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WHAT’S WRONG WITH PROCESSED FOOD?

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There is overwhelming evidence that the Western diet is responsible for myriad health problems including heart disease, hypertension, cancer, osteoporosis, obesity, celiac disease, diabetes, and some autoimmune disorders. The correlation is pretty clear – as our diet has included more processed and refined foods, the incidence of these health problems has increased. As we have increased harmful things in our diets, like refined salt, sugar, flour and hydrogenated oils, we have decreased the nutrients necessary for good health. While most of our attention has focused on the health consequences of the Western diet, those of us in the mental health field have seen a similar rise in many mental disorders including bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, as well as depression and anxiety disorders of all sorts. It doesn’t seem too big a leap to suspect that the Western diet and its lack of nutrients necessary for physical health may also be responsible for the rising incidence of problems related to mental illness.

WHAT IS PROCESSED FOOD?

The definition of “processed” can vary because the degree of processing can range from minimal as in the case of some canned goods, especially home canned, to highly processed foods as in some lunchmeats, artificial cheese, and boxed foods. It usually refers to food in boxes, cans, and other types of packages. Examples of minimally processed food would be canned fruit with no other ingredients added and some whole grain breads. Examples of highly processed food would be hot dogs, margarine, cola drinks, boxed macaroni and cheese, and artificial sweeteners.

Basically, processed food is man-made food, or food that has been altered from its natural state. Whole food, on the other hand, is food that grows in the ground and on trees such as fresh fruit, garden vegetables, and nuts. Whole foods are free of artificial ingredients or additives.

HARMFUL ADDITIVES

Processed foods have artificial ingredients like dyes, texturizers, preservatives, and trans-fats. Many of these ingredients are known to be detrimental to our health and some that are commonly used in the U.S. are outlawed in other countries. For instance, numerous studies, including a 2007 study from the University of Southampton, have found that artificial food coloring increases ADHD (hyperactivity) behavior in children. As a result, at least six food colorings that are prevalent in the U.S. have been outlawed in the UK and other parts of the world. Processed foods often contain very high amounts of sodium from refined salt.

Trans fat is primarily a man-made type of fat. It is made by taking an unsaturated fat like soybean oil or cottonseed oil that is liquid in its natural state and adding hydrogen atoms to it to make it solid. It is then called “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated” oil. It is what solidifies oil into margarine. The original purpose for this was to give unsaturated fats a longer shelf life. Oil will oxidize, or become “rancid”, much more quickly than its hydrogenated manufactured cousin. So, when added to chips, cookies, cakes, breads, and other kinds of processed foods bound for grocery store shelves, hydrogenated oil will allow these products to keep longer without spoiling. Trans fats basically turn to sludge in your arteries, while vegetable oil does not. Trans fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and it also lowers the HDL (good) cholesterol.

Just how bad sugar is for us has been debated for at least a couple of decades. It has been considered safe to eat in “moderation” – whatever that means. Refined sugar (the granulated type we use for sweetening baked goods and other food) is a processed food. Sugar is not necessarily bad for us and some would argue that it is a “natural” food because it occurs naturally in foods. While this is true, sugar is extracted from sugar cane and sugar beets and then highly refined by removing all of the fiber and nutrients. When we consume sugar in its natural form in fruits, vegetables and grains, it is in a much less concentrated form and we have the benefit of the fiber and other nutrients to help break down the sugar and move it through our system. It would be very difficult to eat too much sugar if we only ate it in the foods that have it naturally. The problem with granulated sugar is that it is a refined food and we eat way more of it than our bodies are designed to deal with. Americans consume an average of 156 pounds of sugar each year per person. That is approximately 28 teaspoons of sugar each day! One of the reasons for that is that sugar is added to most processed foods. This excess consumption of sugar has been linked to behavior problems in children as well as dementia and depression in adults. Our brains need some sugar to operate properly, but not in such high concentrations. The amount of sugar we get naturally from eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, is beneficial. Eating refined sugar is detrimental to our physical and mental health.

THE GOOD STUFF IS REMOVED FROM PROCESSED AND REFINED FOODS

Whole foods contain many nutrients that work together to provide us with optimum health benefits. When food is refined and processed, parts of the foods are often removed, taking with them many of the important nutrients we need. White rice, for instance, is made by taking whole brown rice and removing the outer hull and bran. This removes most of the nutrients and fiber, leaving some of the protein and mostly carbohydrate behind. Often the rice is then bleached in toxic chemicals like dioxin to make it pearly white. Likewise with whole wheat – the hull, germ, and bran are removed to make white flour. The white flour is also bleached to attain its bright white color. “Unbleached” flour has had the bran and germ removed but has not been bleached. Salt is another good example. Salt, either mined from the ground or from the sea, has many valuable trace minerals. The table salt we buy in the store, like Morton salt, has removed all of these valuable nutrients and left only the sodium. One of the naturally occurring minerals that is removed is iodine, which is an essential nutrient and it’s removal caused many people to develop goiters. Because of this, some salt is “iodized”, which means that the iodine has been added back in to the salt. Natural salt will often have grains with many different colors and contains beneficial elements that have been removed from refined salt. When foods like rice, wheat, salt, and sugar are refined, they are no longer whole foods. We are not eating them the way they grow naturally, which is the way nature intended for us to eat them! We lose many of the benefits of the whole food and are left with an unbalanced food that gives us too much of some things (like carbohydrate) and not enough of others, like the vitamins, minerals, and fiber lost in the processing.

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