THC WEEK 8: The Addiction of Ultra-Processed Foods and The Psychology of Clean Eating

Recently, I have been reflecting on my health journey. March 9, 2015 was the day that changed, literally, everything for me. (If you are unfamiliar with my story, you can find it here.) I was your typical over-worked single mom with 2 special needs kids.  I ate the cheapest, quickest, standard American diet I could, not even realizing what was coming. Clueless…  Looking back, I am so grateful for my journey. Without it, I would never have found my life path, my purpose. I would have never bothered researching food, food politics, or found a better way of being in the world. Although, at times, being able to see ALL the different aspects of how modern life is really messing with our ability to be humans can be tiring and downright depressing, I would never go back to being clueless. I am glad that I am informed.  I am glad that I have learned to ask the right questions. I feel like if I have to be a human in the world, at least I am wearing appropriate armor, to protect, not just me but the people I love, as well.

I have been talking a lot about processed food versus authentic food in this series. I am sure most people understand the terminology. However,  the Nutrigenomics Institute defines ultra-processed food as a term that expands and complements the term “fast food”. This category includes industrially made and ready-to-eat foods that can be stored for a long time without any special conditions. To make ultra-processed foods, low-nutrient, calorie-loaded ingredients are generally used. Some examples are refined sugars, white flour, ultra-pasteurized milk, and processed vegetable fat (margarine, industrial fat), and seed oils.

The consumption of these “foods” is extremely high, especially in cities. In most developed countries, these foods represent more than half of the daily calorie intake. They are considered tasty, affordable and cheap, which is exactly the problem of their excessive consumption.

We all have heard that they are bad for us but what do they really do to the body?

Ultra-processed foods commonly contain higher amounts of fat, simple carbohydrates, and salt than natural foods. At the same time, they lack vegetable fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients necessary for the body to function properly.

 Simple or fast carbohydrates dramatically increase blood sugar which, when lowered, produces a specific feeling of fatigue, which drives the urge to eat even when we aren’t hungry. Trans fats also contained in these foods can act as carcinogens, altering the normal function of the metabolism and even of the brain.

 Moreover, many ultra-processed foods are high in salt and additives. The goal is to enhance the flavor and to extend the shelf life of the product. Excess salt and additives are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Additionally, the WHO recommends completely avoiding processed meat products due to their carcinogenicity. Even, supposedly healthy, vegan protein sources (think lab-created meat and highly processed meat substitutes) are loaded with these artificial drivers of disease.

High consumption of these foods is linked to just about every preventable chronic illness in our society. Along with a sedentary lifestyle, they are the cause of every inflammation-based auto-immune disease (including many cancers), type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, kidney problems, obesity, and strokes. There have even been so many studies done to link a diet high in processed food to the severe increase in mental health conditions that Stanford University opened up a clinic for metabolic psychiatry.

What is it that is going on here? What is it about these foods that make them so hard to quit? You will notice when you read the label of these foods, they contain a combination of highly processed fats and sugars. This combination allows the body to more easily assimilate the substance. The result being, it is broken down quickly reducing that feeling of fullness over time.  A study published in 2007 found that when rats were exposed to highly processed sugars, it was more addictive that intravenous cocaine…even in rats who were addicted to the cocaine.  Their conclusion states,

“In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants. The supranormal stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets, such as those now widely available in modern societies, would generate a supranormal reward signal in the brain, with the potential to override self-control mechanisms and thus to lead to addiction.”

Another study done at the University of Michigan in 2015 found that not all food causes addiction like symptoms. Their conclusions state:

“The current study found that highly processed foods, with added amounts of fat and/or refined carbohydrates (e.g., sugar, white flour), were most likely to be associated with behavioral indicators of addictive-like eating. Additionally, foods with high GL (glycemic load) were especially related to addictive-like eating problems for individuals endorsing elevated symptoms of “food addiction.” Individuals endorsing symptoms of addictive-like eating behavior may be more susceptible to the large blood sugar spike of high GL foods, which is consistent with the importance of dose and rate of absorption in the addictive potential of drugs of abuse.”

You would think that based on this evidence; the government would work to prevent these types of substances in our food supply. However, the push for bioengineered food by corporations that began in the late 1990’s is continually supported by the alphabet organizations (FDA, USDA, et al) who are supposed to be protecting us so on this issue it is completely buyer beware.  The question remains that if these lab creations taste so good and are so cheap in comparison to clean, whole food, how do we break that cycle?

