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Salt, Fat, and Sugar: Are They Really That Bad for You?

Salt, Fat, and Sugar: Are They Really That Bad for You?

This is one in a series of articles. For more on this subject visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Is Our Food Killing Us? Diet, Nutrition, and Health in 21st Century America.

When you can't resist the craving for cookies, soda, a burger, even pizza and pasta, or when the desire to binge eat an entire bag of potato chips is simply too strong to defy, you’re treading in the waters of addiction. Is there a science behind our addiction to fast food?

In fact, there is. The reason we can't say no to foods like these isn't because they have a more flavor than a plate of steamed vegetables; it’s because much of what is churned out by the processed food industry involves a powerhouse combination of chemically altered salts, fats, and sugars designed to keep us coming back for more.

Salt, fat, and sugar feature in our daily diets in various forms, from table salt to sugar packets to everything from cooking oil to whole milk. Some of these, like trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup, we know are bad for us. Other sources, like olive oil and the sugars that come from carbohydrates (which our bodies need for energy) are actually really good for us. The problem is that it’s not always easy to distinguish the good salts, sugars, and fats from the bad. Much of the processed foods we eat — from canned soup and dehydrated noodles to cookies, potato chips, ready-to-eat meals, and even healthy-looking fruit juices — contain a cocktail of the bad kind, which means that we’re getting a lot more of these compounds than we really need. Worse still, these “new” salts, fats, and sugars are a lot more addictive than the natural ones.

Salt, fat, and sugar have been unofficially christened as the unholy trinity of the processed food world — the hooks that the industry uses to keep consumers obsessed with their products. In his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Moss investigates how the processed food industry has concentrated these items in a formulation designed for "maximum bliss.” Moss says that the strategy comes from the work of food scientist Howard Moskowitz, M.D., who tinkered with the food combinations for the U.S. Army in the 1970s, trying to make mass produced food still delicious enough to keep soldiers eating (soldiers often suffered from appetite loss when faced with unpalatable rations). Finding the right combination of salt, sugar, and fat would do the trick, producing what food scientists call the “bliss point.” The food industry, Moss argues, uses the same technique to get customers to keep eating their products, continually driving the bliss point until you’ve eaten that entire box of cookies.

Moss is not alone in his assessment: In an article on food addiction, physician, author, and founder of the UltraWellness Center Mark Hyman, M.D., questions why people don't binge eat broccoli or apples the way they do potato chips, cookies, or salsa? There's something about the salty, sweet, rich processed food that triggers compulsion, almost the same way a drug would. And once you're hooked, telling someone to "just say no" is essentially the same as telling a drug addict to quit cold turkey.

Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler, M.D., backs this up by taking a metaphorical sledgehammer to the processed food companies in his book The End of Overeating, accusing them of preying on the public's food addiction the same way tobacco companies exploited the addictive properties of nicotine. The power that unhealthy foods have over us, say Kessler, is the layering of salt over salt, over sugar, over fat, and over more salt. It makes these products "hyper-palatable" by exploiting our biological need for these substances, flooding our brains with pleasure but filling our bellies with empty, unsatisfying calories that only leave us wanting more.

8 Surprising Sources of Sugar

Move over salt, there's a new bad guy in town: sugar. We know that sweet treats and heavily processed food tends to be laden with sugar, but you’ll be shocked to find out that these 8 common foods that contain more sugar than you think.

The American Heart Association recommends that women limit their added sugar to no more than 6 teaspoons (or 100 calories) while men shouldn’t consume more than 9 teaspoons (or 150 calories) each day. Americans blow these recommendations out of the water, consuming an average of 475 calories of added sugar each day! So take a good look at your pantry to see if you’re eating any of these hidden sources of sugar.

Reduced Fat Peanut Butter

In order to replace the fat, sugar is often added in the form of maltodextrin, corn syrup solids and molasses. Although 2 tablespoons will only give you 1 teaspoon of added sugar, choose natural peanut butter instead without any added sugar.

Barbecue Sauce

A quarter cup of barbecue sauce has 4.5 teaspoons of added sugar. Check out our tips for choosing a healthier barbecue sauce or make your own.

Salad Dressing

Oftentimes light salad dressings replace the fat with sugar. For example, two tablespoons of this Lite Honey French Dressing has 3.5 teaspoons of added sugar. Be sure to check the food label for the amount of sugar in your store-bought dressing or make your own.

