Processed foods make up approximately 70 percent of the U.S. diet and this is not good news. Of course most food we eat is processed in some way, but there is a distinct difference between mechanical processing and chemical processing. Basically, if it’s a single ingredient food with no added chemicals it doesn’t matter if it has been ground or put into a jar. It’s still real food. The processed foods we are referring to are those which have been chemically altered by adding things such as sugar and artificial chemicals that are added to enhance the flavor or extend shelf life.
It is well known that too much sugar in our diets can be harmful. Sugar has no essential nutrients and is basically “empty” calories. Sugar consumption is strongly associated with some of the world’s leading killers, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. Processed foods and beverages are the biggest source of added sugar (including high fructose corn syrup) in American diets.
In addition to sugar, processed foods contain all sorts of artificial ingredients. Think about food labels. You probably don’t have a clue what most of the ingredients listed are. That is because they are not food. They are things like preservatives, colorants, flavor and texturants – all chemical additives meant to give the food a certain look and flavor. It’s a good idea to note that processed foods can contain dozens of additional chemicals that aren’t even listed on the label. In fact, there are an estimated 5,000 different additives that are allowed to go into food.
Processed foods are often high in refined carbohydrates, low in nutrients, and tend to be low in fiber. People can literally become addicted to processed foods. For many people, junk food can hijack the biochemistry of the brain, leading to addiction and causing them to lose control over their consumption.
So, if processed foods are the problem, what is the solution? One thought is to go paleo. The paleo diet is considered by some to be the healthiest way to eat because it is the only nutritional approach that works with genetics. The paleo diet is based upon every day modern food that mimics the food groups of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors – lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. During the Paleolithic era, a period lasting around 2.5 million years that ended about 10,000 years ago, humans were genetically adapted to eating specifically those foods that were readily available to them in their local environments. The physiology and metabolism of modern humans has changed little, if at all, since the time of their Paleolithic ancestors. But we definitely eat differently these days.
Following is the Paleo Diet Premise, seven fundamental characteristics of hunter-gatherer diets that will help one to optimize health, minimize the risk of chronic disease and perhaps even lose weight.
- Higher protein intake – Protein comprises 15 percent of the calories in the average western diet, which is considerably lower than the average values of 19-35 percent found in hunter-gatherer diets. Meat, seafood, and other animal products represent the staple foods of modern day Paleo diets.
- Lower carbohydrate intake and lower glycemic index – Non-starchy fresh fruits and vegetables represent the main carbohydrate source and will provide for 35-45 percent of your daily calories. Almost all of these foods have low glycemic indices that are slowly digested and absorbed, and won’t spike blood sugar levels.
- Higher fiber intake – Dietary fiber is essential for good health, and despite what we’re told, whole grains aren’t the place to find it. Non-starchy vegetables contain eight times more fiber than whole grains and 31 times more than refined grains. Even fruits contain twice as much fiber as whole grains and seven times more than refined grains.
- Moderate to higher fat intake dominated by monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with balanced Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats – It is not the total amount of fat in your diet that raises your blood cholesterol levels and increases your risk for heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes, but rather the type of fat. Cut the trans-fats and the Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats in your diet and increase the healthful monounsaturated and Omega-3 fats that were the mainstays of Stone Age diets. Recent large population studies known as meta-analyses show that saturated fats have little or no adverse effects upon cardiovascular disease risk.
- Higher potassium and lower sodium intake – Unprocessed, fresh foods naturally contain five to 10 times more potassium than sodium, and Stone Age bodies were adapted to this ratio. Potassium is necessary for the heart, kidneys, and other organs to work properly. Low potassium is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke – the same problems linked to excessive dietary sodium. Today, the average American consumes about twice as much sodium as potassium.
- Net dietary alkaline load that balances dietary acid – After digestion, all foods present either a net acid or alkaline load to the kidneys. Acid producers are meats, fish, grains, legumes, cheese, and salt. Alkaline-yielding foods are fruits and veggies. A lifetime of excessive dietary acid may promote bone and muscle loss, high blood pressure, and increased risk for kidney stones, and may aggravate asthma and exercise-induced asthma.
- Higher intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and plant phytochemicals – Whole grains are not a good substitute for grass produced or free ranging meats, fruits, and veggies, as they contain no vitamin C, vitamin A, or vitamin B12. Many of the minerals and some of the B vitamins whole grains do contain are not well absorbed by the body.
When it comes to eating healthy it really boils down to eating real food and doing so in moderation.
- In 2014, Americans spent an estimated $88 billion on dietary supplements, fortified foods, and functional foods and beverages, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
- A 2009 JAMA Internal Medicine study found that nearly 70% of Caucasians, 90% of Mexican-Americans, and 97% of African Americans in the U.S. have insufficient blood levels of vitamin D.
- A study published in the British Journal of Dermatology found that healthy women age 21-47 who ate 55 grams (about ¼ cup) of lycopene-rich tomato paste every day for 12 weeks experienced significant protection against acute – and potentially long-term – sun damage.
- Hot tubs and five-minute hot showers can measurably lower anxiety levels, and hydrotherapy was shown to help reduce the psychological stress and physical symptoms of a group of 139 people with rheumatoid arthritis.
- The average American boy or girl spends just four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen.