Posts Tagged ‘Fast Food’

We Can Improve Our Eating Habits by Returning to Our Roots

November 25th, 2015 at 3:13 pm by timigustafson

It is well known that when immigrants come to the United States and other parts of the Western hemisphere, they quickly adapt their eating styles to ours – especially the young. People from around the Pacific Rim, South America, the Middle East and Africa who were largely raised on fresh whole foods begin to prefer fast food and other highly processed ingredients, often to the detriment of their nutritional health and well-being. The consequences in terms of obesity and diet-related diseases can be devastating.

This is not a new phenomenon. As it happens, I just returned from a two-day conference that was organized by Oldways, a non-profit organization with focus on culinary and cultural diversity around the globe. Its founder, Dun Gifford, a lawyer, politician, developer and restaurant owner, became concerned as far back as the 1980s with the progressive disappearance of many culinary traditions in favor of what he called “techno foods.”

Why does your culture matter when it comes to your food choices, he asked. Because – no matter where you come from – it is not in your heritage to become overweight, diabetic, or develop heart disease and cancer, all the leading causes of death in the modern world. What we all should have in common as our birthright is, by contrast, a healthy heart, a strong body, extraordinary energy, and a long and healthy life – all of which we would be enabled to by access to nutritious and delicious foods.

Instead, many of us have lost their way when it comes to feeding themselves, and it affects those who adopt our lifestyle more recently the most. Part of it is a widespread ignorance and confusion about nutrition and nutritional health.

The conference I mentioned was titled “Finding Common Ground,” a meeting of many of the world’s leading experts and scientists in the field of dietetics. Although it was clear from the start that there would be (and will continue to be) different, and oftentimes conflicting, views on how and what we should eat, there was also a general consensus on a few basic ‘truths’ that could be shared by all participants. Among them were the desire that messages about diets should not be distorted or misleading; that some foods yield greater nutritional benefits than others; and that considerations about food consumption should include environmental sustainability concerns. The latter, as you may have heard, is a major point of contention in the upcoming release of the Dietary Guidelines of 2015.

In addition, there was agreement that reviving certain culinary traditions could indeed have the kind of positive impact the Oldways’ founder envisioned. For instance, much has been made in recent years of the advantages the so-called ‘Mediterranean Diet’ can provide, with its richness of mostly plant-based foods. But also many other cultural heritages from South AmericaAsia and Africa have much to contribute to our rethinking of what it means to eat healthily.

What it ultimately comes down to is not to get blinded by the endless onslaught of diet fads and latest “scientific discoveries,” but to focus on the bigger picture and discern what is tried and true, which we can often find by simply going back to our roots, says Sara Baer-Sinnot, the current president of Oldways. For this, we need to communicate clearly and effectively what constitutes healthy and sustainable ways of eating that all consumers can understand and live by, she says.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (


Even the Health-Conscious Prefer the Fast Lane

February 11th, 2015 at 2:48 pm by timigustafson

Fast food seems to be losing its grip on America’s eating culture. The industry’s behemoth, McDonald’s, is struggling with reportedly significant drops in profits, leading to the recent resignation of its top executive. The reason? It’s called the “Chipotle effect.”

Chipotle, the Mexican restaurant chain, has come to define the category of what is now called “fast casual,” an industry section between fast food and full-service casual dining. Since the late 1990s, it has grown by over 500 percent, ten times as much as its fast food competitors during the same time period, according to Euromonitor International, a leading consumer research firm.

What makes fast casual so attractive? Price, for one thing. Average prices per meal range from $9 to $13, roughly twice what one would typically spend at a fast food joint. But there is also the perception of better value in terms of food quality, service, and ambiance. In addition, there are other elements now more predominantly on customers’ minds like transparency of food production and sustainability. Also, flexible offerings and the ability to customize nearly all items on the menu are welcomed.

Especially Millennials, those who came of age around the year 2000, have embraced the fast casual dining idea. They are less inclined to eat junk food because they view it as unhealthy, but they still expect quick service and affordable prices, according to surveys by the NPD Group, a market research company.