Multigrain Cereals

You may think you’re eating healthy when you dig into your morning bowl of multigrain cereal. Although it may not have bright colors, chocolate or marshmallows, it may contain hidden sugar. Many popular brands have between 1.6 to 3.5 teaspoons of added sugar per cup. Check out our taste test to spot the lower sugar cereal choices.

Sports Drinks

According to the USDA, about 36 percent of the added sugar in our diet comes from soda, energy drinks and sports drinks. A 16-fluid ounce container of a sports drink has 7 teaspoons of added sugar (105 calories). There is a time and place for sports drinks -- read more about it.

Sugar is a common ingredient in ketchup, but it’s the source that matters. Two tablespoons of ketchup contain 2 teaspoons of added sugar usually from high fructose corn syrup. Look for brands made with traditional sugar or make your own.

Baked Beans

One cup of canned baked beans contains about 3.75 teaspoons of added sugar. Use canned beans without any flavoring to minimize the amount of sugar.

Breads typically have a touch of sugar added to them. About half of the brands we looked at had about 1 teaspoon of added sugar per slice. Be sure to read the label and ingredients for the types of added sugar, and avoid those containing high fructose corn syrup. If you’re looking for whole grain varieties, check out our taste test.

Reading the food label can get confusing as sugar goes by a lot of different names. There are some of the most common names for sugar that you should be looking for:

Agave nectar, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, crystalline fructose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, glucose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, and syrup

Bottom Line: There are many hidden sources of added sugar. Read the labels carefully to ensure that you’re not taking in more than the recommended amount.

Talking to the Experts: Fabiola Gaines on Soul Food

Good old soul food is famous for excess fat, salt and sugar. Thank goodness for soul food expert and registered dietitian Fabiola Gaines, who told us how to lighten up soul food without compromising taste.

Several years ago, the American Diabetes Association asked my partner and I to sit in on a cultural diversity committee. They came up with this recipe card that wasn’t appropriate for the African American population with type 2 diabetes-- the recipe was for sweet potato pie with raisins. In the typical African American cuisine raisins are not included in sweet potato pie. We became a critical part of choosing recipes for this project, and the American Diabetes Association asked my partner and I if we would be interested in writing the first African American cookbook. Both of our fathers died of complications from diabetes and the book is near and dear to our hearts. It was important that we show that soul food is not bad but needs a facelift.

Soul Food is the food your grandmother and mother cooked for the family. It is food that brings you warm thoughts of home and family. Soul food is associated with the African American culture especially in the southern states. It also means great food that will “stick to your ribs,” as my mother used to say.

Collard greens with ham hocks, chitterlings and pig feet just to name a few. Collard green can be made healthier by using smoked turkey necks instead of the ham hocks. It will reduce the fat in the greens by over 50 percent. The chitterlings and pig feet should be eaten on a limited basis because of the amount of fat they both contain. In my family we usually eat chitterlings during Christmas or for special occasions. It is difficult to tell folks not to eat these foods because they are a part of the African American tradition. I would suggest limiting the frequency of their consumption and portion size.

It is important that we look at reducing the fat, salt and sugar in soul food dishes. The chronic disease rates are skyrocketing in the African American community and food is the culprit. Here are some tips we use in lightening up the soul food recipes.

  • Increase use of herbs and spices.
  • Use smoked turkey necks or breast in seasoning beans and greens.
  • Limit frying of meats. Try pan frying, grilling, baking and broiling instead.

We must get the African American population back in the kitchen to improve the overall health of our families. When we cook at home we know how much fat, salt and sugar we use in the foods we prepare.

The recipes are made for the whole family but also fit into the meal plan for diabetics. Each recipe calculates the carbohydrates and for the old school diabetics the exchange list comparisons. We are teaching diabetics to carbohydrate count which will expand their food choices. By reducing the fat, salt and sugar in the cookbook recipes individuals can have healthier soul food that tastes great.

Q: Could you share with us one of your favorite recipes from your book.

My favorite recipe is Aunt Dorothy's Tea Cakes. This recipe brings me fond memories of my aunt. She was a wonderful cook and baker and I have a host of recipes she shared with me.

8 "Healthy" Foods That Are Actually Really Bad for You

Especially when they tout how much fiber and protein they're packed with &mdash or how minimal their "net carb" count is &mdash energy bars may seem like super-healthy snacks. (After all, they're sold at health food stores and most gyms, and athletes eat them, so. ) But before you plop one of these plastic-wrapped blocks of "nutrients" in your mouth, consider how heavily processed most of them are.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, says the more ingredients listed on the label, the more manufactured (read: divorced from actual food) energy bars are. Common ingredients in many energy bars are fancy names for different forms of sugar, Kirkpatrick says. They spike blood sugar levels and court a crash later on without providing lasting satisfaction and energy.

