During the recent pandemic, many families revisited the idea of home-cooked meals together around the family dinner table. More family members were home, and life seemed to slow down somewhat. Unfortunately, the lure of fast-food establishments and readily available pre-packaged, ultra-processed convenience foods easily overrode those good intentions as soon as hectic lifestyles resumed.
According to Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, a cancer epidemiologist and professor at the Friedman School and School of Medicine at Tufts University, “Today, American adults and children get 58% and 67%, respectively, of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods.”
Zhang has described ultra-processed foods as “industrial formulations made with ingredients extracted from foods or synthesized in laboratories with little or no whole foods.” What is specifically worrisome is the connection between diets high in these chemically altered foods and both heart disease and the presence of colorectal cancer – the third most diagnosed cancer in the United States – in men.
Dr. Zhang’s findings are supported by New York University Paulette Goddard Professor Emerita and author Marion Nestle who has said, “Literally hundreds of studies link ultra-processed foods to obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease and overall mortality.”
Here is where things get tricky: The reality is that not all processed foods are unhealthy. Zhang has also pointed out that whole-grain foods and dairy products with little or no-sugar-added such as yogurt, for example, have proven health benefits.
What’s a person to do?
Brianna Grande, MS, RD, LD, EPC, the clinical dietician at Bon Secours in Greenville, believes educating the public is important: “There are both short- and long-term effects of excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods, so when I sit down with patients, many of them over the age of 60 with multiple co-morbidities, they often tell me how important it is to convey this message to younger individuals and promote self-care at an early age to prevent the development of chronic disease.
“We also need to think about how we can implement this, potentially by improving health education in schools, keeping healthy options available to adolescents and by being role models for the children in our lives,” she added. “We need to remember that overall diet quality depends on what you do eat as well as what you avoid.”
“Company scientists and researchers work to establish a ‘bliss point,’ which will be the perfect combination of sweet, salt and fat to make the product irresistible to the taste buds of the average consumer,” Grande said. “They also focus on making the product easy to access, to prepare, to chew and to swallow.”
It appears that research and marketing strategies of large food companies appeal to the potentially addictive nature of some of these highly processed foods. According to the University of Michigan’s January-February 2023 National Poll on Healthy Aging, seniors may be more susceptible to food addictions with 44% of adults age 50-80 indicating one or more symptoms. Women were twice as likely to exhibit these symptoms as men.
Grande also identified the worst culprits as sweetened drinks, chips and fast foods.
“The good news is that withdrawal symptoms will abate quite quickly, and after a few weeks of resisting bad foods, your body will actually begin to desire the healthier versions,” she explained.
The owner of Carolina GreenLiving, Jana Davis MS, RDN, CDCES, sees patients virtually throughout South Carolina and at her Charleston office. She too recognizes that not all food processing is unhealthy.
“For example, the addition of specific nutrients to some foods has prevented nutrition-related problems historically,” Davis said. “Adding Vitamin D to cows’ milk to prevent rickets and iodine to salt to prevent goiter are two examples. Diversity is the key. Eating a diet with a wide variety of plant-based foods to support a healthy microbiome in our gut is one of the most important things we can do to support optimal health.”
“One of my biggest concerns is not only the addition of chemicals to alter the physical state of a product but also the packaging,” Davis added. “We have solid science showing the ‘endocrine (hormone) disrupting’ nature of chemicals in plastics such as BPA and derivatives, phthalates and other harmful chemicals like polyfluorinated substances, which makes fast-food wrappers non-stick. These disruptors interfere with or minimize the way our body’s hormones should be working, which can create serious long-term health problems.”
Davis maintained that our Western society has much more processed food in our diets than other cultures offer. She praised the Mediterranean diet, which includes more fruits and vegetables with healthy fats and oils and lesser amounts of animal proteins. For help with weight loss, she points her patients to healthy whole foods. She also encourages them to become smart label readers. Preservatives, sugars including high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and flavorings may lurk in foods we would normally consider safe and healthy.
“Your diet does not have to be perfect to be healthy. Just start shopping wisely, eating more colors of vegetables, adding good fiber and limiting ultra-processed convenience and fast foods,” Davis advised. “You will find yourself gradually gravitating towardshealthier food, a healthier lifestyle and healthier living in general.”
By Janet E. Perrigo