The Fundamental Problem with the American Diet

There are a whole lot of problems with the average American's diet.  The average American eats too much of the wrong things, too few of the right things, and most of us don't know how to tip the scales in the opposite direction.  Seeing the manifestations of the problem is easy.  The challenge is to see down to the roots.  Here, we question what it means for a food to be  "natural".  Through this lens, the fundamental root of the problem becomes quite clear.   

Why Do We Need to Label Food as "Natural"? 

The word “natural” has absolutely no business on any food label.  That’s just as true for a bag of chips as it for a bag full of kale.  What does “natural” even mean when it's on a food label?  It means nothing.  A salad is just as natural, and no more so, than the ceramic bowl it sits in.  Most people will say that "that’s not what we’re talking about when we’re talking about natural food products".  But what are we talking about?  I’ve seen gummy bears with the word “natural” on the package.  Unless those gummy bears were harvested straight from some gummy bear tree that I’ve never heard of, there’s something very wrong here.

I could make the argument that the apple engraved on the back of my iPhone is just as “natural” as the apple I ate with lunch.  The problem is that the opposite of “natural” is “supernatural” and there’s no middle ground.  Everything on this planet is natural, whether it’s made of cellulose or silicon wires.  Literally nothing, and definitely nothing that you can eat, is supernatural.  It follows that everything must be natural and that’s exactly what the food industry is taking advantage of. 

When it comes to food though, especially when thinking about nutritional quality, the opposite of the word “natural” should be the word “processed”.  But that’s a big problem for the food industry.  If there were a law that prohibited the use of the word “natural” on all processed food products, even only the highly processed ones, the only products left with the word "natural" on the label wouldn’t even need the label.  Virtually everything that comes in a package, unless it’s a bag full of produce, nuts, or meat, is a processed food product.  If you need a label to distinguish whether a chicken breast or a head of lettuce is a  processed food product or not, you need to leave the supermarket and go back to kindergarten.  

If it felt harsh to read that last sentence, direct those negative feelings towards the food industry.  "Big food" has been treating us all like preschoolers while they stuff our lunch boxes full of calorie rich, nutrient devoid "food products".  We have to stop letting them get away with this.  The way to do so, is to take responsibility for figuring out what you need to put in your body and where to get those things.

Back to Basics: What We Need From Food

Before there was science, before there was language, and even before we started standing upright, our ancestors knew what they needed to eat.  Our species, and every animal species on this planet has survived for millions of years by eating plants, animals or both.  If you took a human from even 5000 years ago and brought them to a contemporary supermarket, they'd have a whole lot of questions.  Aside from questions about the lights and electronics in a modern supermarket, all of the questions would be along the lines of "How did you make that?" and "I can eat it?"   Before we jump to answer our imaginary caveman's questions, ask yourself why we eat in the first place.  What do we need from our food?  

The simple answer is three things: 

What Processed Food Is and Why It Matters

There’s a very intuitive test to determine if a food is processed or not.  I call it the “caveman test.” It’s pretty simple, just take look at the product and ask yourself:

 “If all I had was the freshly harvested ingredients, an assortment of rocks, and a campfire, could I make this?”

Most food products fail this test miserably.  If you left even the most skilled caveman in the woods with nothing but some stone tools, how long would it take him to emerge from the trees holding a bag of Skittles? 

Before we jump to conclusions, it's important to note that just because a food is processed, doesn’t automatically mean it's unhealthy.  What matters is the extent to which it’s processed and the damage that the processing does to the integrity of the food.  The two predominant ways by which processing food ruins its nutritional quality are:

  • Stripping the food of its nutrients
  • Destroying important structural elements of the unprocessed food

The extent to a which a food is  processed is directly related to how much of the nutrient density has been stripped from it.  In other words, the more a food is processed, the more its nutrients have been destroyed.  Likewise, the more a food is processed, the more its structural components are destroyed.  These structural components are critical regulators of how quickly your body is able to liberate nutrients from the food you eat.

