Like many of my middle-aged patients, Ralph was having problems maintaining a healthy weight. Each time he came to see me, there was more Ralph than the previous visit. He wasn’t happy about it, and neither was I. But Ralph couldn’t understand how a meat-and-potatoes guy like him could be gaining weight. He didn’t care much for sweets and rarely ate dessert. So why was he gaining weight?
To answer that question, we sat down to take a look at Ralph’s diet. As soon as he started listing what he ate in a typical day, I recognized the problem. Ralph did not cook. At the grocery store, he thought he was making good choices. He always went for frozen foods described as “lean” or those touting low fat or calories.
As I explained to Ralph, food processors usually remove fat to lower calories, but they replace it with some form of sugar so it still tastes good. We see the outcome of this practice in the obesity and diabetes epidemics. It’s also evident in statistics, which show that, in the early 80s, the average American consumed about 3,200 calories daily. By 2012, that figure had soared to nearly 4,000 calories. If you happen to be a lumberjack or an athlete, you probably burn off those calories easily. But for the average Joe, 4,000 calories is about twice what you should be eating. And when we totaled up Ralph’s daily food and beverage intake – surprise! He was getting even more, close to 4,500 calories a day.
Part of that came from the two or three beers he drank every evening. But a big chunk of Ralph’s calories were coming from hidden sugars in his prepared meals. Like most patients, Ralph was shocked to discover that his spaghetti dinner, chili, and even meatloaf contained sugar.
I’m happy to say that Ralph did the responsible thing. He took several cooking classes at the local community college and learned how to make his own healthy meals. In the last year, Ralph has lost more than 40 pounds. Along with that, he’s seen his cholesterol and fasting glucose numbers improve dramatically, and now he reports fewer digestive problems and less joint pain.
“I thought cooking would be a pain in the neck,” he said during our last visit, “but I enjoy it now. I also like being able to bend over and tie my shoes without that big old belly being in the way. Getting rid of sugar was the best thing I’ve done in a long time.”