The economic downturn beginning in 2007 lead to an uptick in fast casual dining among people who tried to spend less on eating out but were also conscious about their dietary health needs, the researchers say. Companies like Chipotle, Panera, Boston Market, Noodles & Company, and Zoe’s Kitchen all benefited from these trends.

But fast food places like McDonald’s and Wendy’s did not just sit idly watching their customer base diminish, according to CIT, a commercial financing, lending, and insurance firm. Traditional fast food chains now increasingly mimic their new competitors by offering some similar features. For example, McDonald’s recently introduced a “build-your-own-burger” format, and Wendy’s tries to provide a more inviting atmosphere in its restaurants.

“[All this] points to a future in which the quick service food industry looks a lot more like Chipotle and a lot less like, well, McDonald’s,” says Roberto A. Ferdman, a reporter for Wonkblog who covers issues of food and economics.

The question is whether the desire for healthier eating is met by these newly favored outlets, or whether the greater value they claim to offer is merely perceived as such.

When you visit a Chipotle restaurant or go on the company’s website, you can find a vast variety of food choices, many of which can indeed be categorized as healthy. I also applaud their efforts to make nutritional information easily accessible with their nutrition calculator that includes data not only on calorie amounts but also on fat, sodium, and sugar content, all of which are of concern when it comes to fast food.

But still, it is important to remember that all restaurant food is ultimately beyond your control. Even being able to make multiple modifications doesn’t give you the same kind of control over ingredients and cooking techniques you have when preparing meals from scratch at home. For optimal health, this is and remains your best option.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (


Trying to Cut Back on Salt Is Hard to Do

February 4th, 2015 at 6:17 pm by timigustafson

The warnings have been loud and clear for a long time: High levels of sodium (salt) intake are hazardous to our health. Especially the so-called “Western diet,” which is dominated by processed foods, is notorious for its sodium content that is often obscured in hard to decipher nutrition facts labels and ingredient lists. That makes it difficult even for health-conscious consumers to keep their daily sodium doses down.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends 1,500 mg of daily sodium intake for people age 51 and older, those who suffer from hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, and African Americans in general; for everyone else, 2,300 mg is considered the tolerable upper limit. The average daily intake for most Northern Americans is about 3,400 mg – way above what is believed to be safe.

The potential consequences are multiple. While a small amount of sodium – approximately 180 mg to 500 mg per day – is necessary for the body to function properly, excessively high amounts can cause a wide range of health problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, and certain forms of cancer. At an advanced age, it can also contribute to osteoporosis. And, as a recent study found, even the brain can get affected by an elevated sodium presence, leading to adverse biochemical changes in its neurons.

Still, experts remain divided over the actual effects of dietary sodium on overall mortality. A study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that higher sodium intake was not correlated with greater mortality risk from all causes, at least not in healthy older adults, regardless of gender or race.

As it is too often the case, contradictory findings of various studies such as these leave consumers ever more confused. Of course, only by continuously questioning and testing its work science can progress, but first ringing the alarm bells and then backtracking on issues of public interest is not always the most helpful approach. There should be a minimum of what we can agree upon before releasing guidelines and recommendations that are meant to influence people’s behavior.

This, it seems to me, is one these occasions. None of the studies I’m aware of calls for more consumption of salt in any form. None advise against keeping levels low. There is only disagreement over its impact on people’s health and well-being. For this, empirical evidence is hard to come by because it requires large-scale, long-term investigations, which are laborious and expensive. But that doesn’t mean we are completely in the dark without them.

One of the main reasons why people consume so much salt is that they are unaware of its many sources. It’s not the saltshaker that puts us at risk but sodium used by food manufacturers in countless food items, many of which don’t taste salty at all. High amounts can be found in most canned and packaged foods, including breads, breakfast cereals, soups, lunch meats, pasta sauces, pancake mixes, cheese, condiments, salad dressings, pizza, frozen dinners, even medications and nutritional supplements. In other words, sodium is nearly omnipresent in much of our commercial food supply, which makes it next to impossible to avoid.

