Have you ever noticed the layout of grocery stores? Produce, meat, milk and cheese are always either off to the side or hidden along the back wall. In order to reach them, we have to pass through a maze of cake mixes, frozen dinners, potato chips, cookies, soft drinks, etc.
This layout isn’t an accident. It’s a way to force us down aisles of processed foods…. and it works.
The food industry makes a lot of money selling processed foods, which is why they want us to buy them. Most of these foods are made from beans and grains, especially wheat, corn and soy. Out of these cheap and simple foods, manufacturers make thousands of foods with different textures and flavors designed to stimulate our cravings and open our wallets.
How are Processed Foods Made?
Processed foods are made by breaking natural foods into different components, sort of like taking a piece of fabric and separating it into different colored piles of threads. Just as thread is not the same thing as fabric, many people don’t consider the products of food processing to be food. Dr. Roxanne Sukol of the Cleveland Clinic has coined the term “manufactured calories” to refer to processed components and the “foods” that are made from them. Her reasoning is that manufactured calories don’t affect our bodies like foods and shouldn’t be confused with them.
What is the difference between “manufactured calories” and food?
Manufactured calories have been stripped of a lot of things that our bodies need. This is the biggest reason manufacturers add nutrients to processed foods. They are trying to “beef them up” after the loss of nutrients that happened during processing. Ironically, foods with added nutrients are labeled “fortified”. Whole, unprocessed, foods don’t need to be fortified.
When manufactured foods don’t have the nutrients we need, they leave us feeling hungry. Of course, this only makes us eat more of them. This in turn makes us more hungry, which makes us eat more, etc. It is the proverbial vicious cycle.
While manufactured foods are low in nutrients, they are rarely low in calories. For this reason, they can cause us to be both malnourished and obese. Malnutrition may be one of the reasons that it can be so hard for people with obesity to have the energy to exercise.
Rapid Absorption and Insulin Spikes
When sugars, fats, proteins and fiber occur in natural combinations, the body has to work to break down food so that it can be absorbed. This is called “digestion”. Digestion is not the same as when a food manufacturer breaks down food at a processing plant.
In the healthy digestion of natural food, all the nutrients found in that food are available to the body in the appropriate natural balance. One example is the difference between drinking fruit juice, which has had the fiber removed at a processing plant and eating a whole fruit. The juice in a whole fruit is just as sweet as the processed juice (assuming sugar hasn’t been added). However, when we eat a piece of fruit, our body also has to digest the fiber of the fruit, which slows the digestion process and also helps lower bad cholesterol.
When food is absorbed slowly, it only takes a little bit of insulin to carry sugar to the cells. Manufactured calories, on the other hand, are already partially broken down. This is why they are absorbed more quickly. The faster a food is absorbed, the more insulin the body needs all at one time.
If our pancreas produces too much insulin, an insulin spike results. Over time, high levels of insulin can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Before the modern version of food processing was invented, eating and hunger were naturally related. “Recreational eating” and the obesity that follows were rare. In recent decades, scientists have figured out how to create foods that are “hyper-palatable. These foods are the product of recombining different types of manufactured calories in specific ratios.
“Hyper-palatable” combinations have a neuro-chemical effect on the reward centers of the brain. In other words, they make us feel abnormal levels of pleasure when we eat these foods. These feelings of pleasure override our ability to sense when we’re full. The more of these foods we eat, the more we tend to eat for recreation rather than nutrition. The more we eat for recreation, the worse our health becomes.
over 25% calories from fat and more than .30 percent sodium by weight
over 20% of calories from fat and more than 20% of simple sugars
more than 40% calories from carbohydrates and more than .20 percent sodium by weight
Of course, it is possible to make hyper-palatable foods at home in our own kitchens. However, when we’re adding our own sugar, fat and salt to foods, we are much more aware of what we’re eating. It also takes work to create it. This helps limit the number of unhealthy foods in our diet.
Stop the Self-Blame
After the development of hyper-palatable foods, it became a lot more difficult to eat a healthy diet. While other factors affect our health (think exercise and plenty of sleep), we can’t enjoy good health if the bulk of our diet is unhealthy foods.
It’s ok to eat limited amounts of things that aren’t good for us, but only as exceptions to what we normally eat. The more we eat for recreation, the less likely we are to be in good enough shape to enjoy other kinds of recreation.
Once we understand how processed foods affect us, we are better able to realize that 1) healthy eating isn’t easy and 2) diet related diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease aren’t just about self-control. The more we understand, the easier it is to make changes without carrying a burden of shame and self-blame.
Where do we start?
Assuming that we’re not already on the whole foods bandwagon, where do we start?
The best way to eat a healthy diet is to stop the cycle that drives us to eat unhealthy foods.
Pay more attention to eating good foods than avoiding bad ones. If we eat healthy foods, our bodies will get the nutrients we need and we will be less likely to still be hungry after we eat. If we’re full from eating good foods, we’ll also have less room for the bad ones.
Rather than banning all bad foods, we should try cutting back. If we eat ice cream every day, we can cut back to every other day. If we are used to dessert at lunch and dinner, we can try cutting back to one dessert a day.
We should take it slowly. Every failure makes the next failure easier and the next success harder. This problem didn’t show up overnight and it’s not going to go away overnight. It’s better to adopt one small habit we can stick to than five good habits we drop after the first week.
It helps to learn to cook delicious meals at home using natural whole foods. This doesn’t mean we can’t cut up, combine or cook foods. It just means that all of our ingredients should be real, unprocessed, foods. It’s a lot easier to do this if we’re eating home-cooked meals. The Downside of Eating Out – Rush Memorial Hospital