Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris
Walk into the average grocery store, and it appears as if you've entered food nirvana. The aisles overflow with a dizzying array of items, from Oreos and Cheez-its to Kashi and Greek yogurt.
The products call out from their home on the shelves, singing masterfully-tailored appeals to entice each kind of consumer.
Some might be captured by the
mouthwatering packaging, others by the impressive health claims… and
for a number of us, it's simply the memory of a taste we just need
to experience again.
Labels were non-existent, as were the complex ingredient lists we're accustomed to today. We simply cooked and ate real food. Yet those days are gone, replaced by the industrial food complex that has embedded itself into the very fabric of American life.
Our processed food products
- our chips and granola bars and
hummus packs - are just so convenient, so affordable and so
pleasurable that most people can't imagine life without them.
It's no surprise that junk food and frozen dinners fall into this category, but many innocent-looking kitchen staples do as well.
For instance, the majority of industrially-produced breads are intricate concoctions of,
Oh, and we can't forget the
synthetic vitamins added back in to make up for the nutrients
stripped away during processing.
In fact, I really knew nothing about nutrition except the adage that fruits and vegetables are good for you. And why would I think twice about food? I felt fine. No one ever told me to eat differently...
besides, everyone else was doing the exact same thing...
Just one month after I entered college, I came down with a host of frightening symptoms that began with near-fainting spells and progressed into a slow breakdown of my autonomic nervous system.
This is the system responsible for basically everything our bodies do without our conscious control: heart rate, digestion, breathing, temperature regulation… you name it.
I was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic
Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), a condition characterized by an
excessive jump in heart rate upon standing that really just means
your autonomic nervous system can't regulate circulation (and
usually many other of its necessary jobs).
The more knowledgeable ones told me to increase my salt and fluid intake to expand blood volume, exercise to improve vascular tone and buy compression garments to help circulation.
But nothing worked. I hit rock bottom the summer after my freshman year when I began having week-long crashes of total nervous system shutdown.
I couldn't stand, walk,
breathe well, digest or even think. I felt like a half-conscious
shell of my former self, and no one knew what to do.
The specialist spoke about the body as an interconnected system, influenced by everything from the food we eat to the lifestyle we lead…
Looking back, this was a completely normal response for someone growing up in conventional American society, eating conventional American food and seeing conventional American doctors.
No one talks about the environmental factors that influence disease, most notably the chronic conditions that dominate today's health landscape.
We treat illness as an isolated problem with a corresponding black-and-white solution.
With chronic conditions ranging from asthma to allergies to arthritis, there's rarely any talk of,
Therefore, it is only natural to react with disbelief
- and often
rejection - when introduced to this entirely new paradigm of
thinking about disease.
When people would ask me about POTS, I told them about the holistic approach I was pursuing.
But for a long time,
this was a half-hearted declaration, one that I did not entirely
understand or believe myself.
...that are responsible for
7 out of
10 deaths in America - and worldwide according to a
Speakers repeatedly called for
action, declaring that 41 million people die each year from
like to return to the grocery store to unpack what's really wrong
with all of the processed food I grew up with - the food that simply
seemed too tasty and convenient to live without.
Wait. Sugar is the same as alcohol...?!
We know alcohol is bad. We
would never give alcohol to kids, but we give sugar to them all the
time thinking it is harmless. How could this possibly be true?
When we eat sugar, it gets
broken down into these two components. With me so far?
Now, the liver can handle fructose in small doses, such as the fructose that trickles in from a fiber-packed orange. But the concentrated hit of fructose from sugar simply overwhelms its capabilities.
The liver metabolizes as much as it can, but it has no choice to convert the rest to fat. The fat builds up around the liver, which impairs its functioning and leads to insulin resistance.
It also gets transported out into the blood, increasing visceral fat (the fat in our abdominal cavity) and our cardiovascular risk.
Collectively, this cycle is known as metabolic syndrome, and it sets us up for a multitude of problems - including those previously confined to adulthood.
How exactly do children get the diseases of alcohol without consuming alcohol?
According to Robert Lustig, the answer is clear:
The sugar hypothesis states that sugar causes insulin resistance, which many experts believe lies at the heart of our chronic disease epidemic.
Insulin is the fat-storage hormone released when we consume carbohydrates. It pulls glucose out of the blood and into our cells, keeping our blood sugar stable.
When we stop responding to insulin, it sets off a cascade of detrimental consequences throughout our bodies.
Lustig and Gary Taubes are among a new school of experts working to combat the message that "a calorie is a calorie."
According to this
logic, obesity and related conditions such as diabetes stem from an
energy balance problem: too many calories in, not enough calories
However, the notion also remains entrenched in the professional realm of nutrition.
