It shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that processed foods are highly addictive. I want you to think to yourself, “how much of your current diet is made up of processed foods?” Just take a moment to think about the types of foods you typically eat each day. I know for me; processed foods are hard to avoid because they are everywhere! I would say that most grocery stores are made up of 75-80% processed foods. Not back by statistics but this is just an educated guess based on the many grocery stores I have been in. So, it is no wonder people find it hard to eat more balanced meals. So, what are processed foods?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines processed food as “any food other than a raw agricultural commodity and includes any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration, or milling.” By this definition, most food in the United States today can actually be considered processed. Processed foods in the general sense are not inherently bad. Processing does make healthy eating just a bit easier, there is no doubt about that. For instance, washing, cutting, and packaging fruits and vegetables like spinach and carrots, does in fact make them easier to prepare and eat. And canning or freezing some fruits and vegetables can help them stay fresher longer. Milk is technically considered processed because it is pasteurized to remove all the harmful bacteria to make it safe for us to drink. But for the purpose of this discussion when I say processed foods, I am specifically referring to highly or ultra-processed foods. These are foods that have been altered with artificial ingredients, fillers and chemicals.
Highly or ultra-processed foods have unhealthy ingredients such as sodium, sugar, fat, artificial colors, flavorings, and preservatives all to enhance the taste and shelf life. These types of foods make up over 60% of the standard American diet. Highly and ultra-processed foods have essentially taken over our food supply. Sad but true. Think about it. 6 to 7 out of every 10 foods that go into your mouth and bodies have been altered with chemical ingredients. I want you to stop and think about that for a second. Let that sink in. So now that you have had a chance to think about that for a second, let’s talk about how these foods have a direct effect on our health and waistlines.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear those processed foods are highly addictive. It is thought that these foods are made to be addictive on purpose. It is all about money and convenience. But with more than 60% of our food supply containing processed foods, we have seen a direct correlation between processed foods and decline in health and increase in obesity. There’s a reason you can’t stop eating all those sugary, salty and fatty snacks and foods. Again, they are designed this way to keep you coming back for more. Processed foods stimulate the release of dopamine which is a neurotransmitter that sends a signal to the brain that influences your mood and feelings of reward and motivation. What happens is that this release of dopamine from sugary foods causes your brain to want more and more. Your brain wants to continue the high it feels from eating these types of food. This effect is pretty similar to the effect drugs have on our brain. In fact, some companies are actually learning and studying how sugar lights up the brain the same way cocaine lights up our brain. And let’s us not forget sodium here. Sodium reacts similarly to sugar in that it is also releases dopamine that makes it highly addictive. Our bodies are also conditioned to use salt as part of our survival. When it comes to salt, the American Heart Association recommends that adults consume no more than 1,500 to 2,400 mg of salt per day. However, because of the absorbent number of processed foods the average person consumes on a daily basis, the average daily intake hovers about 3,400 mg. So, it is true that food addiction is very much a real thing, and you shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that to yourself and others.
How can you keep your sodium in check moving forward? While you can’t control the amount of salt that is added to the foods you are consuming either at restaurants or at the grocery store, there are habits you can implement to help keep your sodium in check. For starters, simply start reading nutrition labels. The one thing with nutrition labels I do want to point out here is that they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. What does that mean? Well, that means that nutrition labels on average can be off in either direction by as much as 20%! So, you can be consuming more or less than what is actually depicted on the nutrition label. But it is still important to understand and read these labels when purchasing foods with labels. Pay attention to the sodium contained in the food you are purchasing. Look for items that say either no sodium or reduced sodium. Anything with more than 600 mg per 100 g of the serving size can be considered high, and 300 mg or less can be considered low. It is important to note that sodium can be indicated by different names like monosodium glutamine or disodium phosphate. Be especially careful of ‘The Salty Six’
1 – Pizza: One slice with toppings can give you at least half of your suggested daily amount of sodium.
2 – Bread and rolls: Bread can contribute to our overall sodium intake. Salt is not only used in bread to enhance the flavor, but it also helps give the bread the light and air texture it has.
3 – Cold cuts and cured meats: Cold cuts are highly processed and contains a high amount of sodium. In fact, it takes just about 6 thin slices to get half your recommended daily amount.
4 – Sandwiches: One fast-food sandwich or burger can give you your total daily amount of salt.
5 – Canned soup: One cup can give you half your recommended daily intake.
6 – Burrito and taco fillings: We already discussed cured meats, but these meats and cheeses can be loaded with sodium. And we know that we all love to stuff our burritos and tacos with all the things!
Now, let’s talk about how to keep your sugar in check. As previously mentioned, sugar is added during processing to make foods taste better. Sugar can be found in the most obvious foods such as breakfast cereals and baked goods but can also be found in less obvious foods like pasta sauce. As you can imagine, almost 90% of added sugar in the average American diet comes from processed foods. I mean, that doesn’t seem to be hard to do. You can’t just eat 1 cookie, right? Again, start really paying attention and understanding nutrition labels. For the average American diet of 2,000 calories, you should aim for no more than 48 g of added sugar each day. It is important to keep in mind that as with sodium, sugar can be depicted under different names like high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, cane sugar, dextrose, malt syrup, molasses, and evaporated cane juice just to name a few.
Preparing your foods at home is a sure-fire way to have the most control over the ingredients and the amounts that go with them. Meal preparation can be made simpler as stated earlier by purchasing precut and washed veggies and fruits. While technically considered processed, this isn’t the type of processed foods we are talking about here so that is perfectly ok! If you find you just simply don’t have the time to prepare your meals, especially with your busy work week, then frozen meals are not as bad of an option as they once were. Some companies are using fewer unhealthy ingredients, and some contain less salt as others. Smart Ones and Healthy Choice are good examples of this. It is still important, however, to read the labels to make the best choice. Maybe compare 2-3 frozen meal brands and compare and contrast. But frozen meals aren’t all bad in a pinch.
Tips for eating out. While you don’t have much control over how the food in the kitchen is prepared, you do have some control when it comes to the toppings and sauces. For example, what I do is ask the server to see if the chef can prepare my meat without adding salt and I will ask for the sauces and dressings on the side. You can then control how much salt is added to the food once you get it. I totally understand that you can make the request, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the chef will adhere to the request, but for the most part chefs are accommodating, so don’t be afraid to ask for modifications! Another thing that I do when eating is to ask for a to-go container when you place your meal order. Once your food arrives, then split your plate into 2 portions and place half into the to-go container. This will help to ensure you are eating only 1 portion while controlling the added sodium, sauces and sugar at the same time. Lastly, when ordering dessert split it with whoever you are with. If no one wants to share the dessert with you, then take half of it home for later in the week. This will control your portions as well as added sugar intake. Practice moderation.