A recent report suggesting sugar substitutes can lead to weight gain, a report this summer that diet foods can make us fat, and now today’s Chicago Trib article about how diet crazes shape our grocery shelves but fail to change our habits, fills me once again with astonishment.  It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.

                                                                          Silky fatback and kosher salt photo by Donna T. Ruhlman

We have a serious fat problem in America.  It has nothing to do with our obesity problem.  We also have a salt problem, and it’s not about hypertension.  Fat and salt are the leading bugaboos in America’s on-going national diet program, the wrench in the spokes of our quest for good nutrition, the evil forces which, in our fearful helpless craving for them, prevent Americans from achieving their whole-grain, high-fiber, all-natural, Rocky Mountain health.  And what can we do about it?

Eat more fat!  Salt your food naturally.

Americans have a hopelessly neurotic relationship with what they consume, of this there’s little disagreement, a neurosis that’s built into our culture from the broadest levels of agriculture and government, which demand that we subsidize farmers to grow crops you can’t eat without industrial processing, all the way down to our grocery store shelves, which are packed with confusing, marketing-spun messages about what’s good for us and what’s not.

Snackwells, for instance.   Who’s the clever executive who came up with that name?  Want a healthy snack?  Try buying … Snackwells!   Are Americans stupid enough to buy that?  You bet!  (More here from Trib article on the Snackwell story.)

Just about every box and bag on the grocery store shelves has some kind of  “low fat” version, sometimes even if the real version doesn’t require fat in the first place.  On a recent flight, I  was handed a Quaker Oats Granola Bar—granola, it’s good for you, and it’s low fat.  Granola doesn’t need much fat, if any, in the first place; but it does need sugar and you can bet that’s the reason my Quaker Oats “low fat” granola bar was every bit as sweet and chewy as a Milky Way bar.  And on the previous flight, the first ingredient in the blueberry muffin I’d been given was sugar, not flour.

The sad fact is that fresh food that is good for you is significantly more expensive than the processed crap that truly is bad for our diet, not to mention our food production system.  And the people who most need food to be healthy are the ones who can least afford it.  The millions of Americans on a restricted food budget will see little choice other than to buy the cheap calories provided by agribusiness corn.

What drives me crazy though is the American cook and the American consumer, who truly do care about food and cooking, but are continually mislead, largely by an uninformed media and unchecked marketing, notably with two of the most fundamental components of cooking—salt and fat.

I say unto you: Fat is good!  Fat is necessary.  Ask any chef.  Fat does not make you fat, eating too much makes you fat!  We aren’t filling our bodies with sodium because of the box of kosher salt we use to season our food, we’re doing it with all the processed food that’s loaded with hidden salt.  And American cooks and American diners need to understand the differences.

I hope it’s obvious that a diet composed of vast quantities of saturated animal fats is not good for anyone.  This kind of fat has been linked to elevated blood-cholesteral and heart disease—people who have issues with these problems need to be cautious.  And some people have serious issues with hypertension and high-blood pressure—salt will exacerbate these.

But most people don’t have these problems, and for them, fat is not bad, not evil, not dangerous.  It’s a pleasure in the right quantities and we shouldn’t be made to fear it.  If you eat natural foods, plenty of vegetables, and avoid foods that come in a box or bag or is in some way processed—food that’s often loaded with salt—you should be able to salt your food to pleasing levels.  Food needs to be seasoned for the best flavor. 

As ever the French can teach us about a healthy relationship with food.  American’s scratch their heads over the so-called French Paradox—how can the French eat all that rich fatty food and have lower levels of heart disease and associated problems.  I’ll bet their red wine does help, as has been suggested, but what is more likely the case, in my opinion, is that the French eat more natural foods than Americans, and they eat it in appropriate quantities.  That, I would bet money, is the root of their ability to eat a heavily salted duck confit, dripping with duck fat, and not have a problem with it, to luxuriate in Epoisse and Reblochon.  They can do this precisely because they don’t eat “low-fat” granola bars and blueberry muffins that have more sugar than flour and eggs.

The French paradox. It can’t be their diet—given all that evil stuff they eat. Must be that red wine they drink!  Can we really be so stupid?  You bet! 

