What do a sizzling steak, a salty potato chip and chewy cookies fresh from the oven all have in common? They each trigger a strong dietary impulse, or craving, for food laden with excess sodium, added sugars and saturated fats. But why do these foods get such a bad rap, and is there a way to still include them in a healthy diet?
Fat, Salt and Sugar Equal Flavor
Physical responses to foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fats lead us to make unhealthy choices. Feeling stressed? Our brains tell us to “treat” ourselves to that pastry or cheeseburger. A busy lifestyle keeps us eating on the run — hello, fast food — or dining out with friends, where the pasta looks way better than the salad. We shop for prepared or processed food out of habit or convenience.
Lurking in the shadows of each of these choices is your body’s chemical reaction that says, “It felt great last time I ate that. Let’s eat it again.”
However, studies show that diets high in saturated fats (such as cheese and red meats) trigger the same parts of your brain as cocaine, creating an addictive scenario. Additives in fast food, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) or sodium, suppress the hormone that tells your body that you’re full. And a snack or dessert high in sugar releases dopamine, the hormone and chemical neurotransmitter that sends pleasure signals to your brain. In small doses, sugar, salt and saturated fats aren’t harmful. The problem lies in repetition and volume.
“Bad” Foods Trigger Health Problems
Along with obesity, the three most common health issues that accompany a diet high in saturated fats, sodium and sugar are:
High cholesterol - Cholesterol is a fat naturally found in body tissue. It’s essential in building cells and making vitamin D. But when eating too much saturated fat, such as meat, eggs and cheese, cholesterol levels rise, which can cause arterial plaque buildup that leads to heart disease or stroke.
High blood pressure – This is the result of high levels of sodium in your diet, whether hidden in processed and frozen foods or added during cooking. Excess salt intake can lead to health issues such as kidney disease, heart attack or vascular dementia.
Diabetes - A chronic disease defined by having abnormally high blood sugar, or glucose, levels. Normally, your pancreas receives a signal to make insulin, which then works to help turn glucose into fuel. But issues such as obesity and high blood pressure can combine with genetics and a sedentary lifestyle to cause insulin resistance. This reduces the body’s natural response, creating a diabetic condition. Diabetes (and prediabetes) have direct links to kidney and heart disease, eye and gum disease, foot problems, sleep apnea and even cancer.
Change Your Diet Without Feeling Deprived
It’s fine to enjoy an occasional doughnut or steak, but when unhealthy diet decisions outweigh good ones, you’re setting yourself up for potential health problems down the road. To help you stay on track while still occasionally indulging in your favorite foods, consider a few simple shifts:
Change your shopping habits. Fill your list primarily with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish, and whole grains. A rule of thumb is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, avoiding prepackaged or processed foods. When in doubt, always choose the option with the least number of ingredients.
Choose flavorful substitutions and replacements. Replace butter with olive oil when cooking or baking. Substitute sugar and salt with dried herbs or spices. Consider fresh or frozen fruit as a dessert alternative instead of cakes or pies.
Find moderation and balance. Reduce portion sizes and rebalance your meal plate, prioritizing fiber-rich vegetables and lean proteins that keep you feeling satisfied. Choose carbohydrates with low glycemic index (GI) ratings to keep blood sugar from spiking. Eating more slowly not only helps with digestion, but you’ll feel full faster and eat less overall.
With these easy steps, plus a regular exercise or fitness routine, you’ll keep your body healthy, process your food properly and still be able to enjoy a guilt-free slice of birthday cake.
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