Do your meals typically come an assortment of foods that come in a bag, a box, a package, ready-made frozen? Or perhaps from the local fast food place on a busy day? Our lives are busy and hectic and sometimes these ready-made meals make our lives easier when we need to eat in a hurry or don’t have access to fresh whole foods. These ‘ready-made’ meals are known as ‘processed foods’ or ‘factory foods’. What is a ‘processed food’? While there can be some minimally processed foods (like quick brown rice or whole grains, natural nut butters, frozen vegetables, quick oatmeal) most processed foods come with a label that looks like it could be a list of a chemical company inventory. These are known as ‘ultra-processed foods’ and include soda and soft drinks, packaged snacks and candies, frozen meat nuggets, frozen pizza and meals and foods high in additives and they now comprise a staggering 60% of the food consumed in the United States. Ultra-processed foods usually have a long list of chemical additives in addition to added sugars (including high fructose corn syrup), hydrogenated and saturate fats and very little fiber, protein or nutrients.
We have gone from ‘Farm to Table’ to “Factory to Table’ and we are paying the ultimate price for it with declining health and disease that is directly tied to the consumption of these foods.
Why do we eat so many processed foods?
If processed foods, factory foods and fast foods are so bad for us, and even when we “know’ they are bad for us- why do we continue to eat them and over-consume them?
- The Reward System: Most people feel that they eat these foods to save time. Prep time, shopping time and they are easy to eat quickly. Or maybe they think they just like the taste of that food or don’t really know how to prepare fresh foods. Our supermarkets today look far different than they did 50 years ago; with a magnitude of convenient, easy to prepare and ready to go foods. But there are more nefarious forces at work in our compulsion to keep eating these foods. Food manufacturers are a business, and they want you to buy their food products. The competition is fierce, so each manufacturer spends a lot of time tailoring their food products to our tastes and developing food additives that stimulate the human brain’s reward center. This reward center of your brain registers all pleasure that you feel and experience. This area can be activated from any pleasurable experience, whether it be drug induced, a monetary reward, sexual experiences or even a good meal. This reward center releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which bathes our brain, our body and our emotions with pleasure and contentment. This pathway is also known as the ‘addiction pathway’ because once activated by certain substances, whether it be drugs, food or experience, we will go from ‘wanting’ the drug, food or experience to ‘craving’ that same food drug or experience over (and over) again. The food connection to this reward center is programmed for our survival; it is triggered to help us gravitate towards food energy sources so that we eat enough to stay alive. We, as humans, gravitate toward food that taste good- sweet, salty, and fatty because from an evolutionary standpoint these foods have consistently over the course of time provided us with the energy that we need to survive.
Using this principal, food developers work to engineer the manufactured food products to be so incredibly hyper-rewarding that the food products hijack our neural pathways to crank up those cravings for the food products. These manufactured food products become so powerfully rewarding to the brain that they quickly override any idea of eating something whole and healthy because the ‘hit’ from the natural source cannot compare to the ‘hit’ of the manufactured food product. This overrides our bodies natural systems for regulating hunger, how much we eat and how much our bodies can burn off. The whole system goes awry, and we start eating way more than we need which leads to being overweight and obesity as well as a host of other health problems and disease states.
The nutritional pitfalls of processed foods:
- Artificial Ingredients: Take a look at any packaged food in your vicinity. Can you even pronounce some of the ingredients? Even so called ‘healthy’ bars can have a long list of chemical additives that are unpronounceable. Why are they there? To create a taste that is so incredibly rewarding to your brain that you fall prey to wanting to eat more of them. Some of these unpronounceable words are preservatives so that the food doesn’t rot on your shelf when it sits there for months on end (Seriously, could real food do that?). Some of them color the food so it looks visually palatable. There are flavor chemicals in there to overstimulate your taste buds in a way that real food cannot, and they even have chemicals that add texture so that the food is more pleasurable in our mouths.
- Refined Carbohydrates: Good carbs, complex carbs, bad carbs, simple carbs, refined carbs… this can be a confusing conversation for some. If a food is packaged and processed as a food ‘product’ it is typically a refined carbohydrate. Refined carbohydrates are ultra- processed and are easily broken down in the body into glucose (sugar). Breads, pastas, bagels, anything with sugar- candy, sweets, soda, soft drinks, sweetened beverages all get quickly broken- down into sugar (glucose) during digestion and spike your blood sugar and insulin levels quickly. The rise in blood sugar is fast and furious and this also ignites those reward centers in the brain. The ensuing crash is just as fast and with that crash comes the drive to eat more simple carbs to feel the rush of dopamine in your reward center. It’s a vicious addictive cycle.
