A current trend in books and movies is to vilify the food industry, specifically for the excess hidden sugar in processed foods. We do consume far too much sugar and people who are not particularly interested in, or savvy at, deciphering ingredient and nutrition labels may be unaware of what they’re putting into their bodies. After all, sugar is listed on labels under dozens of names: sucrose, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose … the list goes on.
However, I disagree with the popular notion that we’re helpless victims who must resign ourselves to being overweight or obese, and living with health problems brought on by poor eating habits. We can help ourselves by making better choices. But are we willing to do so?
Would better labelling and more public education help? It took decades of education before Canadians realized that the cachet of smoking cigarettes is outweighed by the deadly damage smoking does to our bodies. I think most of us understand that frequently eating sugary foods contributes to unwanted weight gain. What’s not always clear is how much hidden sugar lurks in our food. What are the long-term consequences of frequently consuming sugar-laden, nutritionally depleted processed foods and beverages? It should be noted that there are many other ingredients and behaviours that contribute to weight gain and put us at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.
I recently attended a social function that made me realize how oblivious we, as a society, are to the choices we make. Thirty of us sat around a large table on which refreshments were generously laid out. It struck me that 90 per cent of the food was junk.
Nearly everyone dived in. Willy Wonka would have been in his element with all the jelly beans, licorice, sodas and assorted gob-stopping goodies. As I helped myself to fresh fruit salad and water (and admittedly, a handful of popcorn chips before pushing the bowl away), I wondered why the ratio of junk-to-healthy choices wasn’t reversed.
We need to make conscious, deliberate choices about what we eat. How will our choices impact our body composition and health? When we fail to consider the sugar and empty calories in that can of soda, the licorice whips, the handfuls of jellybeans and the brownies, we become our own worst enemy.
We naturally lose skeletal muscle mass and gain body fat as we age. But we must not resign ourselves to a future with a flabby body and weight-related health issues. If we work hard, we can age gracefully. It’s not just about appearance. We can stay fit and strong well into old age. Sitting around eating bonbons won’t help, although I am a proponent of occasional indulgence.
After age 65, we’re at risk for sarcopenia, the loss of muscle mass and strength that can lead to limited mobility, functional limitations, frailty and decreased quality of life. Sarcopenia is typically caused by a diet with insufficient protein and vitamin D, physical inactivity and hormonal changes. (There are other causes beyond the scope of this article).
Sarcopenia is diagnosed by healthcare workers who measure gait speed, hand grip strength, muscle mass and other factors. It is preventable, and, for those already diagnosed, it is often manageable and sometimes reversible.
Strength training and nutritional modifications are often recommended for patients with sarcopenia. But this sound advice is beneficial for everyone. Make the effort to eat better and cut out some of your bad habits such as high sugar consumption. The food industry is more interested in revenue generation than your health. If you take ownership of your choices, you just may live to be 110. Now that would be the sweetest revenge!
Gloria Schwartz is a personal trainer at the Soloway JCC and author of Personal Best: Train Your Brain and Transform Your Body for Life.