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Real Food as a Solution to the Changing Eating Habits in the US

Paulina Muratore

Posted June 19, 2014

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Can you remember the last time you ate a meal that didn’t include any added sugar, oils, or dairy fats? The answer to this question is very difficult for most Americans. We live within a food system that makes it almost impossible to avoid sugar and hyperprocessed foods, which are in a shocking 80% of our food products. Even foods that are typically assumed to be “healthy” contain added sugar. A breakfast consisting of one cup of Greek yogurt (9 grams of added sugar) with berries (natural sugar) and coffee with skim milk (3g of added sugar) is already 60% of one’s daily sugar intake. There is a plethora of evidence that overwhelmingly supports the link between sugary, hyperprocessed foods and obesity.


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Fed Up,” a recent documentary released by Stephanie Soechtig, and produced by Katie Couric and Laurie David, examines the sugar industry and its effect on both mental and physical health. The film stresses the connection between obesity, consumption of sugary foods, and food-related ads on television, in magazines, and on billboards. We’re inundated by commercials about high-sugar foods, and it could be having a much bigger effect on us than we ever thought. The most recent number for the annual national cost of dealing with the effects of obesity is close to $200 billion. This begs the question—do we invest in healthier, real food now, or wait for a public health crisis to overburden national medical costs? 

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Numerous studies point to the importance of “real food.” This doesn’t mean the expensive, organic salad and juice stores in Manhattan. Instead, it means real food can, at the very least, be a starting point- the beginning of a mass cultural shift from fast, on-the-go food, to real, wholesome food cooked at home.

At this point you may be thinking to yourself, “that’s all well and good, but real food is too expensive and inaccessible to most Americans.” As it turns out, this is simply untrue, and there are hard facts to prove it. An order of food at McDonald’s for a family of four costs about $28. Compare that to a roast chicken, fresh vegetables, salad, milk, canned veggies, or frozen veggies, which can create a meal for 4-6 people, at a cost of between $9 and $14. 

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Finding time to cook real food for at least 1 meal per week makes a difference. For the majority of Americans, finding time is not always the issue. In 2013, the average American spent 2.3 hours per day watching television. And watching so much TV doesn’t just impact our eating habits by limiting the time we have to cook. Kids watch an average of 4,000 food-related ads every year (that’s approximately 10/day). And you can bet that those food ads aren’t overwhelmingly vegetable-related.

So, what can we do about this? We can advocate, whenever possible, for more families to learn how to cook real food. There are several real food preparation initiatives in place, such as cooking classes at green markets, and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. We can tell our representatives and senators to support healthy, real food in schools. We can work to eradicate food deserts, which are still very prevalent in both urban and rural areas. And we can start with ourselves, at home, teaching those around us the importance of real food. Small steps truly do make a monumental difference, and you can start today with dinner! 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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