I have never been a breakfast person. My mom used to force it on me as a child but realistically, I just don’t think about food until 12pm and 2 pm, depending on the day.  I have been interim fasting naturally for decades, way before I found out it had all sorts of benefits.  I drink my coffee and, usually then around 10am, a glass of cold pressed roots and fruits, but I don’t crave solid food until lunch. However, a few weeks ago, I had lab testing that required fasting, so I put it on my calendar. At 7am, the notification popped up and I dismissed it like it was no big deal. Within 30 minutes, my stomach started growling. I knew there was no way I was hungry this early so drank some water. 30 minutes later, I had a headache, felt dizzy, etc.  Surely, this was low blood sugar, right? I started to get a little concerned and my thoughts were turning to food every 5 minutes.  What was going on?

Evolutionarily speaking, as humans, we want what we can’t have and our bodies will try to convince us that we need it for survival.  Even though I don’t eat before noon most days, because I wasn’t supposed to eat before my lab tests, my brain sent signals to my stomach that food was essential right then. This is the same reason why outlawing certain foods from our diets never work. We end up caving and then binging on said contraband. Marc David, Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, theorizes that our thoughts about food and eating are equally important as what we are eating.  Our bodies cannot tell the difference between an imagined stressor and a real one.

Clean eating isn’t about denying ourselves, that is the definition Orthorexia (an unhealth obsession with healthy eating). The trick is to train ourselves to eat clean and really enjoy it.  For me, there were a few different tricks I applied after I was finally able to eat solid foods again. First, I practiced crowding out.  The foods that I loved that were healthy, I ate an abundance of those foods first. Crowding out the room I had for the stuff that was not so healthy, rather than denying myself.  

Secondly,  those foods that I truly loved, that I also knew were bad for my body, I found a different way to incorporate them. This, honestly, brought me back to my love for the art of cooking, yet another bonus! Let’s face it, I love pizza, it has always been my favorite food. Now, instead of scarfing down some delivery pizza, I make it homemade. I use a chickpea crust (minimally processed), make my organic sauce, and load it up with veggies. Not to leave out the creaminess of cheese, I sprinkle either some goats milk feta or sheep’s milk blue cheese.   Now, most people would say there is no way that tastes like pizza. In all actuality, it does but the evolution of that was gradual, which is why this way of small changes works so well.  As you start to eat cleaner, your body detoxes (just like off drugs), things start to taste and smell different.  There are so many things I swore for years that I couldn’t stand to eat, that as my journey progressed, I realized that I loved.  As you begin to develop the taste for clean food, you begin to be able to taste the difference.  Once that happens, both your senses and your body begin to react differently. I can taste one bite of food and tell you if it has processed ingredients because my tastebuds are attuned to it now.  Therefore, when I get a craving I try to make sure that I have clean options that I can sub in.

The third trick that worked for me and still works is just not buying it and bringing it home.  Some days, I know if it’s there, I will eat it.  I don’t deny myself but if I want it, I will have to either make an extra stop at the store or, even worse, leave to go to the store specifically for that item. Generally, those are the last things I want to do so when the cravings come up, I feel like I don’t really want them bad enough to do all that. That also means that I don’t allow myself to have that stuff delivered either, if I want it I have to be willing to work for it.  It may work for you or you might have to tweak the rules to account for your preferences but I am simply telling you what worked for me. 

List of Ultra-Processed Foods to Avoid by Nutrigenomics Institute:

  • Sweet or salty packaged snacks
  • Ice cream
  • Candy (pastries)
  • Margarines and spreads
  • Cookies, cakes and pies
  • Cereal bars
  • “Fruit” flavored drinks
  • Sugary cocoa drinks
  • Meat and chicken extracts
  • “Instant” sauces
  • “Healthy” and “weight-reducing” products as substitutes for dishes
  • Pre-made cakes, pastas and pizzas
  • Poultry and fish “nuggets” and “fingers”
  • Sausages
  • Burgers
  • Powdered and packaged “instant” soups, noodles and desserts
Clean Cuisine Pyramid by Ivy & Andrew Larson

In today’s day and age, when highly processed food substitutes are the norm and clean food is considered radical, you really have to want it.  You have to choose it.  You have to choose your health and functioning over what is easy or quick every single time you eat.  Nobody is perfect at it but like everything with being human, it is a practice.  Learn to be gentle and compassionate with yourself.  If you truly want a piece of chocolate, have a piece of chocolate and don’t feel guilty for it.  I hope that you find the path of truth and balance for your life.

Stay balanced.

Stay blessed.

I hope you have a truly amazing week!

Resources & More Information

UM study on food addiction and ultra-processed food

Study on sugar and cocaine

Doctor’s Farmacy Podcast  The case against sugar

Cleveland Clinic Interview w/Mark Hyman, M.D.

By Danielle Savage

I am a lifelong learner. I have lived experience in many, many forms but what I hold dear is my connection with the land, my spirituality, my ancestors and teaching others that there is another way to live besides the current offering!

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