Instead of reaching for a bar next time you're struck with an afternoon snack attack, try slathering a few tablespoons of nut butter on an apple, or dipping a few carrot or cucumber slices with hummus.

2. Low-Fat or Fat-Free Yogurt

When a food product cuts out or reduces something we've learned is "bad" from its contents, we falsely conclude it's "better" for us. Not necessarily, Kirkpatick cautions. Especially when it comes to nixing fat.

Great to take out the saturated stuff, she says. Not so great if manufacturers compensate for the tastiness lost in doing so by pumping their yogurts full of sugar. Many low-fat and fat-free yogurts are so high in sugar that they might as well be considered dessert. Dietary sugars can bump up bad cholesterol levels in your blood, defeating the purpose of picking less-fatty brands.

Check the labels on the low-fat or fat-free yogurts you're considering, and opt for ones with no sugar listed at all in the ingredients, Kirkpatrick advises. Dairy naturally has sugar in it (it's called lactose) but choose brands whose grams of the stuff is in the single-digits. Pro tip: Look for unsweetened Greek yogurts, which have less lactose.

3. Fro-Yo

Not as caloric or fattening as some ice creams, but still not necessarily good for you. Frozen yogurt may seem deceptively healthy simply because "yogurt" is in its name. But re-read what you just learned about yogurt (above) and you'll realize that's no grounds to consider the stuff on par with steamed vegetables. Fro-yo's sugar levels are definitely in the double digits, and some brands have even been outed for deceiving customers about how many calories are truly in one serving.

No shame in loving the stuff and allowing yourself the pleasures of fro-yo's many different brands and flavors. But treat it just as you would any other dessert (i.e., don't misconstrue it as a health food.)

4. Smoothies

Just because they're jam-packed with whole fruits doesn't mean smoothies are great for our blood sugar levels or for our belt sizes. Kirkpatrick cautions against massive blends of bananas, berries, and other tree-born sweets because they can push your sugar intake over the recommended daily limit of 25 grams &mdash especially if the smoothie you're drinking them out of is store-bought, since Kirkpatrick says most smoothie places add sugar to their berry mixes. If you're making one at home, half a cup of berries should suffice.

Don't be swayed by promises of vitamin C, antioxidants, or Amazonian rain forest delicacies. Acai berries may contain some awesome nutrients, but when you ingest them via a drink with over 40 grams of sugars? Kinda contradicts the whole "I'm doing this for my health" intention.

5. Granola

Granola picked up a rep for being "healthy" way back when your parents were smoking pot in the 1960s. Why? Because it simply had less sugar in comparison to other breakfast items on the market at that time. (Well, also because oats are supposed to be good for your heart.) But the added ingredients (yes, sugars, once again) and high fat content of most brands makes the stuff less of a healthy choice for most of our diets and more of a treat best to consume in moderation, Kirkpatrick says.

6. Frozen Diet Meals

Low calorie counts and approval stamps don't automatically make a frozen meal better for you than a meal you might cook on your own, Kirkpatrick says. Even, she points out, if they make it healthy. "Most frozen meals contain additives you wouldn't find in your kitchen at home," she says. "And they'll typically use cheaper starches and grains like white potatoes or rice. "It's hard to get a frozen meal where every component is a healthy choice."

If you pack your fridge full of frozen meals due to time constraints, consider buying whole food items instead. Think: A bag of frozen veggies you can heat up in the microwave with some olive or avocado oil.

7. Dried Fruit

Bad news for dried mango lovers and those who snack on cranberries. "Raisins, apricots, prunes, dates, and figs are really the only dried fruits that don't have sugar added to them during the drying process," says Kirkpatrick.

8. Vegan Desserts

Alas, a dessert is still a dessert, even if it contains no animal products. In fact, some vegan treats have more fat and simple carbs than ordinary delights. Yes, coconut sugar, which is often swapped with white sugar in most vegan desserts, may sound healthier than white sugar, Kirkpatrick says. But it still has a similar effect on your blood sugar levels and insulin as the regular stuff.

So What Can You Eat?

If you are going to buy prepackaged or processed snacks and foods (because you are a human) choose ones that have at max five ingredients &mdash though ideally three or less. (The fewer ingredients, the less processed a product is, says Kirkpatrick.)

And if you're unsure whether something's "healthy" or nah? Ask yourself whether you (or a friend who can cook, if this isn't your best skill) could make it in your kitchen at home, suggests Kirkpatrick. "If not, best to put it back on the shelf."

Lastly, be wary of lofty claims &mdash i.e., "As much vitamin C as an orange!" "High in fiber!" &mdash especially if these boasts are slapped onto foods you'd otherwise consider "bad for you." Always wiser to seek the purest source of a nutrient when possible, Kirkpatrick says. (Translation: Eat. Actual. Food.)

This may make it seem like nothing but salad is sacred, but so long as you keep your eye out most of the time, a little slip (or treat) here and there won't kill you. Remember, a huge part of health is enjoying your life. And sometimes that means indulging.

Walden Farms Products Claim No Calories, Fat, Carbs, Gluten, or Sugar – Can They Be Good For You?

Recently we received an e-mail about Walden Farms products. The writer wondered what is in these zero calorie, carbohydrate, fat, gluten and sugar free products and if they were healthy or chemical ridden. We decided to take a closer look. Here is what we found.

Beginning in 1972, the mission of Walden Farms' was, "to develop healthy specialty foods." By using natural ingredients and flavorings, freshly ground herbs and spices, aged vinegars and sweetening with Splenda, they have successfully established what they call "the Walden way". There are many recognizable ingredients instead of sugar alcohols, preservatives, or chemicals. However, there are also many products that contain natural flavors, cellulose and xanthan gums, or propylene glycol alginate for thickening.

If you have been doing without many of your favorite syrups, dressings and dips, Walden Farms products may be an option you would like to consider as long as you keep several things in mind. The first is that they will be costly and can take a bite out of your food dollar. Second, most all the products contain the sugar substitute sucralose or trade name Splenda. If you have noticed any personally adverse responses to this non-nutritive sweetener, you may experience them with the Walden Farms products as well. Lastly, you will want to note that many products state they contain trace calories. By law, this means they provide less than five calories per serving however if you do not monitor your serving size, you could consume negligible calories. These products are also not sodium free so if sodium control is important, you will want to pay close attention to the nutrition facts label.

Many times limiting calories to reach a personal goal means saying good-bye to favorite 'extras' like syrups, jams, dips, and dressings. Sometimes pureeing fresh berries and pouring them over frozen yogurt for dessert or a multi-grain waffle for breakfast works just fine. However, other times like holiday gatherings when you really want seafood sauce for your shrimp or BBQ sauce for your ribs, there are limited options without breaking your nutritional bank. Although they will be more costly, for those times when going without just won't do, Walden Farms products might be an answer. The Walden Farms website also provides a helpful store locator tool to help you find their products in your area.

Have you tried Walden Farm products? What do you think of them and how do you suggest others use them.

Are some types of sugar better than others?

Celebrities and high-profile chefs have touted the benefits of replacing refined white sugar with purportedly more natural, healthier sugars, such as honey, maple syrup, or molasses.

But there's no truth to these common misconceptions, Johnson says. "In terms of something being inherently better about those sweeteners as opposed to table sugar or sucrose -- no." The bottom line: All are simple sugars.

"A calorie of sugar is a calorie of sugar, so whether you're getting it from white sugar or some other type of sweetener, you're still adding empty calories to your diet," Johnson says.

However, there may be one redeeming quality, she says. "Some of those sweeteners -- like maple syrup, molasses, honey -- may have a stronger taste, so you might be able to get the sweetness that you want with less of it, using less calories."

What about substituting artificial sweeteners? Despite public worries that they might cause cancer, "They've been approved as safe by the FDA and I think that they can be a good tool to lower the calories in your diet," Johnson says. "But you need to be careful that it's about the total calories. You always hear about the person who puts the non-nutritive sweetener in their coffee and then has a piece of cheesecake."

What are the benefits of cutting down on sodium?

Eating less sodium can reduce your risk for high blood pressure and bloating,and stave off other effects of too much salt. And did you know that reducing sodium in the food supply could save money and lives?

One estimate suggested that if Americans moved to an average intake of 1,500 mg/day sodium, it could result in a 25.6 percent overall decrease in blood pressure and an estimated $26.2 billion in health care savings.

Another estimate projected that achieving this goal would reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease by anywhere from 500,000 to nearly 1.2 million over the next 10 years.

Common causes of salt cravings

Stress is one reason you might be craving salty foods. Experiencing stress often drives us to seek familiar comfort foods, which tend to be high in fat, salt, and sugar. If our body is already used to consuming a high salt diet, it's been conditioned to seek more of what it's used to getting.

