Take Two Steps Forward
Step 1: Get on Board the Real Food Train.
The link between chronic health issues (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, extra body fat) and the increase of added sugar (sugar not naturally occurring in food) in the average US diet is well-documented. Google "diabetes heart disease extra body fat added sugar", and you'll get endless pages supporting this premise.
One of the latest authorities on this topic is a study published in BMJ Open on March 10, 2016. This study is significant because rather than focus on a specific food like soft drinks or various types of fast food, the researchers investigated the impact of ultra-processed foods as a comprehensive group. And the results provide strong evidence that ultra-processed foods are a delivery system that pumps excessive amounts of sugar and other bad, unhealthy stuff through our bodies. Now this may be a provocative statement, but please hear me out.
The researchers surveyed a representative sample of more than 9,000 Americans to learn what they foods eat. All recorded food items were classified into 4 different groups based on the extent and purpose of industrialized food processing: (1) unprocessed or minimally processed foods, (2) processed culinary ingredients, (3) processed foods, and (4) ultra-processed foods.
The study concluded that nearly 60% of calories and nearly 90% of added sugar came from ultra-processed foods (soft drinks, snacks, cakes, pizza, frozen meals, etc.). These foods are high not only in added sugar, but also in salt, fat, added flavors, colors, emulsifiers, hydrogenated oils and other unhealthy ingredients.
This is how the study defined processed and ultra-processed foods:
WHAT??!!! Are you kidding me?? 'Manufactured food' . . .'food formulations' . . . food made with 'additives that imitate sensorial qualities' of real food??? Hmmmm - sounds yummy doesn't it?
Seriously folks - is this really what we want to eat??!!
On the opposite end of the spectrum are classifications generally considered Real Food: (1) "unprocessed or minimally processed foods" (e.g., fresh, dry or frozen fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes, meat, fish, and milk) and (2) "processed culinary ingredients" (e.g., table salt, sugar, oils, fat, salts and other substances extracted from foods or nature and used in kitchens for culinary preparations).
In other words, Real Food is food closest to its natural form -- food that is whole, unprocessed or minimally processed, or food dishes that are prepared with unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients.
Now we're gettin' somewhere. Let's hop on this train and take it to the end of the line!
The study concludes that eating less ultra-processed foods is an effective way of reducing excessive added sugars and that eating more Real Foods provides additional health benefits.
“A reduction in ultra-processed foods should also increase the intake of more healthful, minimally processed foods such as milk, fruits and nuts, and freshly prepared dishes based on whole grains and vegetables, which would produce additional health benefits beyond the reduction in added sugar.”
— BMJ Open, March 10, 2016
Step 2: Ask Better Questions about Food
Hopefully now we're all on board with the concept of eliminating ultra-processed foods and eating mostly Real Foods is a healthier way of life. Not to be confusing though, I must point out that not all processed foods are bad:
- Processed foods made with excessive added sugar and other highly-refined, unhealthy ingredients are manufactured formulations --> BAD.
- Minimally processed foods that are very close to their whole, unprocessed forms (e.g., frozen or dried fruits and vegetables with no added ingredients) --> GOOD.
So assessing the extent of processing is the key to making better decisions about food. Once I realized this concept, my Real Food journey really took off.
Before I became a Real Food junkie, I thought about food in terms of health. So when making choices about what to eat, I naturally asked 'Is this food healthy?'. This approach made sense because my goal was to eat healthier. But answering this question got so confusing because what does "healthy food" really mean? Even medical professionals, food science experts, and health and wellness gurus debate about what foods - and diets for that matter - are healthy (or not). And a food manufacturer can slap the word "healthy" or "low-fat" - or any other term generally associated with health - on the package. But as we now know, with ultra-processed foods, these marketing labels are meaningless. So 'Is this food healthy?' is a not the best question to ask because it is difficult for most of us to answer with any definitiveness or authority. I am not advocating that we ignore the question about whether food is healthy, but rather, to refocus how to make this decision.
Start your Real Food journey, by asking better questions about food - questions with answers generally agreed upon, and more importantly, questions that we can all answer: (1) "Is this food processed?" and (2) If so, where along the spectrum between minimally and ultra-processed is it?"
You don't need a science degree to answer these questions. Just look at the food and read the labels. And keep reading Realistic FoodEs because I created this platform to help you understand these concepts!