The Microbiome Diet ABCs – C is for Curtail Processed Foods

Earlier installments in this series focused on Probiotics and Prebiotics, two extremely important elements in the Microbiome Diet that we need every day. Now we come to Processed Foods – the elephant in the room – likely the greatest challenge for your Microbiome Diet and healthy Second Middle Age.

Most of us have grown up surrounded by convenience foods aka Processed Foods. These include packaged snacks, instant soups, noodles (yes, Ramen I’m looking at you), crackers, cookies, fast food and the like.

During my lifetime, Processed Foods have become the norm, making up more than half of the daily calories for most Americans, filling our pantries and crowding our plates and supplanting important nutrient-dense whole foods.

  • What is Processed Food?

At bottom, all food that is not eaten raw has some element of processing.  The 2 million year history of food processing includes important innovations like the invention of bread, beer/wine and cheese.

Most food that we eat undergoes some form of preparation before reaching your plate. Fermented foods contain healthy bacteria (probiotics); cooking some foods may improve their nutritional profile an/or their bioavailability (the ability of the body to absorb nutrients of a food).  

Canning or freezing foods contributes to longer shelf-life and improved affordability, and accessibility of fruits and vegetables.  Researchers classify these necessary steps in commercial food preparation as ‘minimally processed foods.’

In contrast, Processed Foods that are problematic (and addictive) are generally highly refined with any natural fiber eliminated or reduced – think white flour vs. wholegrain flour, white rice vs. brown rice, etc. Processed Foods are stripped of most if not all naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients and include unhealthy levels of salt and sugar. Products labeled ‘enriched’ may have nutrients that are not well-absorbed (bio-available) by the human body.

Some researchers have dubbed anything going beyond the minimum processing required for canning, freezing or similar preparation as ultra-processed foods, defined as:

“[F]ormulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavours, colours, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.”

The Processed Foods in question commonly include soft drinks, fruit drinks and milk-based drinks; cakes, cookies and pies; salty snacks; frozen and shelf-stable plates; pizza and breakfast cereals. When I was a kid we called these junk foods – though we did not know at the time also to include most breakfast cereals in this category.

  • Why does curtailing Processed Food matter?

When more than half of our calories come from foods that are produced to mimic whole foods with none of their nutritional content, we are shortchanging our own long-term health for immediate gratification.

Processed foods displace whole foods, increasing the likelihood of weight gain and associated inflammation that is linked to diseases of aging like Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.  

Moreover, there is an increasing body of research indicating that the very qualities of Processed Foods that may make them so appealing and addictive – emulsifiers, stabilizers, lower fiber, increased salt and sugar – harmful the microbial diversity needed for a healthy microbiome. 

By eating Processed Foods, we rob our bodies of needed nutrients and undermine the body’s ability to fight off disease. A 2019 Tufts University study estimated that nearly 3 million people die every year from stroke and heart disease attributable to a dearth of fruit and vegetables in the diet. 

Assuming that we can tell the difference between frozen peas and potato chips, it becomes simple to focus on the need to favor minimally processed whole foods over Processed Foods wherever possible. 

As a child growing up in the Detroit area, my Bubbie Edna invariably welcomed her grandchildren into her home with a bowl of fresh cantaloupe. She showed her love in so many ways, and one of them was to make sure she gave us a hug and a healthy snack as soon as we came in the door.  We can show our love for our families, friends, and ourselves by doing the same.  

The bottom line: We should curtail Processed Foods at all ages; it becomes urgent and important for your healthy second middle age.

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