Most people are largely unaware of the fact that what they are eating isn’t actually food. Sure it may look like food, but in reality “food-like product” would be a better term for it.
Ultra-processed, hyperpalatable “food-like products” take many forms but most of them will require more resources to digest them than they provide – essentially negating one of the two major factors for why we eat in the first place: nutrition. As humans we are programmed to eat in order to obtain energy (calories) and nutrition (micronutrients/fatty acids/amino acids/etc).
Our biological drive to eat has been hijacked relatively recently, but once you have an awareness of this fact, it is possible to gain control once again. Shifting your dietary focus towards more whole foods is just one part of eating for health and longevity, but it is a major part. Whole foods are those that are closer to their natural state, have been minimally processed, contain no artificial ingredients, and by definition provide at least some of the raw materials we need to build a healthy body and mind while simultaneously allowing for greater appetite control, better digestion, and so much more. There is no single factor that will lead to you being healthy today, tomorrow, and long into the future, but choosing foods that are closer to their whole, natural state over those that have been packaged and heavily processed is typically at the foundation of any eating plan we develop at Invigor Medical. Research continues to prove that there are countless health benefits to opting for an apple over applesauce, veggies over poptarts, or fruit instead of potato chips – at least most of the time. Although there are no foods that can be considered inherently bad (except maybe trans fats), we are going to cover the three major components that are often missing from these “food-like products”, and what they often do contain that you should be aware of.
Perhaps the most common aspect of whole-food nutrition that most processed and packaged foods are missing is protein.
Even all the cereals and bars that contain added protein often come up short in this absolutely crucial macronutrient. Your body literally requires that you eat protein in your diet in order to survive, it is essential. Within that total daily protein requirement (most research indicates about .6-.8 grams per pound of bodyweight is sufficient for the average person, although it is much higher for athletes, there are more factors to consider).
For instance, each protein source consists of a relatively unique amino acid profile. Amino acids are the molecular building blocks of proteins and long story short, some protein sources have profiles that are more favorable to health than others. This is why protein quality must be considered as well as protein quantity – what kinds of protein you eat is nearly as important as how much total protein you eat. Processed foods are usually devoid of protein and those that do contain it often consist of less than favorable amino acid profiles. Your body needs protein to build muscle, manufacture neurotransmitters, create DNA, and so much more. Not to mention that foods containing protein (and fiber) are by far the most satiating, helping to regulate appetite and allowing you to maintain control of your diet just that much more. This satiating effect is nothing to scoff at – especially if you are dieting to lose excess body fat.
Dieting for weight loss requires that you cut calories – it sucks, I know. However, if you cut calories and slash your total protein intake, you have a recipe for losing lean body mass (muscle). This fact was demonstrated beautifully by a study conducted by Baylor University showing that women following a higher protein diet (up to 40% daily calories from protein) experienced greater loss in body weight, fat mass, percent body fat, and waist circumference when compared to women following a high carbohydrate/low protein diet (15% total calories from protein). This mirrors the common understanding in the fitness-research community that higher protein diets both support muscle growth (anabolism) and prevent muscle loss (catabolism). It is worth mentioning one more time – protein is invaluable for maintaining health and fostering longevity. Next on the list of reasons why packaged and processed foods just simply aren’t cutting it nutrition-wise is fiber.
Fiber is a rather important component of sound nutrition whose awareness has long since been relegated to members of the advanced-age population just trying to keep things regular. Fortunately, fiber has undergone a bit of a renaissance in recent years and people are beginning to become aware of the benefits of eating both soluble and insoluble fiber for gut health, appetite control, and more. Soluble fiber (think oats, chia seeds, etc.) and insoluble fiber (think leafy greens, some veggies, nuts, etc.) play slightly different roles and it is important that you consume enough of each. But how do you know if you are getting enough? Well, eat whole foods and pay attention to your digestion. If everything runs smooth, you have no bloating or gas, and your bowel movements are normal (see bristol stool chart), you are probably in the fiber intake “sweet spot”.
