Inflammation Part 2: We’re Dying for Processed Foods. Literally.
In Part One of my Inflammation Series, we learned about what exactly chronic inflammation is and why it is a very real risk to our health. In fact, inflammation has been linked to a number of chronic illnesses; from heart disease and cancer to depression and stress. Feeling like crap most of the time? Chronic inflammation may be happening to you.
And your lifestyle choices may be causing it.
As I explored the various methods we can use to prevent inflammation two things became quite clear: That combating this health crisis is easy to do. And the best place to start is as simple as rethinking what you eat.
Initially this post was going to cover how diet can influence the inflammatory response. That is, until I realized the scope of this topic was long enough to practically qualify as a novel. So to honor our readers’ time and limit their exposure to blue light (you’re welcome), I decided to break it down into two subjects: How food promotes inflammation (the topic of today’s post) and how food also prevents inflammation (the topic of my next post).
So let’s take a look at how food choices are making you sick. Grab a box of Kleenex. This might be a tear jerker.
Reduce Your Reliance on Fast Food Fixes
Our culture today is about instant gratification, and what we eat is not excluded from this expectation. With fast food restaurants raking in billions of dollars in sales, it is clear that Americans are thinking less about health and more about convenience.
Yet, open any magazine or read any health-related article online and you’re likely to see that we are sicker than ever. And guess what? We’re looking for a quick fix for that too.
And there IS a quick fix, but it’s not going to be found at your local pharmacy.
Go stand in front of a mirror. See that person looking at you? That’s your fix right there.
Let’s Talk about Processed Foods
Think of it this way: If it doesn’t look like something that you’d see in a garden, on a tree, lumbering in a field, or pecking at the ground, it’s most likely a processed food.
And we should be eating far less of it.
Why? Because highly processed foods are typically full of everything we shouldn’t eat while offering very little of what we should. Just for fun, I checked the ingredient list on a bag of animal crackers that may or may not have been in my pantry. Not only does it list a zillion ingredients, those ingredients include things like “soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavor, caramel color, FD&D Blue #1, FD&C Yellow #6, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate.”
Huh? I’m not sure the last time I saw a seed packet for “soy lecithin” or “Yellow #6” at the Home Depot garden center. In fact, there really isn’t anything on the label that sounds like actual food with the exception of “enriched flour” (and even that is highly processed).
On the bright side, the front of the bag declares that it has “0mg cholesterol” and “0g trans fats.”
But does it really?
Trans Fats: Hiding in Plain Sight
Many processed foods contain trans fats, which are artificial fats designed to improve texture, taste, shelf life, and cost to companies and consumers. However, it has been well established that trans fats can increase the amount of LDL or “bad” cholesterol in our bodies, which can lead to build up in the wall of our arteries. This then triggers an inflammatory response that can lead to heart attack, stroke, or even death (check out the “Inflammation and its role in Artherosclerosis” section in Part One of this series for an explanation of this phenomenon). In fact, trans fats are so dangerous that in 2015 the U.S. government finally outlawed their use; though compliance is not required until 2018.
How do you know if that granola bar or box of crackers you’re eating contains trans fat? Look at the list of ingredients. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated oils,” then it is a trans fat offender.
What does “hydrogenated” mean anyway?
All fat contains hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen atoms. How much hydrogen it has determines if it is a saturated or unsaturated fat. The more hydrogen it contains, the more saturated it is.
This alone isn’t a bad thing. Our bodies need both unsaturated and saturated fats for health.
Saturated fats are almost always in a solid state at room temperature (think butter). They also taste better, provide a better texture when cooked in recipes, and have a longer shelf life; all characteristics companies – and consumers – demand of their products.
Where the problem occurs is when manufacturers take what was originally an unsaturated oil, and chemically introduces more hydrogen atoms into the product. When this is done, the oil – which in its original state is a liquid – becomes a solid.
It also becomes a trans fatty acid.
Remember watching that big plop of Crisco melt in the frying pan when you were a kid? That was the original artificially-turned saturated fat product. Yup, good ‘ol mom was cooking you up a heap of trans fat with those hash browns back in the day.
Why not just use a saturated fat like animal lard or butter in the first place? It all boils down to cost. Vegetable oils – the cheapest of the oils – are only found in a liquid state. And taste, texture, and overall cost sell products.
And selling products leads to big profits. All at the expense of our health.
Is it worth the savings?
What Nutrition Labels Aren’t Telling You
There are a lot of companies and restaurants claiming to be “trans fat free,” but I strongly suggest you eye those claims with skepticism. That’s because companies are not required to report the amount of trans fat in foods that contain .5g or less per serving. Seems reasonable enough, except serving sizes can often be unrealistic and most of us eat more than the recommended “serving size” suggested anyway. How many times have you counted out “about eleven chips” when plunging into that bag of Doritos? (To be fair, I did look at Doritos and they do not use partially hydrogenated oils, though it took me a minute to figure that out since I had to read through like a hundred ingredients).
Hidden trans fats aren’t limited to foods found in your supermarket, however. Restaurants are notorious for their greasy foods; don’t be surprised if that grease is partially hydrogenated.
For example, Burger King’s Double Whopper has 2.5g of trans fats while their King Jr. Happy Meal has .5g of trans fats. Arby’s half pound beef and cheddar has 2.0g of trans fats (that’s my favorite dammit!), and TGI Friday’s chicken quesadilla has 2.0g of trans fats.
