Do you know which country has the highest obesity rate? If you guessed the US it’s close. Over 40% of Americans are currently obese and the US has the highest obesity rate among developed countries. But that number pales in comparison to Nauru’s 71% obesity rate. 1
The Nauruan Diet and Obesity
A century ago most of the people on the island of Nauru were fit and ate mostly fresh fish, coconuts, fruits, and vegetables. Today, the average Nauruan weighs over 220 pounds and has a BMI between 34 and 35.
This drastic change in the health of the people of Nauru is due mainly to one thing. They can’t farm and grow their own food. Decades of phosphate mining destroyed 80% of their land so Nauruans have to import everything they eat.
Unfortunately, the people of Nauru live in poverty and importing fruits and vegetables is too expensive. They are forced eat cheap imported foods that are high in sugar and fat such as white rice, instant noodles, and canned foods. 2
Even though Nauruans want to eat healthier they are stuck in a vicious cycle of obesity and death. 80% of the deaths in Nauru are now due to heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and kidney disease. These diseases are preventable but most Nauruans have few options.
We Choose Not to Eat Vegetables
Vegetables are low in calories and provide key vitamins and nutrients that our bodies need. Health experts and doctors all agree that we need to eat them daily and they are an essential part of any nutrition plan. But according to the CDC, 90% of us don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. 3
Unlike the people in Nauru, many of us have year-round access to fresh fruits and vegetables. We are able to eat what we want, whenever we want it.
Most of us also know that eating vegetables is a healthy habit that is necessary to be fit. And yet we choose not to eat them.
We need to ask ourselves: Why don’t we eat enough vegetables if we need them to be fit and stay healthy? What exactly do we eat that is making us gain weight?
Our Addiction to Ultra-Processed Foods
Fruits and vegetables were once grown on farms and preserved in root cellars or pickled. They used to be the main staple of most meals.
But during the 1980s ultra-processed foods started gaining popularity in supermarkets across the US. We began to buy these convenience foods in large quantities to help us save time. We did not realize that these foods are not only terrible for our health but also very addictive.
Today ultra-processed foods make up over 50% of what we eat. Half our total calories come from foods that are low in nutrients and high sugar, oil, and salt. 4
Due to this drastic shift in our eating habits, the US obesity rate jumped from 15% in the 1970s to over 40% today. And this number just keeps rising! 5
According to clinical psychologist Ashley Gearhardt, ultra-processed foods have artificially high levels of fat and refined carbs that are as addictive as cigarettes. This is why when you sit on your sofa to eat chips, donuts, candy, ice-cream, cookies, and pizza, you simply can’t stop eating. 6
On the other hand, vegetables are unprocessed and don’t have the addictive qualities in ultra-processed foods. They can’t compete with foods that have been engineered to be tasty and addictive. Which explains why many people prefer to eat foods that has been highly processed instead of unprocessed.
This brings us to an important question: Is there anything we can do to build healthy eating habits? Is eating vegetables that important and worth the effort?
The Mighty Power of Vegetables
Vegetables are never going to be able to compete against foods that are engineered to taste great, are addictive, and are highly marketed. But they are packed with everything you need to stay healthy.
In fact, not eating enough vegetables can have serious consequences on your health including weight gain and fatigue. A recent study shows that people tend to eat 500 calories a day more and gain more weight on a heavily processed diet than an unprocessed one. 7
Vegetables also prevent many chronic diseases. They are full of disease-fighting antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber that actually help you live longer. In another recent study, people who ate 7 or more daily portions of fresh vegetables reduced their overall risk of death by an incredible 42 percent. 8
Vegetables pack a powerful punch against diseases and are simply irreplaceable. Eating them is the best way to stay healthy, get fit, and lose weight.
The 50 Percent Rule
The best approach to change your eating habits and eat more vegetables is to keep things as simple as possible.
The 50 Percent Rule is a non-negotiable rule I use to ensure that I consume daily the key nutrients my body needs to stay fit and healthy.
