisions.

  • Tanvi

    I’m not sure if you have ready “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan. It is his follow up to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” It tackles many of the issues that you spoke of in your rant specifically focusing on an American problem he calls “nutritionism” (a word originally coined by someone else a few decades ago). He also discusses the French paradox to a great extent and tackles in a rather concrete, but yet liberating way the ways to explain and over come many food issues. I did not enjoy it as much as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” but still found it enlightening and insightful, and would reccommend it to anyone looking for a more concrete understanding of food fads and why they are so prevalent in America.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Being a Diabetic for a long time, I know that Fat does not cause people to get fat, an excess of sugars in the body causes people to gain weight. A low glycemic diet is how people should be eating, not avoiding any foods.

    i would prefer to eat less of a full bodied cheese than one that is low fat and tasteless.

    People do need to watch their sugar intake and nothing else. in my opinion of course

  • QMi6

    This is a rant I have been giving for years.
    Same issue with losing weight. You can not eat yourself healthy; exercise HAS to be part of the deal.
    Unfortunately it has all gotten more complicated as we go along. Food groups, pyramids, plans…. Yet the healthiest eating I have found is to look farther back. Eat good food made with REAL ingredients. Then put them in the correct proportions. Sugar should not be the first item in cereal or muffins.

    Eating healthy with real food isn’t that hard; it is just harder than nuking a frozen “healthy” meal which is only good for you next to the non-healthy version.

    Until we get our priorities straight the poor will never have access to quality food. I don’t think it is going to happen soon if ever.

  • Liz Longenecker

    You are absolutely right… you perfectly put into words what I have been trying to tell my friends for years. I wish people did not rely on substitutes so much… why not just eat the real thing, but a little less of it? It tastes better, so it’s worth it. There is so much bad information out there, no wonder so few people know what to eat.

    Of course, I believe that many people in this country don’t care what they put into their bodies as long as it’s fast and filling, which is one of the reasons why so badly treat the animals we eat (like those poor abused cows at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Co.).

    The information is out there, but many people don’t care to find it.

  • amber

    very well stated.

    as someone who as a very love/hate relationship with the scale, i met with a nutritionist a few years back and was shocked to find out that she not only allowed fat in the plan she gave her clients, but insisted that you must have some for your body to function properly! who knew!

    i agree that cutting out processed food is difficult, especially if you’ve grown up on it, but those weeks where all my dinners are homemade and my snacks consist of yogurt and fruit instead of chips and crackers, i sure do feel a lot better and have a heck of a lot more energy.

  • Joe Louthan

    In other words, stay away from inside the middle of the store and you will do okay.

    Read the ingredients. If you can’t pronounce, chances are it ain’t good for you. If it doesn’t make sense (number one ingredient in pasta sauce would be sugar?!?!) then put it back down.

    Stay off processed foods for a year and just try to eat it again.

  • Natalie Sztern

    Sorry to all the pastry chefs for my comment, but when I go for dinner, I would love to see a dessert menu with a low glycemic dessert and not one made with sugar substitutes.

    Sugar free for a diabetic, is not something made with fructose or malt sugars, agave nectars…these just digest at a slower rate but still cause sugars to rise…

  • Badger

    A-freaking-men. As a home cook, this is the gospel I’ve been trying to preach to my friends and family for years. I truly believe that most people have no idea what they’re putting in their mouths when they eat processed foods, nor do they realize the sheer quantity of processed foods they’re eating. If more people started reading labels and showing some awareness of what they’re ingesting on a daily basis, or what they’re feeding their kids, we’d have far fewer health problems in this country.

    It doesn’t help that, as you say, those processed foods are so freaking cheap. Especially when you factor in coupons (ever flipped through the coupon section of your Sunday paper? there is NO real food in there).

  • Dana McCauley

    Well stated! There is no doubt that our portions of both food and drink need to be smaller if as a society we are to improve our obesity profile.

    I once heard (although I didn’t fact check it so I guess in this instance I’m one of the poorly informed media!) that when McDonalds originally started selling hamburgers that the Happy Meal burger and fries portions were the standard portions for anyone who ordered a meal. How did we end up needing so much more food to be satisfied at the same time that our lives were becoming less physically taxing due to automation?

    I recently wrote a blog post about how to avoid the extra 278 calories a day each of us now ingests in beverages. I hope you’ll check it out:


  • Carolyn

    Ruhlman – once again you hit it square on the head.

    There was an ad on the Travel Channel (watching Bourdain’s show) the other week for a prescription medicine for people with chronic constipation. I had a double-take and backed up the Tivo to see if I was hearing things or not. It’s just another side-effect of people eating processed crap and nothing fresh or healthy or made from scratch – we get “diseases” like “chronic constipation”. Eat some salad, for god’s sake – don’t take a pill. Don’t get me started with that Alli stuff.

    Great article.

  • Clifford

    Well said Ruhlman! Next round is on me.

    Living in the middle of “Diet Country”, ie California, many people I know consider anything with fat, carbs, sodium to be worse than poisoning small kittens with car exhaust fumes.

    The “chicken breast only please” diet has got to go!

  • Glenda Kapsalis

    Bravo! Perfectly said. The conglomerates have induced food phobias by their very advertising. Low-fat (i.e. all fat is bad), low-carb (i.e. all carbs are bad), etc. What we need is educated consumers – this starts early in life, learning to cook and eat real food.

  • jsw wiles

    Definitely preaching to the choir on this one! The problem of people not being able to afford real food, as opposed to processed crap is true enough. But I think it really has to do with education.

