Speed Up Your Health By Slowing Down: Weight Loss & Slow Food

Some of you might have heard about the “Slow Food Movement” in the restaurant industry (Slow Food).  Essentially, it’s about creating healthy nutritious food in a green sustainable community, which isn’t a bad idea.  There are a lot of reasons why slow food isn’t just good for the environment and local community but also good for you.

At the risk of sounding like your grandma, I am old enough to remember (barely!) when fast food was still something of a novelty. When I was a kid, the main street in my hometown had more drug stores, gift stores or Five-and Dimes than it did fast food chains and the fast food places it did have were local independents.  When the first McDonald’s opened in our town, it was kind of a big deal. Because fast food was still new, it wasn’t something we had every day or even on a regular basis.  Food made at home, from scratch, was more the norm.

It’s not just restaurants that have ‘fast food’ either. Processed foods were also something new back then and most of us thought of it as something good. We can make mashed potatoes in ten minutes instead of an hour. Macaroni and cheese takes fifteen minutes instead of all day.  Oatmeal and rice take no time at all now that we have microwaves! So now that fast food and processed food have been around ‘forever,’ how are those working out for us?  Ummmmmm…. let’s think about that!

For most of us, the best thing about processed food is that it saves us time. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. For holidays and family gatherings, I would spend most of the day in the kitchen with my grandma and my aunts.  That is where I learned to make all kinds of foods that I could probably get at a restaurant or in a grocery store now, but none of it would taste like what I made in that kitchen with my family. Not everything that came out of my grandma’s kitchen was completely homemade, but most of it started as a whole food.  Grandpa’s chile started with fresh jalapenos he cut up, garlic he peeled and mashed and pork steak he cut up himself.  The only can he opened was the tomato sauce.  All of those ingredients were sauteed and simmered for a couple of hours or so.  My grandma’s adobo recipe began with pork steak and chicken cut and boiled in vinegar and water with her blend of spices added.  After a couple of hours or so, it was served over rice that had been steaming on the stove next to it!

As a kid, most of the food we ate started out as whole potatoes, whole dried beans, whole chickens from the butcher and rice from bins at the grocery store.  Our salads were lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers that we washed and sliced or shredded ourselves. Making dinner wasn’t ten or fifteen minutes of opening a plastic bag while something heats up in the microwave.  Preparing food took longer because it started out as close to whole as possible!

A few years ago I was watching one of those chef competition shows with Gordon Ramsay, something I normally don’t watch, but I was glad I saw this episode. There were about five or so contestants who all touted their cooking skills as ‘chef quality’ and this show was to weed out the pretenders. The first chore? Take this whole chicken and cut it into eight equal pieces.  I was unimpressed with the task until most of these wannabe chefs looked at the chicken and their eyes glazed over: they had no idea what to do! REALLY?!?!  I’ve been cutting my own chickens since I was about twelve and I am certainly no chef! Even at twelve, I could have done a better job than some of them did.

Another incident I recall had to do with potato salad.  At a luncheon, I was talking to the woman next to me about potato salad (it came out of a box!) and I mentioned that when I made it, I sometimes added tuna to make it more of a main dish. When she asked me about making it, she commented “isn’t it hard to take the skin off all those little pieces of potato?” I waited to see if she was joking (she wasn’t) so I told her gently “You peel the potatoes before you cut them up and boil them.”

As I mentioned above, I am definitely not a chef and until incidents like those above, I never really considered how far away we have grown from whole natural unprocessed foods. Yes, they can take longer to prepare but they also have more nutrition and less chemical additives and stabilizers. Most of us know this but what we might not realize is that processed foods are quicker because they are in a lot of ways “pre-cooked” and “pre-digested.” That box of potato flakes are potatoes which have been so highly processed they have virtually no fiber or vitamins or minerals. They have virtually no protein and no fiber, although they do have a little potassium (150 mg) and iron and even less vitamin C.  What else is in those ‘potato flakes?’ Sometimes it’s stuff we can’t pronounce, let alone spell! (Ingredients in Instant Potatoes)  I am sure that comes as no surprise to a lot of us: there are chemicals in our processed foods! Yes, let’s all roll our eyes at that one!

Think about it for a minute: we are eating food with less nutrition but with more chemicals. How much of what we are eating is actually food? And what do those chemicals do to our bodies? While listening to a couple of my favorite books for the second time (The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung and Brainmaker by Dr. David Perlmutter), I was reminded of a few things. Margarine is only one molecule away from becoming plastic; transfats cannot be expelled from our bodies, and artificial sweeteners not only raise our insulin levels, they kill our gut bacteria. Humans invented most of these chemicals in the last century so they are absolutely foreign to our bodies. Our bodies have no idea how to process them or expel them, so some of them end up in our liver or fat permanently because these compounds are recognized as “food” (because they aren’t). There are a lot of chemicals in processed foods that were never intended to be “food,” such as the sawdust in your processed grated cheese.  The manufacturers put it in there to keep the cheese from clumping together but our digestive bacteria and our intestines don’t know what to do with it, so…. what happens to it? (Woody Cheese?)  FYI: it’s not just in Parmesan, either!

It’s not just about nutrition: processed food can get in the way of your weight loss. Remember I called it “pre-digested”? That’s because the manufacturers have already begun the digestion for you! That is why it takes less time to cook! Consider those mashed potatoes: when they are made from potato flakes, the potatoes have been cooked, dried out and then processed with chemicals so they won’t spoil on the shelves.  When you eat them, it takes no time at all to digest them because 90% of what your body would do to them has already been done to them! Mashed potatoes from whole potatoes have more vitamins and fiber because those parts haven’t been removed or broken down yet. A simpler example is broccoli: raw broccoli is a whole lot crunchier because the fiber isn’t broken down by the cooking process. It’s the same reason canned green beans are mushier than fresh or even thawed frozen green beans. The canning process requires cooking while freezing doesn’t.  This is why your nutritionist will tell you if you can’t get fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen is the next best thing.  On the can, the label usually reads “green beans, water, salt” while your bag of frozen beans reads “green beans.” The biggest difference is the fiber and nutrition which aren’t lost in the cooking.

Faster processed food means it’s digested faster, hits our blood stream faster and so we get hungry again faster.  Add to that there is less nutrition in what we are eating but more stuff that is making us fatter, such as the carbs, transfats and sugars. As someone who eats a Paleo diet, rice is one of those things I like to stay away from, but it’s not the natural rice that makes people fat.  Many cultures using rice as a traditional staple in their diets weren’t obese until their diet became more Westernized.  It’s not the steamed rice that makes them fat: it’s the processed Western diet that did that! Real whole food takes longer to prepare, has more nutrition and is something your body knows how to digest. It also takes longer to be absorbed so we tend to stay full longer. It just makes more sense! One of my friends jokingly calls the processed cheese food she buys “plastic cheese” because of the individual plastic wrapper on each slice. She doesn’t know how right she is!

 

 

 

 

 

Flavor Boosters Boost Your Waistline, Not Your Health!

One of the things I’ve been noticing a lot is people complaining about eating healthy because “the food doesn’t taste that good!”  If it’s someone I can respond to, I usually let them know there’s a reason whole foods taste different: it’s because processed foods have been processed full of ‘flavor enhancers,’ among other things.  This is when they ‘boost’ the flavor by filling it full of chemicals, designed to overpower your taste buds and make you want more of it.  This is the manufacturer making sure you crave their product and want to eat/ buy as much of it as possible!

A lot of these ‘flavor boosters’ show up on the ingredients as ‘natural flavors.’  That does not mean that these ‘flavors’ come from food: it just means they are not ‘man-made’ and come from “Nature” whether that can mean it’s something derived from wood by-products, coal tar manufacturing by-products or something else.  It does NOT mean it comes from FOOD!  Seriously, the artificial sweetener saccharin was originally a by-product of coal-tar manufacturing.  Incidentally, that is NOT the reason it’s banned in Canada: the Sugar Industry lobbied long and hard to ban saccharin because of the competition in both the US and Canada.  In the US, they managed to get it labeled as a carcinogen after feeding it to lab rats at mega-high dosages (like it’s all they fed the rats for weeks on end and wow! some of them developed cancer!) If humans ate that much saccharin, they would probably throw up long before they got cancer, the same way we would throw up after eating the same amounts of sugar, if we didn’t fall into a diabetic coma first!

In all honesty, the food manufacturers have a vested interest in keeping you buying their products, so they make the products as enjoyable and addictive as possible.  The more you buy them, the more you want them and the more money in their pockets.  By contrast, the more unhealthy you get!  Processed foods like chips, snack cakes, fast foods and other things that come with an ingredient list, have been tested to determine what flavors light up our brains’ pleasure centers the most.  Taste testers rate the different combinations and additives according to how much they want to keep eating it, the mouth feel, the smell, and everything else that makes food taste “so delicious!”

By comparison, whole unprocessed foods are going to taste different, because they don’t have all the chemicals processed into them.  They haven’t been processed (I think of it as ‘pre-digested’ personally!) so they are going to have a different mouth-feel.  This is the term food manufacturers use to describe literally the way food feels when you put it in your mouth, as in chips should be crunchy but not too crunchy; mashed potatoes should be soft but still have some texture; burgers should be a little chewy; hot dogs should have a little snap to them, etc.  Products are actually tested to see what ‘mouth-feel’ rates highest.  Most of us do this on our own when we make foods from scratch: I like my ground beef to have a little spring in it and not be completely charred; when I used to make mashed potatoes from scratch, I left a few lumps in them because I like to taste and feel the actual potato!  We know how we like our foods to feel as we chew on them!

