The nation’s reliance on fast foods and prepackaged items loaded with added sugar causes tooth decay, obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, says Dr. Robert Lustig, a childhood obesity expert at UC San Francisco.
One great way to overcome this problem is to teach America’s children how to cook healthy meals from scratch. In addition, Lustig wants to build public pressure on the food industry and government leaders to cut down on unhealthy food additives to improve everyone’s well-being.
He has teamed up with the American Heart Association and Walnut Creek chef Cindy Gershen, who also teaches at Mt. Diablo High in Concord, to get the message out to parents and the general public that major changes are needed in Americans’ diets. The World Health Organization and American Heart Association agree that added sugar should only make up 5 percent of a person’s total calories each day, which amounts to 4 teaspoons of added sugar for kids, 6 teaspoons for women or 9 teaspoons for men, he said.
“In America today, we’re at 17 percent,” Lustig said, as he watched Gershen’s students cooking healthy meals with salmon, pork loin, tofu and chicken earlier this week during a Bay Bridge Cook with Heart Challenge alongside students from Galileo High in San Francisco. “So, this is a reduction by two-thirds.”
Cutting back so drastically will be a huge challenge in this country, where 77 percent of all foods sold in grocery stores include added sugar, Lustig said. Even more alarming, he said, is the amount of sugar added to foods given to schoolchildren through breakfast and lunch programs.
About one-quarter of American kids eat school breakfasts, he said. For some, a typical breakfast could include a bowl of sugary cereal and a glass of orange juice — totaling 11 teaspoons of sugar — or 7 teaspoons more than the recommended amount for the entire day.
The reason Americans are consuming too much sugar is simple, Lustig says.
“The food industry makes money by selling crappy food,” he said. “The federal government lets them, but then the federal government has to pay for the downstream negative effects of that.”
For example, the government spends $245 billion a year on diabetes, he said. And it spends $200 billion a year fighting dementia, which he said has been associated with high-sugar diets.
Instead, Lustig says the government could make money by fixing the food so that it wouldn’t have to pay later for health problems caused by sugar. The reason this isn’t happening, Lustig alleges, is that 338 of 535 members of Congress take money from the food industry.
Until there is enough public outcry, Lustig says, nothing will change, even though the economic arguments alone justify the reductions he recommends. But more importantly, he says, children and their communities would benefit from healthier diets.
“When kids eat real food, they’re thinner, smarter and their behavior problems are better,” he said. “One-third of Americans don’t know how to cook. We can’t fix this until they do.”
Lustig and Gershen advocate bringing back home economics programs to high schools so that students can learn the nutritional guidelines and skills necessary to be healthier. Gershen’s students said they have changed their own diets and the foods eaten in their homes as a result of the education and hands-on cooking experiences they have received.
“It’s important to know what to put in your body,” said Maria Aguirre, 17, a junior at Mt. Diablo High. “At home, when you see what your mom makes, you say, ‘Mom, how much did you put in it?’ We have sugar at school. But, we also use honey.”
After the San Francisco competition ended, 16-year-old Shelby Cooper snacked on a plate of peas.
“It’s a healthier snack than a bag of chips and I’m more full,” she said. “I feel guilty if I eat chips.”
Carissa Urbina, a 17-year-old junior at Mt. Diablo High, said she enjoyed the salmon and vegetables they cooked.
“It gives me a lot of energy throughout my day as I’ve been eating this food,” she said. “And I don’t feel guilty.”
Here are some video clips from the Cook with a Heart event:
Students talk about meals they cooked:
Comments from Lustig and others: http://youtu.be/gGVrO7esKSk
Do you think schools should teach students how to cook healthy meals?