    That being said, whenever I go to my parents house and see the way they still eat, with all their health problems, they look at me like I’m the food-nazi when I tell them that chips and “diet” soda should not be a part of their daily diet. If I whip out a stinky cheese, some charcuterie and a bottle of red, they think I’m from another planet.

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  • Chris

    Excellent post, Michael!

    I had high blood pressure dating all the way back to high school, and I began reading and monitoring my food habits. The amount of sodium in many processed foods (and a lot of fast foods) is mind boggling. I read a book some time ago that said 70% of the average Americans sodium comes from processed food, which (as you said) isn’t even noticeable when eating the food.

    Between exercise and controlling my diet, I now have normal bp, and I still keep a crock of kosher salt and another of sea salt right next to the stove. I can still season my food perfectly and my bp is normal.

    And the easiest way for me to keep away from the “easy” prepared frozen meals at the grocery store is this: prepare extra when making a meal and freeze it. Makes for an easy meal later on, that’s better and healthier than what I have ever found in the frozen food aisle.

  • Tags

    Read Michele Simon’s “Appetite for Profit” if you haven’t already.

    Corporations pay huge public relations fees to manage perceptions about food. They also pay big money to lobbyists to subtly influence policy in legislatures and in the courts.

    Say what you will about Ralph Nader, if it wasn’t for him getting the ball rolling there’d be absolutely NO idea of what is now going on with nutrition.

    Not that I’d waste my presidential vote on him.

  • Water

    Thank you, Michael Ruhlman. Truly, thank you. Now start slapping some skulls and make people realize this! They’re too thick-headed! I once took a half-hour to make my manager believe that butter is good and margarine is bad. Lots of old programming for that. People need to read what they eat!

  • Delilah Boyd

    I’m a personal pastry chef on Capitol Hill (trained by Mesnier & Ramsdell), and I have to teach my clients the difference between pure, simple ingredients and those unknown processed, chemical-based food-like products (“Now With Emulsifiers & Stabilizers For Longer Shelf Life!”) they’ve all learned to love.

    My baked goods are flavor-intense, which means you can enjoy a smaller portion and be just as satisfied. Not one of my clients (including Congressman Cracker & Senator Sleazeball– Hey, I signed non-disclosure agreements) had any idea that La Madeleine’s sucree crusts and fillings came out of a box that fell off a truck in the alley until they hired me.

    And I provide the caloric, sodium, and fat content per ounce for each item. No surprises.

    This, I’ve found, is the only way to convert the masses: Knowledge, even for those who would use it to feel superior to others, just might save their lives.

    Thanks for the rant!

    May I have another?

  • Daniel

    Great post Michael!

    The “low-fat”, “low-sodium” diet along with other diet fads, allow the companies to capitalize on our fears. An analogous topic would be the “kills 99.99% germs” soaps and cleaners. The soap companies prey on our fear of germs and look what it’s gotten us into. Our hyper-cleanliness is causing more people to have severe allergies, mutant drug resistant viruses, etc.

    I try to eat as many natural/less processed foods as I can since I’ve come to the conclusion that all those added chemical stabilizers, etc. are what’s making me sick. But on the other hand, I still have to read the ingredients on the “healthy” alternatives because as you’ve stated, they might not be what they seem.

  • Judy

    Love your writing, love this post but really the 100 calorie Hostess pack ad seems a little ironic.

  • Maryann

    Very good rant, Michael.
    I appreciate your statement that the healthiest foods are too expensive for those on tight budgets. Remember when processed foods were more expensive than the healthy stuff? Now it’s done a flip flop.

  • Dick Black

    That was a very good read. You are a pretty smart guy. You injected enough anger into it to get the message across without belabouring the point.

  • Clare K.

    I completely agree with your essay. In nearly all the offices I’ve ever worked in, the majority of the staff goes out to lunch every day, and they get stuff like a KFC meal (because it has no trans fats?!) or a “Market Fresh” sandwich at Arby’s (which, btw, has more fat and calories than a regular Arby’s roast beef sandwich!?). And of course the office kitchen is stocked with Snackwells, sugar-free hot cocoa, baked Lay’s, low-fat Snapple and a variety of diet sodas.

    Naturally, everyone partakes in many or even all of the “foods” listed above on a daily basis, thinking they are being “healthy” by avoiding real potato chips or the regular Coke.


  • loulou

    It seems so simple, doesn’t it?
    Not processed, fake food that lists ingredients you’ve never heard of, or can pronounce for that matter!

    Why is this such a difficult concept?

  • Kay

    If I make pancakes with Bisquick, I start feeling a little bit nauseous within a few bites. Within an hour, I have violent, wipe-till-it-bleeds style diarrhea accompanied by horrible stomach cramps that hurt so bad I feel like I’m going to pass out.

    If I make pancakes from scratch, even using the cheap, grocery store brand flour and sugar, I feel perfectly fine. A little bloated from all the mushy dough packed in my colon, but fine.

    Years ago I thought I was lactose intolerant, but through experimentation I’ve come to find that I can actually consume all the dairy products I like without a problem. It’s some part of that factory packaged magic that’s responsible for my (what would appear to be a) food allergy and I have since taken steps to avoid baked goods that come wrapped in anything other than paper. If 15 minutes of extra mixing saves me from 2 agonizing hours on the can, why the hell not?

  • Evan Elliot

    Great rant! But Michael Pollan said it more succinctly: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

  • Laura

    a friend of mine came to live in the USA with her family for 9 months and wanted to know why the richest society in the world had school menus filled with junk food – chix nuggets, tacos, meatball subs, pizza etc…..in Finland, she said, their children have fresh fish and potatoes every day for lunch and as alternatives they have brown rice and smoked salmon – I stumbled to try to come up with some explanation or excuse about our huge multicultural society…and that fish and potatoes would be totally rejected by children who have never been served such food at home…but I failed miserably…….because in the end who can defend the food we feed our children in schools….if only we could teach how to eat fresh food.

    hopefully the French won’t adopt our ways – but visiting a Carrefour recently – you can’t help but notice the many many aisles and cases are filled with packaged foods -sadly, they are packaging foods faster than you might like to imagine.

  • suzysf

    You want to fix America’s eating problems, start with a school lunch. Everyday in the school where I work students can have pizza, fries, nachos w/cheese. Mac & cheese is a powdered mix from a box, canned ravioli, hot dogs (I’m not even going there) and hamburgers (some of which you may recall just made headline news)government cheese, are you afraid yet? You shoud be. Sure, they supply breakfast too. You can get a frozen bagel, with a piece of “sausage” and government cheese, or you can choose a muffin loaded with high fructose corn syrup. The few healthy options are usually only purchased by staff. Candy has been removed from the vending machines and replaced with baked snacks but they still sell soda and now Powerade and flavored water. It’s great to clean out our own pantry’s and start eating healthy but we’ve got to give some thought to what our kids are eating when they’re not at home. There is no real butter in school kitchens, however, there is plenty of fat and a load of sodium and I’ll wager it’s not the good kind.

  • Ben

    Amen to this post. I think what we all should do , and do some more, is continue to raise awareness that common sense in dietary matters can result in healthier eating, and thinking. The running joke here is that if a packaged food says “low fat”, it is a code word for “more sugar and salt”. It always amazes me that some people are comfortable with letting advertising form their opinions on things that they consume, whether it be food, beer, etc. when we have all been blessed with senses of taste and smell that should really be the ultimate judge of things we shove in our pie-holes.

  • aquanetta

    Amen, brotha.

    That’s actually one of my suspicions about people who succeed at the low-carb. I suspect that in order to avoid hidden carbohydrates, many people on Atkins or low-carb diets find it necessary to buy and prepare *gasp* fresh vegetables and meat from scratch instead of eating out of a can, a jar, a box, or a bag.

    They succeeded because they’ve made a complete lifestyle change, not replace some crappy food with the low-carb/low-fat/low-sodium version.

  • John Speno


    I agree with what I consider the main sentiment of your rant, but you’re also putting forth some myths about diet that can and have been debunked, namely that obesity is caused by overeating and that there is a link between saturated fat and heart disease (thank goodness that was never true!). Please read the book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes. His book should be required reading for anyone making public statements about America’s fat problem. You can watch a lecture by Mr. Taubes on the topic of the causes of obesity here:

    Gary Taubes at the Stevens Institute of Technology

    All the best,

  • Elayne Riggs

    I’m still waiting for the day when SOME big culinary name volunteers to lead the fight against high-fructose corn syrup. The rise in HFCS almost exactly correlates to the so-called “obesity epidemic.” Well, that and people becoming more sedentary.

  • Deborah Dowd

    Usually diet foods take out fat and replace it with sugars, which, ironically, make you fat! It is better to eat moderate amounts of real foods, than to stuff down loads of tasteless chemical substitutes!

  • RI Swampyankee

    From your lips to God’s ear, Michael.

    Kay, you might want to consider getting checked for celiac disease. The symptoms you describe are very much consistent with a gluten intolerance.

  • Ben

    Hmmm…Obesity is not caused by overeating? COMMON SENSE dictates that if you don’t pack food into your mouth, you won’t get fat. Michael was talking about the RIGHT foods for our bodies, and misconceptions regarding fat, salt, and the human diet. Atkins was a douche. Pritikin also a numbskull. The point is, we should eat real food, produce and meats, and eschew the packaged crap as much as we can. Its a sin that the answer is in front of our face, but some of us refuse to see it.

  • Kim

    You’re reminding me of a family member who visited recently, hung over every dish I prepared and chastising me whenever I added salt. She insisted that cook with zero salt and add my salt at the table. I clenched my teeth, kept my mouth shut, and looked forward to tasting my food again when she returned home.

  • Cheryl

    One of the hardest things for my mind to wrap around when I moved to the States 3 years ago was why everything NEEDED high fructose corn syrup. Still don’t understand it, and I am tired of spending hours in the grocery store reading all the freaking labels! Oh, and it makes me laugh when “light” yogurt depends on some sort of synthetic sugar substitute to make it as sweet tasting as the HFCS-laden kind. Light, my arse!

    And I never realized how salty canned foods were until a couple of years ago. I had just gotten home from a month in the hospital (and enduring the typical semi-bland hospital foodO, and my mother opened up a can of something for supper. I took one bite of it and almost immediately spit it out — it was so bitter from the salt! Even now I can only eat a handful or two of potato chips before the salt gets to me.

    I have recently started to make a concerted effort to reduce the amount of overprocessed food coming into my house, and even though it’s only been a few weeks, I can see we are better for it already.

  • luis

    It’s like turning a big ship around. Not easy to do. Real food requires more prep, mise en place and sweat and time than crappy processed food. The other problem is that natural competition between restaurants leads most of them to serve huge amounts of food. Couple that with sedentary lifestyles and slowing metabolisms…and even cooking right doesn’t help because you are fighting all these other things. Nevermind the office food fests and the crap that folks have laying around their homes. This is a very difficult issue to pin down.

