Nutritional Bang

OK, are you ready? The word from the recent European Congress on Obesity, held in Amsterdam, Netherlands, is that overeating is to blame for the American obesity epidemic.

According to researchers at the gathering, weight gain in America seems to be almost entirely due to the consumption of more calories, with reduction in physical activity playing only a minor role.

Though the attending experts recommended ongoing physical activity for various long-term health benefits, they suggest the emphasis should be on reducing energy (i.e., food) intake.

The American diet is awash in what nutritionists call empty calories — foods rich in energy, measured by calories, and low in nutritional value. Fries, chips, donuts, soda, sugary drinks, white bread and buns, tortillas, white rice, bagels, caloric condiments and refined grain products galore. You get the idea.

In light of our energy-rich, junk-food intake, increasing dietary nutrient density is critical. Defined as the amount of nutrients per calorie consumed — including vitamins, minerals, healthy fat, protein, fiber and beneficial plant chemicals — nutrient density is, simply put, the amount of nutritional bang per caloric buck.

Unfortunately, most Americans are engaged in a dietary tug o' war, consuming an energy-rich, nutrient-poor diet that leads to weight gain and obesity. Kale succumbs to corn chips while mighty spinach gets pinned by donuts. Vegetables, meats, fruits, eggs, legumes, cheese and nuts are all nutrient-dense to various degrees.

A collective effort enabling Americans to lose weight will contribute greatly to reducing health care costs in the long run.

In order to reverse course and return to 1970s weight averages, according to the researchers, we'd need to reverse the increased daily food intake by around 350 calories for kids and 500 calories for adults. Eating foods higher in nutrient density paired with a commitment to exercise at least every other day will help us attain these goals.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and the Centre for Natural Healing. He teaches at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous. E-mail him at michael@ventanawellness.com.