Processed Foods and Food Addiction

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Albondigas in Pasilla pepper, and green beans. Personal Collection

In the very recent past, we have seen a study confirming what many of us already suspected. Processed foods lead to higher calorie consumption. The study revealed that people eating ultra-processed foods will consume more calories than those eating unprocessed foods.

The researchers also admit to this other issue:

”Ultra-processed foods contribute to more than half the calories consumed in the USA, and they are cheap and convenient options,” Hall commented to MNT.

”So, I think it may be difficult to substantially reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods,” he continued, “especially for people in lower socioeconomic brackets who may not have the time, skill, equipment, or resources to purchase and safely store unprocessed food ingredients and then plan and safely prepare tasty, unprocessed meals.”

In the paper, Hall concludes, “However, policies that discourage consumption of ultra-processed foods should be sensitive to the time, skill, expense, and effort required to prepare meals from minimally processed foods — resources that are often in short supply for those who are not members of the upper socioeconomic classes.”

Many people do not have the skills or facilities to cook. It requires more than just a microwave, and you need time. Cooking is a critical skill that we rarely teach anymore. However, this is also leading to something else. We have not just an obesity epidemic, but also a very serious food addiction issue. Both need tackling, and likely this is beyond the obvious medical research finds.

We know that food addictions exist. The food industry also has taken advantage of this. It is not just a marketing slogan that you cannot eat only one (potato chip.) They are designed to make them desirable. They are in-fact craveable. The industry does a lot of research, including tasting panels. The idea behind those is a product that is both cheap to produce and highly palatable.

During this research, there are a few things that they try to hit. The first is how palatable this food item is. There are combinations of fat, sugar, and salt that make things appealing to both our mouth and brain. These morsels are also designed to pack a lot of pleasure into them and to trigger the release of dopamine in the brain.

Food addiction is a very real issue, and unlike tobacco or alcohol, you still need to eat every day. You will have to face the triggers of your addiction for the rest of your life. Therefore, there are things you can do about this. The first is to figure out if you have a food addiction. Not every person who has a weight issue does, and not every thin person does not. Healthline has a handy list of eight common symptoms that you may be addicted to food.

* You get cravings even when full. Mind you, wanting to eat something sweet after dinner. Or wanting some dessert from time to time is quite normal. In some situations, we expect desert, see a wedding for example. A full course meal to celebrate something this happy is usually followed by a nice palate cleanser. Depending on the culture what the type of dessert.
* You regularly eat until stuffed. You know you are doing it because you feel overstuffed, and at times this is beyond any just feeling of too full and goes into severe physical discomfort. Mind you, we all can over-eat from time to time. When you do it often, or every meal, this is a point of danger.
* You regularly eat more than you intended. You know the feeling, you serve yourself a serving, and then go for seconds and thirds. Yes, many of us have seconds from time to time. We either did not serve ourselves enough or whatever we are having is so tasty that we want another byte. The problem is not occasional, but the regular.
* Guilt is common. You know you should not do it, yet you repeat the pattern over, and over and over again.
* You make excuses. Ok, this one time or this is a reward, or I exercised. There are many reasons we tell ourselves that we are okay about doing this. We know we can, and will, pay a price but we find ourselves quite helpless. And we all have heard the internal conversation. I fell off the wagon, ok Saturday is my cheat day, I could go on. It is best to acknowledge what happened and move on.
* Failure at setting up boundaries and rules. this is common when people try to get into a regular schedule for eating. It is also common when people decide that they are not going to have a certain food, but they still get it.
* Hiding when you over-eat from others. We all have known the person who is always on a diet but never manages to lose weight, or worst gains more weight. Well, these are the same people you may find at a fast food joint having a large meal, away from those who know them. Or who have drawers where they hide cookies. If you happen to identify with this, well, the first step is to realize what is happening and why.
* Unable to stop, never mind you have serious health issues. Look, we know that losing weight will help with a series of chronic diseases. Whether you have high blood pressure, diabetes, both, or other serious health conditions, you cannot bring yourself to stopping these behaviors.

Food addiction is a very real problem and if you find yourself repeating even a few of those patterns, regularly, it might be time to have a conversation.

Also, if you do not want, or cannot afford, a mental health professional, you can join overeaters anonymous. If you are not ready to go to a meeting, they even have an online resource that might help you. Full disclosure, I have never been to an OA meeting, but I know that the twelve step program, which is the basis for it, does help a lot of people. Whether it is with alcoholism, drug addiction or issues with food. So it is worth kicking the tires.

We know that changing habits is difficult, studies are revealing this:

A study from the National Institutes of Health published in May found a striking way to test the notion that calorie density carries the day when it comes to eating urges. The study found that people presented with calorie-dense meals — that is, rich, fatty, sugary junk foods — repeatedly and consistently ate more calories than people presented with less calorie-dense foods like fruit and lean protein. And that was true even though both groups of people were always presented with initial servings representing the same number of calories’ worth of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, and were free to leave some of the food on the plate or go for extra servings. Think of it this way: An apple and two bites of a fudge brownie sundae each contain the same number of sugar calories — but while most people wouldn’t reach back into the bowl of fruit after eating the apple, few people would be able to push away the sundae after two bites.

