Is It Really Healthy?
Published: Sunday, September 30, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
If you were one of the students that attended the Office of Health Promotion’s Healthapalooza last week, you were likely reminded of some of the ways in which you can stay healthy throughout the school year. Talking about how to become healthier seems to be a common topic of interest in the United States, especially as obesity rates have skyrocketed during the past 20 years, to the point that one-third of U.S. adults are currently obese. Whether you are watching television, reading a magazine, or even talking with friends, you are likely to come across various messages related to improving your physical fitness or health. But such an overwhelming amount of information can be difficult to sort out, and accurate suggestions of how to live a healthier lifestyle can become mixed in with other, more questionable solutions to improve your physical self.
Throughout the 1990s, low-carbohydrate diets were the trend as individuals swore off things like bread and replaced them with high-protein foods. Today is no different than the low-carb craze days except for the fact that we stopped blaming carbohydrates and have begun pointing fingers at new culprits: sugar and fat.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 16 percent of the total calories in an average American’s diet come from added sugars, much higher than the 100-150 calories that the American Heart Association recommends. Unlike the natural sugars found in foods such as fruit, added sugars in things like candy or soda are typically easy to overeat without realizing the amount of empty calories one is actually consuming. What makes this even more difficult is the numerous names sugar can disguise itself under (sucrose, high fructose corn syrup), and the fact that some foods have unexpectedly high sugar contents, like certain kinds of spaghetti sauce, yogurt, or cereal.
The concern with individuals taking in such excess amounts of sugar is what led to the recent New York City Board of Health decision to ban large sugary drinks throughout the city, and it is the reason that companies are now turning to things like artificial sweeteners or reducing the sugar in their products. Yet a product marketed as "sugar-free" or "reduced sugar" is not necessarily healthy. For example, the term "reduced sugar" is used when a food has at least 25 percent less sugar than whatever product it is comparing itself to, leaving the possibility that the food is still high in sugar or calories.
Sheila Tucker, a registered dietitian for the Office of Health Promotion and a part-time faculty member in the Connell School of Nursing, confirmed that such label claims do not "denote that the product is healthy or unhealthy—the label claims are only specific to one nutrient and thus do not give you the whole picture."
One of the main ways in which foods reduce their sugar content is by using artificial sweeteners, like aspartame or sucralose, in place of sugar. Studies conducted in the 1970s found a connection between the artificial sweetener saccharin to bladder cancer, causing it to be banned until 2000 when it was declared safe. Still, the skepticism some feel toward artificial sweeteners that have been deemed safe by the Federal Drug Administration is not unreasonable when one considers the time frame in which such sweeteners have been researched. The National Cancer Institute claims that there "is no clear evidence that the artificial sweeteners available commercially in the United States are associated with cancer risk in humans," and the FDA still recommends a maximum amount that can be consumed daily for the sweetener to be considered safe.
Sarah Loiselle, a member of the rowing team and A&S ’13, acknowledges that the way she gets around having added sugars is by using sweeteners like Splenda, which she believes can give consumers a "false sense of security."
"I use them, although I have gotten mixed information about whether or not they’ll hurt you in the long run," she said.
Like sugar, fat has had the reputation of being directly connected with weight gain and thus not compatible with a healthy diet. But just as sugars have become grouped together and generalized as "bad" without acknowledging such exceptions as sugars from fruits and vegetables, fat has similarly developed a bad reputation. Although eating fat is often associated with increased body fat, the reality is that fats are simply one of the three macronutrients that our bodies require, along with carbohydrates and protein. Dietary fat not only provides us with energy, but it is also necessary for normal growth, absorbing specific vitamins and maintaining cell membranes.
While it is true that unsaturated fats are beneficial for us compared to saturated or trans fats, it is also important to recognize that fully eliminating fat from one’s diet may not be the solution either. If you come across a treat that tastes sweet but has no sugar, or a food that is normally high in fat but is made in a fat-free version, it raises the question of just how it got that way. Some foods are currently made with fat substitutes, defined by the American Heart Association as "ingredients that mimic one or more of the roles of fat in a food." Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has declared them to be safe, the longterm effects of fat substitutes are still not known for sure.