Americans need to be better educated about the food they eat, what’s truly good, what’s harmful, quantities that are necessary, and super-sizes we don’t need.  Until we find out for ourselves from reliable sources the answers to these questions, instead of relying on knee-jerk media alarmism and marketing hooey, we’re not going to eat the food that both satisfies our souls and our bodies, and will perpetuate our fat and salt dysfunction.


132 Wonderful responses to “Food Rant: America’s Fat Problem”

  • Kay

    Pretty sure I don’t have a gluten allergy as I can eat all the gluten I like without a problem as long as it isn’t from some “moistest ever” mix. A muffin from Noah’s bagels will make me violently ill, but a very similar muffin from my own kitchen or a quality bakery will go down just fine.

    I also feel compelled to defend some of these ultra-processed sugars; While I agree the don’t need to be in everything we eat, many of them are absolutely vital to confectionery.

  • Stephanie Clarkson

    a month and a bit ago, I was at a convention where the food given to panelists was completely unsalted. Not ‘low salt’, but no-salt. I was told that this was for ‘health reasons’ for people watching their salt intake, and I could always just salt it myself if I wanted the demon salt. Of course, adding salt after the cooking process is finished is the least effective time to do so, and the result is that people who wanted salt to bring out a little flavour had to add much more than would have been needed early on.

  • Greg Turner

    Excellent rant, Ruhlman! I think the French also benefit from exercise incorporated into their daily routines. Rather than hop in an SUV to drive two miles to the grocery store (or fast food place), they walk, take mass transport or bike. It’s one of the reasons, I think, New Yorkers tend to stay slimmer than folks in Houston.

    And kudos for bringing in the economic element. Years ago, when I was between jobs, it was amazingly hard to give my family good food we could afford. Natural ingredients took forever to cook, and the fast instant food? The ingredients list read like a chemistry set.

  • Frances Davey

    Less than 20% of infants in this country are breastfed exclusively through 6 months of age. I think this is a huge factor in the health and fitness of children and it affects them throughout their lives.

    There are many factors in American culture that come into play regarding our general fitness. Unfortunately two crucial factors – stress and lack of exercise, aren’t so easy to address compared to simply changing what you put in your mouth.

  • Ashlee

    I whole-heartedly agree. I am finding that your comments parallel with Michael Pollans’ In Defense of Food (which I am currently reading). So my question to everyone is how do we start changing these habits in American lifestyles? Shouldn’t we start trying to change the school lunch programs that supply our children and teens with processed chicken “nuggets” and powdered mashed potatoes? Oh wait doesn’t the government supply that to the schools?
    How do we change our food system so that whole foods can be supplied to all families? Can every city be surrounded by farms that supply enough fresh produce for the entire city? Is that possible for LA and New York?

    I believe that this topic is immensely important to the future of our country. Food not only affects our health it also affects our economy, health care spending, and I believe our overall happiness in life.

  • luis

    Got to hand it to Ruhlman.. He is 100% correct. I thought he had missed the macro end of this issue.. But he didn’t. I ought to know better by now. Ruhlman said “Americans have a hopelessly neurotic relationship with what they consume, of this there’s little disagreement, a neurosis that’s built into our culture from the broadest levels of agriculture and government, which demand that we subsidize farmers to grow crops you can’t eat without industrial processing, all the way down to our grocery store shelves, which are packed with confusing, marketing-spun messages about what’s good for us and what’s not.”
    Ruhlman is on top of this one all the way 120%.
    Back from grocery shopping… 10 alchool..merlot o’course. 10% protein.. london broil and a turkey breast, ~15% veggies…10% gadgets to play with. 10% to feed the birds at the lake. 20% cheeses… blue, gorgonzola, mexican blend, feta.. you name it. It seems whatever whatever.. is always the cheese that gets you. Most of my stuff was from the perimeter of the market..which is why my dc said my cholesterols were peachy king. I will have to get with Heath sometime. I want a taste of his Mangalitza….don’t know how but I want to make it happen….working on it.

  • Laura

    LOL – yeah – what about all those fat Italians??

    The one thing people fail to mention about the French paradox – is that vanity trumps all – they aren’t the fashion mecca for nothing – they love to be beautiful people – and despite the ease at which they lead everyone to believe they have with their diets – at least the older women (over 30) think about it every day of their lives – and every bite that goes in their mouths – vanity is above all….Even in France – thin does not come freely – but the culture of vanity is also very deeply ingrained and it is a sin to be fat…. it is American to be fat.

  • Frances Davey

    Laura, I wasn’t going to mention this, because I’m not completely sure that it is true, but I heard on House Hunters International that you can be disqualified for a mortgage loan in France if you are too much overweight (health risk). However, they don’t care whether you smoke or not. That insight was gleened from the discussion of the potential home-buyers, who had to get a complete physical and submit the results with their application. I don’t recall them mentioning what BMI was acceptable.

    Prudence or discrimination? Hmmm.

  • luis

    My favorite chefs are folks like Julia Childs and Jacques Pepin. Jacques and Julia cook a lot of crap to show you that they can but the body of work they leave behind is full of beatufil salads, meats … real food. Their technique is flawless and they are the real thing. Not to dimish so many others like Mario Batalli and lots of other contemporary super chefs…too many to mention. Basically, regardless of the chef REAL FOOD is simple and not cheap. Not cheap not just because the ingredients, not cheap because real food requires extra effort as well.

  • annmarie

    a problem of a biological kind,biochemistry and molecular biology–we are living entities– turnes into a psychosocial dilemma of huge proportions. a sugar addiction caused by the hidden sugars in everything from milk to cigarettes. the “new” sugars are everywhere, and have been for quite sometime. america has been the supplier of the knowhow for all the world. it is cheap, it does not smell, it is wonderful! and our bodies do not know how to eliminate or process all these additives. thank you ruhlman for your post. a-m

  • JMW

    “Thanks, JMW, for giving us the agribusiness side of the argument.”

    Well, I wasn’t trying to give the agribusiness side of the argument per se — although there are merits to it.

    So Ruhlman acts like “real” food is this godsend for low-weight, healthy living; yet, at the same time, a considerable number of well-respected chefs, who cook real food, in this country (including some of my favorites) are friggin FAT. So what, they eat too much? DUH. So do obese people eating agribusiness products!

    In conclusion — I really think this post, more than anything else, just serves to make the people reading it feel better about themselves. “Uh huh, that’s right, I eat REAL FOOD and SO SHOULD YOU.”

    Please. 🙂 Whether you’re eating pork belly or McMysteryFish, counting calories and exercise are the key. Super-imposing one’s prejudices on the situation is hardly productive.

  • Christine in the 'Nati

    I have to say, this is probably the first thread I’ve read where I can see, and empathize, with all sides. I would LOVE to eat whole foods only. I have no doubt this would make a tremendous impact on both my and my husband’s health, energy, immunity, etc. It’s a goal of mine to begin cutting out some of the packaged, “convenience” foods we use and replacing them with the healthier, whole food originals.

    But…and there’s always a “but”…and in this case, several. I’m a grad student with a full time job and a dissertation to write. My husband’s a medical student–80 hour weeks for no pay, soon to be replaced by a resident’s schedule (90 hour weeks for the equivalent of about $9.00/hour pre-tax). When are we supposed to have time to make a meal that isn’t at least partly composed of convenience foods? That’s something that, at this point in my life, I can’t really spend time feeling bad about. I can do things to try to change what I’m capable changing, but I have to be real about what changes my life can sustain right now.

    I mentioned jobs and pay rates because that’s entirely germane to the topic. Unfortunately, right now it’s difficult for me to afford many whole foods, especially when you’re talking properly raised, fresh meats or organic fruits and veg. This is a difficult proposition for my family, and I recognize that we’re likely better off (with our zillion dollars of loan debt and $9.00/hour jobs) than many other families out there. How are they supposed to make this whole-foods thing happen? It’s hard to ignore those “10 for $10″ deals at my local Kroger. I could get 10 boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes or Rice-A-Roni for the price of ONE 2 pound package of fresh, organic chicken. See the problem there? I don’t live in abject poverty, and even I can’t make this a reality in my home. How are we supposed to expect single mom on WIC to do this? As Luis has said, you can’t ignore economics when you talk about this issue–although I suspect we’re discussing different types of economics.