Whole foods, by comparison, don’t have the chemical additives to boost the flavor and keep us eating more.  So when you’re eating the ground beef burger you made from grass fed beef (hopefully), it only has the flavors and spices you put on it, such as salt, pepper and maybe some onion or garlic powder.  The same goes for the broccoli you steamed yourself, the spinach you sauteed yourself or whatever else you’ve made from whole foods.  It’s not going to have the ‘natural flavors’ or the MSG (monosodium glutamate) unless you put it on the food.  If you’ve been eating mainly processed foods most of your life, like most of us have, whole foods will taste a little bland at first, but our taste buds change depending on what we eat. When we stop eating processed foods in favor of the whole natural foods, we get used to the way they taste, especially once we learn how to prepare them in a way we really enjoy (for me, this includes not walking away from the stove and turning the beef into a charcoal briquet as I usually do!) I like my stronger tasting meats like beef and lamb with a curry powder I mix myself, but milder meats like chicken I usually just roast.  I’ve learned to prepare my vegetables with olive oil dressings or just a little salt and ghee.  It might sound kind of boring compared to garlic mashed potatoes or Kansas City spare ribs from the freezer section or a restaurant, but I know what’s in the food I’m eating, and it’s not ‘flavor boosters’ and chemicals, and that is important to me!

Another way that processed foods boost your waistline is that the chemical ingredients can really mess with your intestinal bacteria (your microbiome).  We in the Western industrialized world eat mainly processed foods.  No surprise there!  But there is a direct correlation between the rise in consumption of processed foods and the rise in metabolic disorders such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, depression, and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and arthritis.  There are people who say it’s because we’re living longer and we’re exposed to chemicals in our environment.  Both of those are true, but what is also true is that we are exposed to chemicals in our food, and these are chemical compounds that we as a species have never eaten before and were probably not meant to eat (such as a coal-tar by product like saccharin!)  These additives and preservatives are designed to boost taste and mouth feel, not our health.  They keep us fat and unhealthy rather than promoting good nutrition and healthy bodies.  When did the whole point of eating become satisfying our taste buds rather than fueling our bodies?

These chemicals were never part of the human diet before industrialization, the same way polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), what Dr. David Perlmutter calls “factory fats,” were never part of the human diet.  Because they are ‘derived’ from a plant product or ‘Nature’ they are allowed to be called ‘natural,’ but they are not naturally occurring in nature the way an olive, an egg, a fish or a cow are naturally occurring.  These are foods humans and other animals have eaten for millenia and are pretty much recognized in all societies as something to eat. Monosodium glutamate, cottonseed oil and disodium phosphate, not so much! (Incidentally, cottonseed oil has to be processed to make it edible.  That’s really something I don’t want to eat!)  Most of these PUFAs are also high in omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory and unstable.  They are not fully metabolized by the body either and those unstable fats become a part of every cell in our bodies!

Besides the fact that most processed foods are full of pro-inflammatory “factory fats” that really mess with our absorption of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, they are also full of highly processed carbohydrates that spike our blood sugar.  This is why I usually refer to processed foods as ‘pre-digested.’  The foods have been broken down into the simplest compounds possible for fast easy digestion in our system, so the corn chips we ate 20 minutes ago are already metabolized while the cabbage we ate an hour ago is just getting there. Processed foods have almost no fiber, fewer vitamins (unless it’s been fortified and had them added back in) but are full of quick carbs, artificial flavors, preservatives and unstable factory fats.  When these products hit our microbiome in our small intestine, the beneficial bacteria that break down our food so we can absorb it usually take a hit in that the fiber that some of them eat isn’t there, while some of the chemical ingredients are toxic to them. Remember the last time you tried a new food and it sent you running to bathroom and/ or kept you there for the next couple of days?  That’s your microbiome telling you that food didn’t agree with them! More and more health professionals are realizing that an unhealthy microbiome leads to more than just digestion problems: they are making stronger connections to a lot of the diseases mentioned above like Alzheimers, ADHD, MS, arthritis, diabetes and others.  Many of what we used to think of as ‘brain-only hormones’ like serotonin, dopamine and tryptophan are linked to our microbiome: the same microbiome we are attacking daily with processed foods full of chemical flavor boosters!

Realistically, no one is going to eat something that tastes bad, but we forget that our tastes change over time. As a child, most of us made a face the first time we tasted beer or coffee or blue cheese, but as adults, we’ve learned to like those things.  We refer to them as ‘acquired tastes.’  Maybe it’s time we ditch the kiddie junk food in favor of a healthier subtle but sophisticated palate of whole foods?