While the link between cravings and calorie-dense foods is fairly ubiquitous, that doesn’t mean people crave the same foods with the same intensity. And therein lies the roots of humans’ vulnerability to food industry manipulation — as well as the source of potential freedom from health-destructive cravings.

Cravings have a strong genetic component, given that the basic preference for foods with higher calorie density cuts across generations, geography, and culture. But the fine-tuning of those cravings is mostly programmed in at an early age, and is usually related to the particular foods presented during childhood. A study of children in Mexico found that when kids were very young, they showed little interest in spicy foods until around age 5, when they suddenly began to prefer the same hot dishes their parents and older siblings were eating. Those preferences eventually morphed into lifelong cravings for spicy, high-calorie-density dishes, cooked in certain ways. But even within cultures, says Roberts, the preferences tend to vary from person to person, and in individuals they can vary over time, and in different situations.

This is why we have such a variance. I grew up in Mexico, in a Jewish household. So yes, I like spicy food. But I also crave herring from time to time. It was a treat when I was growing up, and not something you could find often. From time to time I do buy it. It is not something that I eat a lot off, but it is a nice treat. Potato chips were also a challenge at one point. Why? We also grew up with them, and you can find them in Mexico. My mother bought them, for very special occasions. So it was not a thing we had a lot off at home.

We all have a relationship with food, and it can be problematic. If you know that certain foods are a serious problem for you, those chips, you may want to keep them out of the house in the beginning. In other words, set a few boundaries. I do not believe that food is forbidden, but I became aware of how the food industry manipulates cravings some time ago. This epiphany came when I read The End of Overeating by Dr. David A Kessler, a few years back. The book was a revelation and it radically changed how I shop for food.

There are newer works in the same vein, but I consider Dr. Kessler’s comparison of the food industry to big tobacco salient and accurate. They have tried to avoid the research that shows how much in trouble we are, and how addictive food can be. Nor is this accidental, it is by design.

So there are a few life hacks I have learned that I will gladly pass on.

* There is no diet food. There are just energy dense and nutrient dense foods.
* Variety is the spice that keeps things interesting.
* Having a list of forbidden foods leads to inevitable binge eating.
* While exercise is not that essential for weight loss, it is critical for other things, like reducing insulin resistance. So just do it, because it is good for you. Also, add weights to your routine.
* You need to figure out why you overeat, when you overeat, and why. Keep a log if needed.
* We are not saints, and yes, we all do it from time to time. When you do, move on to the rest of the day. Yes, log it, but move on. Speaking of logging, I keep a food log.
* Realize how food affects you, and try to eat when you are hungry, not when you are sad, angry, or the many other reasons you eat.
* We have increasing amounts of research into obesity. So how we fight the battle of the bulge is not a morality play and increasingly we are understanding the science.
* When shopping, try to get fresh foods and avoid the interior of the store. Learn to cook even basic dishes. It is better for you, and there is the satisfaction of knowing your way around the kitchen. If you work three minimum wage jobs or night shifts, I get you. Find healthier alternatives in your frozen meal sections, to the hyper-processed foods.

I like salads, and in the summer they are good for you and fresh. I add a lot more ingredients than just some lettuce, tomatoes and mushrooms. Yes, I add carrots, but I at times add fruit, like berries or apples. I also like zucchini, beans, artichokes, go easy on the cheese. To add texture I also use nuts, peanuts and almonds are good…if I can find them, pepitas. I like Baco-bits, I use the generic brand. And while I use dressing, I make sure it coats everything, and also that it does not drench the salad. I also measure it, because it is easy to go for two spoons and get a quart. If you like funky, blue cheese will go a long way, with a little dressing. I always add some protein to it. Turkey leftover broiled chicken, cold salmon. Any of these will keep it interesting. Also, protein, lean type, is great for keeping you full.

But to do this you need skill with the knife. You can also get a pre-mixed salad that only needs mixing but make sure to add some protein to it. It is good in the summer too. Be careful with some commercial salads, especially from fast food places. Most are too large, and many have sugar added to them. In other words, they are trying to make a salad something you will crave by adding ingredients that we know can have this effect. They are also converting a nutrient dense food into a calorie dense food.

If you are short on cash, a full set of knives is not necessary. A good quality knife can serve multiple roles. If you need to add to that, have a serrated one for bread, and a paring knife. I find myself using two all the time. The rest are in the block. So if you are short on funds, find a good one that can serve you well. Going to places like Goodwill can be a good idea. They have kitchen items that can be very good quality and will serve you for years.

One necessary skill is how to sharpen those blades at home. I use a stone, a skill I picked as a youth. One that I treasure since I do sharpen my knives often.

Moving away from the super processed foods matters, because they are more likely to be addictive. They are convenient, but understanding why they can be a problem matters.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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