The Verdict Is In: We Are Eating Ourselves to Death

Most Americans by now are aware that we are among the most overweight people on earth: 40 percent of us are obese and another 32 percent are overweight, which means that a total of 72 percent of Americans — that’s almost 3 of every 4 among us — have an unhealthy body weight.

That’s bad enough, but scientists say that if current trends continue, by 2030 that number will increase to 80%, so in a few more years, about 4 out of 5 Americans will range from overweight to obese.

Although the new weight loss drugs — which originally were formulated to combat diabetes (Ozempic/Wegovy by Novo Nordisk and Mounjaro/Zepbound by Eli Lilly) and then were shown to have the “side effect” of bringing about substantial weight-loss in those who take the drugs — hold the promise of solving our national excess weight problem, a host of hurdles stands in the way of helping every American who might benefit from them. 

The high cost of those drugs (which presently are not covered by health insurance companies for weight loss), the potential for side-effects (they clearly are not for everyone), and the fact that they have to be taken for life, may leave many Americans who struggle with their weight on their own without the benefit of these medications.

But there may be another solution. A recent study has concluded that the true culprit for our obesity epidemic may lie in the kind of food we eat — the so-called ultra-processed foods. 

It is estimated that 70% of the food supply in the U.S. consists of ultra-processed foods. Two-thirds of the calories children consume in the US are ultra-processed, while about 60% of adult diets come from ultra-processed foods.

What constitutes an ultra-processed food is not always easy to figure out. There’s a wide range of food items between fresh fruits and vegetables (which are not processed at all) and, say, Twinkies, which perhaps are emblematic of the ultimate ultra-processed “food.” On the other hand, a shorthand way to think about ultra-processed foods is whether they are found in nature: Twinkies don’t grow on trees.

According to the authors of a recent meta-analysis (they examined 45 studies involving almost 10 million human subjects), eating high intakes of ultra-processed foods substantially raises the risk of developing dozens of diseases and health conditions that are related to excess weight, with diabetes, heart disease, and cancer being chief among them.

That’s because what goes into an ultra-processed food product is not real “food” at all. If you look at the ingredients on the label of a typical packaged-food product, they consist of chemically-manipulated ingredients such as modified starches, sugars, oils, fats, and protein isolates, with little if any whole food added,

But it is not just our physical health that is at risk from diets high in ultra-processed foods. Many of these fake foods, which are loaded with sugar, sodium, and are low in fiber and high in fat, also are thought to have negative effects upon our mental health, including anxiety, sleep disorders, and depression.

Moreover, given the addictive nature of these foods (the sugar rush to the brain and the lack of fiber that leaves you never feeling full), they create a feedback loop (no pun intended), so that the more we eat of these products, the more we want to eat.

Convenience is the driving force behind the ever-increasing use of ultra-processed foods by Americans. Frozen pizzas and dinners are a quick-and-easy meal solution for harried parents. Fast-food restaurants, with their triple-bacon cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, fries, and super-size soft drinks, are everywhere.

By contrast, it should be noted that local restaurants typically do NOT serve the ultra-processed foods of the fast-food chains and that frozen meals prepared in-house in local grocery stores do not rely heavily on ultra-processed products.

For example, the list of ingredients for french fries at one famous national restaurant chain is this:  Potatoes, Vegetable Oil (canola Oil, Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Natural Beef Flavor [wheat And Milk Derivatives]*), Dextrose, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate (maintain Color), Salt. *natural Beef Flavor Contains Hydrolyzed Wheat And Hydrolyzed Milk As Starting Ingredients. 

(Yuk! After reading that list of ingredients, who would want to put that in their body?)

On the other hand, if you order a baked potato with your dinner at a local restaurant, you get the whole potato and nothing but the potato.

We realize that eating fewer ultra-processed foods is easier said than done. On the other hand, some of the solutions to avoiding ultra-processed foods are quite straightforward: Buy real food and cook it at home; read and compare product labels and try to choose less processed alternatives (for example, swap flavored-yogurt for plain yogurt with added fruit); add fresh, frozen, or canned fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes to your diet; avoid sugar-sweetened beverages that have no nutritional value and instead drink water; and, when eating out, go to local restaurants instead of fast-food chains. 

If we can significantly reduce ultra-processed foods from our diets, we can go a long way to solving the national epidemic of obesity that literally is killing us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *