Processed Foods as a Whole (or Should That Be ‘Hole’?)

When I was a kid, I got a cookbook for Christmas one year and I was pretty excited.  (It was the Betty Crocker cookbook, FYI & before I finally killed it, it was covered with all kinds of spills and notes!) It seems kind of funny now to think that I used to cook regularly and I never thought twice about it.  Making pancakes on Sunday mornings consisted of milk, oil, eggs, baking powder, whole wheat and all purpose flour.  I think there was a little salt in there too!  People would look at me funny sometimes when I said that I did things like make tapioca pudding from scratch as well as the pancakes and other things most people make out of boxes and mixes.  It’s not that I’m some master chef– Hah! Hardly! I had these things on hand because I used them regularly (the tapioca also went in apple pies), and in retrospect, I think they tasted better than the stuff you get packaged and already made.  But more importantly, now that I look back, even though the food I was making may not have been the healthiest, it started mostly with whole foods: apples, butter, whole wheat flour, eggs, milk.

I’m going to take a page from the Oldster’s Handbook here: I remember when microwaves first came out.  I was a kid, maybe about 8 or so, and the 7-11 store near my house had one.  It was about as big as a conventional oven and no one was allowed to touch it except the store clerk.  If you wanted something that had to be microwaved like popcorn or a burrito (FYI: even the microwave popcorn was kept frozen back then!), you paid for it at the counter and then the clerk nuked it for you.  It was amazing! (My mom was convinced you got cancer from the microwaves, of course.) The idea of making food in minutes instead of hours was something out of Star Trek.  We were used to food taking, if not hours to prepare, at least a fair amount of time.  Processed food in the 1970’s mainly consisted of canned foods like soups, stews, chili beans, sardines, etc, and boxed items like pasta (mainly spaghetti back then) and rice.  There weren’t a lot of jarred sauces and certainly nothing in aseptic packaging or MREs.  If it wasn’t frozen or canned, your choices were limited.  (FYI: the bagels we got as kids were also frozen! And they weren’t the size of softballs, either!)  Most of us still made food that started out as something fresh from the meat counter or the produce section.

Of course as technology got better, processed foods became more prevalent.  I suppose consumers would say the quality of the product improved as well.  The TV dinners I had as a kid were definitely not high quality, usually consisting of overdone mystery meat, a puffed up mashed potatoey substance, shriveled peas and carrots, and a sticky gluey sugary mess.  They were pretty bad and they took almost an hour to cook but to us they were the height of technology and we ate them because we didn’t have anything else. We were more concerned with how they tasted rather than whether they were good for us.  We didn’t look at them as a regular part of our diet either: they were something on hand because we couldn’t get to the grocery store and make a real dinner before bedtime.  We knew that our “real” food was stuff like roasted chicken and homemade mashed potatoes, or spaghetti and salad.  But sometime in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, that changed.  Meals became something that started with a box of flavored rice or flavored pasta mix.  We still cooked it in a pan or a pot but it began and consisted mostly of something processed that came from a box or a jar.  We might add something else to is, like mushrooms or vegetables or meat, but the bulk of it was now something processed. And it proceeded to get more processed from there.

Listening to a podcast the other day (Paleo Solution & Katy Bowman was the guest), she said schools had put whole apples on the menu for the kids’ lunches and the kids were complaining that the apples were not only hard to hold, they were hard to eat because they had to bite into them and chew them.  I guess apples today for most kids come sliced up in plastic bags.  (Frankly, it’s a little scary to me to think that people don’t know what raw food looks like.) I guess for them oranges come in cans, unless they are the super sweet easy peel seedless mandarins.

The point of Ms. Bowman’s episode was really about movement, and how we are becoming a completely sedentary culture (I would use the word “lazy”) but my point is real food takes time to cook and to digest.  There’s a big movement now towards “slow food” and “whole food” but I would just call it “real food.”  That’s what it is: it’s food that has been as unaltered and unadulterated as possible.  It used to make me chuckle a little when I’d read the label on the loaf  of white bread: it had vitamins and nutrients added to it because the processing destroyed whatever vitamins, fiber and nutrients were in the whole food ingredients.  The reason processed food takes less time to cook is because it’s pre-cooked and for the most part, pre-digested.  There’s less work for your body to do because the work is half-done in the factory.  The food has been broken down into an easily accessible and easy to use form and then the manufacturers have mixed it with preservatives or whatever system they are using to extend the shelf-life so it can be shipped off to a store or a warehouse for however long it takes before someone decides to “heat and eat.” The farther the food is away from its natural state, the easier it is for the body to break down (meaning metabolize) and the fewer nutrients it has in it because most of them are destroyed during the processing (that’s kind of what the word means).  Some companies add nutrients to the food after processing, but there are issues with what’s known as “bio-availability.” (Just because your protein powder has x grams of protein per serving doesn’t mean that your body can actually absorb that protein!)

When experts and doctors and other health gurus talk about the obesity epidemic and the type 2 diabetes epidemic, they are quick to point the finger at sugar, trans fat, fast food & junk food (the “usual suspects”), but they are missing the rest of the gang.  These usual suspects are only the more visible culprits in the “bad food” mafia.  It’s processed foods in general that are the real guilty parties.  The sugar, trans fats, fast food & junk food are part of it, but it’s also the boxes of macaroni & cheese, the microwavable ready to eat meals, the canned soups, stews and meats, the frozen dinners, pies and cakes and the processed bakery goods. Basically, if it has an “ingredients” list and comes in a box or a bag, it’s been processed. That means the food has been broken down in some way, had chemicals/ preservatives added to it and probably things taken out. The more processed a food is, the farther away it is from its natural state and that’s what is making us unhealthy.  When you eat a processed food, like a bagel and cream cheese, the wheat has been broken down into a powder (flour) and it’s in an easily digestible form, so instead of getting all the nutrients from the wheat berry (as well as the indigestible fiber that goes through your body), your body only gets the starch, which is quickly turned into glucose which causes a rapid spike in your blood sugar, which causes a rapid spike in insulin, which then leads to a blood sugar crash once the glucose from the bagel is cleared from your blood.  Your body does not have to work for the glucose- it’s like getting dessert without having your dinner.  When you eat a whole food, even something like those big troublesome crunchy apples, you do get the natural sugar in the fruit, but you also get the fiber and the nutrients, since it’s a raw apple.  The fiber in the apple takes longer to process than the bagel, so the glucose hits your blood stream more slowly than the bagel’s starch.  There is less of a spike in your insulin secretion and that means your blood glucose levels stay steadier longer.  That’s a good thing, because one of the reasons we get hungry after eating a big plate of spaghetti or a bowl of cereal, or a bagel, is because once the blood sugar crashes, your body wants to raise it (in an effort to keep it steady) and it triggers your hunger.

This is how eating a lot of processed foods can cause weight gain: you eat the pasta, the potato chips, the crackers, insert processed food here, and then you get hungry an hour or so later, so you eat something else.  You are usually consuming way more calories than you need because your body is always trying to keep your blood sugar steady, but the processed foods keep causing  highs and lows: bagel= spike= crash; chips= spike = crash; fries= spike= crash.  You keep getting hungry, you keep eating, your body gains weight.  And worse yet, you’re getting fewer nutrients in the processed foods.  This is how overweight people end up suffering from malnutrition, because, really, how much nutrition is there in burgers, fries, and soda?

In addition to consuming more calories than you need, you never get a chance to burn off the fat your body is storing from the processed foods, because your body can’t burn fat and store it at the same time, and it only burns fat when there is no insulin in the blood, but if you are always eating easily metabolized starchy foods (like rice, pasta and chips), there is almost always insulin in the blood to clear the glucose the digestive system is pulling out of the processed foods.  So, you keep eating, keep getting hungry and keep putting on weight.  It’s a difficult and frustrating vicious cycle to get out of : you keep eating but you keep feeling hungry! (I was trapped there for most of my adult life! It’s hell!!)

So how do you get out of this metabolic nightmare? Eat as few processed foods as possible! That’s not to say you can’t ever have a bagel or a donut or pasta again; you just have to be a savvy consumer (literally)! If you do eat the bagel or the pasta, make sure you eat it with something that is not a simple or refined carb (that would be the bagel/ pasta), like broccoli or cheese or meat.  So if you have the pasta, have pasta primavera with lots of veggies and some meat, or have the bagel as part of a sandwich with meat or cheese or veggies.  The protein, fat and fiber in the non-processed foods help to delay and even out the metabolism of the processed foods.  If you eat the donut without a protein, fat or fiber, just remember that once the insulin clears the glucose from your blood, there’s going to be a crash and you’ll probably be hungry, not to mention low energy and maybe even drowsy. The best thing to do is to get away from eating things that are processed: no boxed foods, no refined carbs, no canned or frozen prepared foods.  The farther away it is from its natural state, the less nutrition it has and less time it’s going to take for your body to break it down. That’s not to say all things in boxes or bags are bad; I remember the last time I bought a bag of frozen cherries.  When I looked on the back the ingredients list read: “dark sweet cherries (may contain pits).” Your goal is to keep food as natural as possible. It’ll have more nutrition and take longer for your body to metabolize.  This is what you want because the longer it takes to hit your bloodstream, the steadier your blood glucose stays.  No spikes mean no crashes and that means your body can clear the glucose and move out of storage mode and into fat burning mode.  It means more nutrition for your body and less calories that get stored as fat.

This is how I finally managed to get out of that vicious carb cycle of hell: I phased the processed foods out of my diet. You don’t have to go cold-turkey all at once (I’m really not a fan of cold turkey, figuratively or otherwise!) It’s not difficult at all to do: when you run out of whatever processed food you had at home, buy a whole food instead when you go shopping! So if you are out of pancake mix or cereal or oatmeal, buy a whole breakfast food instead like eggs, bacon, sausage, yogurt or cottage cheese.  When you run out of pasta, buy veggies instead.  It takes a little meal planning and usually weekly shopping because whole foods tend not to have the same shelf life, but over time, you wind up with very few processed foods and more whole foods.  I buy a lot of bagged salad kits personally, because it’s just me at home and a whole bunch of salad greens are is too expensive besides the fact that they would probably go bad before I ate all of them (even eating salad five days a week like I usually do!) Even the bottle of salad dressing tends to go bad because I am not a fan of vinegar & oil.  I also buy sausages, bacon and cheese, but that’s about as processed as I get.  Everything else is fresh meat, fruits or veggies.  When you make this a practice over time, you transition slowly so it’s not a huge shift and it becomes a new habit, a healthier one.  If you want some great whole food meal ideas, there are a lot of websites with great information: Elizabeth Benton’s Primal Potential; Dr. David Ludwig’s Always Hungry; Paleo Leap; and Mark Sisson’s Mark’s Daily Apple. If you want to read more on this topic (from an actual professional with letters after his name), there is the aforementioned Dr. David Ludwig’s Always Hungry?; Robb Wolf’s Paleo Solution; Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint; and Jason Fung’s Obesity Code as well as  Living Paleo for Dummies (which is what I started with).

Honestly, when I went looking for a more nutritious lifestyle, I had no intention of moving away from processed foods (I seriously had about 10 boxes of mac & cheese in my cupboard).  I decided on Paleo because it was the simplest and it used real “normal”food. I thought it was something I could enjoy long term, and so far, I am! Over the course of the last year and a half, what I have learned is that processed foods (not carbs or fat or red meat, or sugar, etc) are the real problem.  We eat too much of them because they are too easy to prepare and they are cheap and last forever on the shelf! I have had a few processed foods since I went Paleo, but the majority of what I eat now are whole natural foods.  I’ve learned not only do they taste better, but they are better for me and the health benefits I’ve gained from them are monumental to me: I have lost 160 lbs, no longer take medication for my blood sugar and my mobility is far better than it ever was at 438 lbs. FYI: I threw out the last two boxes of mac & cheese!


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