Diet and Lifestyle Quality for a Healthy Body Weight – Part 1: Highly Processed Foods

By Tami Best, MS, RD, CDN

Whole, Unprocessed foods

Our mission at Promise of Vitality is to help build a world free of chronic disease caused by intake of highly processed foods, overexposure to environmental toxins and uncontrolled stress. In part one of this three part series, I will talk about the impact of highly processed foods on body weight.

At the advent of mass food production, our world became exposed to a highly-processed diet. In some ways this was very good, a lot of non-perishable food became available at a very low price. People began to have easy access to food that wouldn’t spoil. Three main ingredients; highly manipulated, corn, wheat, and soy, became pervasive in our food supply.

With this mass use of these three processed ingredients, we now have easy access to a plethora of nutrient-poor foods marketed in endless varieties. The foods that are overflowing on our grocery store shelves are high in calories, unhealthy fats, and refined carbohydrates however they are, low in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

There is no question that the types of food you choose impact your weight. The idea that we just need to focus on total calories we consume versus what we expend is antiquated. For example, studies show that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages promotes more weight gain than if you were to consume the same amount of calories from unprocessed foods.

When you consume pure, processed carbohydrates likes those we find in sugar-sweetened soda, you over-activate the pleasure center of your brain. In fact, so much so that sugar takes on an addictive quality, much like a recreational drug.

In addition, your body reacts to the refined carbohydrates with a surge of insulin. This insulin is the hormone responsible for clearing sugar from your blood stream. It is also a growth hormone for fat cells (1). As the insulin quickly clears the sugar from your blood stream, your blood sugars crash too low making you feel shaky, irritable and more hungry. In addition, your body is exposed to reactive oxygen species which damage all cells in your body, inducing inflammation. Put all of this together and your body is in the perfect state to store fat.

So what diet-related strategies can we use to fight unwanted weight gain?

We need to focus on an eating style that calms the pleasure center of our brain, stabilizes blood sugar, minimizes our exposure to harmful reactive oxygen species and reduces the growth-promoting state of fat cells that comes with excessively high levels of insulin in the blood. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Eat mostly whole, unprocessed organic fresh fruits, vegetables, organic cage-free poultry, organic grass-fed beef, and wild salmon.
  2. If you eat foods from a package, choose foods with the least number of ingredients. Also avoid all foods that contain high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils.
  3. If you do eat some refined carbohydrates such as cookies, candies or cake, opt for homemade varieties with wholesome ingredients. Also, have these foods in smaller portions with some protein and/or healthy fat containing food. For example, have a small serving of almonds with a cookie. The protein and fat in the almonds will lower the glycemic load (how high your blood sugar goes up) from the cookie.
  4. Retrain your taste buds to enjoy naturally sweet foods to minimize your intake of hyper sweet foods that activate the addictive-forming, pleasure-center of your brain. For example, with an apple, you will provide plenty of antioxidants to protect you from harmful reactive oxygen species and fiber to help stabilize the rise in blood glucose.
  5. Avoid artificial sweeteners. Just like sugar, they have an addictive quality and may also trigger the release of growth hormones for your fat cells.
  6. Learn how to cook more meals for you and your family. Research shows that people who prepare and eat most of their meals from home, consume between 150 and 200 calories less per day.
  7. Finally, work to have a balance of foods at all meals and snacks. For example, add a protein rich foods such as eggs, nuts, seeds, lean beef or poultry to all meals and snacks to help promote blood sugar stabilization.

(1) Viewpoint – Increasing Adiposity, Consequence or Cause of Overeating?; D. Ludwig, MD, PhD, M. Friedman, PhD; JAMA May 16, 2014


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