I can’t be sure, but I have this vague idea that once upon a time people ate food. Just food. They didn’t talk about it in terms of calories, or grams, or “free sugars” or “percentages of energy intake.” They talked about it in terms of food.
And to a certain degree I think it would be kind of nice to get back to this idea that food is for eating, not for counting, or measuring, or hiding in the bottom of our sock drawer, or whatever the latest medical advice is. I don’t know if you’ve noticed? But it seems the Era of Nutritional Advice is not exactly doing us a whole heck of a lot of good.
Of course the oft-noted irony is that despite the fact that we are all inundated with recommendations from every conceivable source about what we eat, and how we eat it; we are less healthy than ever. We have epidemics of things our grandparents considered extremely rare- like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease- as well as things we’ve unwittingly invented- like metabolic syndrome. Worst of all, this generation of children is the first on record predicted to live shorter lives than their parents.
In the wake of the World Health Organization’s recent nutritional recommendations I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of nutritional advice, and where it gets us. When the WHO advises people- as it did a few weeks ago- to try to limit their “free sugars” to “5% of total energy intake,” I know the twelve or thirteen people who actually paid attention to that report probably wanted to claw hysterically at their refrigerator doors and scream: “WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN???”
I’m here to tell you that, as a person who’s spent the last several years thinking about, writing about, and generally obsessing over the impacts of sugar on our health, I don’t know what the recommendation means- not instinctively, anyway. So, besides the physicians and nutritionists, who the heck does?
Practically nobody. Instead, the highly motivated among us (read: fanatical) sit down and try to figure it out with pencil and paper and a few good internet searches. Upon further research we learn that an average adult diet might consist of about 500 grams of food per day. This would mean that 5% of an average “total energy intake” would be 25 grams. Which, if we know that 4 grams equals about one teaspoon of sugar, would translate to roughly 6 teaspoons of sugar per day.
Of course, this is wildly nonspecific— do I eat 500 grams of food per day? Do you? What about Arnold Schwarzenegger?— but unless we want to wander around describing every last mouthful we ingest to a computer app, or invent an implant that will automatically count it all up for us and display the information on our wrist or forehead or something- broad generalizations will have to do.
But here’s some practical info that these generalizations translate into, that the groups like the WHO or the Department of Health and Human Services won’t- can’t– come out and tell you in so many words: effectively the new recommendation means don’t drink soda or juice. Why? Because:
– a 12 oz can of Coke= 10 tsp sugar
– a 20 oz bottle of Coke= 16 tsp sugar
– a 15 oz Naked juice smoothie= 17 tsp sugar
See? If, as we’ve just figured out, the average adult recommendation is not more than 6 tsp sugar per day, than have one can of soda and already the alarms are going off: you’ve had nearly two days worth of sugar right there, not including anything else you might eat or drink that day. Have a larger soda or a “healthy” juice smoothie? And that alarm becomes a blaring siren: that’s nearly three days worth of sugar.
Hopefully by now people are starting to get the message that there’s a scary amount of sneaky sugar hiding in virtually every product for sale in our supermarkets… in our bread, in our chicken broth, in our mayonnaise… and so on. Two pieces of bread might contain one tsp sugar, a serving of chicken broth might contain ¼ tsp sugar, a tablespoon of mayo less than that. Certainly we need to be mindful of how all these small sources of sugar add up throughout the course of our day. Yet, as you can see, none of these sources can hold a candle to the blast of sugar that your system receives when you drink just one juice or soda.
So if the WHO were to recommend the biggest, simplest, most practical step people could take in the reduction of dietary sugar and improvement of their long-term health? Clearly, it would be to stop drinking soda and juice.
But OhMyGod can you imagine the mess the World Health Organization would be in for if they started telling people not to drink juice or soda anymore? Previous attempts to stem the sugar tide— such as banning the bucket soda or taxing sugar-sweetened beverages— have resulted in such indignant histrionics that you’d think Mountain Dew had been mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. So what would outright telling people just how bad for them their favorite drinks are do? I’m pretty sure all-freaking-heck would break loose. Panic in the streets… mass hysteria… dogs and cats living together…
But it could be worth it. I know it sounds impossible now, but if soda and juice were relegated to the category of Things That Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, (along with doctor-recommended cigarettes, parachute pants, and deep fried butter on a stick) maybe it would mean that we could all stop with the calorie/gram/percentage-counting madness— all of which obfuscates more than it clarifies— and instead of having a “dietary energy intake” we could just go back to what I like to call: “eating food.” And be healthier in the bargain.
A crazy idea, but it just might work.