With the 50 Percent Rule you don’t need to count calories. There are also no complicated rules like weighing or measuring meals. And you do not have to keep a food journal and write down everything you eat.
You just fill up half of your plate each day with fruits and vegetables. The other half of your plate should be a combination of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. The best part is that this is not a diet and can be done permanently.
When it comes to following the 50 Percent Rule keep in mind that fruits are great but they are also higher in sugar and calories than vegetables. Therefore, it is important to limit fruits to 20 percent of your plate. At least 30 percent of your plate should be vegetables since they are more nutritious and healthier for you.
It is also best to avoid ranch dressing (or any similar dressing) on your salad since there are many healthy options including vinaigrette and lime dressings. Ranch dressing contains high amounts of saturated fat and lots of sodium which can increase your cholesterol level and risk of cardiovascular disease. 9
Develop a Weekly Plan
The most challenging part of following the 50 Percent Rule is planning. Every week I go grocery shopping and stock up on spring mix, tomatoes, onions, cranberries, pistachios, avocados, apples, and bananas. To season my salad I sprinkle it with Badia Complete Seasoning and avocado oil or coconut oil.
Likewise, you will need to devote at least an hour each week to buy all the fruits and vegetables you need. It is important to also set up your house for success.
While doing nutrition plans, I tell clients that “it is much better to plan for success than to rely on willpower. I personally love cookies and ice cream but I don’t keep any in my home. I can’t control myself around these foods. They are just too addictive!”
I have learned over the years that it is best to keep my house free of junk food. I recommend you also clean your house of tempting and highly processed foods and only enjoy them outside of your home.
Change Your Life for the Better
Some habits like flossing your teeth or going for a 10 minute walk are easy to repeat every day. Other habits like eating vegetables and exercising regularly require more effort and sacrifice.
Unlike the Nauruan people, you can choose to eat and enjoy more vegetables. A non-negotiable rule is a commitment that you make with yourself to repeat a habit even if it is difficult and time-consuming.
The 50 Percent Rule requires conscious effort and a little bit of planning. But if you can develop the right mindset and master this rule you will significantly change your life for the better.
Besides helping you live longer, a recent study shows that eating lots of fruits and vegetables increases “mental wellbeing, happiness, and overall life satisfaction.” 10
So enjoy your veggies and improve your quality of life.
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- Nauru’s 71% obesity rate. Diabetes.co.uk (January 2019), I have seen so many funerals for such a small island.
- The obesity and overweight problem found in Nauru may be because of the lack of proper nutrition in Nauruan’s diets. Jannette Aguirre (November 2019), 5 Facts About Nauru’S Overweight Health Issue.
- Only 9% of adults ate the recommended amount of vegetables. CDC.gov (February 2021), Only 1 in 10 Adults Get Enough Fruits or Vegetables.
- Ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53.5 percent of calories. ScienceDaily (October 2021), Americans are eating more ultra-processed foods.
- The adult obesity rate shot up beginning in the 1980s, reaching 35% in the mid-2000s. Lane Kenworthy (May 2012), Why the surge in obesity?
- Ultra-processed foods meet all the same criteria that were used to designate tobacco as addictive. Ashley Gearhardt (November 2021), Foods high in added fats and refined carbs are like cigarettes – addictive and unhealthy.
- And when given ultra-processed food, they ate 500 calories a day more than when they were given unprocessed meals. James Gallagher (May 2019), Ultra-processed foods ‘make you eat more’.
- Seven or more portions produced a 42 percent decline in the risk of death. Lenny Bernstein (April 2014), Mom was right: Eat LOTS of veggies. They’re even better for you than fruit.
- In addition to the sodium concerns, the saturated fat in ranch dressing (which comes from the vegetable oil) is also concerning. Nicole Lamarco (May 2021), How Unhealthy Is Ranch Dressing?
- Increased fruit and vegetable consumption was predictive of increased happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being. Redzo Mujcic, PhD, and Andrew J.Oswald, DPhil (August 2016) Evolution of Well-Being and Happiness After Increases in Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables.