The first step in optimizing your diet, as counter intuitive as it sounds, is not learning what to eat. The one change that you can make that will make a dramatic change in your ability to maintain sugar levels, turn around chronic disease and manage your weight is to learn exactly what NOT to eat. The biggest change to our diets that has led to all of chronic disease this century is the advent of ultra-processed food being the major portion of our day to day food intake, leading to a massive disruption in our metabolism.
Ultra processed food, which I will define shortly, is truly disastrous to your biology and health. As powerful as food is and can be medicine, industrially created foods can be poisonous. Ultra processed food is known to wreak havoc on our gut bacteria, our intestinal lining, and cause immense amounts of inflammation by constantly activating our immune system to fight the toxins they come with. This inflammation leads to diabetes, obesity, dementia, heart disease, hormone issues, depression, cancer, early death and just feeling “lousy” all the time.
The history of processed food can be traced back thousands of years, as humans have been preserving, fermenting, and processing foods for millennia to extend their shelf life, improve taste, and enhance nutritional value. The prehistoric early beginnings of food processing began when early humans used basic methods like sun-drying, smoking, and fermentation to preserve food. As early civilizations like the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans emerged, these techniques were refined, and new methods such as pickling, salting, and curing were introduced. In the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century), European societies relied heavily on preserved foods, particularly during winters and long sea voyages. Canning, a preservation method using sugar, was also introduced during this time. Sugar became a luxury, and thousands of people all over the world were enslaved to pick and process sugar cane. The Industrial Revolution brought about more significant advancements in food processing. Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner, developed the canning process in the early 19th century, which allowed food to be preserved in sealed glass jars. Later, British merchant Peter Durand patented the use of tin cans, making the process more practical and accessible. Mechanical refrigeration also emerged during this time, allowing for better preservation and transportation of perishable foods. In the 20th century, farm subsidies in the United States, during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt became a significant part of U.S. agricultural policy. Number 32 introduced farm subsidies as part of his New Deal programs, which aimed to lift the country out of the Great Depression while simultaneously dramatically increasing the amount of food available for a growing population.
The 20th century saw tremendous growth in the processed food industry. The increasing demand for convenience, longer shelf life, and cost-effectiveness drove the development and popularity of ultra-processed foods. Several factors contributed to their creation. First, our government was anticipating a food shortage crisis, and supported (financially and with policy) the creation of the mass food production industry. This led to advancements in food processing technology, such as high-speed machinery and industrial techniques, which allowed for the mass production of highly processed foods. Chemical advancements in food additives then made it possible to create products with extended shelf lives. Combine this with the fact that people's lifestyles became busier and the shift to more women in the workplace, and there was a growing demand for ready-to-eat or easy-to-prepare food options. Ultra-processed foods fit this need by requiring minimal preparation or cooking time.
With globalization and improvements in transportation, the food industry expanded, leading to the production and distribution of processed foods on a large scale from within the US, and imports from other countries. As food companies recognized the profit potential in offering convenient, flavorful, and long-lasting food products, aggressive marketing campaigns promoted these foods, leading to increased consumption (think about the number of cereal commercials you remember the jingle to!). Food companies also hired scientists to make their food hyper-palatable (very tasty) using additives, sugar and unhealthy fats. To further drive profits, food companies use inexpensive ingredients, allowing for lower production costs and making them more affordable for consumers. Other key innovations included the development of instant foods, like powdered drinks and cake mixes, and the introduction of frozen foods by Clarence Birdseye. As convenience became a major selling point, pre-packaged frozen meals and snacks gained popularity, and fast-food chains proliferated. The advent of high-fructose corn syrup in the 1960s and 1970s led to the increased use of added sugars in processed foods.
The term “Ultra-processed food” refers to industrially formulated food products that often contain a high number of processed ingredients, additives, and little to no whole foods. These foods are typically produced using multiple processing techniques, such as extrusion, molding, and hydrogenation, and can be found in a wide range of products, including snacks, ready-to-eat meals, sweetened beverages, and processed meats. These “Frankenstein foods” are mainly chemical creations that taste incredible, but have zero nutritional value. Worse, they contain ingredients that are poisonous to our gut, or cells, and our metabolism. In his 2013 book, “Salt Sugar Fat” Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Micheal Moss gives a compelling and critical view of the processed food industry, shedding light on how they manipulate key ingredients to create products that are hyper-palatable, literally creating “food addiction” and the obesity epidemic.
There is substantial research that suggests that ultra processed foods have negative health effects. It’s no surprise that UPF causes weight gain. An incredibly well done in-patient study published in "Cell Metabolism" in 2019 showed that individuals on an ultra processed diet consumed more calories and gained more weight than when they ate a diet rich in whole foods, EVEN WHEN the diets were matched for calories and macronutrients. (ref: )
Study after study proves that UPF is linked to all major chronic diseases. A 2019 study published in the "Journal of the American Medical Association" found that each additional daily serving of ultra processed food was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. A 2018 study published in "The British Medical Journal" found a significant statistical association between ultraprocessed food consumption and cancer risk. Another study published in "The British Medical Journal" in 2019 suggested that high consumption of ultra processed foods is associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality. Ultra processed food consumption has also been linked with an increased prevalence of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Finally, there is emerging evidence linking diets high in ultra processed foods with poor mental health in children and adolescents.
It's important to be able to recognize ultra processed foods when you see them. Ultra-processed foods are characterized by:
- High levels of added sugars, salt, and unhealthy fats that are hidden in the ingredients: These ingredients are used to enhance flavor, texture, and shelf life, but their excessive consumption is associated with various health issues, such as obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Processed food contain a large amount of fructose which is especially damaging to our metabolism.
- Low nutritional value: Ultra-processed foods are often calorie-dense but nutrient-poor, offering limited amounts of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. Grain refinement is a perfect example of how processing foods to a high degree can lead to health problems. A refined grain is any grain (wheat, oats, cornmeal, barley) that has been processed (milled) to remove the most nutritious parts and leave a product that is finer, more stable, and white. Refined grain products include white rice, white flour, white bread, most pastas, rice, cereals and snacks. All of the refined grains are devoid of fiber, B vitamins, and iron and over a dozen other nutrients, so governments forced food manufacturers to “enrich” them with some vitamins (no fiber) artificially. The end result is an unnatural, nutritionally deficient food product that causes gut issue and diabetes.
- Artificial additives: These foods often contain numerous artificial ingredients, such as preservatives, flavor enhancers, colorants, and emulsifiers, which are used to improve taste, appearance, and stability. These ingredients, however, can lead to numerous chronic health problems and can destroy your gut and metabolism.
- Extensive processing: Ultra-processed foods are subjected to multiple processing techniques that can alter their nutritional composition and promote the formation of potentially harmful compounds.
- Highly palatable and convenient: These products are designed to be appealing and easy to consume, which can encourage overeating and contribute to poor dietary habits. In fact, food manufacturers often hire entire teams of people to make your food “hyper-palatable”, and therefore addicting. The chemicals added to your foods to make them hyperpalatable cause you to overeat and become hungrier as you eat more!
You should be able to point out these foods instantly when you see them. If you follow the rule that if it has a list of ingredients (vs just a name like “broccoli” or “salmon”), it may be processed. Examples of ultra processed food include:
- Sugary breakfast cereals
- Processed meats like hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats
- Reconstituted meat products like chicken nuggets and fish sticks
- Processed cheese like sliced cheese
- Snack bags like chips and crackers
- Sugary cereals and granola bars
- Frozen dinners and pizzas
- Instant noodles and pasta
- Sweetened beverages like soda and energy drinks
- Breakfast cereals
- Baked goods like cakes, pastries, and cookies
- Fast food meals
- Margarine and other spreads
- Salad dressings and condiments
- Cheese spreads and processed cheese
- Candy and chocolate bars
- Energy bars and protein bars
- Packaged snacks like pretzels and popcorn
- Shelf stable food that comes in boxes and packages (cookies, cakes, etc)
- Refined grain products like white bread, buns and pasta
- Vegetable oils made from seeds and corn
Eliminating these foods from our diet as much as possible will quickly, sometimes within days, lead to better control of our metabolism, reduction in our risk of chronic disease and weight loss. Here is a checklist of some easy ways you can start eliminating these items from your diet.
- Cook at home: Preparing meals at home allows you to control the ingredients and avoid unnecessary additives, preservatives, and unhealthy fats often found in processed foods. Many restaurants use highly processed frozen foods and vegetable oils to cook all their food to maximize profits (processed food is cheap food).
- Plan meals and snacks: Planning your meals and snacks in advance can help you make healthier choices and avoid the temptation of reaching for processed convenience foods. This is especially important when traveling.
- Shop the perimeter: When grocery shopping, focus on the perimeter of the store, where fresh produce, meats, and dairy products are typically located. These sections tend to have fewer processed foods.
- Read food labels: Familiarize yourself with food labels and ingredient lists, and look for products with fewer and more natural ingredients. Avoid products with excessive added sugars, sodium, and artificial additives.
- Choose whole grains: Opt for whole grain bread, pasta, and cereals over their refined counterparts. Whole grains provide more nutrients and fiber, which can help you feel fuller and more satisfied.
- Incorporate more fruits and vegetables: Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense and low in added sugars and unhealthy fats. Aim to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal.
- Snack wisely: Choose healthy snacks like fresh fruit, yogurt, nuts, and seeds over processed snacks like chips and cookies.
- Limit sugary beverages: Replace soft drinks, fruit juices, sweetened coffee drinks, and other sugar-laden beverages with water, herbal tea, or infused water.
- Make your own convenience foods: Prepare healthy versions of your favorite processed foods, such as homemade granola bars, trail mix, or salad dressings.
- Be mindful of portion sizes: Even when consuming processed foods, practice portion control to limit the number of unhealthy ingredients in your diet. Use a small plate instead of a “regular size” plate when eating anything processed.
- Learn to cook simple recipes: Equip yourself with basic cooking skills and a repertoire of simple, healthy recipes that use whole, minimally processed ingredients.
- Eat savory for breakfast: eggs are much better for you than breakfast cereals, waffles or pancakes
- Pick your food from the online menu before going out to eat: when going to a restaurant, we often arrive starving and unable to make good choices.
- Throw out (or donate) everything in your pantry that is in a box or a package: most shelf stable food is highly processed and doesn't deserve a spot in your home, never mind a special closet!
Learning to recognize and avoid processed food will be the healthiest choice you can make in your diet and lifestyle. In fact, a study of 105,000 + adults in France showed that for every 10% increase of processed food in your diet, you could have a 10% increase risk of heart disease and stroke. A Spanish study of 20,000 showed a 62% increase in all cause mortality! Although these studies are largely observational, they are large enough that an association between processed food and poor health cannot be denied. Taking these steps could have profound implications to your health, not just in preventing disease, but feeling good today, in this moment.