In their argument against the calorie hypothesis, Lustig and Taubes explain that calories are metabolized differently in the body depending on where they come from, and certain calories can make you sick regardless of whether you are overweight.
In fact, up to 40 percent of normal-weight people have metabolic dysfunction, and 20 percent of obese people are healthy.
As it turns out, not all calories are created equal - and it appears sugar may be the most harmful.
Photo by frankie cordoba
Neuroscientist Dr. Nicole Avena explains that it's normal for dopamine to be released when we eat new foods; it's an evolutionary mechanism that helps us pay extra attention to determine if a food is safe.
However, the dopamine response should subside after repeated
exposure to the food.
The biochemical reaction is so strong, it may be almost impossible to resist sugar's call.
Rats will run
across an electric grid to
reach M&M's. They will even choose
sugar over cocaine when they are
already hooked on the powerful stimulant.
As Lustig and his colleagues put it,
Only after sugar is refined does its addictive potential become fully actualized, not unlike other drugs.
And like these other "white crystals," we can build up tolerance to sugar as our dopamine receptors downregulate, requiring more input to feel the same reward.
So that one piece of chocolate really might
not be enough.
A 12-ounce can of Coke contains 39
grams of sugar, which is equivalent to 9.75 teaspoons. So if you
have a standard-sized soda, you're already over your daily
allotment. Don't even think about that Big Gulp.
It may sound like a healthy snack, but you'd already be well over
your daily limit. Sugar sure adds up fast, no?
It turns out that LUNA bars contain the same amount of
sugar as three Oreos. I should have just kept the cookies.
Why? Juice lacks the essential fiber that eases
sugar's bombardment of the liver.
Why go to all this trouble? Because ingredients lists are sorted by weight.
Even if consumers don't
understand how sugar affects their biochemistry, they might become
wary if sugar is the first ingredient.
Many products still do not feature the updated
labels, and it's no mystery why companies are stalling.
Not only does the refining process improve the shelf life of
products, it also enhances texture and appearance (think of white
bread). In doing so, however, it strips grains of essential fiber
In fact, the USDA tells consumers,
The problem is that food is more than a few vitamins thrown together.
The loss of fiber in the refining process is perhaps even more
problematic because it cannot be added back in (though that doesn't
some food companies from trying).
As Lustig explains in his 2013 book "Fat Chance," the two work together to form a "gelatinous barrier" along our gut to slow the absorption of food.
Just like the fiber in fruit slows the rate of fructose hitting our liver, it also delays the absorption of glucose, which in turn lowers our body's insulin response.
By regularly consuming
refined carbohydrates, we put our bodies on an insulin roller
coaster and set ourselves up for cravings, weight gain and metabolic
Our gastrointestinal tract houses trillions of microorganisms that are collectively known as the "gut microbiota." They play a critical role in maintaining our health, one that researchers are just beginning to understand.
What we do know is that low bacterial diversity has links to a range of health problems from autoimmune diseases to inflammatory conditions, as Dr. Ana Valdes and colleagues outline in the British Medical Journal.
We also know that a flourishing, diverse gut microbiota requires fiber.
Low-fiber diets have been shown to reduce species diversity, which can potentially worsen from generation to generation.
When we starve our gut microbes, many bacterial populations die off and we're left with lower species diversity.
But it gets worse - the microbes that do remain must eat their only available source of food: our intestinal lining.
The mucus-protected epithelium serves as an important barrier to keep our bacteria away from the intestinal wall.
mucus-degrading bacteria start feasting on it, our immune system
goes on hyperdrive, resulting in chronic inflammation that can also
contribute to the progression of disease.
However, our processed food landscape gives us the illusion of diversity.
Grocery stores are filled with countless variations of breads, pastas, snacks and desserts.
Though they appear different on the outside, these products are largely variations of the same raw materials dominated by corn, soy, wheat, sugar and vegetable oils.
In other words, our senses tell us that we are eating a variety of foods.
It appears as if our options are endless when we walk through
the grocery store aisles. But at the end of the day, it is all an
illusion - one that the food industry excels at creating.
now know that saturated fat has
no connection to cardiovascular
risk, the dogma became so embedded in the public health community
that it is still echoed to this day. (Don't worry, we'll fully
examine the fat debacle later on.)
to food author Michael Pollan, 75 percent of the vegetable oils we
consume are derived from soy.
In fact, she refers to soybean oil as a
"complex, high tech product" before outlining the lengthy process it
But that's the
This process results in a highly unstable oil, which was not very stable to begin with since it is a polyunsaturated fat.
From a chemistry perspective, polyunsaturated fats oxidize much faster than saturated or monounsaturated fats since they contain multiple double bonds.
