Ok, I’m going to tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone. You ready? My first word, the first fully complete word to ever cross my little one-year-old lips, was...McDonald’s.
*hangs head in shame*
True story. I guess I loved french fries so much that I had to use my first word to demand more.
Fast forward 20 or so years. I was addicted to box macaroni and cheese. I’m talking blue box Kraft Cheese and Macaroni and Velveeta Shells and Cheese. I mean, there was a 0% chance you would come to my house and not see one or the other (or preferably both) in my cabinets. I don’t know what it was, but I had to have it!
Needless to say, for all those years in between and several after, my diet was pure trash. Almost everything I ate came out of a box or a can, and I saw no problem with that whatsoever.
It also suffices to say that I was fat and unhealthy during this time. Let’s not sugar coat things.
Somewhere along the way, I learned the term “eat clean.” This phrase, which has been maligned lately for being judgmental (eye roll), basically means, as I define it, to eat whole or minimally processed foods, free of chemicals.
In short, if it came from (or ate!) a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.
Products served at most fast food spots and lining the grocery aisles, what author Michael Pollan calls “food-like substances,” are filled with chemicals known to cause harmful effects in humans and lab animals alike, not to mention the added salts and sugars and the problems those bring.
Here’s an example of what you’ll find in your average processed food:
What they do: used to deep fry many fast foods and also to increase the shelf-life of most processed foods
Why they’re harmful: Considered a highly dangerous substance, trans fats increase bad cholesterol levels while decreasing good cholesterol, increases the risk of heart attacks, heart disease, and strokes, and contributes to increased inflammation, diabetes, and other health problems
Also known as: Commonly seen on labels as “Partially Hydrogenated Oils”
What they do: Add colors to foods. Sometimes combined with artificial flavorings to simulate/replace the tastes of real food ingredients such as fruit and vegetables.
Why they’re harmful: Causes hyperactivity in children, suspected to be carcinogens (cancer-causing), known to significantly lower IQ
Also known as: FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Blue No. 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Red No. 3, FD&C Yellow No. 5, FD&C Yellow No. 6, Orange B
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
What it does: A flavor enhancer, MSG activates the “umami” flavor in many processed and restaurant foods
Why it’s harmful: Studies show that regular consumption of MSG may result in adverse side effects which include depression, disorientation, eye damage, fatigue, headaches, and obesity. MSG also disengages the "I'm full" function of your brain, which causes you to eat more
What they do: Keep foods shelf-stable so they last longer, including packaged meats
Why they’re harmful: Known to cause cancer, raise blood pressure, and wreak havoc on internal organs
Also known as: Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) & Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT), Propyl Gallate, Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite, Sodium Benzoate
What they do: Emulate the sweetness of real sugar
Why they’re harmful: Where to start? Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, a staple of diet foods and non-diet foods alike, are known to lead to a wide variety of ailments including brain tumor, diseases like lymphoma, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue, emotional disorders like depression and anxiety attacks, dizziness, headaches, nausea, mental confusion, migraines and seizures.
Also known as: Aspartame, Acesulfame-K
High Fructose Corn Syrup
What it does: Sweetens food. Added to almost all processed foods.
Why it’s harmful: HFCS is the number one source of calories in America. It causes weight gain, increases your bad (LDL) cholesterol, and is known to contribute to diabetes development and tissue damage
You may wonder how our government allows such harmful additives into our food. The sad fact of the matter is, food additives have only been a “thing” for a few decades, so we’re just learning the effects they have on our bodies. Even worse, due to regulations and politics, bans on these chemicals are slow to come, despite the evidence that they’re negatively affecting our health.
The scariest part? Many of these additives are banned in other countries, yet perfectly legal in the US. :(
So what can you do to avoid harmful additives in your food and “eat clean”?
- Read every label. Knowledge is power. Read the label of everything you eat. Going out? Check that restaurant’s website if possible. Most restaurants will offer nutrition information.
- Know before you go. Certain restaurants are known for their high-quality ingredients, such as Chipotle and Panera Bread. If you have to (or want to!) eat on the go, choose a restaurant that avoids food additives.
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Typically, this is where you’ll find whole foods such as produce, meats, and dairy. Only dip into the aisles for things like canned and frozen vegetables, oils and seasonings, and canned fish. If you must shop in the aisles, try to choose items with six or less ingredients that you can easily recognize.
- Shop at farmer’s markets! Skip the middleman and go straight to the source. At a farmers market, you can talk to the people who provided your food and support local business while you’re at it.
- Make food at home. While it’s nice to be able to go out, you’ll have the best guarantee of eating clean food by preparing it yourself. Have a craving for something sold in a box? Chances are, you can find a recipe online that tastes even better!
(Want to learn more about eating real food and avoiding food-like substances? Watch the PBS documentary based on Michael Pollan's book, In Defense of Food, or check out his book. It's a worth your time!)
Eating clean is an adjustment, but it doesn’t have to be a bummer. Having a problem trying to replace your favorite processed or fast foods with healthy ones? Let me know! I’m happy to provide ideas to healthify, and in most cases, keto-fy, most foods.
What was your favorite food growing up? Where you as addicted to junk food as I was? Share in the comments!