By Dr. Mercola
About 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food goes to buy processed food.1,2,3 What’s worse, new research shows that, astonishingly, more than half—nearly 60 percent, in fact—of the food Americans eat is ULTRA-processed.4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11
Basically, half of what the average American eats in any given day are convenience foods that can be bought at your local gas station.
Moreover, those ultra-processed foods account for 90 percent of the added sugar consumption in the U.S. Data from a nationally representative food survey was used for this study, which found that:
- On average, 57.9 percent of the calories people eat comes from ultra-processed foods
- 29.6 percent of calories comes from unprocessed or minimally processed foods (such as meats, eggs, milk, and pasta)
- Processed but not ultra-processed foods (such as canned or preserved foods, cured meats and cheeses) account for 9.4 percent of calories
- 2.9 percent of calories comes from “processed culinary ingredients” such as vegetable oil, table salt, and sugar
- Less than 1 percent of daily calories comes from vegetables
Excessive Sugar Consumption Drives Disease Statistics
The dangers of eating too much added sugar have been well-established, and have even become officially recognized. For the first time ever, the 2015-2020 U.S. dietary guidelines12 now recommend limiting your sugar intake to a maximum of 10 percent of your daily calories.13
Decreasing sugar consumption is indeed at the top of the list if you’re overweight, insulin resistant, or struggle with any chronic disease. Research14 has shown that as much as 40 percent of American healthcare expenditures are for diseases directly related to the overconsumption of sugar.
More than $1 trillion each year is spent on treating sugar and junk food-related diseases, which runs the gamut from obesity and diabetes, to heart disease and cancer.15
According to a report16 on the global cancer burden, published in 2014, obesity is responsible for an estimated 500,000 cancer cases worldwide each year. A more recent British report estimates obesity may result in an additional 670,000 cancer cases in the U.K. alone over the next 20 years.
For over half a century, nutritional guidelines have focused on cutting saturated fats and cholesterol, and we now know that this was a very serious mistake.
As fats were removed from processed fare, the sugar content increased (to make the food palatable), and sugar is the real culprit of virtually all diseases previously blamed on dietary fats.
What is Ultra-Processed Food?
Anything that isn’t directly from the vine, bush, tree, or from the earth is considered processed. Bread and pasta, for example, are processed goods. Ditto for anything canned or frozen.
Depending on the amount of adulteration the food goes through, processing may be considered minimal or significant. “Ultra-processed” foods are at the far end of the significantly altered spectrum.
Examples of ultra-processed foods include breakfast cereals, pizza, soda, chips and other salty/sweet/savory snacks, packaged baked goods, microwaveable frozen meals, instant soups and sauces, and much more. In the featured study, ultra-processed foods were defined as:
- Food products containing several ingredients that are not traditionally used in cooking
- Besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, they can include artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and other additives “used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods”
- These ingredients may also be added “to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product”
- They typically contain preservatives and chemicals that give them an unnaturally long shelf-life
Ultra-Processed Foods Contain FAR More Sugar Than Processed Foods
The difference between processed foods and ultra-processed foods in terms of sugar content is quite dramatic.
The researchers found that about 2 percent of the calories in processed foods came from added sugars. By definition, unprocessed or minimally processed contained none. Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, got 21 percent of their calories from added sugars.
Not surprisingly, the authors of the featured study concluded that: “Decreasing the consumption of ultra-processed foods could be an effective way of reducing the excessive intake of added sugars in the USA.”
On a positive note, the researchers also found that there were significant differences in how much ultra-processed foods people ate.
One in 5 people (about 60 million Americans) actually got more than 70 percent of their calories from real food (i.e. unprocessed or minimally processed), and only 30 percent from ultra-processed fare.
As noted by Time Magazine:17 “7.5 percent of the people with the lowest processed food consumption actually met the federal dietary recommendations of eating no more than 10 percent of daily calories from sugar.
So if people avoid processed foods, it’s possible to reach recommended nutritional requirements.”
So there is a ray of hope. In my view, eating a diet consisting of 90 percent real food and only 10 percent or less processed foods is a doable goal for most that could make a significant difference in your weight and overall health.
I realize for many this is a challenge, but I know it is doable. Unless I’m travelling, my diet is very close to 100 percent real food, much of it grown on my property. One just needs to make the commitment and place a high priority on it.
Carb-Rich Foods are As Risky As Cigarettes
In related news, research suggests refined non-vegetable fiber carbs such as potatoes, bagels and breakfast cereal are as risky as smoking, increasing your risk for lung cancer by as much as 49 percent.