So, if you are absolutely determined to escape the sodium trap, the best you can do is to stick with whole fruits and vegetables, lean, unprocessed meats, fresh seafood, beans and legumes, and unrefined whole grains.

On a personal note, I decided a long time ago not to even own a can opener. I like my meals made from scratch with minimally invasive cooking techniques like steaming and sautéing. To me, this is preferable to anything that can be purchased in ready-to-eat form. Soups, salads, or pasta sauces of almost endless varieties can easily be created on a whim without using any ingredients other than what Mother Nature provides. Yes, that sometimes comes with a little more work and a little less convenience, but to me, that’s part of my investment in my health and certainly worth the effort.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Too Much Salt and Too Little Potassium Makes for a Deadly Combo” and “Reducing Salt Intake by Small Amounts Could Save Thousands of Lives Every Year.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (


Americans don’t like to cook. They don’t want to spend the time it takes for food shopping, food preparation and clean up, especially when it’s so much easier to stop for a quick bite at a restaurant or drive-thru or bring home some take-out. Yet, experts are convinced that making home cooking fashionable again would be one of the most effective steps we could take to address the nation’s obesity crisis.

The United States ranks at the bottom of industrialized countries not only in terms of time spent on meal preparation but also on consumption, according to surveys conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international group that analyzes economic data worldwide. In other words, we not only don’t cook, we also don’t set much time aside to enjoy our food. Instead, more and more of us skip breakfast, work through lunch and sustain ourselves throughout the day by snacking.

The percentage of calories from snacks in the American diet has doubled since the 1970s, as more people have turned into all-day grazers while foregoing sitdown meals on most days, a study by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) found.

Over half of American adults say they have three or more snacks a day. Almost a third of children and adolescents eat chips, popcorn, pretzels and the likes on a daily basis. The amount of pizza eaten, both in restaurants and at home, has nearly tripled over the past thirty years. Meanwhile, the number of calories in pizzas has increased by 25 percent on average since the late 1970s. Over the same time period vegetable consumption has declined from 2.6 to just 1.9 servings per day – and that includes French fries.

The easiest way to turn these developments around would be to start preparing our meals from scratch again, says Mark Bittman, food writer and author of “Cooking Solves Everything: How Time in the Kitchen Can Save Your Health, Your Budget, and Even the Planet” (Kindle edition, 2011). Millions of Americans don’t ever cook. The rest cooks on occasion, often just microwaving. Many don’t bother with sitting down at the dinner table but rather eat in the car, at a counter, or in front of a screen. “And that’s a shame, because cooking is a basic essential, worthwhile and even enjoyable task,” he writes.

Bittman applauds others who are trying to get the message out about the many benefits of home cooking, like his fellow-book-author Michael Pollan who just published a new book on the same subject, titled, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (Penguin Press, 2013). In a review on the then upcoming publication he writes: “Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet.”

The reasons are obvious. If you are in charge of the ingredients that go into your food, you already are going to eat better because you won’t include extra fat, salt, sugar, preservatives, dyes and other additives. You also won’t eat as many highly caloric items like French fries, which are cumbersome to make at home. The same goes for pizza (made from scratch, not the ones you just heat up).

One of the central problems with cooking is that we don’t value it enough any more. We are used to having tasks like these done for us by outside service providers. But unlike getting your car or computer fixed by someone else, cooking is much more intimate. It connects us with our bodies, nature and loved ones.

Michael Pollan even thinks that the experience of cooking brings us closer to the most basic elements that surround us: fire, water, air and earth and also tightens our social and ecological relationships. All that has deeply transformational characteristics that can change us on multiple levels, but all for the better.