  • carri

    Wow, something really got you all fired up…too many Hot Pockets on the beach down there in Miami, no doubt! Nothing like seeing a bunch of people wearing less clothes than we think they should to really highlight the importance of eating…better? Honestly, I think the tide is starting to turn…the amount of people picking up CSA boxes at our drop location has increased considerably as has our local Farmers Market in size and scope…I also have more people than ever asking for baked goods taylored to their dietary needs…it’s been a slow but steady seachange here, but I do think that we have to break the hold that corporate america has on our food supply…only then will we see REAL change.

  • Naveen

    I’m spending a year abroad in Singapore after growing up and going to college in the United States, so it’s fascinating to compare the two cultures’ attitudes towards food. Many people here eat in food courts and have their parents cook for them at home, so the obsession with processed foods doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem. However, the government is still taking steps to improve public health, with signs in the hawker centers (which don’t always serve the most nutritious cuisine) to remind people to “ask for more veggies.” I’ve also noticed wholemeal bread and organic produce becoming more common. I would be greatly interested to hear what people have noticed in other countries.

  • Sues is not Martha

    Wow, really awesome post. And so true. Reminded me a lot of what I read in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” two great books.


  • JMW

    More of the same Francophilia. I suppose it’d be a low blow to point out how many American chefs who deal in “natural, unprocessed foods” are themselves remarkably fat. One particular Italian made of Iron comes to mind. I love his food but I fear for the man’s life. And he is certainly not the only such example.

    The French are thin; they’re also a nation with double-digits unemployment. Think maybe a few people are just plain hungry? How many Europeans do you suppose are shorter than they could be had evil agribusiness interfered in their teenage diets?

    I’m not going to argue wholesale that processed foods are good; I go out of my way to avoid food from boxes. But putting people on a guilt trip for not going “au natural” is ridiculous. A can of Coke has corn syrup and so-called empty calories, but there’s only 140 of them. Calories, meet Exercise. Exercise, Calories. It’s not as though nutrition information isn’t transparent in America.

    People have options and that’s a good thing. We shouldn’t go Sandra Lee, but in my view evil agribusiness has made the food production and distribution, and most importantly nutrition, predictable and stable. It’s not the end-all, be-all, but neither is “natural” cuisine. Let’s get real, Ruhlman; not everyone is going to devote their lives to making stocks etc. as you have.

  • BSE

    as an aside – current research suggests that high cholesterol does not cause heart disease

  • luis

    FOLLOW THE MONEY….always follow the money.

    “The sad fact is that fresh food that is good for you is significantly more expensive than the processed crap that truly is bad for our diet, not to mention our food production system. And the people who most need food to be healthy are the ones who can least afford it. The millions of Americans on a restricted food budget will see little choice other than to buy the cheap calories provided by agribusiness corn.” quote from Ruhlman.

    Ruhlman has it exactly right. Real food is expensive. Food you buy i our franchises from Starbucks to Taco Bell and Mc Donalds is cheap and loaded with empty calories.

    It’s also true The “calorie commando” thing doesn’t sell at all, at home or comercially.
    Breaking out of what passes for normal and going full bore into a “Calorie Comando” cuisine is unpopular with folks we normally cook for. This seems to suggest that the findings of those folks in the articles Ruhlman linked us to ,are somewhat true and the body doesn’t stand for substitutions in its calorie budget. I can go one further. If you were to assume a Pritickin style diet you would find yourself filled with cravings along the way. Your body talking to you.. more sugar, more sugar..must have must more sugar… try the pasta sauce..typically great source for hidden sugar. Pizza is nothing more than one lump of sugar convertible refined flour topped with more sugar (tomato sauce) and dripping with fat (mozzarela cheese). The body wants what the body wants.

    Our cheap food today is nothing more than very efficient sugar-fat delivery weapon systems. That is the holy grail of all restaurants, fast food and supermarket food brands. Get that sugar and fat into you the fastest easiest digestible aspsortible form there is. Expresso coffee, Coladita… Christ look at the guey sirupy menu at Starbucks. I gag at some of their selections… turn my nose up at anyone ordering any such mocha sugary crap and then take my java and fill it with half and half. If you dodge the sugar the fat will get you every time.

  • Tags

    Thanks, JMW, for giving us the agribusiness side of the argument. Now, if only real food were readily available.

    For example there is a certification for 100% whole grain products that lets you know that you’re not getting a substitute. Where I live, we have Pathmark, Acme, Superfresh, Fresh Grocer, Super Saver, Genuardi’s, Giant, Wawa and 7-11s, just to name a few.

    NONE of them carry bread with the 100% Whole Grains designation.

    And cholesterol is not even an issue here, trans fat is the issue.

    They pay lip service to choice, but they bend over and give us the moon in reality.

  • Sarah

    Well said.
    I find it curious how some people intellectualize food to the point that they are no longer making choices about food, but rather, choices about behavior.
    The concept of the “diet” makes no sense intellectually, yet, Americans rationalize this phenomenon every day.
    For many of the people in my life who see food in an unhealthy way, it isn’t because they are not intelligent, but rather, they try to make food and eating into more complicated concepts than they actually are.
    What’s most disturbing, and disappointing, about the current situation in the US is, that the media and marketing ploys have made even our most intellectual eaters, into dummies.
    Changes have to be made. Thanks for putting it so eloquently.

  • proeats

    Any studies on the way people guzzle sodas with no thought or effort, but labor over trying to drink enough water in a day?

  • mirinblue

    Please do not forget that good food starts at home. A small child raised on formula, jarred baby food, convenience foods and so on, will be an adult that eats the same way.