They, at least, honestly report the trans fats found in their menu items. Krispy Kreme claims that their original glazed donut has zero trans fats, yet the ingredients for said donut includes partially hydrogenated oils. That’s the last time I stop when the red light is on!
In other words, don’t rely on creative marketing strategies or nutritional labels – look at the ingredients instead.
Processed Food = Artificial Food
So you’ve looked at the ingredients of your morning cereal and breathe a sigh of relief when there is no mention of partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats. Don’t start pouring on the milk just yet. Processed food also contains far less fiber, vitamins, minerals, essential plant compounds, and fatty acids thanks to the processing…process. The various methods of processing literally removes nutrients that are essential components of our diets. And what do they put in its place?
Refined starches and artificial sugars.
Any food that has been “refined” means that it has had some component of it stripped away or changed. Wheat, corn, and rice are torn from their kernals, husks, germs, and other vitamin-packed phytochemicals. The sugary component of a natural food (like fruit) is extracted and is used as a sweetener without the support of its original fiber-filled host.
Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it should.
That’s because both refined flours and sugars can trigger the release of cytokines. I’ll spare you the biography of cytokines, but know this: These little messengers are responsible for stimulating the inflammatory response. So they are great when you’re actually hurt or battling an illness. But not really something you want activated after you eat pop tarts for breakfast.
Sadly, most of us are likely releasing those unnecessary cytokines every, single day.
For example: That Fiber One Oats and Chocolate bar you rely on at snack time? While it does contain approximately 36% of your recommended daily fiber (added fiber, by the way), it also provides 140 calories, 10g of added sugar, a whole lotta ingredients that I don’t even recognize, and pretty much nothing related to vitamins or minerals.
Cytokines are having a heyday with that one.
In comparison, one cup of raspberries contains a comparable amount of fiber, but is also a source of Vitamins C, K, and E, folate, potassium, manganese, antioxidants, among other things. It is also only 64 calories with 5g of naturally-occurring sugars, and has exactly one ingredient.
In other words, that Fiber One bar is not only not providing the vitamins and minerals you need to properly function each day, it also contains ingredients that makes your body believe it’s actually sick. It’s food that’s not really food at all.
But hey! You’ll poop at least!
Spiking is for Footballs, Not Blood Sugar
Now we know that processed foods may contain deadly trans fats, are pretty much void of any beneficial ingredients, and are guilty of stimulating an inflammatory response. Hopefully this is enough to make you think twice before cracking open that bag of pretzels. If not, I have one more point to make that may help you decide that eating artificial food is simply not worth the risk.
Thanks to added sugars and refined ingredients, processed foods are a blood sugar nightmare. Chronically elevated levels of blood sugar have been shown to increase the risk for diabetes as well as heart and liver disease.
When eating whole foods, digestion involves a slow and complex process that influences the rate of macro and micronutrient absorption. While an apple may have sugar, the skin and flesh contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber that all play a role in how fast that sugar is digested. However, in a processed food, much of (if not all) of the whole food components have been broken down before it even enters our bodies. This makes the digestion and absorption of sugars occur unnaturally fast, resulting in elevated levels of glucose in the bloodstream and the subsequent release of insulin; a process that has the potential to lead to insulin resistance, and eventually, obesity.
While this alone is reason to avoid processed foods, increased blood sugar levels also promotes the creation of free radicals, a major contributor to chronic inflammation and other serious diseases. Free radicals, in case you didn’t read Part One of this series (shame on you!), are molecules containing only one electron. Because molecules prefer two electrons, free radicals steal electrons from other healthy molecules, damaging cellular components, including DNA, and causing a whole bunch of problems as a result.
Free radicals naturally occur as a result of physiological processes, but the body has systems in place to do away with these little thieves. However, when we introduce free radicals through external means (like diet), we can have more free radicals than our bodies are prepared to address.
And that’s bad. Very, very bad.
Why I Didn’t Say “Eliminate” Processed Foods
Here are some stats:
- In 2016, Time published an article estimating that 60% of calories consumed by Americans are from “ultra-processed” foods.
- The Centers for Disease Control last reported that the number of overweight Americans over the age of 20 is over 70% of the population.
- Another source states that if we continue the same path we are on, chronic conditions in the U.S. will have a 42% increase by the year 2023.
Is there a connection between these three reports? It certainly seems that way.
However, you don’t have to be reduced to a statistic. In fact, you can start today by choosing to lower the amount of processed foods you eat.
Why not eliminate processed food all together?
In a perfect world, that would be ideal. However, the world isn’t perfect nor are we. While my health is incredibly important, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t just feel like having pizza once in awhile. Yes, food is fuel, but it also brings people together, reflects our heritage, and says a little about who we are. And sometimes who we are is someone who enjoys potato chips.
But we must take a closer look at what we’re eating and how it may be impacting our health. Does your diet primarily consist of foods that look nothing like actual food at all? Are the items in your diet packaged in cardboard and plastic instead of skin and shells? Does dinner come on a plate at your table or in a bag at the drive through?
If so, you are severely risking your health and quality of life. And don’t forget, this not only effects you, but also the ones you love. Even if you don’t think it’s worth the effort, stop for a moment and ask yourself:
Isn’t life all that even without a bag of chips?
Check out Part Three of this series to hear about the flip side of food and how your dietary choices can actually prevent inflammation and make you feel better than ever (Hint: It sounds a little like “brute” and “shleptables”).
Do you have any processed foods you absolutely feel you cannot live without? Let us know and I’ll see if I can help you find a solution. After all, I’m no stranger to the call of the candy bar. We’re in this together.