The Food that Harms Us: Processed Foods and Sugar
Look, I'm not going to lie to you: I love a good brownie, some bacon, Coke, cookies, In N' Out french fries, gummy bears... Yup, I love them all: they taste good. What's worse, they taste amazing. BUT (you had to know there was a 'but' coming) I never feel good after I eat them. Sure, that first bite is amazing, the second one is too, but after that all I'm really doing is chasing after that elusive, ecstatic first-bite feeling. And in the end all I feel is bloated, tired, maybe a bit sick if I ate too fast, most likely constipated a few hours later, and I have to take an anti-histamine because I KNOW my hives are gonna pop up within the next 30 minutes if I don't take it.
So what's the deal with these foods? Why do they taste so good and leave us drooling over them, but are so, so, SO bad for us? Why do we almost always have to eat them and then take some kind of pill (anti-histamines, antacids, proton pump inhibitors, laxatives)? Why do our faces break out after eating them? What qualifies as processed food, and how much sugar is too much?
Since you are most likely not reading this while lounging on the front porch of your self-sufficient farm (and if you are, can I come live with you please ?) then odds are that most of your food is processed to some degree. Don't panic, that's not as bad as it sounds: foods that undergo minimal processing (like your bagged spinach, frozen fruit, or roasted nuts with no added ingredients) are simply processed for your convenience and are not bad for your health. On the other hand, foods with ingredients added for flavor (pasta sauce, cake mixes, salad dressings), ready-to-eat foods (crackers, deli meat), and pre-made meals (frozen pizza) undergo heavy processing and through this lose most, if not all nutritional value, while gaining unneccessary and unhealthy ingredients and calories.
Highly processed foods contain high levels of sugar, sodium, oil, additives, preservatives, and food coloring, all of which which feed the bad bacteria in our gut and therefore damage our digestive system. Even small disturbances in our microbiome (our gut bacteria) can lead to a series of discomforts or ailments like headaches and migraines, acne, digestive issues, or eczema. More serious damage to our intestines can lead to conditions like leaky gut or IBS, the symptoms of which are more severe and unpleasant (chronic fatigue, arthritis, depression, Crohn's, and the list goes on and on).
Besides the unwanted side effects, a diet consisting of processed foods is one that lacks nutritional value. A frozen, pre-made dinner has nowhere near the amount of vitamins and minerals that a home cooked meal has, even when the base ingredients are the same. Let's take a simple meal of chicken and broccoli and compare the pre-made, frozen version with the home made one: one has 600mg of sodium, the other has 80; one has .8 miligrams of Iron, the other has 10; one has 30 miligrams of Vitamin C, the other 150. Your honor, I rest my case. And for the fun part: the pre-made frozen meal I chose for this comparison is actually one marketed as healthy, with nothing artificial in its ingredient list (I guess soy protein isolate grows in trees nowadays).
So what do you do in the face of the convenience and taste of processed foods? How do you turn your back away from them and face towards more nutritious, healthy food? The answer sounds incredibly easy to do, but it is actually very hard and tricky: you must make a commitment to yourself, to your loved ones, and to your children (future children, if you haven't reached that phase of your life yet). A commitment to treat food as fuel, and not entertainment; to treat your body better and to ask it what it needs, not what it can't help but want; to realize that life can be full of energy and not full of discomfort. Without this commitment you will find yourself reaching for that box of Mac&Cheese every night when you feel exhausted and unwilling to cook, for that Coke when you're thirsty, and for that bag of chips when you want a snack. Once you make that commitment you will find that at the bottom of this post is a section on tips for how you can implement simple, healthy swaps in your daily life!
Ah, my favorite topic (I have a lot of favorites, please don't judge me). It will be hard to accept the following statement, my dear friend (I know it was for me) because 1. nobody ever told you this and 2. sugar is such a normal, daily, pervasive ingredient in our food that it really just doesn't make any sense. But sugar is a drug (if you need to take a moment, regroup, read that again, absorb it, make your peace with it, then do so because trust me, same.)
A well known study in the Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews Journal showed that sugar meets the criteria for a substance of abuse and may be addictive to those who binge on it. If you've ever wondered why eating that delicious brownie feels so.damn.good you might be surprised to hear that it's not just the taste: sugar affects the chemistry of the limbic system, the part of the brain that’s associated with emotional control, and releases opioids and dopamine into our brains. Want to know what other substances lead to the release of those two chemicals? Only a few: alcohol, amphetamine, cocaine, and opiates like heroine. No big deal.
Neither I nor the Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews Journal are trying to tell you that sugar is just like heroine or cocaine. It's not. But it is addicting, it does cause cravings (you know them all too well), and it has withdrawal effects (like headaches or irritability). And worst of all, we are consuming WAY too much to still be able to lead a normal, healthy life.
On average we consume between 90 and 120 pounds per sugar per person per year. If that number doesn't seem neither high nor low, let's put it into perspective:
1. In 1915 the average person consumed 17 pounds of sugar per year; that's about 6 or 7 times less than what we currently consume.
2. 100 pounds of sugar per year means about 120 g of sugar per day, the equivalent of 30 teaspoons. The maximum daily sugar intake should be about 24 g for women, and 36 g for men (6 and 9 teaspoons respectively).
See what I mean?
The reason why sugar is detrimental to your health lies in the mechanism through which it operates in your body. The human body requires a certain level of glucose (sugar) in our bloodstream, which our cells use as fuel. When glucose levels dip too low cells can't function normally, and when they are too high the vessels that supply blood to vital organs are damaged. When you eat a candy bar the sugar within it is directly absorbed into your bloodstream, raising your blood glucose levels rapidly, and causing your pancreas to secrete the hormone insulin, responsible for keeping these levels steady and at a certain value. When we eat too much sugar we tell our pancreas to keep secreting insulin, which in time can lead to type 2 diabetes. Insulin also causes us to gain weight and can lead to imbalances in other hormones (like estrogen) and hormone-secreting glands (like the thyroid), which can then lead to acne, mood swings, sleep problems, etc. (I think the common theme in this post is the endless list of diseases and ailments caused by sugar and processed food)
Ok, now I have all the info. What do I do?
1. First, you make the commitment we discussed above to prioritize healthy, natural, nutritious food over anything else.
2. Then you grab a piece of paper and a pen (or your phone) and you make a list of the 3 processed or high-in-sugar foods that you feel like you will never be able to let go of.
3. You take a look at the list I made for you below to see if you can find them there. If you can, wonderful! My Healthy Swap category in the Recipe section of my blog only has the DIY Granola so far, but comment below with what recipe you would like for me to post next and I'll be happy to do so! If you cannot find them feel free to contact me and ask for a healthy swap for your faves, and I'll get back to you as soon as possible with the best options and recipes I can find.
Till next time!