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On Healthy Eating and Responsibility: Thoughts based on "Sugar Nation," by Jeff O'Connell

Updated on September 8, 2013

Jeff O’Connell is a former writer for Men’s Health, former editor-in-chief for Muscle & Fitness, and currently serves as editor-in-chief for Bodybuilding.com. He works out forty-five minutes a day. He is skinny as a rail. By all appearances, one would figure that O’Connell is completely and utterly healthy.

What you can’t see is that he is also pre-diabetic.

According to established, pre-conceived notions, thinness is an indicator of health. Diabetes, meanwhile, is a disease reserved for the obese and the out-of-shape. Jeff O’Connell points out the erroneous nature of this idea, using himself and various others as proof of this. Diabetes is something that can become a reality for anyone. More than that, exercise alone or diet alone oftentimes are not enough to combat the threat of diabetes, but rather, they ought to be used diligently and in tandem.

Through his book, Sugar Nation, O’Connell not only tells of his own fight against the threat of Type 2 diabetes, he also reveals the shortcomings in America’s approach to preventing and treating the disease. Most people trust their doctors’ advice when it comes to treating diseases and dealing with their health. Most people trust the government to provide health information that is accurate -- after all, we the people are the citizens that make the existence of that government possible to begin with. It makes sense that a government would want to ensure the health of its citizenship as part of maintaining a prosperous nation.

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Diabetes has to start somewhere, and that “somewhere” lies in our eating habits. We all know the “secret” to weight management. If you eat more calories than you burn, your weight is going to go up. To lose weight, one must eat fewer calories, exercise to burn off calories, or some combination of the two. More and more, however, nutritionists and other health professionals are showing us that the number on the scale is not and should not be considered the primary indicator of health. What one eats is just as important as, if not more important than, how much one eats. Close regulation of one’s diet and activity could very well provide the solution to a number of health complaints that often get treated with drugs.

Contrary to the idea that diabetics -- and everybody else, really -- need sugar in order to regulate their blood sugar, O’Connell advocates a low-carb, low-sugar, high-protein diet. His reasoning makes perfect sense when one thinks about it: why, when confronting a disease that is caused by consuming too much sugar, do we allow patients to eat more sugar? Worse, it’s even encouraged. Blood sugar is getting low? Have a piece of candy.

The problem with this logic is that eating that candy causes a sugar spike, which can only lead to another crash. In order to help control these ups and downs of one’s blood sugar levels, to dissuade this roller coaster effect, doctors prescribe insulin. Rather than fighting the problem at the source, our doctors and pharmacies become enablers, prescribing and supplying drugs to regulate blood sugar depending on what the patient eats, rather than addressing the diet itself. We don’t attack the source of the problem, we encourage it to continue.

Unfortunately, O’Connell points out, in the United States, eating healthy on a budget is no easy task. Indeed, we live in an age when it is cheaper to buy junk food and carbs than it is to buy fresh produce and lean protein. A can of Chef Boyardee costs less than a dollar. Twelve packages of ramen noodles can be had for under $2.50. Five pounds of potatoes run less than a buck-fifty. We live in an era of quick, cheap, and easy, and it is destroying our health.

It is unfortunate that this is the case, especially considering that many Americans consider this to be the most powerful country in the world. So why is it that we, as a first world nation, cannot provide our citizens with more accurate information regarding what constitutes a healthy diet? More importantly, why do we make it so difficult to be healthy? Would it really be that difficult to produce foods that are cheap, easy to prepare, and good for us?

As O’Connell indicates, health professionals do not create the guidelines outlined on the Food Pyramid, which has long been touted by the average citizen as the authority on proper eating habits. Rather, that pyramid is a creation of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Most of us are familiar with the old Food Pyramid, which featured breads, pastas, and rice at the base, indicating that grains ought to be at the foundation of our diets. Why were grains promoted as the foundation of a healthy diet? Because those who created the pyramid wanted to sell their product. It sounds so simple, but it was never rocket science to begin with.

Certainly there are health professionals who would argue that certain carbs are essential to a healthy diet. And, certainly, a diet plan that works for one person won’t necessarily work for the rest of the population. Ultimately, the best solution for any one individual must be uncovered through trial and error. It wouldn’t hurt, however, for the government to put more thought into its dietary guidelines than what would benefit its economic agenda. Like it or not, people look to these guidelines, and they ought to reflect in-depth research by qualified individuals who actually understand something about the effects of what we eat on our health.

Now, I like to eat carbs. I love pizza and lasagna and pancakes. I am notorious among my circle of friends for my cheeseburger habit, and I am particularly a sucker for a good mushroom and swiss burger. Can you blame me? But I am also aware that these habits are detrimental to my health, in the same way that a smoker is aware of lung cancer. Now there’s a thought: every pack of cigarettes comes with a surgeon general’s warning -- why don’t we commit ourselves to the same kind of awareness when it comes to everything else we put in our bodies? I’m not advocating a warning on every package of bread or on every serving of French fries. But this kind of information should not be so difficult to find, either. Discussions about healthy eating ought to be as numerous as the D.A.R.E. talks I sat through as a kid in the 90s.

Keep in mind, though, that the burden does not lie solely with the government or any other external organization. At the end of the day, we, as individuals, need to take responsibility for our own health and knowledge about that health. The information is out there, and in this age of WiFi and smartphones, it is more accessible than ever. Passive requests are not enough -- we have to play an active part in taking care of ourselves. The government can promote the benefits of fruits and vegetables until they’re blue in the face, but that won’t mean a thing if Americans continue to flock to the grocery stores for Twinkies and French Fries. It’s going to require discipline and restraint on our part. The government can’t wave a Harry Potter wand and make us magically healthy. We have to want to be healthy.

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