That is much to hope for – perhaps too much. Still, it is a fact that an increasing number of people are looking for ways to eat more healthily and also reduce stress on the environment, e.g. by cutting back on meat consumption and buying more produce from local farms. A rediscovery of home cooking would fit squarely within these trends. Whether it will be enough to transform or currently predominant way of life remains doubtful.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Home Cooking for Healthy Eating” and “Tips for Leaner Cooking Techniques

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (


Most Restaurant Food Has Too Many Calories, Studies Find

May 15th, 2013 at 1:59 pm by timigustafson

That too much fondness of fast food can cause weight problems is old news. But the idea that nearly all types of restaurants dish up meals that can expand your waistline has not been as widely discussed – until now.

Two separate studies, one from the University of Toronto, Canada, the other from Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts, found that most restaurant food is not all that superior to hamburgers and fries when it comes to calorie and fat content.

The researchers who conducted the Toronto study discovered that the average meal in 19 different restaurant chains contained 1,128 calories, or about 56 percent of the recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories for adults. Some popular fast food items have considerably less than that. And excessive amounts of calories are not only found in dinner entrées but in lunch and breakfast servings as well.

Besides calories, the authors of the study report also expressed concern over high salt, fat and cholesterol content, sometimes exceeding between 60 and 150 percent of the recommended limits.

For the Tufts study, the researchers focused on calories in meals purchased at independent and small chain restaurants, which are exempt from having to post nutritional information on their menus, as it is required of larger chains. The results showed even higher counts than what their bigger competitors offered – a whopping 1,327 calories on average.

More than 90 percent of the small chain eateries included in the study served portion sizes that covered at least one third of a day’s worth of calories. 10 percent went beyond that, and a few even exceeded the recommended calorie count of an entire day – on just one plate. (Perhaps Adam Richman of Man v. Food should pay them a visit.)

“Considering that more than half the restaurants in the U.S. are independent or small chain and won’t be covered by labeling requirements in the future, this is something consumers need to pay attention to,” said Dr. Lorien Urban, one of the researchers who was involved in the Tufts study.

But even calorie postings on menus and billboards where they are required by law have been proven to be unreliable in prior investigations by Tufts and others. In fact, fast food places with their largely automated apportioning methods can find it easier to determine accurate measurements than restaurants that rely on estimates by kitchen personnel. There is only so much accuracy you can expect when dishes are individually crafted by hand, said one executive of Olive Garden, a nationally operating restaurant chain.

Still, restaurant patrons don’t have to feel completely helpless if they want to exercise some measure of control over their calorie intake. Dr. Lisa Young, professor for nutrition at New York University (NYU) and author of the blog “The Portion Teller”, recommends following an easily applicable restaurant survival guide she has compiled for her readers.

Being aware that portion sizes in most restaurants have exponentially grown over the past few decades is an important start, she says. It may look like you’re getting more value for your money, but the fact is that you will likely overindulge when you’re faced with an overflowing plate. Instead, she advises to order only half portions whenever available, or just an appetizer. Or you can split one entrée with a dinner partner.

Choose a salad or soup if they offer healthier alternatives to, let’s say, meat dishes. But be careful with dressings and creams – that’s where extra, unnecessary calories come in.

Don’t forget that your drinks have calories, too, sometimes lots of them. Sodas are notorious for high sugar content, and so are fruit juices and milk shakes. Alcoholic beverages count as well. The more you have of these, the more likely you’ll lose your inhibitions and end up overeating, she warns.

Desserts, of course, are always hard to say ‘no’ to, but you are not without choices. A few pieces of fresh fruit can be refreshing and they come without much regret.

What matters most – especially if you eat out often – is to keep track of your consumption, just like you would on any weight management program, if necessary with the help of a food diary. With the necessary precautions, you should still be able to enjoy a nice meal that someone else prepared for you.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Why You Need a Dining Out Strategy” and “A Restaurant Guide for Healthy Eating.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (


Obesity Must Be Addressed on Multiple Levels

February 24th, 2013 at 2:36 pm by timigustafson

Obesity has grown into an alarming public health crisis, and there is no telling when or even whether we will be able to get this epidemic under control. Over two thirds of Americans now struggle with weight problems, and there is no consensus among the experts over the precise causes. Recommendations for countermeasures range from calls for more government involvement to greater responses from food manufacturers and restaurant operators to better health education of the public.