While fiber and protein are both incredibly important for overall health, micronutrients are the unsung heroes of human physiology.
Depending on who you ask, micronutrients are the vitamins, and minerals (some people like to include specific amino/fatty acids to this list) that you need in small quantities from your diet in order to survive.
But just because you only need them in small amounts doesn’t mean they aren’t important – in fact, nothing could be further from the truth…
Micronutrients play countless, vital roles throughout the body including facilitating energy production, enabling DNA repair, allowing proper immune function, blood clotting, tissue growth and repair, bone health, fluid balance, and so much more. Many processed and packaged foods have been fortified with certain vitamins and minerals to try and remedy their lack of micronutrition (often caused by the actual processing itself), which is a bit like missing the forest for the trees. Adding micronutrients into common foods is a practice that was once a saving grace for the general population (see: iodized table salt) when food distribution and supply was limited. Flash-forward to 2020 and the American population generally has access to more food than ever – theoretically negating the need for grains, cereals, and other food products to be fortified with vitamins and minerals to support health – if we would just eat whole foods more often.
Unfortunately, these fortified products may still be the primary (albeit inadequate) source of micronutrients for some people. Although what is missing from packaged and processed foods may be enough of a reason for most people to switch to a more whole foods-based diet, what they do contain may be even more alarming.
Packaged and heavily processed foods are created to be hyperpalatable.
What this means is they have been designed and developed to manipulate our brain’s ancient reward mechanisms. While this isn’t meant to sound alarmist, it is important that you become aware of it.
In nature, we rarely (if ever) would encounter the ingredients and sensations found in that box of crackers, sleeve of cookies, or toaster pastries all in one place. Combining high-carbohydrate with a high-fat content triggers a deeply-rooted reward mechanism within our brains that drives us to overeat (why do you think foods like nachos, pizza, or cake are so tasty?). Our brains have not yet caught on to the fact that food is no longer scarce for most people. Calories are on every corner and in every cabinet, but our biology hasn’t realized that quite yet.
To accomplish this rewarding sensation, companies have crammed in processed vegetable oils like soybean, canola, corn, and other heavily processed and unstable oils into the same products that contain high amounts of carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and other sources. Considering the fact that the British Medical Journal published a cross-sectional study that found 59.7% of total energy (calories) consumed by Americans came from ultra-processed foods, it is no wonder obesity and it’s related diseases have become and remain increasingly prevalent. Consistently eating foods high in sugar, low in fiber or protein, and high in unhealthy oils results in our insulin and blood sugar levels being yanked around, allows chronic inflammation to run amuck, and our body having to work overtime to achieve homeostasis or balance behind the scenes.
Invigor Medical takes a whole foods-based approach when designing eating plans for all the reasons we have already covered. Most of our clients follow a an intuitive eating lifestyle, which still allows them to eat foods they love, in moderation, while focusing primarily on what you are eating, rather than what you aren’t eating. Invigor Medical does offer a more rapid weight loss protocol for individuals who are very heavy or obese. We offer this plan in order to quickly get our heavier clients back to health as quick as possible.
There are few aspects of a healthy lifestyle that have as much clout as shifting away from heavily packaged and processed foods does. This is by no means a condemnation of processed foods entirely. In fact, modern processing and packaging has made foods available to more people, extended shelf life, and made them better tasting and cheaper. It is important to keep in mind however that obtaining energy (calories) isn’t the only reason that we eat, however.
Ignoring the concept and requirement of eating for actual nutrition is a recipe for experiencing uncontrolled hunger, cravings, and likely overeating. If you are looking to add health back into your life, and facilitate the process of gaining muscle or losing body fat, we recommend you incorporate whole foods as much as possible to ensure you are getting the protein, fiber, and micronutrients your body requires. Adding these crucial nutritional components back into your diet and avoiding the processed oils and refined carbohydrates found in processed foods as much as possible is likely your “secret” to improved health – only it isn’t a secret, it’s just a return to what was once considered common knowledge.