As discussed last week, studies of our immune system continue to demonstrate its central role in heath. We have also learned that, as a rule, if we feed this system well, it will protect us well. The best way to do that is to consume whole fresh foods rather than the engineered “pseudo-foods” that continue to populate the majority of supermarket aisles.
The pseudo-foods I am talking about are made from industrial ingredients and engineered to be super tasty and alluring as well as generally high in fat, sugar and salt. For example, you might look at the label and instead of seeing “apples” listed, you might see an additive (with an unpronounceable name) that re-creates the scent of that fruit. Such foods account for nearly 60 percent of total calories people consume.
Over the past 70 years, ultraprocessed foods have come to dominate the U.S. diet. In addition to being the majority of foods now sold in the U.S., increasingly around the globe, ultraprocessed foods now rule. This dietary takeover was accelerated beginning in the 1950s when the processed food industry discovered a new psychosensory dimension to our natural attractions to salt, sugar and fat. When engineered and amped up, the processed food industry discovered that these ingredients could be formulated in ways to produce a state of gratification beyond simple satisfaction. Let us call it the “Bet you can’t eat just one” syndrome.
In the 1970s, an American market researcher and psychophysicist named Howard Moskowitz termed this discovery as the “bliss point.” The term describes that stage where levels of saltiness, sweetness and richness are perceived by the consumer as just right. When the processed food industry added crunch to their bliss point formulations, a completely new generation of irresistible foods were created. These highly engineered foods surged in sales and popularity. Interest and consumption of more traditional home-cooked meals that included fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains began to wane.
At the same time, rates of obesity began their climb. For years, many in the fields of nutrition and biomedical research speculated that ultraprocessed foods were playing a big role in America’s ever expanding waistlines. Government and health industry recommendations to lower the intake of sugar and salt have produced only slight reductions in recent years, leaving many to wonder: Is there something about the highly processed nature of these foods that drives people to overeat? A new study conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health suggests the answer is yes.
What separates this study from those in the past is it is not merely observational. It represents the first randomized controlled trial to show that eating a diet made up of ultraprocessed foods actually drives people to overeat and gain weight compared with a diet made up of whole or minimally processed foods. For the study, participants were allowed to eat as much or as little as they wanted. They ended up eating much more of the ultraprocessed meals, even though they did not rate those meals as being tastier than the unprocessed meals.
Previous larger studies involving large groups of people have linked diets high in ultraprocessed foods with health problems and even a higher risk of early death. These studies observed people over time, rather than assigning them specific diets, and so could not prove that ultraprocessed foods actually cause people to eat more or gain weight, yet the connection seems clear.
By 1999, the leaders of some of the largest processed food companies in the U.S., in a scramble to address health concerns and save market share, are said to have met privately to discuss disturbing data that associated the consumption of craveable foods with an upturn in the rates of obesity.
What this tells us is that food companies have known for decades that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. Under government pressure, some companies have begun to trim the loads of salt, sugar and fat in certain products. Coca-Cola made headlines in January by releasing ads that promoted its bottled water and low-calorie drinks as a way to counter obesity. Yet diabetes, obesity and hypertension numbers continue to spiral out of control. Not much has really changed.
Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina who has long studied the role of ultraprocessed foods in the American diet, recently told NPR these current findings present a real challenge to the global food industry – how to preserve the convenience, abundance and low cost of food without sacrificing health.
“Let’s see if they can produce ultraprocessed food that’s healthy and that won’t be so seductive and won’t make us eat so much extra,” he says. “They haven’t yet.”
We now know that this health crisis is not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer. We also must acknowledge that Big Food – which spends more on marketing than the annual budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – like Big Pharma and Big Tobacco, is at present a powerful force pushing us in the wrong direction.
It has been reported that, across the United States, 1 out of every 8 people does not have enough food to eat. Many more do not have enough money to afford healthy foods. Healthy foods are not always accessible.
If we are to change current eating habits, these things must change. The quicker the better.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.