Recent legislation for the improvement of nutrition standards of school lunches and initiatives like “Let’s Move” to reduce childhood obesity have gotten some traction, but progress remains slow and uncertain, according to the latest report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Overall, there is no significant change in the current trends, and so the battle for America’s health continues unabated. There is general agreement that more, much more needs to be done.

Demands for tougher regulation of industry and policies to influence the behavior of consumers have become louder in recent years, but we have not seen the results we had hoped for. In a recent op-ed articleNew York Times columnist Mark Bittman has faulted the current Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, for being “missing in action” in the fight against obesity, especially childhood obesity. On this issue, he writes, “Benjamin, like most of her predecessors, is virtually invisible.” Even with regards to seemingly straight forward measures like curbing children’s exposure to junk food via advertisements on TV or banning soda sales from school campuses, the government remains inexplicably passive. Instead, it still lays most of the blame at the feet of the victims by overemphasizing personal accountability.

Voluntary commitments by food manufacturers and restaurant operators have not produced much success either, despite of ample promises to show more cooperation by making food labels less confusing, offering healthier alternatives on fast food menus, or limiting exposure of kids to food advertisements.

But there is another aspect to this discussion that is often neglected. It is people’s real life experience that is not taken enough into account. By this I don’t mean to lend credence to oversimplifying statements that people are responsible for their own actions and should not blame others for their demise. Those who read my columns and blog posts know very well that I am a strong supporter of many of the measures Mr. Bittman and others are proposing.

Asking folks to make better nutritional choices makes no sense if they live miles and miles away from food outlets that carry fresh produce or in neighborhoods where getting physical exercise is difficult because of safety concerns and lack of public facilities like bike paths and parks. It is also futile to make dietary recommendations that completely ignore financial limits or access to health education.

But still, no matter what we will try from here on in terms of legislation and policy making, changing individual behavior will always play a predominant role. Eating habits are rarely just about food. They are also about stress, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, addiction, past traumatic experiences, and more. By exclusively focusing on the quality and quantity of our food supply, we will not be able to really understand these concerns and make them part of the equation, as they need to be. As they say, all politics are local. And all health issues are personal.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” ( You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


Fast Food Consumption Around the World Linked to Health Risks

July 8th, 2012 at 1:23 pm by timigustafson

A growing preference for Western-style fast food in Asian and Southeast Asian countries shows already an impact on their populations’ health, and not in a good way, according a newly released study by the University of Michigan (UM).

Researchers of the university’s School of Public Health found that Chinese residents in Singapore were at a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease since fast food restaurant chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC started setting up shop in the 1980s. Prior to that time, American-style fast food was practically unknown there and diseases like these were comparatively rare.

“What we found was a dramatic public health impact by fast food, a product that is primarily a Western import into a completely new market,” Odegaard said in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune (7/5/2012), a local Minnesota newspaper.

According to the study report, which was published online in the journal Circulation by the American Heart Association (AHA), people who consumed fast food even as little as once a week, increased their risk of developing coronary heart disease by 20 percent compared to those who never touched it. The rate jumped to 50 percent for those who indulged two to three times per week, and to 80 percent for those who went beyond that. Regular consumption of fast food also seemed to lead to a substantially higher risk of type 2 diabetes, according to the study.

Until now, there has been surprisingly little research on potential links between fast food and health risks and that was mainly focused on the United States. Andrew Odegaard, a post-doctoral researcher at UM and study leader said he wanted to look at a Southeast Asian population because of the relatively small time frame since fast food was introduced there and also because the population there is quickly becoming a hotbed for diet and lifestyle diseases similar to the U.S.

In cooperation with the National University of Singapore, the UM team analyzed medical records and questionnaires about diet and lifestyle habits of over 50,000 Chinese Singapore residents. During the study’s 16-year follow-up period, 2,252 participants developed diabetes and 1,397 died of heart attacks or heart-related diseases.

Although focused on a relatively small group, the study results could be relevant for future research in public health on a global scale. “The consumption of Western-style fast food is really growing in Asia and South and Southeast Asia, in countries where there are a lot of developing economies,” said Odegaard in the interview. [For the major fast-food chains], “this is their primary engine of growth. What the companies have going on in North America is steady, the market is saturated, but there is real growth in the growing economies.”

Critics of the report have called the results inconclusive because many of the applied data were largely based on self-reporting by participants, which is often considered imprecise and unreliable. Also, critics say that unhealthy eating habits tend to go hand in hand with other poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, drinking and sedentary behavior. Poverty and lack of access to healthcare may also play a role. Singling out fast food as the one culprit would therefore be unreasonable.

Still, it is undeniable that the growing popularity of Western eating styles is coinciding with a dramatic increase in obesity and related illnesses in many parts of the world. Even in places like Brazil, where the government has made serious efforts to limit access to fast food in schools and residential areas to protect the public’s health, especially of children, the rates of diabetes and heart disease are going up. Apparently even some of the most stringent existing regulations don’t suffice.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


So It Is Possible to Reduce Salt in Our Food

April 17th, 2012 at 5:46 pm by timigustafson

The salt content of popular fast food items like chicken nuggets can vary considerably, depending where you buy them, according to a study report by an international group of scientists that tested products of leading multinational restaurant chains. What they found were dramatic differences in the amounts of added salt in the same kinds of food, made by the same companies, only in different parts of the world.

For the study, researchers from Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States analyzed fast food items from McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Domino’s Pizza, Pizza Hut and Subway in each of their respective countries and compared notes.

Although fast food is known for being notoriously high in salt wherever you go, the study results are nevertheless startling. The U.S. and Canada were reported to have the highest levels of salt compared to other countries – in some cases nearly twice as high.

One reason for the differences could be government guidelines for salt reduction like in the U.K., said Dr. Norman Campbell of the University of Calgary, Canada, one of the authors of the study report. The British government has set voluntary targets for the food industry, although not yet for fast food restaurants. Still, a growing number of food manufacturers and restaurant operators have committed themselves to meeting the proposed levels as soon as possible and are already using their pledges for advertising purposes.

What this study shows is that reducing salt in our food is indeed feasible and that the technology to do so exists despite of the food industry’s long-standing assertions to the contrary. If it can be done in one country by the same manufacturers and with virtually identical items, it can be repeated elsewhere and certainly here in the U.S.

“Consumers should not have to bear all the responsibility for their diet choices,” said Dr. Campbell. 80 percent of most people’s daily salt intake doesn’t come from the saltshaker on the dining room table but is already added to many processed foods, including items that don’t even taste salty.

The best strategy for reducing salt consumption is for governments to intervene and regulate the use of salt in food processing, he said. All other attempts have been proven unsuccessful. Education campaigns like the National Salt Reduction Initiative here in the U.S. may be well-intended, but they can only work if supported by binding regulations for the food industry.

Dr. Campbell doesn’t believe that trying to further educate the public will produce better outcomes. “We have a highly educated population that is aware of the issues. They are trying to eat healthy and a lot of them perceive they are eating healthy.” What persists is widespread confusion because people don’t know how ubiquitous salt is in their food supply. They eat their food as it’s presented to them, trusting that – although it may not always be perfectly healthy – it will do them no harm.

Another frequently made argument by food manufacturers is that Americans love salty foods and would not buy them if they had a bland taste. “That is because they are used to higher salt levels,” said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University. In other words, it’s an acquired, not a natural taste.

According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, it is estimated that cutting back just 3 grams of salt (1,200 mg sodium) a day could save the lives of almost 100,000 Americans annually. If the industry substantially reduced the levels of salt it currently uses for food processing, it could translate to large gains for the health of the population, wrote the researchers in their concluding summary. How much longer do we have to wait?

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


Too Busy, Too Lazy, Too Tired to Cook

September 29th, 2011 at 1:37 pm by timigustafson

For the majority of American families, homemade meals are a thing of the past. The reasons are multiple: Too inconvenient, too time consuming, too challenging, too expensive.

Nutrition experts have long identified the lack of home cooking as one of the factors contributing to the ongoing obesity crisis, including childhood obesity. There is also general agreement that this is not an easy problem so solve. Here are a few obstacles that keep people from returning to the kitchen.

The traditional household where one spouse – usually the wife – stayed at home is no longer feasible or even desirable for most families. Women commonly have their own careers and bring in badly needed second incomes. Long work hours, commutes, school and afternoon activities make it harder if not impossible to set meal times that fit in everybody’s schedule. Picking up something on the way home that is (almost) ready to eat seems the only reasonable option on most days.

“People really are stressed out with all that they have to do, and they don’t want to cook. It’s one of the few things that even less well-off people have: They don’t have to cook,” said Julie Guthman, professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Time, or the lack of it, is certainly a factor. However, it is also true that even people who claim to be way too busy to think of cooking a meal once in a while do still have enough time to watch TV – at least 1 ½ hours every night on average. And while cooking shows like “Rachael Ray” and “Iron Chef” are highly popular, they don’t seem to have much effect on viewers in terms of motivation to take up the task themselves.

“The core problem is that cooking is defined as work,” wrote Mark Bittman in a recent op-ed article in the New York Times (9/25/2011), titled “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?”
Bittman disputes the widely accepted argument that fast food is so popular because it’s the cheapest kind of food available. “This is just plain wrong,” he wrote, “it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food.” For example, a meal at McDonald’s for a family of four, consisting of 2 “Big Macs”®, 1 cheeseburger, 1 6-piece “Chicken McNuggets”®, 2 medium fries, 2 small fries, 2 medium sodas and 2 small sodas, comes to a total of almost 28 dollars. For this amount, and actually much less, a home-cooked meal could include a whole chicken, potatoes, green vegetables and a simple salad on the side.

So, it’s not so much the money but the convenience, ubiquity and the habit-forming appeal that really helped processed foods to drown out all other alternatives. Now there are about five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the U.S., according to Bittman.

“Our addiction to processed food is the result of decades of vision and hard work by the industry,” said David A. Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and author of “The End of Overeating.” “Companies strove to create food that was energy-dense, highly stimulating, and went down easy. They put it on every street corner and made it mobile, and they made it socially acceptable to eat anytime and anyplace. They created a food carnival, and that’s where we live. And if you’re used to self-stimulation every 15 minutes, well, you can’t run into the kitchen to satisfy that urge,” he was quoted saying in the Bittman article.

Pointing fingers only at food manufacturers and restaurant chains won’t bring about the necessary changes that will make Americans (and people around the world for that matter) reconsider their eating habits. “Real cultural changes are needed to turn this around,” wrote Bittman. “The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.”

So, what can you do to get your groove back as a hobby chef or discover your talent for the first time?

For starters, you need to “turn on your kitchen mojo,” according to Keri Heron, a Dubai-based journalist and photographer of the food blog “” She advises to take a fun approach that avoids a sense of drudgery right from the beginning. Before you put on the apron and heat up the oven, pick your favorite music and set the right mood. Then, if you are so inclined, pour yourself a glass of wine or another favorite drink to stimulate your taste buds and get those gastric juices flowing. Don’t be shy: Dance and sing along with the music while you cut, slice and dice your ingredients. Think of your cooking not as a chore but an act of love for your family and friends who will enjoy the fruits of your labor and hopefully express their appreciation.

If you are a little rusty or have yet to gain more experience in the kitchen, buy an easy-to-follow cookbook that fits both your abilities and amenities. Don’t be intimidated or get discouraged when things don’t work out right away. One of the greatest chefs of our time, Thomas Keller (owner of “The French Laundry” in Napa Valley and “Per Se” in New York City), named the willingness to repeat and refine his recipes over and over again as the single most important element of his success.

Cooking is not an exact science, so allow yourself to be led by your imagination and curiosity, Heron recommends. There should be genuine joy and playfulness in the kitchen. Only then it will be a place you want to return to night after night (well, almost).

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit

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