In today’s culture it’s becoming more and more difficult to maintain a healthy diet. People are working longer hours outside of the home than ever before. These demands of work, family activities and other personal responsibilities leave many people reaching for quick and easy food options. Unfortunately, these convenience “foods” are often so altered and packed with stuff that’s bad for us that they do not contain the nutrition our bodies need to be their best and function optimally.
Dr. Rebecca Patterson and Dr. Michael Gaudiose of Keystone Family Medicine recognize that it’s difficult to maintain a healthy eating pattern in our current environment. The good news is, when people become more aware about the importance of proper nutrition and make some changes, they often find themselves feeling healthier and motivated to continue the momentum. Today’s article discusses information about nutrition to help readers make an informed decision about their own food choices and support people in navigating a confusing and unhealthy food environment.
We face challenges in the 21st century that were not a problem for people in the past. Human bodies are not designed to thrive on the convenient, overly-sweet, high-fat packaged products that are marketed as foods that many people regularly consume today. Our ancestors did not have the abundance of these unhealthy and highly addictive foods that we have to choose from now. This drastic change that continues to spread is undeniably to blame for the worldwide increase of obesity. Many years ago, humans ate naturally-occurring whole foods like fruits, vegetables and meat. Sugar was not isolated and consumed in the high quantities we find available today. Media and food markets did not advertise and strategically manipulate our food choices as they do today beginning from a very vulnerable stage of early childhood. Processed foods did not exist, and those whole or less altered foods helped them effectively break down and use energy in between meals.
But since then things have changed. Canned sugar-laden foods of all sorts are now readily available, sweetened drinks and junk food are everywhere we look, and fast-food or processed meals found in plastic containers or bags make a convenient dinner with minimal effort that can be stored longer without worry for spoilage. These calorie-dense foods are not natural. They are high in sugar, fat and chemicals that alter how we taste them and how our bodies can process them. While they are energy dense, they often lack the nutrients our bodies need.
The food industry has taken advantage of this culture of stress and convenience. Unhealthy foods and drinks are marketed heavily, and portion sizes have continued to go up through the years. Even in grocery stores, you will notice that fresh produce is on the outer edge of most stores, and the majority of the store is filled with a variety of brightly packaged, processed options. When you go to the checkout line, you will be tempted by candy bars, sodas and more. We can’t underestimate the role that our current environment plays on our health today.
How Processed Foods Affect Us
As we discussed in our last article, highly palatable foods (those which are rich in sugar and/or fat and are usually processed) can trigger the brain’s reward system in similar ways as addictive substances. The human body has many different hormones, some of which regulate hunger. Processed foods can interact with these hormones negatively and disrupt the balance of normal appetite regulation. Foods and drinks with high fructose corn syrup such as soda, some juices and candy, can trick your body into feeling hungry even when it’s not.
While it’s common to see young children with juice in their cup or bottle, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly advises against giving children highly sweetened beverages like sodas, and to limit their intake of natural juice (from 4-8 ounces based on age). Eating fruit is a much better option for people of all ages, as juice has more concentrated sugar and calories with fewer nutrients. Our bodies do not process the sugar in the same way when it is not presented as a whole package of fruit or other whole-food food items.
Eating a diet high in processed foods and drinks can also have a negative effect on the body’s microbiome (the bacteria inside a body) as well as neural pathways (which communicate information throughout the body to the nervous system) and hormones involved in regulating the feeling of hunger or satiety.
It’s important to note that there are many things that affect weight, and weight is not always an indicator of overall health. Someone may be slender and not be in good overall health. Someone may be obese and also have a healthy relationship with food, consuming a healthy diet. Things such as genetics, health conditions and medications can all play a big role. It’s important to take a holistic approach to food, and your health in general, to be at your best.
Healthy Eating Tips
As we mentioned in a previous article, sugar may actually be addictive so it’s important to keep in mind how much sugar (and even artificial sweetener) you are consuming. Cutting sugar from your diet completely may cause your body to crave it even more, as there is evidence that scarcity is actually a necessary component to trigger addictive-like qualities of food). It’s ok to indulge in a sweet treat now and then, but be mindful of how much sugar you are putting in your body, and likely this is in place of more nutritious foods.
It’s best to avoid mindless eating. If you eat while watching television or when you are busy with something else, like driving, your brain is more likely to miss the cues that you’ve had enough. Realize that it will take time for your body to adjust to the tastes of some healthy foods. Have hope, you will get used to (and maybe prefer!) the tastes of foods with less sugar, sodium, etc. over time.
Fat is not evil. Our bodies do need fat as it helps with feeling full and is necessary for our bodies to function properly (making hormones, cell membranes, etc.). Instead of trying to cut out fat from your diet, place your focus on healthy fats. You could switch out butter for olive oil or even avocado oil for cooking. Salmon, nuts, nut oils and nut butters are healthier types of fats. Try to avoid the types of fat you’ll find in packaged foods like potato chips, cookies, muffins and donuts.
Salt is generally not as overused as sugar, but you should still be mindful about how much you’re consuming. Add salt to foods after cooking instead of before, avoid MSG, and limit salty processed foods. If you have hypertension (high blood pressure) or heart problems, you should realize that you may need to limit salt more carefully.
It’s best to avoid extreme or “quick fix” diets and focus on an eating plan that can be maintained long-term (the Mediterranean Diet or a whole-foods, plant-based style of eating are good options). Don’t starve yourself or feel bad about yourself when you eat – eating is a necessary part of life, and it’s important to enjoy food, and “treats” in moderation. It’s important to take a complete approach to your health and cravings, including regular exercise, stress management techniques (yoga and mindfulness practices are great options), and choosing foods that will nourish your body.
If you are struggling with your relationship with food, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. He or she will be able to help you develop a strategy that’s best for you and your health. They may suggest a short-term eating plan to help reset your cravings but there is no quick fix or magical trick that will solve the problem. What you put into your body each day is very important for your overall health. Only you can make the choices around what you consume, and therefore use, to fuel your body and ultimately support wellness.
This article contains general information only and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or care by a qualified health care provider.