Engineered for Overconsumption: Breaking the Cycle of Eating Highly Processed Foods

photography of pink doughnut
Photo by Jonathan Miksanek on Pexels.com

Processed convenience foods are engineered to be easy to get and easy to eat. Not such a bad idea, after all, we’re all very busy and in a hurry.

Here’s the big fat problem. Sadly, they’re making us fat and sick.  Two-thirds of American Adults are overweight with about one-third suffering from obesity. One-fourth of our children under age 19 fit the criteria for obesity. According to the National Research Council, more than half the cancers diagnosed are a direct result of our diets.  And this is just a few examples, unfortunately, there are too many chronic diseases to name that are directly related to our intake of highly processed foods.

And guess what? It’s not our fault.

These sugar and pro-inflammatory-rich foods have been created to make us crave them. Many of these foods have been produced in a way to make them incredibly rewarding to the brain. They cause a surge in our feel good hormone dopamine. Our innate tendency is to continue to try to achieve the same response and eat more in an effort engage the pleasure center of our brain. We eventually override any control mechanism causing us to eat way more than we need.

Our sugar and pro-inflammatory fat intake skyrockets putting us at increased risk for metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and mood disorders.

To make matters worse, these processed foods are loaded with a chemical soup. Preservatives, colorants, artificial flavors, and texturants flood our system.

Maltodextrin for example is often used to thicken foods. It is made from highly processed corn, rice, potato skin or wheat. It has a higher glycemic index than sugar which may lead to a rapid spike in blood glucose followed by a crash. This causes us to crave more sugar. It has also been shown to change the composition of gut bacteria interfering with the growth of healthy probiotics. These changes have been linked to risk of overgrowth of disease causing bacteria.  Cellulose gel, which is wood pulp, is another example of a texturant that can disrupt the balance of the microbiome and increase risk for a host of diseases.

Let’s not forget the artificial dyes and preservatives. Six artificial dyes are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use by manufacturers. Some studies link these dyes to hyperactivity disorders in children. Red 3 has been shown to increase risk of thyroid tumors in rats. Preservatives such as nitrites, commonly used in processed meats may increase risk of stomach cancer.

So how do we redefine convenience foods?

  1. Choose mostly unprocessed whole foods, preferably organic to minimize exposure to more harmful chemicals (ie glyphosate).
  2. Read ingredient lists!
    • Choose products with no or low added sugar. Remember sugar goes by many names such as agave nectar, brown rice syrup, corn syrup solids, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup…
    • Also choose foods without highly processed inflammatory vegetable oils that use chemical solvents to produce them. These include soybean, canola, corn, cottonseed, sunflower, peanut, sesame, and rice bran. Genetically modified soybean oil is currently the biggest source of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats. It has also been found to have high levels of the pesticide residues from glyphosate.
    • Instead choose products made with anti-inflammatory fats such as avocado, extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil. Oils that have been made by crushing or pressing plants or seeds are best.
    • Remember ingredients are listed in order from highest to lowest. Try to find foods that have whole foods as the first three ingredients. Try to avoid foods with long ingredient lists.
  3. Eat these convenient, reasonably-priced nutrient-dense foods:
    • Baby carrots, bagged spinach, pre-cubed butternut squash, potatoes, canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables
    • Brown rice, canned beans, oatmeal, quinoa, air-popped popcorn
    • Bananas, oranges, frozen unsweetened berries and fruit-blends
    • Canned wild salmon, organic eggs, lean pork, chicken breast, organic cheeses and low-sugar yogurts.
  4. Get creative with grab and go snacks:
    • Turkey roll: Fill a slice of nitrite-free turkey with pre-shredded carrots, a slice of cheese and a few sliced olives – roll and enjoy.
    • Energy bites: Mix together 1/2 cup rolled oats, 1 teaspoon pure maple syrup or honey, 1 tablespoon  of nut butter and a few dark chocolate chips.
    • Nut butter boats: Rill celery with all natural almond or seed butter. Top with a few raisins for added sweetness.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. But change does need to happen. Redefine what convenience foods mean. If you have more innovative ideas on how to create grab and go healthy whole food meals and snacks, I would love to hear from you!

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