With two-thirds of the US overweight or obese, more Americans are eating Nestlé’s Hot Pockets than actually taking the time to cook a healthy meal these days.
According to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, more than three-quarters of the American diet in 2012 came from highly processed (61 percent) and moderately processed (16 percent) foods and drinks.
But it gets worse.
When classifying foods by convenience, ready-to-eat (68 percent) and ready-to-heat (15 percent) products were the largest sources of calories in the American diet.
The study is impressive as it covered 157,000 shoppers from 2000 to 2012 and tracked their food purchases with barcodes scanners.
While the health implications caused by our highly processed diet are alarming, it’s even scarier that most of us probably don’t equate highly processed foods to being addictive or unhealthy—many of which offer a day’s worth of sodium, sugar, and saturated fat in a single serving.
Luring in shoppers with phrases like, “all natural,” “simple grain,” or “no preservatives,” food companies make us believe that their moderate and highly processed products—breakfast cereals, granola bars, salad dressings, breads, cheese-like substances, ready-to-heat meals—are healthy.
Yet on Saturday, we still think we earned a cheat day. It’s not a cheat day, however, when our weekday diet—which we consider healthy—has more in common with our cheat day, go-to snack of Girl Scout Thin Mints (loaded with sugar, salt, and transfat—but how can you say no to a Girl Scout?).
Call it Machiavellian, but food corporations make us believe their amalgamation of some 30-plus ingredients (I lose count after 10) is healthier than our ability to crack some eggs, add some spinach, and make a frittata for dinner.
If the marketing practices don’t work, however, food companies have something else going for them: unlike the frittata, their food products act like drugs and create the ultimate bliss point in our brains. Their creations generate that “high as a kite” feeling you get when munching on a chip, drinking a soda, or opening the microwave and smelling the TV dinner odors engineered in a lab.
In fact, a study published in 2011 in the Current Drug Abuse Reviews examined the addictive potential of highly processed, hyperpalatable foods—the types of foods most Americans are consuming.
What did the study find?
Houston: we have a problem.
Like drugs, when we eat highly processed foods, the body absorbs the substances and active ingredients more rapidly into the bloodstream than minimally processed foods (unless raw, most foods are processed to some extent) because the processing strips these foods of their fiber and so-called natural packaging.
With no mechanisms to slow the delivery of sugar, fat, and salt into the body, highly processed foods foster the release of the feel good celebrity drug in our brains, dopamine, the same as taking a hit of cocaine. The age of culinary modernism has entirely skewed our perception of health, convenience, taste, and what it even means to cheat on a diet we’ve been sold as “healthy.”
The only way to really cheat on your highly processed diet is to go in the other direction entirely: Cheat on the food companies themselves.
One day a week, avoid highly processed foods, and process the foods yourself by performing a feat most of us hardly ever do: cook. There’s nothing highly processed about ‘buttering yo shit’ and the process can be more entertaining than what any TV dinner could ever promise.