    A child raised on breast milk, whole grains, home pureed fruits and vegtables (sans sugar), and fresh meat and fish will tend to consume those as an adult. (well, not the breast milk part!) We are creating the palates of our children.

    I was raised by farmers and never consumed a McDonalds until I was almost 20 yrs old. I always reach for fresh fruits, veg and meats. Canned and processed was not a way of life in our household and has never become my way of life. And because it wasn’t, it hasn’t become my child’s either. He is now 26 and chooses fresh, clean food, simply prepared, over processed any day.

    Think, America, think!

  • joanne

    I honestly worry about what my child eats at school, and to create a good family unit we prepare and eat our meals at home more often than not. I don’t care for fast food, or chain restaurants. We use real fats and oils, sugar and honey instead of artificial sweeteners, and I bake all the sweets. It scares me to look at the majority of children at my son’s school. A 9 or 10 year old boy should not have a gut of a middle aged man. Or watch them have trouble running and climbing because of the weight. To invite a child over for dinner, and have them be amazed with the non processed dinner, or lack of salad dressing to drench their vegetables in. It is a scary world we live in. What the American public becomes as they fall blindly into the processed foods is scary.

  • Darcie

    It seems to me that people are so disconnected from food that they can’t make informed decisions. Besides the disconnect, people want an instant solution – a magic pill or super diet – and won’t make the real, long-term changes necessary to maintain a healthy weight.

    If I eschew a treat in the office (usually some processed crap), people around me will say “But you don’t need to watch your weight!” They don’t seem to associate that my not eating the treat may be related to my not being a total fatass.

  • MrsBug

    Portion control and real food.

    I remember a cartoon from Bloom County where Opus wanted to lose wait and I think it was Binkley that was telling him to eat less and exercise. Opus wanted to buy some ridiculous TV pill or exercise gizmo or something (“The Super Easy Lose Weight By Eating Sugar Diet” or some such). He kept sticking his fingers in his ears, saying, “I’m not hearing you” while Binkley kept repeating “Eat Less and Exercise!”

  • Jen B

    Thank you for your insightful comments. This issue also extends to the obesity epidemic among American children. Many of our schools make processed, unnatural foods as oh-so-available options. As a parent, I am trying to teach my son to decipher food labels and explain why high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated ingredients are bad for your body on a physiological level. However, it is hard to fight the good fight when crappy food is beckoning from the school cafeteria or vending machine on a daily basis.
    Also, as Americans become busier and busier, the quick fix, semi-homemade meal solution becomes more prevalent. We need to understand that cheap and easy is not the answer to this problem. The good news is that the media is now starting to call attention to this epidemic and the foods that give us a false sense of security. Hopefully, as Americans become more educated about honest nutrition, we will start to see positive changes in our communities.

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Well said!

    I noticed this very thing just the other night as I was grocery shopping for a catering gig I just did. I needed mayo. I had 4 choices. All but 1 had either corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup in it and I kept wondering why?? Why do you need that in mayo – that’s supposed to be egg yolks, an acid, and oil??

  • Jennie/Tikka

    Not that I’m making a conspiracy theory of this…but let’s not forget that the multi-billion dollar diet industry benefits from all this weight-loss effort (through pills, products, and surgeries).

  • Aly

    It is so motivating for me to read this article AND the comments and to realize that my way of eating and philosophy on nutrition (developed in my own kitchen without any real examples to follow) are mirrored by other people in this country.
    I am currently scouring the nation for a Master’s in Nutrition program that takes a holistic approach to healing people through whole, unprocessed foods, rather than an “after the fact” clinical regimen of IVs and blood sugar monitoring. Anyone know of a good, accredited nutrition program like that?

  • Frances Davey

    As soon as I decide I should maybe lay off grains and dairy for awhile, I find myself hitting a bowl of Cheerios before the sun is even over the yardarm.

  • John

    True the poorer people cannot afford to eat real food. It strains my budget to do so . My sons friend stayed for dinner at our house. I made a quick shrimp in a wine cream sause and real garlic mashed potatoes and some greens in garlic butter and his friend told me ” my family don’t eat this way”

    It’s not that hard to make real food.

  • Dick Black

    I think if anyone is in a blaming mood for the obesity problem, we might start with Clarence Birdseye. This bad man invented frozen food didn’t he ? Is this not the start of the decline of the state of how we eat ?

  • Chris

    Michael, I think you’ve got a topic for a new book here. Yes, there are others with the same message, especially Michael Pollan’s latest, but this message still isn’t heard enough. More people need to get the word out, until everyone hears it. And you’ve got street cred, and even some “food celebrity” fame to help sell the book.

    Go for it … I know you’ve got other things on the stove, but sounds like this could be written relatively quickly and easily.

    Now let’s talk about my cut in the action …

  • Rebecca

    As a resident of the Frozen North and a grad student with the low income and crazy schedule that accompanies that status, I am often confronted with two apparent obstacles to eating well:
    1)I’m hungry NOW. Don’t wanna cook , just wanna eat
    2)Fresh veggies in February in the Frozen North are expensive and mostly taste bad, except the kinds that have to be cooked for a long time (root veggies, etc)
    My two-pronged solution is:
    1)If I really need food now and can’t cook (ie lunch), I stop at my local co-op and get bread and cheese, or prepared foods from their deli. They only put food in their food.
    2)Frozen fruits and veg are not necessarily the devil. I’d rather eat pasta with frozen peas than with no veg at all. The evil frozen veg are the ones with “butter sauce” and “asian flavor” etc.

