By Laura Freeman
“Roughly 40 to 50 percent of the calories most Americans eat these days come from highly-processed foods, including fast food, take out along with snacks and convenience foods you see at eye level in the middle of the supermarket,” Catherine Anne Couch, PhD, RD said. Working with epidemiologists at the UAB School of Public Health who study how nutrition affects diseases, she finds that trend alarming.
“We’re seeing more and more research showing links between highly-processed foods and chronic long-term disease processes,” Couch said. “Two studies showed that for every 10 percent increase in consumption of highly-processed foods, risk for heart disease goes up 10 percent and risk for cancer goes up around 12 percent. Beyond that, diabetes, hypertension and obesity are closely related to how our nutritional habits are changing. Now we even see questions about how cognitive decline might relate to what we’re eating.”
What exactly is processed food? How do you define the difference between real food and highly-processed food?
“Foods are ranked in four categories,” Couch said. “Category one is usually only washed and packaged foods like eggs or tomatoes. At the most, veggies or fruit might be chopped and bagged, ready for a veggie tray.
“Category two is typically an ingredient that requires a bit of processing to make it what it is. Olive oil would need to be pressed, and butter would have to be churned.
“Category three might be canned, bottled or frozen. It could be as simple as canned fruit with a little sugar added, or ham in a can with water and natural juices. As long as you’re shopping in the first three categories, you’ll probably be doing fine as long as you read the ingredients on category three. You should recognize the ingredients, the list should be short, and you should be able to find most of them in an average kitchen.”
The difficulty comes when you get to category four—highly-processed foods. They can be on the shelf just down the aisle from foods that have a body friendly ingredient list. However, they may have up to 500 additives including some you may have never heard of. The amount of research done on the long-term effects of consuming them may vary.
These ingredients range from preservatives to bulking agents, emulsifiers, colors to make them more appetizing, flavor enhancers like sodium, and trans fats, if that’s the fat that tastes best.
“Popular brands and fast food restaurants build their business on making their foods highly palatable so people want to consume more of them, more often,” Couch said. “One study showed that people who consume highly-processed foods ate 500 calories a day more than people who ate whole foods. That many calories soon adds up to a battle with insulin resistance and obesity.”
People who habitually eat real food also have a built-in advantage at staying fit through life because, while highly-processed foods pass through the stomach quickly, whole foods stick around longer and generally take more energy to digest. It may only be a few calories per meal, but over a number of years, it can add up to the difference between being fit or having to battle middle-age spread.
In the millennia of evolution that shaped our digestive systems, it’s easy to see that we made a wrong turn a few generations ago. Unfortunately, it’s harder to see how we’re going to get back to eating and enjoying healthy food.
“Health professionals need to understand the critical role real food plays in preventing disease and helping people heal,” Couch said. “We have to get that message through to patients and point them in the right direction to learn how to eat healthier.”
We’ve lost a generation of cooks who picked dinner from the garden and knew how to get it on the table in half an hour, building flavors with savory fresh ingredients and herbs to make homemade taste preferable to takeout. Before we lose another, we need cooking classes, even if they are on YouTube. The person who cooks needs to know about convenience techniques like sheet pan meals; making two and freezing one; slow cookers; and once a month freezer prep meals.
A second class could teach people how to grow their own food. Even a 2 x 2 foot space on a deck is enough room for a tower garden to grow 30 or more salad vegetables or strawberry plants. Children need a chance to see first-hand what real food is and how much fun it is to eat the food you grow.