Choosing Whole Foods Means Choosing Health

Choosing Whole Foods Means Choosing Health

How many times have you gone into the market and grabbed a ready-to-heat, pre-packaged frozen meal, just because it was easier and more convenient? A bag of wings, a TV dinner, a box of cheese crackers -- they are all processed foods, and they are typically packed full of fat, sodium, sugar, chemicals, and any food value has been seriously compromised by the processing.

You may want to think again about processed foods.

While most people do know this, they may have not have fully realized the truth. At the last American Society for Nutrition annual meeting, one report warned that processed foods may have larger health risks than previously thought.

Based on research done at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that looked at the nutritional profile of highly processed foods, as well as how popular they were, the report was really quite frightening. For four years, over 150,000 households tracked their food purchases, and every food item was nutritionally catalogued to determine the level of processing and nutritional value, and stored in a database.

Highly processed was determined to be any food that had more than one ingredient and industrially-manufactured additives. This included white bread, cookies, crackers, chips, soda, candy, and all pre-made packaged meals. Any whole food like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc, was considered not or minimally processed. Also, chemical processing was the concern, not mechanical processing, which is just grinding food and does not affect its nature.

Statistics showed after four years that households consumed an average of 70% of their calories from highly processed foods! In some cases, the number was over 80%. It is no wonder we are facing an obesity crisis in the US.

The major problem was considered to be not just the level of fat, sugar, and sodium, but also the lack of any actual nutrition in the foods. Anything that starts off as real food is completely destroyed by the production process, so combined with the unhealthy ingredients, this is a no-win decision that is leading people into health risk.

Furthermore, when studies are done of traditional cultures that move to a western style diet, the results are always the same. Quality of health goes down and health concerns go up. We all know by now the dangers of consuming refined sugar, saturated fats, and excess sodium, but when these are made the core of a diet, and the food value is removed, the result will eventually become devastating, leading to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.

Processed foods are often addictive.

Likely one of the worst aspects is that these processed foods are usually very satisfying to taste buds, and to our reward centers. The 'food reward hypothesis of obesity' posits that by overriding our natural defense mechanisms, over-stimulating the reward to the brain, packaged foods cause us to overeat and create the weight gain problem and all its concomitant effects.

Processed foods have a low thermic effect.

Another factor to consider is the amount of energy required to actually process and absorb these foods in the body. A study published in Food and Nutrition that compared the difference in energy expenditure when consuming a processed versus a whole food-based meal showed that we burn twice as many calories digesting unprocessed foods (Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: implications for daily energy expenditure; Sadie B. Barr, Jonathan C. Wright.) Considering that the thermic effect of food is responsible for about 10% of our total energy expenditure, it is easy to see how this further contributes to obesity.

Just eating whole foods will help you stay slimmer.

And finally, have you taken the time to read the label of a lot of these foods? Most of the ingredients are unrecognizable and unpronouncable. These are flavorings, colorings, preservatives, and texturants. They all work to trick you into being foolish and degrading your own health in the process. The fact is you don't need studies to tell you that consuming these chemicals is just a bad idea.

So what's the solution to the processed food problem?

My approach is simple. Learn to love food and to love cooking. Preparing your own meals is the only viable solution. I follow the outer aisle rule, which says when you shop in a market, only go down the outermost aisles. Typically, all markets place their fresh and whole foods in the outer aisle, with all the processed foods in the inner aisles.

Read the labels if you must buy processed food, and if you cannot recognize or pronounce an ingredient, do not buy the product. If you are buying a grain based food like bread, make sure it has 2-3 grams of fiber per serving at minimum. There are so many things to avoid on the list that it just makes more sense to avoid them all and just buy whole foods.

If you want a healthy life, do not consume processed foods as a general policy. Yes it may be convenient, and easy, and fuss and clean-up free, but is that more important than your well-being? Give it some real thought next time you are in the market deciding on what to feed yourself. Maybe you never gave much thought to food or cooking, but there is really no alternative if you value your health. Time to embrace your inner chef.

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The opinions expressed in this article are of the author. Content and other information presented on the site are not meant to be medical advice or any substitute for professional advice, counseling, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard professional medical or mental health advice from your physician or other qualified health provider.

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