Life expectancy is going backward in both the U.S. and the U.K. This isn’t a blip like World War I plus the Spanish flu combo. This is a downward trend since 2015. When’s it going to stop? What’s happening to our quality of life?
For one thing, chronic disease is on the up and up. The World Health Organization estimated levels would increase 57% from 2001 to 2020. Previously, the increase in chronic disease was blamed on the aging population — the idea being the longer you live, the more time disease has to manifest. But now those ideas are diverging.
What may be to blame? How might you beat the odds of developing chronic disease?
We need all the help we can get in this honking, stressful, over-dopamined, keep-up-with-the-Joneses, ring ring, beep beep, oh Christ, how do I look in this photo? world we call the present.
As a registered nutritionist, I often explain to people that a good diet is as much about what you don’t eat as it is about what you do. In today’s developed world, we’re overfed yet undernourished. Junk has taken over. This is largely because we concern ourselves with calories first and believe that by maintaining a certain amount below a given number, everything will be hunky-dory. And all the while, we miss out on the real reason we eat: to obtain nutrients.
If you make the effort to eat nourishing foods — unfashionable or a pain to prepare by today’s standards — the calories will take care of themselves. And, for the most part, so will your health.
If you’re the type who prefers to know what you need to stop doing (before you commit to a new start), I’ve got you covered. Here’s my list of the three empty foods you should throw away, leaving space for you to enjoy real food that was born or grown.
1. Highly refined grains
Highly refined grains are the backbone of many junk foods. By avoiding them, you will steer clear of many things that are best thrown away by default.
They add little in the way of nutrients. In fact, they are often so lacking in nutritive value that synthetic vitamins and minerals are added. This process is called fortification and has been a necessary step in counteracting nutrient deficiencies in the past. We’re often told that supplementing vitamins and minerals doesn’t work, but fortifying foods with them does? Confusing!
We live in a developed world of abundance. So much choice! We’re positively drowning in dietary decisions. So, why go for a highly refined grain like white bread or pasta when you can go for a more nutrient-dense option? It’s because you don’t like the latter, isn’t it?
Einkorn, rye, spelt, buckwheat, kamut, and other old-fashioned grains are better choices, made with sourdough rather than modern baker’s yeast. The fermentation breaks down the antinutrients, making the actual nutrients more easily assimilated and less likely to cause digestive stress. So, go on and try something new! Get out of that rut! The other option is to remove grains from your diet completely (after all, there’s no such thing as a grain deficiency).
I don’t particularly like grains. I think they emerged from a time of famine in brittle environments after we successfully wiped out most of the really large and tasty mammals symbiotic with the lush grasslands. Sahara! But that’s another story.
Eating sprouted grain breads (found in the health food store) or sprouting grains at home (soaking and then allowing them to sprout for a day or so) are ways of reducing the protective chemicals plants have within them, collectively called antinutrients. Gluten is one example.
If you’re unwell, I would highly recommend you do this or skip cereals all together. Those people who are robustly healthy may well be getting away with it — for now. Sprouted bread is the only type I eat and, unlike the other types, is the only one that doesn’t make me feel unwell.
2. Added sugar
Sugar is added to almost everything we eat. You can’t even buy peanut butter that hasn’t been altered by the manufacturer so that you just can’t stop eating it.
Eating added sugar — often hidden within foods under one of over 68 different names — is an excellent way to become overweight and ill.
Not only does this add lots of energy to your diet that you don’t burn off — bed, train, office, train, sofa, bed, repeat — you’re also prodding your hormonal system multiple times per day. Nothing likes being prodded. Simply put, this combination of things will create extra adiposity (fat) and cause disease. Lots and lots of disease.
Avoid added sugars, and you avoid junk foods. Can you see a pattern emerging?
3. Vegetable oils
Extruded vegetable oils were brought into our lives in about 1910 when the processing of them became cheap. Make no mistake, these oils are a food technology that should never have been developed.
On the face of them, these oils seem like good value, but they have brought with them health risks that far outweigh any benefit. A study published in the British Medical Journal found that replacing saturated fats with vegetable oils increased death from “all causes” by 62% and from cardiovascular disease by 70% when measured against a control group. This study is strong enough to show causation by vegetable oils versus the “associations” seen in much nutrition research.
At the turn of the 20th century, people were still consuming animal fats daily and heart disease was rare. By 1950, heart disease had become the biggest killer in the U.S.; nowadays, it’s the biggest killer worldwide. However, in developed countries, cancer is now the leading cause of death, due in part to an increase in prevalence alongside improvements in post-heart-attack emergency procedures, which are saving more lives.
Sadly, vegetable oils are implicated in the development of cancer. A study of mice demonstrated double the malignancy in those given vegetable oil versus those given fish oil. Another rodent study demonstrated the normal and healthy process of cell death (apoptosis) was prevented by the ingestion of corn oil, and as a result, colon cancer developed.
To keep things simple, I have a rule of thumb: If the oil comes from something that is not obviously oily, then don’t eat it — ever.
“That large plastic container of vegetable oil next to your stove right now? Throw it away or use it on your bike chain!”
The major problem with these oils is that their precious, omega-6 polyunsaturated molecules are easily damaged in the extensive processing. They’re additionally vulnerable after bottling and reacting to oxygen and sunlight. This damage makes the molecules reactive and inflammatory.
Vegetable oils are the true wolf in sheep’s clothing — sold to us like they were doing us a favor when in fact, they’re stabbing us in the heart. This stuff isn’t food, plain and simple. Do not eat this crap. That large plastic container of vegetable oil next to your stove right now? Throw it away or use it on your bike chain!
It’s all junk
If you combine these three things — highly refined grains, added sugars, and vegetable oils — you get something like a doughnut. A doughnut is all smiles, taste explosions, and pretty boxes, but I kid you not: Foods like this will shorten your life and the quality of it.
Stop waiting until Monday or next month or Lent or whenever else to enact these changes. Do it today. Stop snacking because that’s where these foods live for the most part. And if foods like this have taken over your main meals, you’re in real trouble.
Ask yourself what role these foods play in your life. Make sure you are eating nutrient-dense foods and making the time to reconnect with your kitchen because if you don’t, disease will make time for you.
Picture yourself in a few months. You’ve successfully removed this junk from your diet and you’re feeling amazing. Back into the old jeans you wore at university (too bad they’re boot cut), skin glowing, energy up, and your boss thinks you’re the best. Cha-ching!