- Lack of nutrients: Real food contains vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that supply your body with the necessary ingredients to create natural energy and wellness. Processed foods do not contain these nutrients. Some processed labels may say they contain vitamins and nutrients, but these are SYNTHETIC. These so-called vitamins are not real and do not do what real unprocessed natural vitamin and mineral sources (like fruits and veggies) can do for you. It is a chemical soup of ingredients to place on the label to make you think the food product is healthy. Scientists don’t even have a grasp of the thousands upon thousands of vitamins, trace minerals and nutrients that real food contains and how they work synergistically. What real food does in the body cannot be re-created in a laboratory. Stick with real food if you want nutrients, vitamins and minerals to make your body healthy and strong. Fake food can’t do it.
- No Fiber: Most processed foods contain little to no fiber. We need about 25- 35 grams of fiber every day for our digestive system to run smoothly. Fiber helps to slow down the absorption of sugar from the complex carbs that we eat, it provides food for the ‘good’ bacteria in our gut that support our immune system, our moods and just about every aspect of our health. Fiber helps food move through the digestive tract and prevents constipation.
- Quickly digested and slows down metabolism: Processed food is quickly digested (due to the refined ingredients and lack of fiber). Studies show that even when matched for macro-nutrients (protein, fat, and carbs and calories) those who eat processed foods tend to eat far larger quantities of food every day because of the way that the food is quickly digested. They become far more obese than those who eat real food. One of the reasons for this is that people who eat real whole fresh foods burn twice as many calories digesting that real food than those who eat processed meals. This is called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). Eating processed food cuts this TEF in half; while eating real whole foods increases metabolic function. This increase is due to the natural process of breaking down and appropriately using the calories, proteins, fats and carbs from the real food.
- Cheap unhealthy fats: Processed foods are generally made with unhealthy, cheap and highly refined fats. Remember, it’s a product, not really a food. The manufacturers use the cheapest oils they can find to give the product the consistency that your palette desires. The cheap fats are typically hydrogenated which means they are converted to a trans-fat- a deadly version of fat. These trans fats are directly linked to heart disease, raising bad cholesterol, lowering good cholesterol and skyrocketing inflammation in the body.Trans fats must be disclosed to people now, but if the amount is anywhere under 1 gram the label can say it is ‘trans fat free’. The problem is if you eat 5 processed food items in one day and each contains .5 grams of trans fats they ALL add up. There is no safe level of trans-fats to ingest.
- Too much sodium: Sodium levels are usually very high in processed foods. Salt is a food preservative and extends shelf life. If you have high blood pressure and don’t usually read labels, you might be astounded when you pick up and read the labels in your grocery cart. Even foods labeled ‘healthy’ or ‘organic’ can contain loads of sodium. If you have high blood pressure it is recommended to not get more than 1500 mgs of sodium every day. You might be shocked at how easy it is to consume that amount in just a few items of processed food products.
- Life Expectancy and The Disease Connection: A high intake of highly processed foods increases your risk of death from ALL causes. For every 10 % increase in intake of processed foods there is a 12% increase in your risk for any kind of cancer.
Processed foods cause obesity and are also linked to diabetes, heart disease, increased inflammation in the body.
Convenient but still healthy choices:
As mentioned earlier, some minimally processed foods can be beneficial to your health and still be easy to prepare and use.
- Frozen fruits and veggies: These are typically fresh frozen so they retain the fresh nutrients.
- Canned beans: Although the sodium count can be high, you can minimize it by rinsing them well.
- Nut butters: Almond, cashew and peanut butter are convenient ways to get your healthy fats. Make sure the ingredients only list the actual nuts- do not buy the ones with added sugar, hydrogenated oils or added salt.
- Yogurt: Greek yogurt provides plenty of protein and probiotics, don’t buy it sweetened or flavored. Add your own fruit.
- Canned/jarred tomatoes: Watch for added salt, but minimally processed tomatoes give you lycopene- an important cancer-fighting antioxidant.
- Whole Grain products: Whole grain pasta, bread, oatmeal, brown rice and some whole grain crackers can help improve cholesterol levels and give you added fiber to help with digestion and blood sugar levels.
By: Cindy Luisi, WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach