Imagine that you're walking through your local grocery store. Like all of us, you have a family and a budget and you want to get the most bang for your buck. Your job is to feed “the masses”, and you could easily spend money on “Real Foods” like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans and meats that would mean hours of preparation for multiple meals for the upcoming week. But then reality sets in and we sacrifice health for pre-packaged, processed and instant foods that will not only save in prep time, but provide ample sustenance for hungry mouths.
Stick to the Perimeter of the Supermarket
"How can I pass up the white rice, green chile chicken burritos, lasagna, sweet-n-sour chicken and Auntie Anne’s organic mac’n’cheese?"
If this is you, you're not alone. Adam Drewnowski, a researcher at the University of Washington, set out determine how far a dollar can get you, nutritionally speaking. According to the NY times, he found that “he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drinks” as opposed to the perimeter of the supermarket, where the majority of “Real Food” exists.
“Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots,” according to the Times.
Of course we'd all love to prepare our own carrot-based entree. But if you live in the DC metro area as I do, processed foods are a necessary evil. Unfortunately, these processed foods are adding on unhealthy weight, lowering our IQs, and leaving us depressed.
Duh...Pass the chips
Processed foods have a very simple goal: They taste good and don’t go bad while sitting on the shelf.
So, what? Isn't that a good thing? Well, in order to keep food fresh on the shelf, it's necessary to remove all “live” nutrients. Clearly, if a nutrient is alive and sits on a shelf, it will eventually die, and will allow bacteria and fungi to arise. So, by stripping all “live” nutrients, processed foods attain an extended shelf life and will be just as good months later when someone decides to buy them.
If a nutrient is never alive, it can not die. Try it for yourself; buy some organic super veggies, (kale, broccoli etc) and also buy the healthiest cereal you can find. Leave both of them on your kitchen counter. After two weeks, based on physical appearance, choose which one you would like to eat. You and I would both choose the dead cereal. We would also get fatter.
Wait, there’s more.
Apparently, people don’t appreciate the taste of “dead nutrients”. This is why companies that produce processed foods must add three things: Salt, sugar and fat. Generally the salt is a highly processed table salt and stripped of all its salty nutrients, the sugar is primarily a concentrated version called “high fructose corn syrup” and the fat is either “hydrogenised” or “trans fat”, both of which provide a beautiful platform for cardiovascular disease and stroke by blocking our arteries.
Therefore, even though processed foods last longer, provide high calories for low dollars, and tickle our taste-buds, their empty calories turn into belly fat.
How do processed foods make us fat?
In order to tell this story I will focus on processed grains, which make up the majority of processed foods. This could be anything from chips and cookies to an organic frozen pasta dinner. Whole grains are made up of vitamins, minerals, and complex and simple carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are sugar. When food is processed, many of the nutrients are removed leaving behind the sugars. As soon as the highly processed meal hits your mouth, those carbs rapidly turn into small sugar molecules. These sugars enter into the blood stream causing the pancreas to secrete insulin. Insulin’s primary goal is to get sugar into the cells where it can be used to produce energy but it also likes to build. Build FAT.
For as long as we have been on this earth, insulin has been storing away fat just in case a famine comes along or we can’t find food. Today’s humans are consuming much more fat producing processed carbohydrates and not only are we not expecting a famine, we are drowning in a sea of food. I challenge you to a test. Cut out processed foods and sugary drinks (including) for 1 month. Eat healthy proteins, veggies, fruits and limited quantities of whole grains. I predict you will see increased clarity, energy and you might even lose a few pounds. Those with more processed foods and sugary drinks will benefit the most. Don’t forget to consult your doctor first, before making any changes to your diet.
How fat are we actually getting?
In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control began a program called Healthy People 2010. The goal was to have as many states as possible achieve an adult obesity rate less than 15% (Obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) equal to or greater than 30).
This was not a lofty goal. As recent as 1990, every single state in America had obesity rates below 15%. To this day, no state has an obesity rate below 20% and many are well over 30%.
I urge you to visit one of the most impressive displays of America’s obesity rates over the last 30 years in the CDC’s interactive map of American obesity to see this information for yourself. Current national obesity rates are close 34%. That means that one in three Americans are obese.
Interestingly, in 1960, one in ten Americans were obese. How could this be? In the last 50 years we have created low-fat foods, we eat heart healthy cereals (that help us lower our cholesterol), and we drink skim milk, and diet soda. It seems as though the more advanced our nutrition becomes, the fatter we become. Both Colombia University and Harvard are predicting that 50% of Americans will be obese by 2030.
The trend is obvious: The more low nutrient, high salt, high sugar, high calorie food we eat, the fatter we get. Sadly, this doesn’t just apply to us adults. Our children are fatter now then any other time in our history.
For some people the fear of “obesity” itself is enough of a reason to eat healthy. For the rest of you I would like to highlight two studies connecting obesity to cancer and death.
First, the USA today reports that a study by the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer society showed “that excess weight and a sedentary lifestyle are risk factors for one-quarter to one-third of common cancers in the USA”. Secondly, a Wall Street Journal article exposed the fact that “As many as one-third of common cancers in industrialized nations are linked to excess weight…..”. So to be clear; processed foods don’t cause cancer. They cause obesity and obesity is linked to cancer. Pass the Doritos!
If you are not impressed by the thought of cancer…there are recent reports that dead, processed foods attribute to depression and low IQ. In the first study, which was published by the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2009, a pool of 3486 participants found that those participants who at more processed foods, on average, had a higher rate of reported depression.
Conversely, the participants that tended toward a whole food diet, reported less incidence of depression. We could have or should have predicted this. We know that the brain requires nutrients such as essential fatty acids, amino acids, minerals and vitamins in order to function properly. We also know these nutrients are stripped from “Real Foods” to preserve shelf life. Even though processed foods contain high calories, they possess few of these nutrients needed for brain health.
The second study came out February 7, 2011 from Bristol University, also in Britain. Researchers studied about 4,000 children under the age of four and followed them for four years. At the end of the study, the children that ate more processed foods scored lower on IQ tests than children who ate whole foods throughout the same period.
Why does processed food cause obesity, depression and lower IQs?
The reason for this is quite simple. Our ancestral DNA, the genes that have been passed down from the first human to you through your parents, has very specific nutritional requirements. These requirements have been exacted over the course of millions of years and is precisely engineered to operate on “Real Food”. The farther any food gets from is natural form, the worse it becomes for you.
Think of the body as a high performance sports car needing high performance fuel. If it gets low quality fuel it will not perform to optimal levels and the engine will eventually be ruined. As intelligent as we think we are, we are not smarter than millions of years of human research.
Dr. Ogilvie’s Recommedations
When in doubt, err on the side of nature. Research will continue to prove the benefits of whole foods in the years to come but there's no reason to wait. I know we live in a world of processed foods and they are difficult to avoid. I’m not saying we should get rid of all processed foods. But if you follow some simple rules to the best of your ability, you will see your health improve.
1. Eat Real unprocessed food. Shop in the perimeter of the grocery store
2. Eat 3 reasonably portioned meals per day.
3. Eat protein at each meal (Nuts, seeds, eggs, fish, meat, beans, and many others).
4. Eat veggies at 2 of the 3 meals per day
5. Eat fruits at 2 of the 3 meals per day
6. Eat whole grains in limited quantities, consider quinoa, barley and steel cut outs. Avoid the same old processed wheat that our bodies are so tired of seeing.
7. Reduce processed grains as much as possible
8. Exercise for 30-45 minutes per day and consider a 1-3 hour excursion on the weekends.