I often write about the trouble with ultra-processed food. Yet, I keep coming across reviews with the same damning—and ultimately, astonishing—conclusions.
First, that the obesity epidemic—and the boom in chronic illness that has accompanied it—directly correlates with increases in ultra-processed food consumption, especially among the poor. And second?
That we should be using food as medicine—and reversing issues like heart disease and diabetes by addressing their root causes—rather than treating these chronic diseases with drugs.
The most powerful “cure” there is
As you know, these conclusions aren’t exactly novel concepts—the idea of using food as medicine is as old as Hippocrates. But somehow, it’s always shocking to actually see anyone other than myself (and my colleagues in natural medicine) acknowledging the effects—both positive and negative—that food can have on your body, and your health.
Emulsifiers, for example, are common ingredients of ultra-processed foods. And guess what? Research shows that they negatively alter your gut microbiome, raise your blood sugar, trigger overeating and weight gain, and contribute to fatty liver disease.
In fact, recent research has linked ultra-processed foods of all varieties to overeating (thanks to decreased satiety which, in turn, leads to more frequent eating), greater weight gain, and worse biochemical markers.
I’m talking about “foods” like potato chips, sugary drinks, refined grains, and processed meats… these are all linked with weight gain. While higher intakes of fresh, whole, unprocessed foods like veggies and nuts are protective against weight gain.
None of this should surprise anyone, of course. But it led the authors of this latest review to recommend a few key strategies, including:
- Keeping a two-week food journal (something I’ve personally been doing since I first started practicing medicine).
- Starting with small, gradual changes, like cutting out soda and increasing water intake (again, something I encourage—although motivated patients can and should move quicker on this step).
- Cutting back on fast food until it’s completely off the menu (check… and duh!).
- Gradually changing one meal per day to a healthier option, month-by-month (again, if you don’t want to take years to lose the weight, you can and should make faster changes).
- Seeking guidance on healthy food substitutes, shopping choices, brands, and recipes (obviously, a huge part of my practice).
- Attending regular follow-up appointments and receiving continued encouragement on weight loss and maintenance habits (something I do with my patients—but I know is sorely lacking in most mainstream medical practices).
Finally, the authors also recommend routine reassurance that eating right does, in fact, get easier over time. Again, something I always preach.
In the end, as always, consistency is key. Big changes can be a challenge. But when you do something every day for enough days in a row, it will eventually become second nature. Yes, that even includes “dieting.” And really, there’s no better time to start making these changes than now, as most people are staying and working from home and have more control over their diets to ultimately avoid the “quarantine 15”.
It’s time to face facts
You won’t get too far treating adult patients like children—no one knows better than I do.
But over three decades of counseling patients on weight management, I’ve found that most of them need more specific advice than what they’re currently receiving. And they need the support to match.
In any event, it should be clear to everyone that we have to do something different. Because more than one in three Americans is now obese.
And guess what? Obesity is a primary cause of death in this country. So it’s way past time we stopped treating this epidemic as if it doesn’t matter—and started taking drastic action to end it.
At the very least, we should be reconsidering the usefulness of doling out outdated dietary advice. Because the fact is, we wouldn’t be having half these issues if we could all acknowledge the simple conclusion that food quality actually does matter every bit as much as (and arguably, more than) quantity—and that all calories are NOT created equal.
When you look at the ways in which our eating habits have paralleled the rise in obesity, one indisputable trend is a spike in the consumption of ultra-processed or “junk” foods. It’s not a hard code to crack.
Once the powers-that-be figure this one out, then maybe—just maybe—the tragic trajectory of obesity and disease in this country may finally start to shift.
P.S. As always, I recommend sticking to a healthy, balanced, Mediterranean-style diet (like my A-List Diet), which focuses on fresh, whole, unprocessed foods. But I also understand that the many different buzz words on food packaging can be overwhelming—and downright confusing. That’s why I devoted a lengthy discussion to clearing up a few misconceptions around food labels in the November 2019 issue of my monthly Logical Health Alternatives newsletter (“How Big Food’s favorite marketing ploy is hurting consumers, animals, and the environment”). So if you haven’t already, consider becoming a subscriber today. Click here now!
“Obesity Epidemic and Junk Food Consumption Go Hand in Hand.” Medscape Medical News, 01/10/2020. (medscape.com/viewarticle/923632)