Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Can I still have a cheeseburger if I leave off the ketchup?

I recently decided to try to lose a little weight and get in better shape. For the first time in many years, we actually have a beach vacation planned months in advance. Usually we decide on a Thursday to go to Rehoboth Beach, which is about 3 hours away, but this time we've already rented a place in Provincetown for a week in May. And I am not too proud to say that getting in shape now is motivated totally and completely by vanity.

Now I'm not talking about being any "biggest loser." I'm in relatively good shape already. In fact when I've said to friends and colleagues that I want to lose a little weight, their response is usually "oh, you don't need to lose any weight!" My doctor disagrees. I went for a physical recently, and all was good, except when she asked if I was exercising much. I said yes, and that I was hoping to lose about 20 pounds. She smiled a little and said "Yeah, well 15 would be really good."

Now, I love good food. I love butter and all things dairy. I enjoy a good steak, and almost more enjoy a really good cheeseburger. With a cold pint of ale. Sigh. So in addition to spending a lot of time with my new best friend, the elliptical trainer, I'm trying to change my eating habits. And one thing I'm trying to do is cut down ny intake of processed foods, and cut out foods that contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Although HFCS has been a boon to food manufacturers, the effects on the human body are still somewhat murky. As one writer says:
But there's another reason to avoid HFCS. Consumers may think that because it contains fructose--which they associate with fruit, which is a natural food--that it is healthier than sugar.

A team of investigators at the USDA, led by Dr. Meira Field, has discovered that this just ain't so.

Sucrose is composed of glucose and fructose. When sugar is given to rats in high amounts, the rats develop multiple health problems, especially when the rats were deficient in certain nutrients, such as copper. The researchers wanted to know whether it was the fructose or the glucose moiety that was causing the problems. So they repeated their studies with two groups of rats, one given high amounts of glucose and one given high amounts of fructose. The glucose group was unaffected but the fructose group had disastrous results. The male rats did not reach adulthood. They had anemia, high cholesterol and heart hypertrophy--that means that their hearts enlarged until they exploded. They also had delayed testicular development. Dr. Field explains that fructose in combination with copper deficiency in the growing animal interferes with collagen production. (Copper deficiency, by the way, is widespread in America.) In a nutshell, the little bodies of the rats just fell apart. The females were not so affected, but they were unable to produce live young.

And to put it in a more practical way:

"One of the issues is the ease with which you can consume this stuff," says Carol Porter, director of nutrition and food services at UC San Francisco. "It's not that fructose itself is so bad, but they put it in so much food that you consume so much of it without knowing it."

A single 12-ounce can of soda has as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup. And because the amount of soda we drink has more than doubled since 1970 to about 56 gallons per person a year, so has the amount of high fructose corn syrup we take in. In 2001, we consumed almost 63 pounds of it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA suggests most of us limit our intake of added sugar -- that's everything from the high fructose corn syrup hidden in your breakfast cereal to the sugar cube you drop into your after-dinner espresso -- to about 10 to 12 teaspoons a day. But we're not doing so well. In 2000, we ate an average of 31 teaspoons a day, which was more than 15 percent of our caloric intake. And much of that was in sweetened drinks.

In other words, it's everywhere! It's in my Snapple -- it's even in my ketchup! So I'll let you know from time to time how this is all going. Meanwhile, you know that person that's always in your way at the grocery store because they're reading every word on every label? Yeah, sorry, that'd be me ....

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