    But let’s take a step back and take all the institutional/economic/”big picture” issues out of this. Let’s get into the matter of personal tastes. I can’t help it, but I LOVE Rice-A-Roni. I would eat it every day if I could. I would eat a whole box at one time if it wouldn’t be embarassingly gluttonous. Sure, it’s laden with like 10000% of your daily value of sodium, but I like it. Maybe that’s an artifact of my “suburban child of the 80’s” upbringing. Who knows? I didn’t grow up with this whole foods concept or on a self-sustaining farm. But why do I feel like I should apologize for the fact that there are some processed foods that I love? As though admitting to this makes me a lesser person? There are some processed foods I’m just not willing to give up, but that doesn’t mean that I’m giving in to the man, or that I’m ignorant to the benefits of “real food.” It just means I like it. A big part of eating is pleasure, and I just can’t help loving my Rice-A-Roni, Swiss Cake Rolls and Duncan Hines yellow cake with chocolate frosting.

    Does all this mean that I eschew the benefits of real food? That because I (and many others) can’t do it well (right now), that nobody should do it well? Hells no. I truly agree with everything Ruhlman said in his original post, but it’s simply too big an issue for there to be clearly polarized “rights” and “wrongs,” or to believe that most people can achieve the kind of change required to go totally (or even mostly) whole foods. Anytime you get into the realm of change and human behavior, there are going to be A LOT of obstacles to making long-lasting, significant changes. Sometimes we need to take a step back and see that there are degrees of change, not just 100% success or 100% failure.

  • Katie

    I feel the need to respond to the previous two posts.

    JMW: I agree that eating too much is also part of the problem (as are, to a lesser extent, genetics). Many people have lost the ability to hear what their body is telling them about satiety. Many people eat until they feel “full”… at which point you’ve usually eaten too much. However, you can eat a heck of a lot more “whole” foods than processed foods and still consume fewer calories. You can get thathis day and age, it can lead to almost addictive behat “full” feeling from all the dietary fiber, rather than HFCS, sodium, and trans fats. So, moving away from the processed foods can help reduce caloric intake, while still eating the same quantity of food.

    Christine: With regard to cost: have you looked into a CSA? It’s essentially a subscription to one (or a small group of) farmer’s produce for the production season. It is usually in the $250-400 range (depends on location/amt of produce delivered/ length of growing season). I subscribed to one for my last year of undergrad. While the initial cost was painful, it was nice to have fresh produce all spring, summer, and fall. I didn’t have to worry about paying for it then. Also, it can save time, as most farmers deliver to your door or have a few drop sites from which you select the most accessible. It is typically a lot cheaper to eat more at the vegetarian ends of the spectrum, with meat a few times a week, rather than every night. As for your love of Rice a roni.. everybody has their guilty pleasures, I don’t think anyone is suggesting you give it up entirely.

    Finally, a note about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). It is important to remember that our bodies are still very much evolutionarily wired to not only store energy from sugars, but also to remember where we found large sources of sugar. The same is true of large fat sources. These large “fuel” sources, when consumed with great frequency, subtly change one’s brain-chemistry to crave those foods. It’s almost an addiction. And sure, you may crave bacon or you may crave a big Mac, but there’s a lot of “hidden” fats and sugars in many processed foods. This leaves people craving muffins made by Hostess over a homemade muffin… in search of those highly refined sugars and fats. Anyway, it is a very complex issue, but it is nice to see it being discussed and debated.

  • Melissa

    Christine, as a grad student myself, I usually just shove a bunch of fruits and vegetables in a blender and press blend…it takes me 5 minutes to drink. Probably not as good as eating them whole and it’s still expensive, but keeps me from being malnourished.

  • luis

    2008 is the year for stir frying I think. There are thousands of recipes on stir frying. I can go the whole year stir frying and never duplicate a single dish… I don’t think stir frying is the epitome of good vs bad food but with the right sides like brown rice done right and brown pasta and palenta etc…tofu for one is a pure protein. Stir frying, soups, braisins..salads…Man this is a great time to be alive.
    My grandma growing up in Spain had to walk miles in the snow as a little child to go to school. Yes, she had to watch out for wolves… and she had what it took to survive in that harsh environment. The farm she was raised in still exists and is still in the Spaniard side of the fam. Some damm place named Galicia? Lots of her stews, soups and dishes used some measure of that ofal Cosentino is so taken with. The point if the re is any point to this rant is simple. Offal dishes would do well in very cold inclement climates. I think.

  • Tags

    Sorry, JMW, I really meant “Big Food’s” side of the argument.

    Big Food spreads misinformation, then makes sure that someone else takes the responsibility and bears the burden. Either individuals, governments, insurance companies – it doesn’t matter as long as it’s not them.

    So food companies load up their food with unhealthy but cheap (that is, profitable) ingredients, then squeeze healthy farmers and producers with regulations (they lobby for) and unfair competition (squeezing out competitors in stores.)

    Even the “scientific” studies are fronts for pro-industry groups. The so-called “Center for Consumer Freedom” is a “non-profit organization” funded by Big Food.

    Then, when the public’s BS detector makes even this transparent, they take on an affectation of penitence, promising to be “part of the solution.” The public is happy to see they’re “doing something about this terrible problem” and moves on to the next issue, and the fox sneaks back into the henhouse.

  • Christine in the 'Nati

    Melissa & Katie, thanks for the suggestions! I do appreciate them. Sometimes it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the vastness of possible (and often extreme…) changes that it’s easy to overlook small things–even for this proponent of small and manageable changes! It’s a good thing I’m better at helping my clients than I am at helping myself! 😉 Thanks again!

  • Nick at Blogthebacon


    When reading this I instantly blacked out and flashed back to my neice’s trip to the jelly belly factory. I would wager that they informed us about 52 times that their treats were a healthy non fat snack.

    Honestly I am always in the best shape when I am eating at the restaurant, and treating myself to riellets, foie, bacon, lardo and shortribs. Eating in non-titanic sized portions and doing so often, through the day is a way to enjoy many different foods, allowing food to make your day great and keep your metabolism rockin!

    Thanks for your rant

  • Victoria

    Great post. Not only well said but heartening to read the responses too. I just got back from 10 days in Paris, where I ate everything I wanted – but did it the French way. Small portions, no snacking at all. And I didn’t eat anything I didn’t really want just because I was there and had the chance, so I never had a Pain au Chocolat. (I stayed in an apartment opposite Poilane and ate their bread for breakfast in the morning and with delicious [insanely wonderful] raw milk cheeses in the evening. I didn’t want to give that up for a sweet.) Obviously, poor people in the US have a hard time eating properly, but I feel in this country the rich, aside from being willing to spend big bucks at fancy restaurants, wouldn’t consider spending as much of their income on food as the French do. The French take their eating seriously. They eat well and slowly and socially. I never saw anyone gulping down lunch just to get it over with. And the few MacDonald’s I saw there were empty or closed.

  • Danelle

    good article. so true. education is key. is it true that high-fructose corn syrup shuts off the bodies “full-feeling” and thereby causes overeating?

  • Sandy


    As usual in recent days I’m late to the party, but felt the need to give an amen and some personal words.

    Largely as a result of working with Elements and learning how real food tastes again (ahem), I’ve come around to some of this on my own. It’s not a good food relationship when you see a custard and immediately freeze up at the thought of making it because of — oh God! — whole fat milk, butter, and sugar!!! Yet, this was exactly my reaction at first. I don’t know when I got this way. I simply did. And I realized I was totally f’ed when it came to real foods. Not bad foods, because there are no good or bad foods — just calorically dense, wholesome food. Yes, and salt.

    I am finding after a few months of gingerly experimenting that I am actually eating LESS food now than I did when I was eating “only healthy stuff.” There really is a portion of our brains hardwired to try to get us nutrition when we are starving — even, and perhaps especially, if we are taking in thousands of calories of substandard food a day.

    Yes, whole milk and cream have more fats and calories and stuff. But guess what, your food is more flavorful and you need less of it to be satisfied!

    I agree with the soul who said to try to eat processed foods again after a year. I’ll be honest. I still have some process floating through my kitchen. Nothing like before I started cooking, and I must say, I am relearning how to be with food. Much has been written about the things we lost as a culture with the mobile, convenience based family. I am convinced after my recent experience that the loss of the cook is a bigger one than people realize, for health and for many other reasons.

  • Heather Fletcher

    It is a proven fact that the body actually processes natural fats better than margarine (ugh!)etc. Butter, whole milk etc produce better food which you need to consume less of. The French are healthier because fo portion size as opposed to anything else I wouls think.