Alright, so we know that vegetable oils are quite fragile, to say the least.
What happens when we add heat to the mix?
According to researchers, the picture gets ugly very quickly.
According to the report, the toxic oxidation products may lead to a
number of problems ranging from birth defects to cancer.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids that have historically
existed in a 1:1 ratio. The ratio is
now 20:1 or higher thanks to
changes in diet, most notably our increased consumption of vegetable
oils rich in omega-6 fats.
Experts say that a skewed fatty acid ratio can promote inflammation throughout our bodies.
He explains that a diet filled with whole foods - like fish and vegetables and nuts - tends to be omega-3 rich, whereas the standard American processed food diet tends to be omega-3 poor.
At the same time, our modern diet provides a hefty dose of omega-6's, pushing our ratio toward the pro-inflammatory side.
Unfortunately, our sense of security turns
out to be misplaced.
Direct food additives include everything from emulsifiers and preservatives to colors and flavorings.
The food industry relies on them to keep products fresh, consistent and appealing to both our eyes and taste buds. Indirect additives are the substances that come into contact with our food during processing and packaging, such as plastics and lubricating oils.
They do not have to be listed on
labels, though they can leach into food.
Photo by NeONBRAND
Rather, the companies themselves are responsible for assessing the safety of their products.
To top it off, the system is entirely voluntary.
If companies don't want to notify the FDA about their ingredients, they have no legal obligation to do so.
So when researchers dug deeper into the data on food additives, it's no surprise the results were concerning.
One evaluation found that most additives in our food supply have not been adequately tested for safety.
Even if all food additives were properly tested for safety, it still doesn't take into consideration cumulative or synergistic effects.
We rarely consume additives in isolation; rather, we receive a diverse chemical cocktail when we eat processed foods. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, chemical exposures can interact with each other and interfere with similar biological pathways.
Therefore, it is crucial for regulators to take these considerations
Still, one question remains:
Its story goes back to the early 1900s, but it didn't truly take off until post-World War II when the food industry began persuading women to forgo traditional cooking.
In "Pandora's Lunchbox," Warner describes how the industry's advertising tactics were not immediately successful. Yet within a decade, their "exhortations to abandon the kitchen" took hold and industrial food started to change our entire way of eating.
As technology expanded, traditional marketing gave way to more
advanced tactics to further embed industrial food into our lives.
He describes how companies hire
highly-trained food scientists to calculate the "bliss point" of
sugar and manufacture the perfect "mouth feel" to optimize the "crave-ability" of their products. (They avoid the term
like the plague.)
We've already mentioned that 75 percent of our vegetable oils come from soy, but so do a myriad of food additives from thickeners to stabilizers (think of soy lecithin that is found in most chocolates).
Along the same token, Pollan writes that more than half of our sweeteners come from corn.
Corn can also be broken down into its own bundle of additives including emulsifiers, flavorings and even synthetic vitamins.
The report states that crop subsidies favor "junk food production" over fruits and vegetables, which receive only one percent of federal payments.
To illustrate, the authors directly compared apples to a timeless American processed food item:
If the money had gone directly to taxpayers, the authors calculated that the apple subsidies would enable each person to buy half an apple each year.
Yet they could afford almost 20 Twinkies with their junk food subsidies.
Yet despite all of these factors, we have to dig a bit deeper to fully understand the takeover of processed food.
Besides, doctors and public health officials should have eventually caught onto the health risks and started speaking out against the food industry and federal policies.
Why didn't this happen?
They claim to be,
However, according to a 2013 report by public health lawyer Michele Simons, the AND boasts nearly 40 food industry sponsors that include,
The industry sponsors run many programs, including continuing education courses for dietitians.
The problem is that the food industry is not,
Therefore, companies hire seemingly credible experts to teach biased
material that supports their aims. Simons described a Coca-Cola
webinar taught by a Harvard professor who attempted to neutralize
concerns about sugar, calling them "urban myths."
The AND's deep corporate ties are perhaps best illustrated at the organization's annual expo.
Though more than 300 vendors attend the event, Simon says junk food companies dominate the floor.
Industry even influences science itself.
Science journalist Nina Teicholz explained to me how the food and pharmaceutical industries fund university scientists and departments, underwrite scholarships, endow chairs, sponsor conferences… and the list goes on.
In her research, Teicholz has found that the largest influence comes from the vegetable oil industry.
In fact, there has only been one conference dedicated to the potential harms of vegetable oils, despite the mounting evidence against them, because no one will sponsor the topic.
What's more, the vegetable oil industry practically launched the American Heart Association (AHA) itself.
