Processed foods are killing us

As I alluded to in my first column about diabetes, Type 2 diabetes has been on a rapid rise over the last few decades and can be directly tied to our changing dietary habits and choices. However, it’s not just how much we eat, but what we eat.

As American society became more industrialized and modernized, we focused the same innovation to our foods in an effort to make them more affordable and accessible, resulting in processed foods. While this made food cheaper and allowed Americans of all walks access to more calories, it did not lead to better nutrition nor a healthier society. This change to a heavily-processed food supply also can be correlated to the rise in Type 2 diabetes.

So why are processed foods so bad and how is it linked to the rise in Type 2 diabetes? Until the turn of the century, most Americans either produced their own foods or bought them from local producers in an unprocessed state. With advancement in food storage and preservation, foods were altered to have longer shelf lives and foods once produced at home, like bread, could now be mass produced in baking factories. Mass production led to processed foods appearing cheaper by their convenience.

The act of processing a food product breaks down the item to its basic components, often leaving healthy and nutritional things behind, like fiber. While this allows manufacturers to store products, like flour or corn syrup, easier and longer, it’s not necessarily better for your body. I like to use the example of a log and stack of papers. If you were to set a log on fire, it would burn slowly and release energy and smoke over a prolonged period of time. However, take that same log and “process” it into paper then set that pile of paper on fire. It would burn quickly, releasing it’s energy and smoke over a very short period of time. The same happens with food. For example, corn in its whole form takes time to break down and release its energy. Corn syrup, on the other hand, beaks down very quickly once ingested, releasing its energy all at once.

This quick release of food energy in the form of elevated blood sugar levels results in elevated levels of insulin. As discussed in my prior column, these cycles of elevated levels of blood sugars and insulin (besides contributing to fat storage and obesity, which I’ll talk about next time) leads to insulin resistance, the culprit behind Type 2 diabetes. So, the more processed foods one has in their diet, the more they are exposed to this cycle of high blood sugars and insulin levels increasing their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Knowing this, we can see how not all calories are equal (and next time we’ll also learn how the “calories in, calories out” adage is not so straight forward). For example, 100 calories in fresh vegetables is not the same as 100 calories of pure sugar. Not only is there a volume difference (i.e. how full you feel after ingesting each of the 100 calorie portions), but your body will slowly process the energy in the fresh vegetables as it is broken down and absorbed resulting in lower insulin levels over time compared to the sugar being quickly absorbed (as it is already broken down into its simplest form) resulting in insulin surges, increasing the risk of developing diabetes each time this occurs.

While processed foods have introduced significant convenience into our food supply and increased access due to lower costs through mass production, we have inadvertently caused a health epidemic in the form of diabetes from our heavily-processed diets. At Naturally Fortified, we do not ask people to count calories but instead change individual diets to have their calories come from plant based and whole, unprocessed foods. Changing the source of your calories will decrease your risk of developing diabetes, and as I’ll talk about next time, can prevent weight gain and help with weight loss.

About Doctor Keith

Doctor Keith is an Integrative Physician and owner of Chicago's premier Health and Wellness company, NATURALLY FORTIFIED, with his husband and partner Healthy Lifestyle Coach Chip Allman. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, an Assitant Professor of Medicine at Loyola Univesity Stritch School of Medicine and an Attending Physician at Hines VA Hospital specializing in General Medicine, Women's Health, Transgender Care and Emergency Medicine.