  • Connor

    I completely agree with your assertion — “Eat more fat! Salt your food naturally.” As you pointed out, way too many folks have a neurotic relationship with food, leading people to believe that the low-fat whatever is the healthier choice. There’s a dizzying amount of conflicting information out there, and even consumers trying to make good choices often fall short.

    However, I easily get conflicted about this issue. Should people eat less processed food? Absolutely. Is getting angry about the amount of processed food on grocery store shelves productive? I’m not so sure. Educating Americans about how to make good food choices is part of the solution, but it only gets us so far. As research shows, there are so many other factors associated with our nation’s obesity problem — increasingly sedentary lifestyles (related to urban sprawl, long work hours, TV, etc.), genetics, stress, the list goes on.

    People often argue that the cheap price of processed food leads to people buying it. True. But many, many people buy it because they like it, they prefer it, they demand it. They would still buy it at a higher price (or at the same price as natural, healthier alternatives). They would still buy it if the ingredients and nutrition content were fully transparent and understood. Is it really any wonder that many folks choose to buy oreos instead of organic carrot sticks for a snack? Or shrink-wrapped muffins that have a shelf-life of two weeks? As someone who loves to cook, I buy very few processed foods for my family, but I also understand that my value system is not shared by all.

    But what is encouraging to me, and makes me think that we’re heading in the right direction, is our nation’s growing interest in food production. The rise of farmers markets and CSAs. The fact that the term locavore is now in the dictionary! The number of good people doing good work in raising awareness about food choices and nutrition. Blogs like this where people get so passionate. The truly astonishing amount of choice we now have as consumers. It’s pretty darn amazing to me that in many urban areas, you can choose between multiple megamarts, farmers markets, health food co-ops, Whole Foods, and ethnic grocers, not to mention restaurants and other prepared food options. Importantly, for the vast majority of Americans, if you want to eat well, it’s becoming easier and easier to do so.

  • Dawn in STL

    I lost 100 lbs eating REAL food, nothing fat free, low fat and very little packaged food. It CAN be done. I used a food journal to log my intake, and see where I was overeating.

    I’m fortunate, in some ways, because I love food and love to cook, but in other ways it’s a curse!

  • Laura

    Variety is another huge American conflict with food. Back to that French paradox….from my experiences, they actually don’t have a need for a huge variety in their diets at home everyday….it’s pretty much the same thing every day – as delicious as it is…..they are not obsessed with feeding their family something different every lunch, or every dinner or every dessert….good bread and cheese works every day – day after day after day. And talk about leftovers – they are happy to serve up that roast beef for the next 4 days – to guests and family alike.

    Why is the USA so obsessed with variety? Why are there 10 different varieties of the same brand of Chocolate Chip cookies?

  • Paul DeLuca

    I’m thinking I should sit down and write that diet book I’ve been pondering. It would be a short book.

    Page 1: Educate yourself about food and nutrition and eat smart most of the time.

    Page 2: Get off your ass and exercise at least twice a week.

    Page 3: If you do those two things, I guarantee you’ll lose weight and feel better.

    Page 4: If you don’t do those two things, quit bitching.

  • Charlotte

    I don’t get the allure of processed foods — maybe it’s because I was raised on real food — as much because my parents were suspicious of marketing as anything else — but all that food in boxes just tastes terrible to me. I mean, the occasional mac-and-cheese is one thing (there are days you need kid food) but on an everyday basis? And it’s creeping out of the center of the grocery store — the meat counter at our local store is all full of pre-made meals now. It’s really scary.

  • Alyce Smythee

    I always knew people fell for the granola claims and SnackWells, but I really started to become disappointed in the world when a friend told me about how she had to argue with parents who would NOT believe that junk food was bad because it had corn in it, or potatoes. So, they argued up and down that they were giving their kids balanced lunches because the crap contained some form of veggies.

  • Steve

    Just wondering here: If your time is limited due to work, kids, family activities, etc., are you better off spending whatever time you can carve out to prepare real food, or should you use those hours to squeeze in more excercise, or some other worthy activity?

    I also dislike processed foods and don’t advocate them. I’ve lost 75 pounds in the last two years through exercise and a much better diet. But most people (families in particular)choose processed foods for the convenience as much or more than the taste. When you have to get your son to music lessons and your daughter to soccer 45 minutes after you get home from work, dinner from a box is a great help.

    Seems to me that it would be helpful to acknowledge that these foods aren’t going away anytime soon and that we should figure out how to help people integrate them into a healthier diet.(It’s just a reality check. I’d like to make bad movies like “Jumper” go away, too, but I don’t think my best efforts will convince millions of people to see “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” instead.)

  • Soup of The Day

    Honestly, when I eat foods with full fat and sugar (versus low fat or low sugar versions) I actually weigh LESS. And it’s because of the very thing you mentioned – I just ate LESS of it. It’s richer, therefore you are satisfied sooner, and stay satisfied longer. In the long run you end up eating less if you stick to the real stuff, in it’s natural form. When I was pregnant, I stopped “dieting” because I wanted to be as healthy as possible and I ate full fat everything – mayo, butter, cheese and drank loads of milk with chocolate in it every day. I ended up losing weight! I only gained 20 lbs my entire pregnancy. I do not eat fast food, and I do not eat packaged foods. When it’s time for dinner, We have some type of meat or fish and a few types of vegetables. Sometimes pasta, sometimes rice, but only small amounts, and definitely not everyday. That’s what we eat. It’s not difficult, and honestly, it’s not even expensive. Vegetables are cheap, and the grocery usually always has something on sale for those watching their pennies- chicken or steak or pork chops or roast. Stock up on the good deals and freeze it if you need to. I don’t agree that you have to be rich to eat healthy. You just need to put some effort into it. But for those of us who have always done things this way, it’s really effortless.

