One thing I always promised myself with this blog is that I would never just copy and paste information from other sources without making better sense of it first, and without experiencing it myself.
Processed food is complicated. And I think I would be doing you a disservice here by trying to pretend that I have a complete understanding of all the chemistry involved in the process. But what I can do is offer something much more personal. A story…
Once upon a time there was a woman named Stella from the land of Great Britain. Where she grew up, the foods she bought were grown without chemicals, and the meals she ate were made in a kitchen – not a factory. She even had a man who dropped off fresh milk, hen eggs and freshly squeezed orange juice right at her door.
An adventurous soul, Stella decided to leave her home and move to the land of opportunity – the United States. When she arrived, she was surprised to find that the food in this land was not the same. It often came in brightly colored packages, pretty to look at and easy to use, but something was off about it. It was disgustingly sweet, overwhelmingly salty and, frankly, disagreed with her stomach. She decided that she would make a valiant attempt to try to keep real food in her diet as much as she could. And when she had a daughter, she tried to instill those same values in her.
The daughter followed suit early on. While her friends whipped out Lunchables at the cafeteria, indulged in McDonalds for dinner, and snacked on Oreos at night, she ate salads packed with vegetables from her garden, brought cucumber and egg sandwiches on grainy bread to lunch, and shocked waiters by ordering salmon and steamed veggies instead of mozzarella sticks and hot dogs.
As she grew into a teenager, she became weight conscious. She began to fear junk food and found the key to her troubles in “health food.” So she jumped head first into low-fat land, abundant with fizzy drinks with 0 calories, frozen meals with tiny portions, and flaky cereal that promised to shed 5 pounds in 2 weeks! And it worked. Her stomach got smaller…on the outside. But on the inside, it felt big, bloated, and frankly, hungry.
This marked the start of the stomachache that wouldn’t end. She couldn’t understand why, if she was eating low-fat Quaker instant oatmeal for breakfast, a low-carb wrap for lunch, and a Lean Cuisine for dinner, why her stomach continued to feel like one big bubble that would never deflate.
It wasn’t until years later when she fell in love with nutrition and began to read and research what it meant to eat real food. And then it hit her: Maybe all of the food that was packaged up in a pretty bow to look like it was good for her was actually what was making her sick.
It was with that thought that she began an experiment to replace as many of these packaged foods as possible, with real food. And guess what? It worked. Her stomach flattened – inside and outside. She finally felt satisfied instead of insatiable. And most importantly, her 10 year stomachache finally went away.
The End (almost).
Now I know I promised you no science, but here is my understanding of why processed food made me feel like shit all those years, and might be doing the same for you.
Reason #1: Processed Food Is Feeding the Bad Bacteria
Remember in the last post how I talked about the importance of good bacteria that comes from whole food? On the other side of the coin, the sugar that comes with a diet high in processed foods actually serves as a fertilizer for bad bacteria and yeast. It’s this yeast overgrowth that can lead to a whole host of digestive problems such as leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, poor absorption of nutrients, excess gas, weight gain, and more carb cravings.
Reason #2: Processed Food Contains Chemicals That Are Really Shitty For You
Most of us know now that a long list of unpronounceable ingredients = bad news bears. The problem is, understanding why these mystery chemicals are bad for us. This is where my head starts spinning a bit. There is so much information out there as to what’s bad, what’s good, and what we’re overreacting about, that it’s hard to know who to listen to. For brevity’s sake, I’m only going to focus on a select few food additives. But per usual, I have new plans to write a whole other post on this one.
The number one chemical that I avoid in food is artificial sweetener of any kind (Nutrisweet, Splenda, Equal, and even Stevia). After years of falling for the BS of sweets without guilt, I finally realized that removing Diet and Low Fat everything from my diet was the best thing I could ever do for it. Not only was it contributing to my horrible stomachaches, but also to my weight fluctuation. The argument is still up for debate, but there is a lot of research out there that has found that artificial sweeteners are actually making us fatter, not skinnier. Ever since I have replaced my half-fat foods with their full-fat counterparts, I have lost bloat and weight. In my opinion, this stuff is the devil (said in voice of Bobby Boucher’s Mama). There is a lot of controversy out there as to exactly how bad it is, but at the very least, it can cause bloating and gas (1). At the very most, it could be eroding your stomach and intestinal lining and causing Irritable Bowel Disease (2).
The second red flag in all of my food choices is vegetable oil/seed oil. People seem to be very unaware of the fact that a lot of the processed foods that we eat – even the “healthy ones” – are laden with chemically made oils. Any time you see vegetable oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil and safflower oil on a nutrition label – you are looking at an industrially processed food that is not good for your body.
Contrary to what you might think, these oils are not squeezed from vegetables, sunflowers and canolas (what the hell is a canola?). They are created in factories through a harsh extraction process that includes bleaching, deodorizing, pressing, heating, and adding various industrial chemicals and highly toxic solvents. The way they are created causes them to be high in Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (the pro-inflammatory red-headed step sister of the anti-inflammatory Omega-3 found in fish). Yes, you want some Omega-6 in your diet, but nowhere near the amount that we get from all of the processed seed and vegetable oil that we are ingesting. These unnatural oils cause an unhealthy amount of inflammation and can lead to digestive diseases (3).
I hate to disappoint you, but now that I’ve told you this, you’ll start to realize that a lot of your favorite “healthy” foods contain these processed oils. I was incredibly disappointed to find that pretty much all store bought salad dressings (even the organic ones) and most crunchy snacks at Trader Joe’s (plantain chips, wasabi peas, flax seed chips) contain one of these oils.
The good news is: olive oil and coconut oil are quite the opposite. As long as they are cold-pressed, minimally processed and unrefined, they actually provide the nutritious benefits from the plant they are extracted from.
Reason #3: Our Bodies Can’t Process the Processed
Processed foods are literally like a drug. They stimulate the production of dopamine (the pleasure neurotransmitter). This leads to cravings of more of the processed food. It’s this vicious cycle. You eat the junk, which makes you crave more junk. Further adding to the chemicals you are putting into your body.
Reason #4: Processed Food Does Not Have The Fiber We Need
There are two types of fiber. Both are beneficial to your digestion. Soluble Fiber helps slow down your digestion by dissolving into a gel-like texture. This helps you feel full longer. Insoluble Fiber does not dissolve at all and helps add bulk to your stool. This helps food move through your digestive tract faster for healthy elimination.
I know what you’re thinking – what about the wonderful convenience of Fiber One bars? Yes, they have fiber. Fiber created in a factory rather than fiber that comes from whole food. And this fiber additive is mixed with high maltose corn syrup, fructose, sugar, chocolate chips and salt. Why not just eat one of the hundreds of real foods that have all the fiber you’ll ever need?
Now that I’ve become so much more aware of the effect that processed food has on me, I try to eliminate it more and more. It’s a long process and it’s not easy. Processed food makes sense for the busy lives that most of us lead. But once I started feeling better, I knew I couldn’t turn back. And now that I’ve worked preparing food into my routine, I don’t even consider it time-consuming. I just consider it part of my day.
Stay tuned for my guide on slowly replacing the processed food in your diet with whole food. Until then, please comment below! Do you find that you feel better when you eat real food vs. processed? Would you be willing to give up some processed food to eat better and feel better? Do you think what I say is complete bullshit? Whatever it is, I want to hear it.