How and Why to Steer Clear of Ultra-Processed Foods

Our concierge primary care doctors in Jupiter often suggest you consume healthy foods and avoid processed and ultra-processed foods. In the real world, of course, we know how difficult that is to do.

The question is, why? Why have ultra-processed foods come to dominate 60 percent of the American diet?

Ultra-processed foods are quick and convenient, for one thing, and for another, there’s no denying that, for the most part, these foods taste good. From frozen dinners, cookies, and cakes, to fast-food burgers and chicken, fried foods, deli meats, and sodas, many of us not only can’t quit them, but we also don’t want to.

And we convince ourselves that processed foods aren’t really all that bad for us. On that last point, we have to disagree. The one thing we know for sure is that processed and ultra-processed foods can trigger numerous health concerns.

What the Studies Say

For example, one study of more than 22,000 adults published this year in the journal BMJ found that subjects who consumed more ultra-processed foods had a 19 percent higher likelihood of early death and a 32 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease than those who ate fewer ultra-processed foods.

Another 2019 study published in BMJ followed more than 100,000 adults in France for five years. They found that those who ate the most processed foods were 23 percent more likely to experience a heart condition or stroke than those who consumed the lowest amounts.

A third study, also published in BMJ, tracked 20,000 Spanish adults over 20 years. Those who ate the most processed foods were 62 percent more likely to die during the study period than those who ate the lowest.

Other studies have linked processed and ultra-processed foods to a higher risk for colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

How are Foods Classified?

Researchers classify foods into roughly three categories:

“Unprocessed or minimally processed” foods include fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, legumes, meats, poultry, fish and seafood, yogurt, white rice and pasta, and natural juices (some classification systems divide these into two categories).

“Processed” foods include cheeses, bread, beer, wine, ham, and bacon.

“Ultra-processed” foods include potato chips, pizza, cookies, chorizo, sausages, mayonnaise, chocolates and candies, and artificially sweetened beverages.

They also created a separate category called “processed ingredients,” which includes salt, sugar, honey, olive oil, butter, and lard.

What’s Wrong with Processing?

The big mystery is why foods that are so convenient and taste so good are so bad for us. The problem seems to come from the processing itself, which changes foods from their natural state.

These tend to be high in poor-quality fats, additional sugar, salt, and chemical preservatives, and low in vitamins and fiber. The common factor can be summed up in the phrase “convenience foods”; that is, foods that are quick and easy to prepare at home or grab at a drive-through.

Some researchers believe that changing foods from their natural state leads to inflammation throughout the body, which puts us at risk for a host of diseases.

“Some of the foods that have been associated with an increased risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease are also associated with excess inflammation,” Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, told Harvard Health Publishing.

“It’s not surprising, since inflammation is an important underlying mechanism for the development of these diseases,” he said.

How to Break the Addiction

Asking you to give up all these delicious foods might seem as if we’re condemning you to a life of bland, tasteless meals. But that’s because Big Food has spent billions of dollars getting you addicted to all its additives.

In addition, these ultra-processed foods leave our bodies so depleted of nutrients that we keep eating more and more to try to make up the shortfall, not unlike Star Trek’s famous tribbles, which “starved to death in a storage compartment full of grain.”

The fact is, humans have been eating non- or minimally processed food for millennia. When your taste buds reacclimate themselves to the real thing, you’ll be surprised how sweet a carrot can be, or how a locally grown tomato is bursting with tangy flavor.

Finally, when you begin eating better, you’ll likely begin sleeping better, looking younger, have more energy, and many of the aches and pains you thought you’d just have to live with may begin to decrease or disappear altogether.

Take it Easy

All this will make you want to keep on this new path, and eventually, you’ll lose your taste for processed and ultra-processed foods. When you’ve been eating lower- or no-salt foods for a while, for example, then dip into a package of potato chips, you’ll think the contents are half potatoes and half salt.

The key is to withdraw from these addictive substances gradually. Substitute french fries for sweet potato chips you’ve baked yourself, for instance, or swap out soda for water occasionally.

Shop the store’s perimeter as much as possible, where they keep the fruits and vegetables and fresh meat and seafood.

If you must visit a fast-food restaurant, opt for salads or baked chicken sandwiches if they offer them.

Finally, don’t agonize over everything you eat. Stress is bad for you, too. Simply prefer fresh food over processed as often as possible.

is popcorn healthy

In Praise of Popcorn

Our concierge doctors in Jupiter sometimes feel bad about all the tasty foods we suggest you avoid if you want to stay healthy. So we thought it would be nice for once if we could bring you some good news about a popular snack food.

When it comes to so-called “junk” foods, popcorn is one you don’t have to feel guilty about: with a couple of caveats, that is, which we’ll explain below. In fact, popcorn prepared the right way is so good for you, it doesn’t even belong on a list that includes cookies, chips, and ice cream.

Tiny Powerhouse

Popcorn by itself is a whole grain that includes the germ, the bran, and the hard outside endosperm. Together these components are packed with nutrients, including protein, vitamin E, several B vitamins, minerals, and healthy oils, along with fiber and antioxidants.

Here are some of the nutrients that popcorn provides:

  • vitamin B6
  • vitamin E
  • vitamin A
  • vitamin K
  • niacin
  • thiamin
  • riboflavin
  • pantothenic acid
  • folate

As an added bonus, it’s also naturally low in calories at just 90 calories. In addition, it’s also very filling due to its protein (three grams per three-cup serving) and high fiber content (three grams per three-cup serving), which can aid in weight loss.

Whole grains are an important component in a healthy diet because they’ve been shown to help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Other benefits that are attributed to whole grains include lower cholesterol levels and improved digestion.

“When prepared well, popcorn is actually a pretty good snack,” Maya Vadiveloo, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island, told the American Heart Association (AHA) News.

“It’s stable. It’s inexpensive. It’s fairly tasty. For people who might be struggling to eat adequate fruits or vegetable or other whole grains, it’s a low-risk snack to start.”

Now for the bad news

Corn was domesticated in Mexico more than 9,000 years ago. And there is some evidence that popcorn has been enjoyed for millennia by people all around the world—anywhere, that is, where corn is a staple of the diet.

Simply heating the kernels causes them to pop, so it’s not surprising that archaeologists have found evidence that early cultures in Central and South America enjoyed this snack. It’s probably safe to say, however, that they didn’t drench their popcorn in melted butter and top it off with handfuls of salt.

And that’s one of the caveats we mentioned above. This wholesome snack food can turn unhealthy pretty quickly when prepared the wrong way, i.e., in microwavable bags, with unhealthy oils, or when loaded up with the wrong toppings.

For example, “Popcorn at the movies is very different than popcorn made at home,” Vadiveloo said. “Even a small movie theater popcorn has significant calories and is very high in salt.

“Sodium is one of the leading risk factors for hypertension [high blood pressure] and stroke in general, so it’s something we do care about from a perspective of heart disease,” she explained, adding that a tub of movie theater popcorn can contain up to 1,090 calories and 2,650 milligrams of sodium.

Keep it healthy

Even if you make it yourself on the stove, however, the oil needed during the cooking process can double the amount of calories, nutritionist Julien Chamoun of RD Nutrition Counseling in New Jersey, tells CNN.

That’s why he recommends an air popper for your popcorn.  Both microwave popcorn and popcorn popped in oil will absorb those oils, so air popping is generally considered the healthiest way to prepare popcorn because it uses no oil at all.

If you don’t want to buy an air popper, however, you can cook it on the stove using healthier oils such as extra virgin olive oil, walnut, avocado, or canola oils, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Avoid palm and coconut oils, because they contain high amounts of saturated fats, and skip corn oil, sunflower oil, and soybean oil entirely.

Mexican pop corn with hot sauce and chili powder

Chamoun recommends this method to make 16 cups (about four servings):

½ cup popcorn kernels

2 tablespoons oil

Pour the oil into a large pot, at least six quarts in volume. Add two or three kernels to the pot, then cover and place over medium-high heat until you hear the kernels pop.

Take the pot off the heat, put in the remaining kernels, and cover the pan. Wait 30 seconds, then return the pot to the burner and cook, shaking the pan frequently to ensure the unpopped kernels fall to the bottom to cook as well as to prevent burning the cooked popcorn, until the popping slows down.

Remove the pan from the burner, lift the lid carefully to allow the steam to escape, then transfer the popcorn to a large bowl. Toss it with a little olive oil or walnut oil to help any toppings stick to the popcorn.

The seasonings you can use are almost limitless, as long as you avoid or at least minimize the usual butter and salt. Try adding garlic powder, onion powder, cinnamon, nuts, paprika, chili flakes, grated cheese, Italian herbs . . . anything you like that’s low in sugar and salt.

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What to Do About Arsenic in Your Rice

When you’re digging into a bowl of rice cereal, or a hearty helping of arroz con pollo, or just munching on low-cal rice cakes, you certainly don’t expect to be ingesting a potential toxin. But unfortunately, that’s what’s happening whenever you or your children consume any type of rice.

Our concierge primary care doctors in Jupiter aren’t telling you to avoid rice altogether. We do think you should know about the risks connected with arsenic in rice, and how to mitigate them.

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Where All Your Salt Intake comes From

So many of our patients tell us they never add salt when cooking. So of course, they’re restricting their salt intake.

But if you eat anything processed, packaged, or prepared outside the home, your salt intake is much higher than considered healthy.

Our primary care doctors in Jupiter think you’ll be surprised by how much salt is in your kitchen outside the saltcellar. Manufacturers rely on it to prolong the shelf life of their products. It helps prevent the growth of bacteria and other disease-causing agents.

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Are Plant-Based Burgers Healthier?

Due in part to the pandemic, sales of plant-based foods have soared recently. One survey reported 77 percent of U.S. shoppers bought at least one type of plant-based food in the last six months. Of those, 30 percent said this was a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some respondents said they wanted to make a conscious effort to eat healthier to improve their immune systems. Others said it was because they had more time at home to experiment with new food choices.

Our primary care doctors at MD 2.0 in Jupiter certainly applaud this trend. At the same time, we noticed one of the main drivers of plant-based food sales is the meatless burger. You can now find it on grocery store shelves and many restaurants.

So are plant-based burgers healthier than their meat-based inspiration? The answer seems to be, not necessarily.

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