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processed food: is it healthy or not?

Processed food has a terrible reputation, and is often called unhealthy. Personally I don't really like the term "healthy", because it's almost 100% subjective. When people ask me whether or not something is healthy, I always want to say (and sometimes do), "Compared to what?".

Is pasta healthy? Well, compared to heirloom or wild rice, not exactly. Compared to Burger King fries, sure. Is a tomato healthy? Probably. But if your body doesn't do well with food in the nightshade family, then I guess not really. Is baked chicken breast healthy? Compared to fried chicken, likely. Compared to rice and beans, unlikely. Chicken, no matter which cut of meat, contains an enormous amount of dietary cholesterol (eeeek controversial topic!).

It's sort of all relative. Think of healthy vs. unhealthy as a massive sliding scale. And remember that sometimes it's better for your body, especially over the long term, to choose something higher in calories over something more processed. [ex: high quality olive oil added to a salad or fresh pasta dish, instead of eating a low-calorie frozen dinner.]

Now let's get to this whole "processed food" thing.

The term "processed food" is referred to quite a bit, and we act like its definition is obvious, but for me it's way too vague. If I picked an apple off of a tree and ate it, I would probably consider that unprocessed food. But if I picked an apple, brought it home, cut it up, and maybe put it through a juicer, I would consider that processed food. Technically, it has been processed. But slicing the apple does not turn it into something less healthy than simply taking a bite out of the whole apple. Juicing the apple removes fiber, and perhaps destroys some vitamins and enzymes sensitive to heat and pressure. So some could consider that to be "less healthy" than simply eating apple slices. So at what point does an apple, for example, cross over into the world of "highly processed"? Is it when it's sliced, or juiced, or cooked, or canned, or frozen, or dried, or pasteurized, or sugar is added, or it's used as a flavoring in another food item? For the sake of simplicity, I like to define processed food as food that has been altered to such an extent that its original health benefits are almost completely nonexistent. Such as conventional apple juice - the apples have been cooked, peeled, filtered, and pasteurized to the point where none of the vitamins and minerals are really left. Vitamins have to be manually added back into the juice (fortified) in order for it to pass as something other than basically sugar water. This apple example can be applied to most other foods. Soy, wheat, and corn are some exceptions, which I will address in an upcoming post.

Highly processed food (chips, candy, fast food, deli meats, etc) has many synthetic chemicals that when ingested, react poorly with our bodies. These items are generally more poisonous than they are nourishing. They are also largely comprised of empty calories that leave our body needing much more. When one eats processed food on a regular basis, the body very rarely receives enough nutrition (vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc), which triggers the sensation of hunger despite the calories consumed. Your body is saying to you, "I had the calories, but I didn't get the nutrition I needed to function properly. Please feed me more". But our brains don't always know how to interpret those messages, and this results in what we know as cravings. Which then leads to more desire for sweets or fast food, instead of the nutrients our body actually needs, which perpetuates a vicious cycle.

MSG (monosodium glutamate) has always gotten bad press. It is present in the majority of the types of processed foods mentioned above. Seriously. Chips, granola bars, fast food, soda, etc. The cat's out of the bag that it isn't just in Chinese or Asian food. I've heard of people getting migraines, developing learning disorders, emotion control issues, and endocrine problems from moderate to high amounts of MSG. I'm not a scientist so I won't go into that part of it here. But, one thing that many aren't aware of is the direct correlation between MSG and obesity. If you search for "MSG-induced obesity" online, you will see that lab rats and mice are given pure MSG to induce obesity for studies. This is MSG absent of calories, or in food containing the same calories as is given to the control group. MSG on its own causes the body to store fat, regardless of whether or not it even contains any calories! And when calories do accompany the MSG (aka when I buy Oreos), it causes far more calories to be stored as fat than would be in the absence of MSG.

The FDA does not require manufacturers to label foods with MSG unless the “added ingredient” is 99% pure MSG.

When trying to avoid MSG, the main focus should be on a diet of whole, unprocessed foods. That is a big change for most people, but starting small is always ok! Awareness is a perfect starting point.

For detailed information about MSG, or for general questions or comments, please feel free to contact me directly here:

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