We’re getting fatter and sicker. The U.S. now ranks last among developed countries in life expectancy and overall health. For the first time in history, the current generation is in danger of having a shorter life expectancy than its parents. And those who do live longer are likely to spend more of their golden years in ill health. Brain and mental health issues of all kinds, including ADD, anxiety, depression, insomnia, dementia and Alzheimer’s, have reached epidemic levels.
There are many factors that can be blamed, but none are as blatantly obvious as our adulterated food supply. Processed foods make up a significant portion of most peoples’ diets. I use the term “food” euphemistically because processed foods are not really foods at all. They are food-like substances created in labs, not kitchens.
Processed food manufacturers like Kraft and Nestlé hire teams of scientists to create edible substances that achieve the bliss point — that perfect blend of salt, fat, sugar, and additives that makes a food intentionally addictive. This gives new meaning to the old potato chip slogan, “Bet you can’t eat just one.” Of course you can’t!
Your taste buds and appetite control center have been hijacked by the trillion dollar processed food industry. Let’s take a closer look at some of the worst ingredients and snack foods that sabotage your best efforts to lose weight or eat healthy.
Humans are hard-wired to seek out sweets. Our first food, mother’s milk, is sweet. And thousands of years ago in the wild, sweetness meant a food was safe to eat. When our distant ancestors found an empty beehive or patch of wild berries, it provided them with a much appreciated source of carbohydrates as well as a nice change of pace to the usual meat, roots, nuts, and leaves.
But sugar has now gone from being an occasional treat to being a major part of the diet. Most Americans eat their weight in sugar every year — on average consuming 156 pounds of it. Even though it’s sold in food stores, it’s not really a food. It’s an isolated chemical with zero nutritive value that’s thought to be as addictive as heroine and cocaine.
Sugar gives your brain a boost of dopamine, the neurotransmitter in charge of the brain’s pleasure-reward system. You need some dopamine. It’s your motivation molecule that assures you’ll do what needs to be done. Dopamine deficient mice are so unmotivated to eat that they will literally starve to death while food is readily available!
But refined sugar floods your brain with dopamine, as do all addictions of all kinds, such as drugs, alcohol, nicotine, shopping or gambling. According to Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addictive substances flood the brain with dopamine, taking it up to as much as 5 to 10 times the normal level.
For thousands of years, bread has been called the staff of life. But recently it’s been blasted in bestselling books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain. Gluten, a protein in wheat that makes dough sticky, has been demonized and most grocery stores now devote an entire section to gluten-free foods. What’s changed? The wheat we eat now bears little resemblance to the wheat consumed by our ancestors. It’s been hybridized and crossbred to increase productivity with no consideration for the effect these new strains have on human health. Unfortunately there is much wrong with this “new wheat.” It is highly inflammatory, has a higher glycemic index than white sugar, and it’s also highly addictive.
Wheat is one of the most universally beloved foods. It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t like wheat! When you eat wheat, some of the proteins turn into opioid peptides. These stimulate the same receptors as morphine and heroin. This makes wheat so enjoyable and addictive. Cardiologist Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, has studied the effects of wheat on health for decades. He makes this startling indictment about the addictiveness of wheat:
“Wheat is truly addictive. Wheat is addictive in the sense that it comes to dominate thoughts and behaviors. Wheat is addictive in the sense that, if you don’t have any for several hours, you start to get nervous, foggy, tremulous, and start desperately seeking out another “hit” of crackers, bagels, or bread, even if it’s the few stale 3-month old crackers at the bottom of the box. Wheat is addictive in the sense that there is a distinct withdrawal syndrome characterized by overwhelming fatigue, mental “fog,” inability to exercise, even depression that lasts several days, occasionally several weeks. Wheat is addictive in the sense that the withdrawal process can be provoked by administering an opiate-blocking drug such as naloxone or naltrexone. But the “high” of wheat is not like the high of heroine, morphine, or Oxycontin. This opiate, while it binds to the opiate receptors of the brain, doesn’t make us high. It makes us hungry.”
Even if you eat healthy, real food at all your meals, snacks might be your downfall. People are eating more snacks than ever before. On average, we get 25% of our calories from snacks. Globally, 400 billion dollars are spent annually on snack foods. Virtually all snack foods are highly processed and loaded with sugar, unhealthy low quality fats, salt, and additives.
Some of the worst offenders are deceptively marketed as healthy options. My personal downfall was snack bars — also called health, nutrition, energy, nutrition or power bars. Manufacturers of these bars claim they contain the optimal balance of protein, carbs, and fats. But these bars are not chock-full of nutrition. They are almost exclusively made of highly allergenic addictive foods like wheat, soy, corn syrup, and sugar. One tell-tale sign that these snack bars are addictive is that they make you more hungry. Try giving up your favorite bar and notice what happens. You may find yourself less hungry throughout the day almost immediately.
One in five Americans drinks diet soda every day. I guess they haven’t heard the news that diet soda doesn’t make you thinner, happier, or healthier. In fact the opposite is true. There’s evidence that long-term diet soda consumption is fueling the obesity epidemic and causes an increase in body mass index (BMI), a marker of general good health. Drinking diet soda increases risk of depression by over 30 percent. Migraine headaches, anxiety, and tinnitus are among the known side effects of artificial sweeteners. Drinking diet soda significantly increases your risk of obesity and diabetes.
But if diet soda is so terrible for your health and your waistline, why are so many people still drinking it? It’s very likely they are addicted. Like sugar, artificial sweeteners meet the criteria of an addictive substance — you know they’re bad for you but you can’t stop yourself from ingesting them anyway. Artificial sweeteners confuse the brain by hijacking your brain’s reward center, making you want more sweets. One study found they increased appetite and hunger even more than eating sugar does!
A big concern about artificial sweeteners is that they push our desire for sweets to an unnatural level. How sweet can we go? The latest artificial sweetener, advantame, is ridiculously 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. Dr. Peter Attia, co-founder of Nutrition Science Initiative, has this to say about our relationship with sweetness and artificial sweeteners: “I would argue (along with a legion of others) that once you eliminate sugar from your diet your cravings for sugar actually vanish. So the question rather than ‘Is it OK to consume sugar substitutes?’ may actually be ‘Why do we need things to be sweet in the first place?” Excellent question.
Energy drinks have become so popular they now rival Starbucks in annual sales. But there is nothing unique about the ingredients in these drinks. The International Society of Sports Nutrition has studied energy drinks extensively and concluded that any performance enhancement comes from sugar and caffeine, not from the other added ingredients like B vitamins. We’ve already seen what sugar does to your brain, and more than half of all energy drinks contain more sugar per serving than Coca-Cola!
So let’s take a look at the levels of caffeine in energy drinks. The usual recommended safe level of caffeine is 400 mg per day. A problem with some energy drinks is that their portion size is deceptively small. A 5-Hour Energy Shot contains 200 mg per 2-ounce shot — a jaw-dropping 100 mg per ounce. The average cup of brewed coffee by comparison contains 20 mg per ounce. Caffeine is an addictive substance and, like all addictive substances, you can build a tolerance to it. That’s why one day you may find that your favorite energy drink no longer gives you the same lift and you are stuck on a roller coaster ride of caffeine and sugar ups and downs.
These aren’t the only foods and additives that can get you hooked on processed foods, but they are some of the most common. If you want to get out of the grip of junk food manufacturers, the solution is simple. Stop buying processed food and eat real food instead.