The American Diet: Surviving a Meat-Sweet Desert

The American Diet: Surviving a Meat-Sweet Desert

The three women each took the microphone in turn to answer questions: What type of fat should I avoid? What are the rules for calling a food organic? What is the biggest cause of obesity among children? How do we interpret news about nutrition and health? Are supplements safe?

Navam Hettiarachchy, Cindy Moore and Susan Patton spoke about the American diet during a Science Cafe; sponsored by the University of Arkansas chapter of the scientific research society Sigma Xi. Set in a local restaurant, the public event drew a roomful of people to hear Hettiarachchy, a food scientist; Moore, a dietitian; and Patton, a nursing instructor.

To the overarching question, “What is the American diet?” they offered a picture as clear as the neon glow of a fast-food restaurant menu.

Hettiarachchy referred to the Western diet as the “meat-sweet diet,” a feast of red meat, sugary desserts, bran-removed grains, high-fat dairy products, high-sugar drinks and other processed food frequently chosen by many people in developed countries. The high-fat, high-sugar, low-fiber, processed foods that characterize the diet of many Americans today can contribute to four of the leading causes of death in the United States, she said.

In addition, heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes can have other contributing factors, but diet can play an important role in the development of these chronic diseases, Hettiarachchy explained.

“However, Americans are becoming health conscious and are moving toward products that contain less fat — preferably unsaturated fat — are dense in dietary fiber, have less calories, are low in sodium, and include sugar substitutes for a healthy lifestyle,” Hettiarachchy said.

Nearly one in three American adults is obese, and estimates are that 86 percent of Americans will be overweight by 2030, she said. Arkansas is no exception, according to Moore, who directs the dietetics program in the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences.

“We need to work on reducing obesity,” Hettiarachchy said. “Good nutrition has to be practiced at home. Fruit and vegetables need to be part of the meal, and the youngsters need to be educated on eating healthy food products for a healthy lifestyle.”

Obesity is a complex problem, Patton said, and it’s easy to blame the victim.

“The solution will also have to be complex,” she said. “The problem is very costly. To get health-care costs in line in our country, we will have to address the problem of obesity.”

Education is the answer, Moore said, and education needs to cover both nutritional information and the effects that lifestyle choices can have on health. Moore and Patton prepare students for two professions that serve up that education.

Dollar stores offered some foods to fill a healthy plate, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Choices – particularly for fruits, protein and dairy – were limited. Sugar, fat and sodium were plentiful.

Dietitians work with people in a wide range of settings: hospitals and other health-care facilities, sports nutrition and corporate wellness programs, food and nutrition-related business and industries, private practice, and community and public heath settings. Dietitians are also involved in research in food and pharmaceutical companies and at universities and hospitals.

Dietitians and nurses offer clients and patients knowledge and skills while encouraging them to make lifestyle changes to improve their health. Moore and Patton both teach their students the importance of understanding the individuals they are working with and realizing the context in which they live and the limitations they may face. Knowing what foods have the best nutritional value does not help someone who has no transportation to a supermarket where nutritious food is affordable and abundant.

Food Deserts and Food Insecurity

Many people in the state of Arkansas live in “food deserts” and may be as far as 30 or 40 miles away from the nearest grocery store or super center, Moore said. Complicating the situation even more is that they may not have their own transportation to those stores and so may be limited to shopping most often at a dollar store or quick stop.

“We must work with them within their means,” Moore said. “Students have to get out of the idealistic box that many of them come to school with. If a person can only afford to shop for groceries at a dollar store, as dietitians they will have to work with that person to teach them how to make the best decisions they can.”

Moore and Patton both talk to students about different strategies they can use to help patients and clients.

“We teach students to work with patients where they are,” Patton said. “What works for one person won’t work for others.”

Nursing students learn to assess the knowledge patients have of the health risks to which they are susceptible and what barriers to good health exist for them, she explained. The nurse helps the patient develop strategies to address those particular barriers.

“There is not one area of nursing that I can think of that does not have a nutritional component,” Patton said. “A nurse working in an intensive-care unit knows that obese people are more difficult to take care of because of co-morbidities related to their weight.”

Patton also explained that food insecurity contributes to the obesity problem in the United States because healthier alternatives to those food choices on the meat-sweet diet are more expensive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines household food security as “access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” It goes on to say that food security requires that “a minimum of nutritionally adequate and safe foods are readily available and can be acquired in socially acceptable ways, i.e. without stealing, accessing emergency food supplies, or relying on other coping strategies.”

“Arkansas has the third-highest rate of food insecurity in the United States,” Patton said.

Education, exercise and eggplant: Children in this elementary school garden are learning to grow and eat a variety of vegetables. As Patton said, the physical activity is a bonus benefit.

This spring, she conducted a correlational study using data from “County Health Rankings” published by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Diabetes Survey, Feed America, and the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. It confirmed a moderately positive association between food insecurity and obesity in Arkansas. Because of design limitations in the study, it could not be said to show causality between food insecurity and obesity, according to Patton.

“Not having access to healthy food can come from a lack of money to purchase it or a way to go get it,” she said. “Obesity is strongly associated with food insecurity, and you may think of that as a paradox. How can people who don’t have access to food be obese? It’s because they have more access to the food sold at convenience stores, food that is higher in calories but lower in nutritional value. People with access to supermarkets tend to eat better.”

Community- and school-based gardens may be a part of the solution to the problems of food insecurity and obesity, Patton said. They get children and adults working together to produce healthy food, with the added benefit of physical activity that also helps to counteract weight gain.

Researching Education

Moore is part of a team of faculty members who last year received a $4.78 million grant for five years from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The scientists and educators are taking on childhood obesity, and Moore’s responsibility is to develop and co-teach an interdisciplinary course training students about the context and prevention of childhood obesity. They examine economic and societal ingredients in the problem, not just nutritional factors, she said.

Goals of the overall project are to improve the diet and healthy behaviors of children, especially those at risk of obesity, and equip educators, child-care providers and other practitioners to tackle the childhood obesity crisis.

Researching Answers

Both the nursing and dietetics students and faculty pay close attention to the latest research in a variety of health-related areas. Some of the information they will use in their practice may come from Hettiarachchy and her students in food science, who are researching several innovative, new products to address the need for food preservatives and reduce sodium content in foods. Sodium in processed foods is often a culprit in high blood pressure and other health conditions.

“We want to develop products that are low in calories, dense in protein, gluten-free, natural, have low sodium to reduce hypertension, and high in dietary fiber,” Hettiarachchy said. “Nowadays, because most food consumed is refined, people do not get the dietary fiber their bodies need.

“Food companies are researching low-sodium alternatives and looking for substitutes,” she continued. “They tried potassium but it can contribute bitterness to the final product that did not attract the consumer. The food has to be tasty or people won’t consume it. There is a tremendous amount of research going on in finding sodium substitutes.”

Hettiarachchy is the bench scientist of the group of three Science Cafe; presenters. She studies proteins and bioactive peptides that have anti-diabetic and anti-obesity properties.

Her work also involves adding value to residual products from industry that can be used to increase dietary fiber and nutrients in foods. Rice bran and soybean meal are left over during processing of rough rice and soybean. She and her research team use consumer-friendly fermentation technology to use that inexpensive rice bran and soybean meal to produce yeast, antioxidants, pre-biotics and dietary fiber.

“Our research in rice and soybean proteins has brought a lot of visibility on national and international levels,” Hettiarachchy said. “Our rice bran fermentation innovative research led to filing of a patent and the start-up of Nutraceutical Innovations LLC.”

She coaches teams of students who have won regional and national competition awards for new and innovative healthy food products in the Institute of Food Technologists and various others at the national level. The competitions provide students hands-on experience and an opportunity to learn to be leaders and to be creative and innovative to solve problems in a practical way, she said.

“Many will go into product development with food companies after they graduate and be very successful with their careers,” Hettiarachchy said. “We know consumers want convenient, tasty food that is cheap, highly nutritious and safe.”

Slim Pickin’s at the Dollar Stores

By Barbara Jaquish

With a shopping list supplied by dietitian Cindy Moore, I set out to find dollar store food to fill the healthy-eating plate designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – see

Here’s the list:

  • reduced-fat milk and cheese
  • whole-grain cereals and breads
  • peanut butter
  • dried beans and rice
  • canned juices – 100% juice and only in moderation
  • fruits: packed in water or juice
  • low-sodium vegetables: frozen, if possible, or drain and rinse regular canned vegetables.
  • low-sodium soups

I visited three different dollar stores in Fayetteville, Ark., read scores of labels, and came back with some nutritious food and way too much fat and sodium. I found just one low-sodium item – a can of black-eyed peas – and no reduced-fat cheese. Except for pineapple, most fruit was packed in sugary syrup. Yet, there were happy surprises. All three stores carried a variety of dried beans, rice and oatmeal. In one store I even found whole-grain brown rice and whole-wheat bread.

Note: None of the stores visited appear in the photos used in this story.

Science Cafe: Questions Answered

Susan Patton

Navam Hettiarachchy

Cindy Moore

  Photos by Brooke McNeely

What are the rules for calling a food organic?

Hettiarachchy: Organic foods are produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. Organic food production involves a set of production standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping that include:

  • No synthetic chemical inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc.)
  • Use of farmland that has been free from synthetic chemicals
  • Maintain strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products
  • Undergo periodic on-site inspections
  • All organic produce are certified

What type of fat should I avoid?

Hettiarachchy: Trans fatty acids, or trans fat, formed during food processing. A food manufacturer can list 0 percent trans fat on a food label if the amount of trans fat it contains is less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.

Are supplements safe?

Hettiarachchy and Moore: Always consult a health professional before taking a supplement. Some interfere with medications and others can build up to toxic levels. A well-balanced diet will supply all of the nutrients the human body needs, eliminating the need for most supplements.

What is the biggest cause of obesity among children?

Patton: In the case of Arkansas, it is not a rich state; 28 percent of children live below the poverty line so their parents often may have to buy energy-dense foods that are not as nutritional as low-fat, low-sugar foods. Many children don’t get sufficient exercise because they spend more time inside at home and at school than children did in the past, whether it’s because they play video games and watch television for fun or they live in a neighborhood where it is not safe for them to play outside.

How do we interpret news about nutrition and health?

Moore and Patton: Health professionals such as dietitians and nurses must help people understand the basic principles of nutrition and how to read food labels. If the label contains ingredients your grandmother would not have known about or more than seven ingredients, consider a different choice. Understand that two reasons people don’t trust news about nutrition, diet and health is that they want to be told to take a pill to achieve good health and that the news is often sensationalized to keep people watching through commercials.

About The Author

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
science and research writer

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