Teicholz said the office of cardiologists remained small and underfunded until 1948. (Besides, cardiology was a new profession since heart disease had been quite rare until a few decades before.)
She explained how Procter & Gamble, the inventor of vegetable oils, changed everything when they chose the AHA to be the beneficiary of their popular radio contest.
Procter & Gamble continued to support the association (along with many other food giants).
Then in 1961, the AHA became the first group in the world to recommend that we limit saturated fat and cholesterol - and consume vegetable oils instead.
Rather, our demonization of
fat stems from scientists who fervently believed it drives heart
Keys' hypothesis was just an idea, yet it became accepted as truth before being properly tested in clinical trials.
Once the diet-heart hypothesis became institutionalized by the American Heart Association and the National Institute of Health, Teicholz said it became almost impossible to change.
So despite the fact that billions of dollars of research over the following decades could not prove the diet-heart hypothesis, it remained entrenched in dietary policy and the minds of countless scientists.
The U.S. dietary guidelines still recommend that we limit saturated fat and consume vegetable oils instead.
They backed away from their caps on cholesterol in 2015 but issued no announcement to inform the public.
Teicholz explained that the U.S. dietary guidelines are enormously powerful since they serve as the backbone of our country's nutrition policy.
They dictate what is included in all federally-funded food programs, such as school lunches and military rations.
They also are downloaded by healthcare professionals, societies, hospitals and clinics across the country, forming the basis of their dietary recommendations.
Therefore, if any document should be based on the best possible evidence, devoid of all scientific and industry bias, it should be our dietary guidelines.
However, experts say this is not the case.
Experts like Nissen and Teicholz argue the guidelines are based on weak observational data, not high-quality randomized controlled trials that form the gold standard of scientific research.
Given that our top dietary recommendations are rooted in poor
science, it is any wonder that our population is so unhealthy - and
so confused about what to eat?
Sixty percent of adults have
one chronic disease, while over 40 percent suffer from multiple
conditions. Simply stating we have a chronic disease epidemic feels
like an understatement.
Quite simply, conventional medicine lacks the tools for the job.
The problem is that while medications might help control the
symptoms of chronic conditions, they do nothing to reverse their
progress. Hence, chronic diseases - ranging from heart disease and
diabetes to Alzheimer's and cancer - account for
7 out of 10 deaths
in our country.
Beth Frates said researchers debate what percentage of chronic diseases could be avoided, but she believes it falls somewhere around 80 percent.
This is an extraordinary concept, one that I didn't believe myself when introduced to it for the first time.
I thought that if we can
truly prevent and even treat disease through lifestyle changes,
surely more people would know about it. It took several months of
sustained dialogue with a holistic practitioner for me to start
shifting my rigid mindset, a mindset I had developed over 20 years
of living a conventional American life.
We are the
totality of our everyday life choices - from the realm of food and
exercise to sleep and stress - that turn on or off our genes.
She believes doctors must explain the impact of our lifestyle choices and empower patients to take control over their health.
So why don't doctors talk about lifestyle factors?
There are a number of reasons, from lack of training and time to the very incentive structure of our healthcare system.
Still, many doctors feel that patients simply don't want to hear it.
Changing habits takes work. It's much easier to pop a pill.
end of my first neurology appointment, the doctor asked how I felt
about being diagnosed with POTS. I said I felt fine…as long as there
was a medication to take.
I realized that I did not have to surrender my life to the whims of the doctor or the disease. I could take control.
But in order to successfully change their lifestyles, people need more guidance than a 15-minute appointment allows.
It's not enough for a doctor to say,
Most patients require a greater degree of support.
It is crucial to note that not all chronic diseases can be treated by lifestyle measures alone.
Todd Robinson, who specializes in cancer treatment, believes in an integrative approach that unites the best of both conventional and natural medicine.
He explained that natural approaches are gentler and less potent than conventional treatments; therefore, stronger interventions are sometimes necessary.
That being said, he does not want to minimize the impact of lifestyle on our health.
Frates says that most of the research on reversing chronic disease centers around diabetes and heart disease.
While the data is less substantial for other conditions, many doctors describe patients dramatically improving after switching to a non-processed, whole foods diet.
In practical terms, the answer is simple:
Banish as much processed food as you can from your kitchen.
Learn to cook
delicious meals from real ingredients, not those found in a package
Photo by Brooke Lark
There have been many solutions tossed around the public health community:
…and the list goes on.
It will require us to start prioritizing health over profit, placing long-term considerations over short-term gain. It will require doctors to start discussing food and patients to really listen.
It will require that we return to our kitchens,
rediscovering the joy of preparing wholesome meals for ourselves and
...with the basic decisions of what we eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner...