They are words that seem made up: maltodextrin, annatto color, thiamin mononitrate, and sodium erythorbate. Yet you probably ate meals that contained those products sometime this week, if not today. This is the first of a three-part series by Jette R. Hogenmiller, PhD, MN, APRN, Executive Director of Quality & Outcomes for Homewatch CareGivers International.
The information contained in this article should not be construed as medical advice. Consult your health care provider for appropriate diet changes for you.
We pulled these words at random from the ingredient list on microwaveable meals the manufacturer bills as “healthy.” Millions of people seek out these meals each day to try and lose weight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States and rates remain high. More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7 percent) and approximately 17 percent (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years are obese. A person is overweight when a person’s body mass index (BMI) is between 25 and 29, and a person is obese when their BMI is 30 or more. BMI is determined by a combination of a person’s height and weight. For example, when a person is 5 feet 7 inches tall and 190 pounds, their BMI is 29.8, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Click here to determine your own BMI.
The “Processed” Problem
To fight obesity, Americans try exercising, eating less, and cutting down on fats and sugars – and then become discouraged when it doesn’t work. The reason could be that in our attempt to take shortcuts on the path to eating healthier we end up buying into the “health packaging” labels of some highly processed foods. These processed foods have a combination of chemicals (toxins) (B Watson, 2010) and foods that have fewer nutrients than foods closer to the earth (less processed), whereby we eat toxins and our body continues to feel hungry for nutrients.
Food that attempts to keep people from being overweight or obese do not always deliver on that promise. It all comes down to the problem that processed foods are not our best friend in the journey to weight loss and health.
To better understand the challenges, it is helpful to know what qualifies something as a processed food. A food that is processed varies along a continuum of minimally processed to significantly processed. A processed food can be changed in many ways to enhance the ability to store the food; more convenience for preparation; add flavor, taste or texture changed (generally by additives). The amount of chemical exposure and loss of nutrients generally increases as the amount of processing increases.
- Carbohydrates: It’s also important to understand the difference between complex carbohydrates versus simple carbohydrates. A complex carbohydrate is digested more slowly. This makes a person feel fuller for a longer time period and also does not raise blood glucose (sugar) levels as high or quickly, which stresses the pancreas repetitively. Examples of complex carbohydrates include vegetables, beans, brown rice and whole grains.
The body absorbs a simple carbohydrate more quickly so we feel hungry sooner. To satiate our hunger, we reach for less nutritious foods because a rapid boost of sugar eases hunger more quickly, but it sets up a vicious cycle. We eat poorer quality foods and then want more of them, whereby we eat more calories and don’t feel any better.
- Grains: A whole grain consists of a very compact starch enveloped by a fibrous shell, bran, which slows absorption and therefore is more filling. Refined grains are generally more processed allowing quicker absorption. It should be noted that not all whole grains are slowly absorbed, so the key is too pick more “good” whole grains. Examples of good whole grains are brown rice, wild rice, steel-cut oats, barley and quinoa.
- Additives: When you look at the calories and substances in low-calorie frozen meals, you see many additives, which include many of those we previously listed. These are generally added to preserve flavor or taste.
- Labeling: While these meals are labeled as “low in calories and fat,” it is often comes at a price. Fats slow absorption that help us feel full for longer time periods, and they add flavor. The chemicals added to replace the fats intend to fill those roles, counteracting the benefits they claim to provide.
Food for Thought
It’s important to remember that the mistake of eating foods you think are healthy but are highly processed is not your fault. This is something echoed by Suzanne Somers in her book: Sexy Forever: How to Fight Fat After Forty. She says, “It’s not how much you are eating that is causing you problems, it’s also what you are eating that is important.” Many people grab products with these processed foods in them without even realizing it. They are often in the freezer aisles in supermarkets, but they can be found in foods that come in cans or bags – any sort of food could have processed ingredients.
Sally Fallon, a nutrition researcher, and Mary Enig, PhD., wrote a book called Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. In her introduction, Fallon writes: “Father Technology has not brought us freedom from disease. Chronic illnesses in industrialized nations have reached epic proportions because we have been dazzled by his stepchildren – fast foods, fractionated foods, convenience foods, packaged foods, fake foods, embalmed foods, ersatz foods – all the bright baubles that fill up the shelves at our grocery stores, convenience markets, vending machines and even health food stores.” (pg. xi)
Here is something else to think about: When you go to the grocery store how many aisles do you think contained more processed foods than non-processed foods?
Many experts like Fallon and Enig believe these chemicals added to foods meant to be healthier actually create more challenges to weight loss. Frozen meals come with a chemical price. Many nutritionists believe we don’t get the value of food in the processed form because our body has to deal with the chemicals. It’s designed to keep you eating it, not necessarily for nourishment. “Food is now nothing more than plastic for people’s mouth entertainment,” says Dr. Steven Nelson in Somers’ book.
The Simple Solution
Knowing all this about processed foods, you are probably asking what type of foods you should eat. If you must eat one of these microwaveable meals, try to do it only now and then. Additionally, read the label! Look at the difference among different frozen food manufacturers. Organic frozen meals appear to have less chemicals/additives and often have a higher, but appropriate amount of fat amount (~20 percent versus less than 10 percent). If you have no idea what an ingredient is, or even how to say it, you may want to think about eating something else. Seek out foods in their natural state as much as possible.
Next, consider trying organic foods. It may seem like organics cost more, but that may not be the case when you do the math. If you put aside the donuts, cookies and other prepared meals, it often saves enough on your grocery bills to make room for the organics.
Additionally, search out magazines and cookbooks that align with reducing your processed foods, yet provide yummy, satisfying recipes. You may want to look at the Eat-Clean cookbook series by Tosca Reno or Clean Eating magazine.
In his article, "Tossing the myths about food" in TIME magazine (Sept. 12, 2011), Dr. Mehmet Oz says: "So if you want to get healthy, forget about diet soda and low-fat foods. Instead, tuck into some eggs, whole milk, salt, fat, nuts, wine, chocolate and coffee. Despite what you have heard, all of those foods and many more can be beneficial to your body," (pg. 7) assuming you do not overindulge.
In April, we will continue our “Struggling with Weight” series and talk about good and bad fats and in May we will talk about the problem with sugar.
Jette R. Hogenmiller, PhD, MN, APRN, is the Executive Director of Quality & Outcomes for Homewatch CareGivers International.
Fallon, S & Enig, M.G. (2001) Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition & the Diet Dictocrats. NewTrends Publishing, Inc.
Somers, S (2010) Sexy Forever: How to Fight Fat After Forty. Three River Press.