  • Evan Elliot

    “In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children or more successful than its farmers.” —Harry S. Truman

    Thanks, Michael, for raising an important topic!

  • Cheryl (fsutrill)

    PREACH IT! I live in France and when we go back to visit the states I am consistently overwhelmed at the variety of bad food on the shelves in the grocery store and how difficult it is to find food that’s just…food. I mean, does yogurt NEED to be neon pink?

    Echoing what many of the posters already said-it’s not the overeating, in my opinion, it’s the inactivity. I think a big key to the “French paradox” is how much walking these people do over here. Day to day life is lived largely on foot. I have a friend who lives in FL. There is a grocery store ACROSS THE STREET from her apartment complex, and she can’t walk to it because there are no sidewalks and it’s a busy four lane road. So she has to drive her car across the street(she has 4 kids- I am sure if it had just been her, she’d have walked). If you want to walk from point A to point B, you had better have a sense of adventure, because unless it’s downtown, there isn’t going to be a sidewalk. Having to drive somewhere just so you can walk in circles? NUTS!

    One other funny aside- the amount of carbs consumed in France is crazy! Bread for breakfast with butter and jam (or Nutella) and bread with every other meal. An article in a food magazine a while back- “Lose weight with pasta”. Cracks me up- the bandwagons people jump on, like the “carbs are evil” one.

    I am scared at the thought of moving back to the states when I read posts like this and the other ones about meat hormones and dairy hormones and such!

    Someone please correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to recall reading somewhere that the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup is due to the government’s subsidizing all the corn farmers? Did I really read that somewhere or just dream it?

    Thanks for another thought provoking (yet scary) post!

  • Vinotas

    I couldn’t agree more. There is a serious imbalance in the way Americans eat, namely with sugar and salt and fat as you said.

    I travel to France a LOT on business, and everytime I’m there things taste cleaner, lighter, even the duck confit! And it’s not like I’m holding back, I eat several flocks of geese, duck and chickens while I’m there, most of which is dripping with well-made butter. And guess what?

    I LOSE WEIGHT. Everytime. And I even drink lots of wine! (it’s my business after all)

    Then I come to the US and everything, and I do mean everything, tastes sweet and over-processed. The US is the only place where I ever feel bloated after meals, and not just the big dinners. I don’t mean full, I mean bloated, as if the foodstuffs I ingested and my GI tract are just not getting along, even though they might be similar to what I eat in France without problem.

    Sorry, rant over. Long story short, I agree 100% with you. Now, where is my glass of red wine?

  • jcaplan

    Regarding the French Paradox:
    I was fortunate to have lived in France for four years and during that time I ate more cheese, butter, and meat of all varieties than I ever ate in my life. During that period, I was also thinner than I had ever been in my life!

    Without realizing it, I was eating whole foods for almost every meal. The most processed product I ate was yogurt (full fat!) and it was terrific.

    Clearly, portion size had something to do with it, and exercise happened without going to a gym–we walked almost everywhere.

    The thing that struck me most was that everyone ate this way. This was not a snob’s arena. It was engrained in the culture. Since moving back, we have learned it is more expensive to eat whole foods, and we really have to pay attention to stick with eating the good stuff.

    Excellent post. Now, where are those Doritos???

  • Wilmita

    All I know is this.

    Despite my family history I grew up seriously underweight. I was stuffed and stuffed with food and STILL was underweight.

    Late puberty and early 20’s I became overweight and later seriously overweight.

    I starved and dieted for years, but four years ago, I discovered eating whatever I like in smaller portions and exercise, (Pilates), three days per week.

    Three and a half years later I have been able to sustain a 75 lb. weight loss, while I continue to carve out my core.

    I crave salt so I buy the finest Sea Salt which satisfies me with so much less.

    I eat fat, true fat but in moderation..

    People who’ve known me marvel at how I have been able to eat, have a cocktail and still not have blown up to my former weight.

    Processed foods are clearly the enemy. One can eat the real thing, but one must shop for it and prepare it. THAT’S where I feel Americans have really fallen down.

    Convenience foods, take-aways and deliveries have made us truly lazy in addition to lack of physical activity.

    We have also lost our taste buds for true food and buried ourselves in national denial as to where our food comes from; particularly with regard to animal products.

    So, as we become more and more obese, we continue to chow down on serious processed saturated fat and sodium-laden foodstuffs and , shudder at the fact that most of our food comes from slaughtered animals.

    What a tragedy and a sham, and our children are in worse shape than ever!

    As I continue my life-long struggle with weight, I thank you Michael Rulhman for this column.


  • Jen

    I guess processed food is cheaper – maybe? I don’t buy much of it and don’t have much patience for coupon clipping (grocery gamers scare me). But, I just made a gigantic pot of homemade lemon chicken (avgolemono) soup for the rock bottom price of about $5. Soup is one of the easiest and most economical things to make from scratch and you can make a ton of it and freeze it for those busy nights when you want to eat NOW and not have to cook.

    I really don’t understand the “processed food is cheaper” thing.

  • luis

    confused topic… too many folks with way too many different opinions… That tells the story.

  • initialdrew

    So, what to say about all the fat Italians? There are plenty of those and Russians for that matter. I think both of those cultures eat quite a bit of foods and fat for that matter. Maybe some people just get fatter than others. Funny topic.

