I have spent considerable time revisiting some of the literature that sparked my weight loss journey. Chief among this is the work of Dr. Robert Lustig who has written extensively on the impact of sugar and refined foods on obesity and metabolic diseases, especially in children. I was surprised how much the information resonates, in different ways, on this end of the journey, having done it with some success. This was really the first workable “diet” that I had been on. His message is simply that we should not eat anything that is packaged or processed. For many, this can seem like a monumental task, but once you have done it for a while, it becomes easier to adhere to and more desirable than the typical American diet.
We live in a consumer world. Most food products are designed, not for nutrition, but for shelf life and maximum consumption. There are armies of food scientists and experts working around the clock to bring new foods to the marketplace. These foods, unfortunately, are not being designed to promote good health, but rather profits. Even, if not especially, foods that are marketed as healthier options, tend to be exactly the opposite of what we need to maintain optimum health.
The reality is that we should be eating foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. We have become so efficient at delivering calories that we have outgrown our ability to digest them without incurring ill health effects. Through the industrialized food processing system, we are not only prioritizing the wrong foods but eating foods that have been pre-digested for us. We are outsourcing much of the work of digesting these foods by processing them.
The process of cooking foods is basically a form of digestion. When you cook carrots, for example, you are essentially breaking down long-chain carbohydrates into more easily digestible compounds which your body is then able to process more quickly, leading to quicker blood sugar spikes. When your blood sugar spikes, it causes the release of insulin to bring blood sugar levels back to normal. From what I understand of the role of insulin in our bodies, it can be the driver of many of our weight problems, if not maintained. It simultaneously interrupts the hormonal signals of satiety while triggering fat storage.
When you eat a diet that is closer to the state that it is in nature, you enable your body to do what it has evolved to do—extract energy from food very efficiently. Think of a potato chip. A potato in its natural, raw state is not very calorie dense (in terms of what your body is able to extract) due to its molecular structure. It is composed of long-chain carbohydrate molecules. The process of cooking the potato breaks it down into smaller molecules as stated above, along with the added fat of frying, and the lower density due to the cooking process which saps the water from it. At this point, it is closer to sugar than it is a potato. The body responds to this with a release of insulin, leading to a cascade of negative effects, including insulin resistance and diabetes in the long term. This elevated level of insulin interrupts other hormonal functions in the body. Leptin, which is responsible for triggering satiety, is blocked by insulin, leading to increased hunger. All the while, your body is storing the fat away rather than utilizing it for normal energy purposes. While this scenario is not conclusively held by the medical community, it makes sense to me, based on my experience.
I would welcome people to experiment with observing how they feel after eating different foods. No medical professional is going to recommend that an individual stay away from eating vegetables, so go ahead and eat more of them. Try this for yourself. Everyone knows the lethargic feeling that comes from eating too much food. Think about Thanksgiving dinner, which is typically an onslaught of starchy food; mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, corn, and pie. Many attribute the Thanksgiving “food coma” to the tryptophan in the turkey. The reality is that you flooded your body with energy and there is a cascade of hormonal effects taking place to bring blood sugar back to normal.
Try eating a diet of starchy foods for a week, eating as much as you like. If you are like me, you will be miserable, lethargic, and constantly hungry. Contrast that with the way you feel eating (similarly as much as you like), vegetables, fruits, and meats, for a week. The difference is like night and day. One caveat to consider is that it takes time for your body to adjust to the new way of eating so it may take a little more time to understand the difference in the way you feel.
The main point that I am trying to make here is that real whole foods should be the foundation of our diets. There are some researchers who suggest that many people, who don’t seem overweight, are storing fat around their vital organs, leading to the same risk potential for metabolic disease, except for they don’t know until they have a heart attack unexpectedly in their forties. These researchers suggest that obesity is the appropriate and healthier bodily response to our modern diet.
The recommendation from these researchers, and journalists who disseminate the info to the public at large is very simple. Eat real food. If you are going to eat it, it should look as close to its natural state as possible for optimal health. Take fruit, for example. Fruit contains two types of fiber that work together to form a barrier to absorption in your digestive tract. Fruit juice, while considered by some to be a healthier option than soda, is sugar water. Without the fiber to block the absorption of sugar it is the basically the same thing as soda. Additionally, it eliminates food for your microbiome—fiber. The same thing applies to other processed foods. The processes they undergo to have a lengthy shelf life results in higher caloric density, lower water content, lower fiber content, less flavor without the addition of fat, sugar, or other additives, etc. Another unfortunate consequence of the proliferation of processed foods is that they command a lower price. As consumption goes up, prices go down. Meanwhile, fruits and vegetables must be consumed quickly before they go bad. This leads to a troublesome dynamic where healthy foods become more expensive and less available.
I have had people ask me what the best way to approach an obese loved one is. How do I help them without making them feel bad? Honestly, the biggest thing you can do is adopt the same diet they should. Chances are, you are one of the lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it) individuals that are suffering from the hidden ill effects of the modern diet as well. By choosing to eat healthy food, you are setting a positive healthy example, lowering instances where they will be tempted by unhealthy food, circumventing the negative psychology of deprivation that is hindering their progress, driving down healthy food prices, reducing waste, driving up the cost of unhealthy food, and all the while lowering your own chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s (type 3 diabetes some are calling it), and cancer.
Everyone should watch the documentary FedUp. It does a wonderful job of showing how we have organized our food system in a way that is perilous to our health.