Your risk is particularly high if you’ve never smoked. Among smokers, eating a high glycemic diet was associated with a 31 percent increased risk for lung cancer. As reported by UPI:18
“A high glycemic index, a measure of the effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels, was linked to a greater chance for developing lung cancer, researchers at the University of Texas MD Andersen Cancer Center found...
While increased levels of carbohydrates can increase the risk, the researchers said the quality of carbohydrates, rather than the quantity, has the strongest effect.
Foods such as white bread and puffed rice cereal are highly refined, which is why the researchers suggest swapping them out for whole-wheat or pumpernickel breads and pasta.
"The results from this study suggest that, besides maintaining healthy lifestyles, such as avoiding tobacco, limiting alcohol consumption and being physically active, reducing the consumption of foods and beverages with high glycemic index may serve as a means to lower the risk of lung cancer," Dr. Xifeng Wu, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas, said...”
High glycemic foods, i.e. refined carbs high in sugar, promote insulin resistance and obesity, and this isn’t the first time a connection has been made between a high-sugar and/or obesity and cancer.
In fact, cancer specialists who discussed the cancer trend at the 2015 American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago warned that obesity will likely overtake smoking to claim the lead spot as the principal cause of 10 different types of cancer within the next decade.19 Obesity is also associated with worsened prognosis after a cancer diagnosis, raises your risk of dying from the cancer treatment, and raises your risk of additional malignancies and comorbidities.20
Half of All Americans are Pre-Diabetic or Diabetic
Other recent research suggests that nearly half of all adults living in California now have diabetes or prediabetes, and most are not even aware of it. (For a list of pre-diabetes and diabetes rates by county, see the original news story.21) According to Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy which commissioned the report:22 "This study is a wake-up call that says it's time to make diabetes prevention a top state priority."
As reported by Marinij Health:23
“Nationally, diabetes rates have tripled over the past 30 years. In California, the rate has increased by 35 percent since 2001...Some health experts say one way to address the diabetes epidemic is to impose a tax on sugary beverages. Berkeley became the first city in the country to pass a soda tax in 2014, but similar efforts have repeatedly failed in the Legislature...
[H]owever, two legislators -- Democratic Assemblymen Jim Wood, of Healdsburg, and Richard Bloom, of Santa Monica – [have] proposed a "health impact fee" of 2 cents per ounce on sugar-sweetened sodas and other drinks. And last month, a Field Poll about childhood obesity-prevention policies showed more than 7 in 10 of voters polled believe there's a close link between a child regularly drinking sugary beverages and diabetes.”
In 2008, pre-diabetes and diabetes affected 1 in 4 Americans. Then, research24,25 published last year which looked at data up to 2012, found that HALF of all Americans are now either pre-diabetic or diabetic. In all, 12 to 14 percent have full-blown diabetes, and another 38 percent are pre-diabetic. So California is not unusual in that sense. Moreover, as in California, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans are nearly twice as likely to have diabetes as Caucasians.
Why Diabetes is Such a Dangerous Disease
Diabetes has become so common that many don’t even bat an eyelash anymore, but this is a serious mistake. Aside from the potentially deadly side effects of diabetes drugs, which I’ve covered in previous articles, the health complications that diabetes fosters are many, including but not limited to the following:
High blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke – 75 percent of diabetics have high blood pressure (130/80 mm Hg or higher). Death from heart disease and risk for stroke is 2 to 4 times higher among people with diabetes. Amputations – In 2004, 71,000 lower limb amputations due to diabetes were performed in the U.S. Blindness -- Diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults aged 20 to 74 years Dental disease -- Almost one-third of people with diabetes have severe periodontal disease Kidney disease – Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure.
In 2005, more than 45,700 people began treatment for end-stage kidney disease in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and another 178,700 were living on chronic dialysis
Pregnancy complications -- Poorly controlled diabetes before conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy among women with type 1 diabetes can cause major birth defects in 5 to 10 percent of pregnancies, and spontaneous abortions in 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies Nervous system disease -- About 60 to 70 percent of people with diabetes have mild to severe forms of nervous system damage such as: impaired sensation or pain in hands or feet, poor digestion, carpal tunnel syndrome and erectile dysfunction Cancer-- People with prediabetes have a 15 percent higher risk of cancer, especially cancers of the liver, stomach, pancreas, breast, and endometrium.
Women with diabetes have a 50 percent greater risk of developing colorectal cancer than women without diabetes.26
People with the highest insulin levels at the time of a cancer diagnosis also have significantly increased risks of cancer recurrence, as well as a greater risk of being diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer27
What’s the Key to Resolving Insulin Resistance and Diabetes?
The answer can be summarized in three words: Eat real food. Intermittent fasting, or the more accurate term, Time Restricted Feeding (TRF), can also be helpful. When you fast, your liver burns off the available liver fat, and by temporarily depleting your liver fat stores you restore metabolic stability to your liver and improve hepatic insulin sensitivity.
Exercise is also an important component. Studies have shown that exercise is beneficial and increases insulin sensitivity, whether you lose weight or not,28 and even if you’re physically active as little as 2.5 hours a week can be beneficial.29 When it comes to diet though, the long-term and most sustainable answer is to simply cut way down on ultra-processed foods, and to think of “diet” in terms of unprocessed whole foods, with which you then cook from scratch.
Truly, a major part of the problem is that so few people take the time to cook their own meals anymore. But relying on a “gas station diet” of ultra-processed foods is a recipe for insulin resistance, obesity, and related diseases that will ultimately cost you a fortune in medical bills and shorten your lifespan.
When you consider the ultimate, long-term price tag of all this convenience food, the time you invest in cooking will pay tremendous dividends. Remember if you want to be healthy, you or someone you trust needs to spend some serious time in the kitchen preparing your own food.
If you’re insulin/leptin resistant, have diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or are overweight, you’d be wise to limit your total fructose intake to 15 grams per day until your insulin/leptin resistance has resolved. For others, limit your daily fructose consumption to 25 grams or less. This can be pretty difficult unless you eat real food, and the reason for this is because ultra-processed foods are eight times higher in sugar than minimally processed or unprocessed foods.
Replace Refined Carbs With Healthy Fats and Moderate Amounts of Protein
Since you’re cutting a lot of energy (carbs) from your diet when you eliminate processed sugars and grains, you need to replace them with something better, including:
- As much high quality healthy fat as you want. Your body needs saturated and monounsaturated fats to stay healthy, in appropriate quantities, as they provide many beneficial effects, contrary to what you have probably been told.30 It is good to target about 90 percent of your fat calories from them. If you’re insulin resistant, you may need upwards of 50-85 percent of your daily calories in the form of healthy fats.
Good sources include coconut and coconut oil, avocados, butter, nuts, and animal fats. Remember—fats are high in calories but small in volume, so when you look at your plate, vegetables should be the largest portion by far, as they are not calorie dense.
- Moderate amounts of high quality protein found in organically-raised, grass-fed or pastured meats and dairy products, fish, legumes, and nuts. Aim for one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body mass, which places most people in a range of 40-70 grams of protein per day. Use the chart below to help you.
Red meat, pork, poultry and seafood average 6-9 grams of protein per ounce.
An ideal amount for most people would be a 3 ounce serving of meat or seafood (not 9 or 12 ounce steaks!), which will provide about 18-27 grams of protein
Eggs contain about 6-8 grams of protein per egg. So an omelet made from two eggs would give you about 12-16 grams of protein.
If you add cheese, you need to calculate that protein in as well (check the label of your cheese)
Seeds and nuts contain on average 4-8 grams of protein per quarter cup Cooked beans average about 7-8 grams per half cup Cooked grains average 5-7 grams per cup Most vegetables contain about 1-2 grams of protein per ounce
Fermented Foods and Fiber Help Prevent Diabetes
Optimizing your gut health is also important. Multiple studies have shown that obese people have different intestinal bacteria than lean people. Recent research31,32 also suggests your microbiome can influence your risk of diabetes. Fortunately, optimizing your gut flora is relatively easy.
You can reseed your body with good bacteria by regularly eating fermented foods (like fermented vegetables, especially fermented with starter culture that has strains that produce vitamin K2, natto, raw organic cheese and miso) or by taking a high-quality probiotic supplement.
Recent research33 also shows that increasing your fiber intake can help prevent diabetes. In this study, those who had the highest intake of fiber (more than 26 grams a day) had an 18 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those with the lowest intake (less than 19 grams a day).
One way that a high-fiber diet may be protective against obesity and diabetes has to do with your intestinal bacteria's ability to ferment fibers. When you eat foods high in fermentable fibers, such as cabbage, beans, and other vegetables, the bacteria in your intestines ferments them into butyrate and propionate, which are short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) involved in sugar production.
Just be sure to get most of your fiber in the form of vegetables, not grains, and focus on eating more vegetables, nuts, and seeds. The following whole foods, for example, contain high levels of soluble and insoluble fiber.
Chia seeds Berries Vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts Root vegetables and tubers, including onions and sweet potatoes Almonds Psyllium seed husk, flax, and chia seeds Green beans Cauliflower Beans