  • Katie

    Thank you Ruhlman!
    A few things… I haven’t finished Pollan’s latest book yet, but one thing he mentions early on is the rapid changes in Americans’ eating habits; children don’t eat the same food as their parents, who don’t eat the same things as THEIR parents. In other countries (i.e. France), you just don’t see this wild change in dietary preferences; though the McDonalds diffusion all of the world is changing that. A lack of food culture means we either seek out one for ourselves or we look to the experts. I believe this leads to two trends: 1. the local/organic movement, where we have looked around and seen that not only is this a healthier way to eat, but the food is better, safer, and more nutritious; 2. the diet fads, where people look to the “experts” to tell them what they should eat. I believe this second group stays permanently in the dark, because they can’t seem to “eat right” according to the experts and feel satisfied at the same time, so their weight fluctuates all over as they bounce between starving themselves on chicken caesar salads and stuffing themselves with corn byproducts. Or, they never loose weight because they just fail to understand that their body thinks the best use of that 48 ounce pop (oops.. soda for all you non-Ohio natives) is to store it as fat.

    A second point… To those uncertain as to whether pre-processed foods are cheaper than fresh: have you ever stood behind someone using EBT/WIC at the grocery store? Have you made mental note of what they were buying? It’s bottom shelf processed food. The knock-off Oreos and Frosted Flakes. The government-subsidized food aid programs make it cheaper and easier to buy the government-subsidized corn products. Around here, I’ve seen quite a few farmers who accept WIC at the farmers’ market, but there are a lot of issues with that too. You can still buy a lot more processed food with the amount allocated by WIC that you can fresh produce. Also, WIC is intended for single mothers: does someone working possibly multiple jobs have time to cook a meal? Does she have time to get to the farmers’ market while it is open? Does she know how to cook? I could go on for pages and pages… but I hope my few questions provoke thought and more discussion about these issues.

  • French Laundry at Home

    Michael: If I didn’t already love you to pieces, I sure would now. I’ve just emailed this piece to a bunch of people who I think will now see the light. With rare exception, I only shop the perimeter of my grocery store (whoever above mentioned the occasional mac and cheese fix, WORD) and it’s the one thing I can say that has kept me healthy and lean as I inch closer to 40.

  • Jules

    I enjoyed reading a post of this nature written by someone in your realm of expertise. I agree completely with your position on what the real issue is for Americans in this “obesity epidemic”.

    I would also suggest that quality ingredients and “healthier” foods are not necessarily more expensive as the quantities need to be substantially less than people think. If people were to only buy enough ingredients for a weeks worth of breakfast, lunch and dinner (no snacks – same as the French) in normal portion sizes (which are much smaller than current portion sizes) I think they’d be surprised. And thinner.

  • Alicia

    Wow. I’ve been reading your blog for months, but I’ve never felt so compelled to comment until now. I agree with you 110%.

    One of the true ‘culture shocks’ I experienced when I first moved to the U.S. 11 years ago (I’m originally from Mexico City) was to discover all the different sorts of allergies people have in this country, food allergies and otherwise. I was truly astounded, as I grew up and lived in one of the most polluted cities in the world for 28 years, and had never encountered this phenomenon. Well, I have been coming to the conclusion that all these allergies and ‘weird’ diseases (Chronic constipation? Are you kidding me?) that exist in the U.S. are totally attributable to the ‘crap’ food that everyone eats in this country; and I’m not talking only about stuff in boxes, but all the hormones and antibiotics in meat and chicken, farm-grown fish, all frozen until you can’t even tell what color the meat was when the animal was alive, etc.. Don’t even get me started! Just last week, I got more un-scientific proof of my theory when I talked to two co-workers who grew up in the so-called 3rd. world (one in Uganda and one in the Phillippines) and agreed that neither one of us gets sick more than once a year (usually nothing but a cold or mild flu), or has allergies or weird diseases to speak of because of our nutrition in our countries of origin. Another example: I have known my husband for 20 years, who grew up in the State of Veracruz in Mexico, and I have seen him sick with flu or anything else for that matter only 3 times in 20 years, if that. He grew up drinking whole milk directly from the stable, organic meat, fruit and vegetables, and the seafood…OMG, the freshest seafood ever. Do you think his childhood nutrition has something to do with the state of his immune system? You bet it does! When will U.S. born Americans wake up and smell the (organic) coffee? I don’t know but, I don’t keep my hopes up. I think this problem is not only a nutritional problem; it is an educational and cultural problem (too deep and long to tackle on this space) that will not be solved in my lifetime.

    Keep up the good work, Michael and yes, please do write a book on the subject. Those of us who still read books will definitely buy it and thank you for it!

  • luis

    Alicia , AGAIN folks.. this is nothing different. Follow the money! Ruhlman is rigth of course. I have yet to find out he is not! That’s pretty good for anyone dealing with so many diverse topics. But he looks at the issue in a pure sense. Good food vs bad.
    You need to follow the money. There are mega millions of dollars in play. Everyone is trying to get you addicted in their own sugar-fat delivery system. why?, because “It’s good bidness”. Nothing personal. But to take a cup of coffee and turn it into a sugar weapon?… to addict you into getting your $4.50 dollar cup of sweet poison?. Oh pleeeeeeeeeasssssssse!. This is a grown man that pays up to 2 bucks for a simple cup of coffee that tastes like crap sometimes.
    You can not do this topic without following the macro economics that drive our lives. You can’t. Same goes for each and every other 75% of the restaurants and fast food joints out there.
    The one silver lining in this nightmare is what I found at “hogs heaven” Isla Morada.
    forget pork.. They will cook your cleaned and fileted fish for less than ten bucks and throw in two sides with it which you can use to feed the fish at their pier. So they can spawn more fish for you to catch.