The introduction of industrial food processing has without a doubt had the most detrimental effect on our health of any other factor in the last few hundred years—and possibly in the entire history of humankind.
Food refining has brought us all three of the harmful foods that are destroying our health: flour, sugar, and industrial seed oils. It has also brought us chemical additives and preservatives, some with known negative effects and others with effects still unknown.
New research is revealing the harm these newfangled processed foods have on us almost every day. For example, emulsifiers used in packaged foods ranging from mayonnaise to bread to ice cream have been shown to increase intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and cause a chain reaction of inflammation and autoimmune disease. Diet soda consumption may increase the risk of stroke and causes kidney damage, possibly because of the phosphoric acid used as an acidifying agent to give colas their tangy flavor.
To avoid the harm caused by processed and refined foods, a good general rule is “if it comes in a bag or a box, don’t eat it.” Or, put another way, “Just eat real food.”
Of course, not all foods that come in bags and boxes are harmful, so this isn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s just a helpful guideline. Butter is often packaged in a box, and Trader Joe’s (for some strange reason) packages vegetables in sealed plastic bags. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat butter and vegetables.
But in general, if you follow this guideline, you’ll avoid the foods that are causing the most damage to our health. And that’s more than half the battle.
The three horsemen of the apocalypse: sugar, flour and industrial seed oils
Over 50 percent of the calories the average American consumes today (and my guess is the number is similar in other industrialized countries) come from flour, sugar and industrial seed oils.
We consume flour in the form of bread, pasta, muffins, bagels, crackers, cookies, cakes, and a variety of other processed grain products. We consume sugar in obvious places, like colas and candy bars, and less obvious places like hamburger buns, salad dressing, breakfast cereals, and flavored yogurts. (Sugar is so ubiquitous that the average American now eats 152 pounds of it a year, or about a half a cup a day!) And we consume industrial seed oils—soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, corn, and canola oils—in just about all processed, packaged and refined foods.
So what’s wrong with these ingredients? Why is it such a disaster that they now account for more than half of what we eat on a daily basis?
There are several reasons, but two stand out. First, these foods promote overeating. They’re high in calories, but low in nutrients, fiber, and water. Nutrients, fiber and water are what make us feel satisfied after eating a food. And if we don’t feel satisfied, we don’t know when to stop eating.
I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of sitting down with a bag of potato chips or a pint of ice cream and eating the entire thing in one sitting—even though you weren’t particularly hungry. When is the last time this happened with a bowl of broccoli or even a juicy steak? People don’t tend to overeat real foods like they do processed and refined foods, because real food satisfies us and nourishes our bodies (see Step 2) in a way that processed and refined food does not.
This overconsumption of “empty calories” is directly to blame for the epidemic of obesity and metabolic disease we’re experiencing today. In 2009, US adults consumed about 365 more calories than we did in 1960. During that period the prevalence of obesity increased from 13 to 34 percent and the prevalence of extreme obesity increased from less than one percent to 6 percent. The consequences of this dramatic rise in obesity are profound: excess weight is now thought to account for one in three deaths that occur in middle aged people in the US each year.
Second, these foods promote inflammation, and inflammation is at the root of all modern disease, from cardiovascular disease to autoimmune disorders to allergies to arthritis.
Most of the flour we consume in the US is wheat flour. We now know that up to one in ten people has an inflammatory reaction to one or more compounds in wheat. Gluten is the most well-known, but there are several others, including lectins like wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), proteins called gliadins and glutenin, an opioid peptide called gluteomorphin, and a substance called deamidated gliadin, which is produced by the industrial processing or digestion of gluten.
Gluten intolerance can affect nearly every tissue in the body, including the brain, skin, endocrine system, stomach, liver, blood vessels, smooth muscles and even the nuclei of cells. It is associated with an astonishing variety of diseases, from schizophrenia and epilepsy, to Type 1 diabetes and osteoporosis, to dermatitis and psoriasis, to Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism to peripheral neuropathy. Because the range of symptoms associated with gluten intolerance is so broad and nonspecific (e.g. can be attributed to any number of conditions), many patients and doctors don’t suspect gluten may be the cause.
Sugar promotes inflammation in several different ways. It disrupts mineral balance, increases blood sugar, causes leaky gut, weakens our immune defenses, and interferes with the absorption of protein, which our cells and tissues need to function properly.
Industrial seed oils contain high amounts of a fatty acid called linoleic acid (LA). When LA is exposed to heat—as it inevitably is during food processing or cooking—harmful compounds called OXLAMs are formed. OXLAMs contribute to a process of cellular damage called “oxidative stress,” and are associated with a variety of inflammatory diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to fibromyalgia to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). OXLAMs are a major component of atherosclerotic plaques and play a central role in the development of heart disease. High intakes of linoleic acid are especially problematic when the long-chain omega-3 fat DHA, found exclusively in seafood, is absent from the diet. This creates a pro-inflammatory environment in the body.
- If it comes in a bag or a box, don’t eat it.
- Base your diet on real, whole foods like meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and starchy plants like potatoes and sweet potatoes. Also see ‘The Perfect Diet‘