Doctor’s Tip: Why you should avoid processed food
This is the fifth column in a series about why we should avoid certain foods if we want optimal health. Science supports a plant-based, whole (unprocessed) food, moderately low fat diet as being the healthiest. This column will discuss why we should avoid processed food.
In his book “How Not to Die,” Dr. Michael Greger defines unprocessed food as “nothing bad added, nothing good taken away.” In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan said, “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.”
The history of processing brown rice into white rice in the 19th century illustrates the harm done by processing food, although nobody realized it at the time. Vitamin B-containing bran was removed from the brown rice. As a result, millions of people who were on a rice-based diet died from beriberi, a disease caused by vitamin B deficiency. A Nobel prize was won by the scientist who figured out why these people were dying, and subsequently white rice was fortified with vitamins. (Why not just eat brown rice in the first place?)
Here are some of the health problems associated with consumption of refined food:
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• Obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol and triglycerides, diabetes and prediabetes, cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes), autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, dementia including Alzheimer’s and some cancers. This is partly due to harm done by the processed foods themselves, such as inflammation and unhealthy gut bacteria. But harm also occurs because of health-promoting plant nutrients people miss out on when they substitute processed food for whole plant food.
• A few decades ago we were told that we should eat less saturated fat, present in meat, dairy and eggs. The food industry, which is typically more interested in the bottom line than in our health, started pushing processed carbohydrates and sugar. It turns out that these things are at least as unhealthy as saturated fat.
• Most of the health-promoting nutrients in plants are removed in the refining process.
• Fiber, which is key to optimal health, is destroyed in processing.
• Processed food has a higher glycemic index than whole food, resulting in blood sugar elevations that cause the pancreas to secrete more insulin to get the blood sugar down. This eventually leads to prediabetes and diabetes.
• Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is oil that has been processed. While it adds to shelf life, it causes vascular disease resulting in heart attacks and strokes.
• Harmful compounds such as salt are often added to food to make it more addictive, and food coloring to make it more attractive.
HOW TO TELL
When you go to the grocery store, it’s often difficult to tell what is really whole food and what is processed, because of misleading advertising (e.g. on cereal boxes and bread wrappers). Here are some tips you can use to avoid processed food:
• Do most of your shopping in the produce and fruit section.
• Read food labels, see what the serving size is and avoid added salt and sugar (4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon).
• Stick to hot cereal, which you can buy in bulk at Vitamin Cottage and Whole Foods. Steel cut oats are the least processed, followed by rolled oats, but avoid instant. Another good choice is multigrain cereal, such as seven or 10-grain. Avoid cold cereal and most granola.
• Any food with intense natural color or flavor has lots of healthful nutrients, but avoid added food dyes, which are harmful.
• Don’t buy white rice. Black rice is the healthiest (intense color), followed by red and then brown.
• When buying items such as pasta, tortillas and bread, make sure the total carb to fiber ratio is 10:1 or less, 5:1 or less being preferable. (Multiply the fiber number by 5 and that number should be greater than the total carbs number). A product that meets this criterion has lots of fiber and whole grains.
• Avoid making your own processed food, such as juicing and smoothies, which convert low glycemic index food into high glycemic index food, and mechanically destroys fiber. We evolved to chew our food.
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, now has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and any other medical concerns. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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