  • luis

    Heather Fletcher, The french diet is not helping them as far as I can see. French are historic and maybe pre-historic wimps. They are just not a factor in the world. They have won no wars and can not even keep the order and peace at home.
    It’s just a matter of time and events and the French will be assimilated by the Arabs and Morrocan’s and frankly anyone that sets out to conquer them.
    I mean are they even engaged???? much as the enterprise captain Piquard makes you think they are?
    I see no evidence of it…. No offense intended but in the real world struggle terrorist theater we all face, the French continue to be slackers. They are just not there and they are not counted on to be there…Just compare the typical French diet to the old Spartan diet? They way I see it the French have not stepped up and they have been invaded and probably close to conquered and they don’t even know it.

  • Gonzo Umpuppity

    Can we please stop calling it the “French” paradox? It’s no surprise that eating fewer calories and walking everywhere make for a great foundation for a healthier lifestyle. The American diet is the paradox; low-fat, low-carb, super-sized hyphenated diets that impair health.

    Oh, it’s time to take my afternoon supplements.

  • luis

    Gonzo,the thing I love most about the French is that they give us permission to cook real food with REAL ingredients. The way I remember at home.

  • cboz

    >> And the people who most need food to be healthy are the ones who can least afford it.

    I think if people would just learn how to cook healthy grains and vegetables, these less-financially-fortunate individuals would find food much more affordable.

    If you’re paying for the packaged alternative of something you can cook yourself, the industrial food chain has done you a great disservice. But the power of choice is still in the hands of the consumer, and we need to work to educate and inform that decision making. Granted, a single mom working 2 jobs doesn’t have the time to cook healthy well-balanced meals every night, but a bit of planning and bulk grocery shopping can make feeding yourself on a tight budget much more feasible.

    It doesn’t have to be all frozen pizza’s, mac’n cheese, and hamburger helper….I feel like our communities, and grassroots food/health initiatives are going to necessarily produce a sustainable alternative American diet in the 10-20 years with much wider acceptance than you currently see. Part of this shift will be away from meat, as meat production – the biggest source of waste in our industrial food chain – becomes more expensive with rising energy prices.

  • Heather Fletcher

    The book “The End of Food” by Thomas Pawlick touches on many of the points made in this post. It is an excellent read and discusses the decline of food quality.

  • Marge

    Great post! Just returned from a trip to Asia – I never realized our cook served smaller portions until my first breakfast back home. For a few days, I felt strangely unsatisfied by what my Midwest-trained eyes saw as “tiny plates” of farm-fresh (like, from right next door!) meats and veggies cooked with (gasp!) REAL butter or animal fat. After three weeks, I shed my “winter midsection” and haven’t eaten anything directly from a frozen package in a while.

    As a way to continue this healthy consumption of natural ingredients in less hefty portions, I’ve started eating from smaller bowls each meal. Sounds kooky, but our dinner plates could be used as the main entree platter for four back home! Eating fresh food every day IS more expensive, but because we’re consuming less and enjoying the flavors more, we do feel better. Quality over quantity IS more delicious and nutritious.

  • Brian

    This topic is covered extensively in “The French Don’t Diet Plan,” by Will Clower. I hear his previous book, “The Fat Fallacy” covers similar ground, but I can’t speak on it personally. As a personal chef, I struggle constantly to convince my hypochondriac clients that a little Kosher salt will not kill them, and in fact will deepen their experiences of taste. Fear of salt has actually created a too-low blood pressure for her, and I still find my Diamond Crystal box in the trash can once in a while, nearly full. In the meantime her 11 year-old son knocks back super-sweet lattes purchased with the Starbucks card she pays off, and snacks on a diet of high fructose corn syrup in all it’s insidious forms.

  • Tags

    This whole food-industry spin cycle just keeps getting deeper. Earlier in this post I had a comment saying that you should go to http://www.wholegrainscouncil.org for information about whole grains.

    Now I find out (in Michele Simon’s “Appetite for Profit”) that the “Whole Grains Council” is an industry front group that promotes breads, cereals, cookies, and crackers.

    So cancel anything nice I may have said about them, and shame on them for using such deceitful tactics.