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Processed foods: unhealthy at many levels

David Katz, MD, MPH is the director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University. Katz released an article on July 28, 2014 titled Processed Food: Where Do We Go From Here?

We are what we eat
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

This article is interesting in both its simplicity and its clear thinking. Katz summarizes the article.

Only 1.5% of Americans meet daily recommendations for both vegetables and fruits, so the importance of processed foods to the nutrients we are getting says nothing about where we could, or should be getting those nutrients.

Most Americans are eating a large amount of processed foods. Not only are we eating reduced amounts of fresh vegetables and fruits, the nutritional content of these vegetables have been compromised by genetic engineering, soil content, and processing of these otherwise healthy parts of our diets.

Katz makes an interesting point that the term processed food is subject to interpretation. Some amount of processing is necessary to preserve the nutritional value of foods from the time it is harvested or slaughtered until they are consumed.

Traditional “food processing” included canning, drying, fermenting and storage in cool, dry cellars. Today’s food processing includes spraying petroleum wax on vegetables, treating meats with nitrates, adding anti-oxidants to baked goods, etc.

There has been a steady shift in diets to minimize the time to get food on the table. This often means a trip to a fast food restaurant or home delivery of high calorie, low nutrition foods that have few vitamins, minerals and other nutrients necessary for maintaining health.

Katz discusses that the nutritionists at universities often have their research subsidized by the food industries that they are evaluating. This situation is substantially better than what the pharmaceutical industry does to bias the research and information provided for health care. Both food and pharmaceutical companies advertise directly to the consumer, but many more people get health advice from their doctors than get nutrition advice advice from a registered dietician.

Katz suggests that the culture is not going to dramatically shift towards using less processed foods. His recommendation is to improve the nutritional value of the processed foods by substituting higher nutritional contents for those with pure calories.

And partly, the entire profession of dietetics grew out of advances in nutrient biochemistry, hospital-based nutrition, and a focus on the details of nutriture rather than a focus on wholesome foods in sensible combinations per se. The Blue Zones -- places in the world where people live measurable longer lives, like Sardinia in Italy and Okinawa in Japan -- no more attribute their healthful diets to dietitians than to physicians; they owe those benefits to their culture.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, nutriture is defined as

: bodily condition with respect to nutrition and especially with respect to a given nutrient (as zinc)

With the overwhelming growth of obesity in the US and the accompanying related diseases of diabetes, heart and kidney diseases, it is time to place additional attention on the impact of what we eat and drink on our health. It is laudable that Medpage TODAY is providing this perspective to physicians.

The fast food industry is the largest purveyor of unhealthy foods. There are some attempts to upgrade the nutritional content through such things as putting sliced fruit into “kid’s meals”. Offering unsweetened tea is an alternative to carbonated high fructose corn syrup. These are not the usually purchased products.

The fast food industry does careful research on what the public wants, and the results are horrific. People want unhealthy food because that food is loaded with salt, fat and sugar. Double Bacon Cheeseburgers and Waffle Tacos should have health warning labels on them comparable to tobacco products.

You can read David Katz’s entire article and provide comments on your view of making processed food better. Medpage TODAY provides daily information to physicians. Having doctors get information on proper nutrition is a good step in reaffirming the importance of diet on our health.

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