In addition, the adrenal glands, located atop the kidneys, are responsible for releasing cortisol, the stress hormone. Elevated levels of sodium in the body are known to increase cortisol levels, which in turn may lead to more stress and the increased desire for salty foods (via Well + Good).

Dehydration can also cause you to crave sodium. Whether it's due to a lack of fluid intake, vomiting, pregnancy, or something else, dehydration could be driving the desire for more salt, in addition to symptoms such as dizziness, increased thirst, headaches, and more (via Healthline).

Are you sweating a lot? That could lead to a salt craving, too. Our sweat naturally contains salt, so those who sweat excessively tend to experience lowered sodium levels. That craving may be the body's way of communicating that salt levels need to be replenished.

Also, thyroid or kidney diseases may be to blame. Most often, salt cravings are benign. However, if accompanied with other symptoms and changes in the body, they may be an indicator for conditions such as Addison's disease or Bartter syndrome.

Barring the occasional indulgence of salt cravings, it is important to make a conscious effort to decrease dietary salt intake. If you begin experiencing other symptoms or notice an unusual increase in cravings, it is recommended to consult your regular healthcare provider.

So Just How Bad Is Ramen For You, Anyway?

If you’ve ever tasted it, you know that restaurant-served ramen is an entirely different soup game than the instant stuff on which penny-pinching college students subsist. The broth is meatier, the noodles fluffier, the whole experience more elegant (when a bowl clocks in at $15, it'd better be). Sometimes the soup even comes with an egg on top. Glory.

But how do the two varieties compare when it comes to nutrition? Turn over a plastic-wrapped Nissin Top Ramen and you’ll find that there are 380 calories, 14 grams of fat and 1,820 mg of sodium condensed into the whole brick of the brand’s Chicken Flavor.

The FDA recommends the average American consumes no more than 2,300 mg of salt per day. A package of Top Ramen’s noodles contains more than half of this.

It's a little more difficult, of course, to reveal the health stats on restaurant-made ramen. While the dish itself is most definitely trending, and specialty shops are popping up with fierce determination, the meal has yet to be homogenized in a fast food sense, which would enable consumers to be more privy to its nutritional data.

The Star analyzed Momofuku Toronto's signature ramen bowl to find it contained 1,241 calories, 69 grams of fat and 2,858 mg of sodium. That is a lot of salt.

Consuming too much sodium can increase a person's risk of heart failure, osteoporosis, stroke, high blood pressure and heart disease. Not what comes to mind while slurping up a warm, comforting bowl of soup.

With ingredients like pork shoulder, pork belly and tare, Momofuku makes no health promises to its diners. This dish's salt count is certainly not the definitive number for all restaurants' ramen -- nor does it imply that every bowl of soup the restaurant served is just as sodium packed. But, chances are, many ramen meals need to be accompanied by a tall glass of water.

If salt intake is a concern of yours (as it very well may be) but you've got ramen on the brain, you might try mixing up this lower-sodium (but still cheaper than restaurant-served) version from This Week for Dinner.

Get the recipe here. Oh, and feel free to add an egg. The "perfect protein" won't push your sodium count too far over the edge.

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There’s another option if you’re looking to manage blood sugar levels and lose some weight: Add fiber to your diet.

“If you want to supplement your diet, you should do it naturally,” Dungan says.

Start by replacing simple carbohydrates with complex carbohydrates, she says. Look for foods low on the glycemic index (GI), which tend to have fiber to help you feel fuller longer.

Low GI foods that are high in fiber include whole grains, leafy vegetables, most fruits, and legumes.

Men should get 30-38 grams of fiber daily, and women should aim for 25 grams. But most people get only about 16 grams a day.

Talk to your doctor about any supplements you’re considering, and also how much fiber you should get to help manage your diabetes.


Kathleen Dungan, MD, assistant professor, division of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism, Ohio State University.

NYU Langone Medical Center: “Phaseolus vulgaris.”

Onakpoya, I. British Journal of Nutrition, July 2011.

University of California, San Francisco: “Starch Blocker.”

Harvard School of Public Health: “Carbohydrates.”

Institute of Medicine: “Dietary Reference Intakes.”

American Diabetes Association: “Glycemic Index and Diabetes” and “The American Deficit: Too Little Fiber.”

University of Maryland Medical Center: “Diabetes Diet.”

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FDA: "List of Distributors Receiving Warning Letters for Weight Loss Products" and "Beware of Fraudulent Weight-Loss 'Dietary Supplements.'"