The extreme end of the processing spectrum would contain products like white bread and soda.  The ingredients are so far removed from their parent plants (wheat and corn), that all that’s left is a single isolated nutrient.  In the case of soda, that nutrient is sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup.  All of the micro and macronutrients that aren’t sugar have been completely removed by processing.  Likewise, all of the complex carbohydrate chains that are normally digested in the GI tract have already been digested by the processing of the original foods.  When you drink a can of soda, or eat a slice of bread, all you're getting is simple sugars and you're getting them into your bloodstream much faster than your body was designed to handle them.  Consistent, rapid surges of blood sugar can lead to obesity, insulin resistance, and metabolic disease.  

Refined carbohydrates are processed carbohydrates, and they are hugely responsible for most of our nation's health problems.  It's not the sugars that are to blame, it's the way they're prepared.  You get just as much sugar from an apple as you do from a slice of white bread.  The difference is that our bodies have been designed by millions of years of evolution to deal with the apple and the complex, carbohydrate matrices that hold the sugars in place.  On the other end of the spectrum, the average American is consistently undermining their health by consuming processed foods that our ancestors wouldn't even consider putting in their mouths (until they tried them once, of course). 

Look at all the things we can turn corn into!  How many of these would you be able to recognize as corn?  Would you be able to describe how it got from corn to the end product?  Could you do it with a couple rocks, some water, and a campfire? 

The Modified "Caveman Test"  

Not all processed foods are as "unnatural" (see what I did there?) as refined grains and sodas.  For example, Greek yogurt is a processed food that happens to be extremely nutritious.  This isn’t an accident.  Greek yogurt undergoes very minimal processing between the udder and the supermarket.  Making Greek yogurt is a mostly hands-off process that involves a little bit of heating, the addition of bacteria, and some filtering.  Greek yogurt is by no means the only example of a healthy, processed food.  The distinguishing factor between a highly processed food and lightly processed one is the extent to which the final product is removed from the original.  To make this judgment about a food product, use the following series of questions as a modified stand in for the original “caveman test”:

  • From looking at it, can I determine what plants or animals the parts of this product came from?
  • Do I have a general idea of how the manufacturer made (insert plant or animal here) look and taste like this?
  • Are the original ingredients considerably less sweet, salty, or fatty than the processed version? 
  • Do the pieces of this product bear a general resemblance to the plants or animals they were sourced from?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, you’re probably looking at a highly processed food product that has been stripped of a good portion of its nutrients and structural integrity.  Notice how nothing about these questions includes looking at the ingredients and testing your chemical vocabulary.  There is something to be said about the safety of ingesting certain chemicals, but we really should leave those claims to be made by scientists doing rigorous tests and not by ourselves testing our pronunciation skills. 

Conclusion: Don't Blame the Components of Your Food, Blame the Way Your Food Was Prepared

We live in a world where our bellies are full, but our bodies are starving for nutrients.  Never before has this problem existed.  How is it possible that poorest amongst us are also the most overweight?  Retrospectively, it's easy to see that these problems are the result of the average American failing to take responsibility for what's on his or her plate.  The food industry has capitalized on this laziness by providing us with cheap, satisfying, but very unhealthy options.  The industry even goes on to insult us by using buzzwords like "natural" on their nutrient devoid products. It really is time to turn this ship around.  The food industry isn't going to do it, so it's on us, the consumers.  You've already taken a huge step, but never stop questioning what you're getting.

Whenever you see a single nutrient being blamed for all of our society’s health problems, you should immediately question how it’s possible for that nutrient to be so overabundant.  Overconsumption of any single ingredient, whether it’s sugar, saturated fat, or artificial sweeteners, can almost always be blamed on an over-reliance on processed foods.  Remember though, not all processed foods are equally bad.  Likewise, there are many seemingly okay choices that are actually terrible for you.  Using the modified “Caveman Test” is a foolproof way to make sure you’re eating nutrient dense, whole foods, even if they come in a plastic container.

 Every time you buy a food product you're placing a vote for the kind of food that you want to see more of in the market.  Your vote matters, so make a smart choice.  Our nation's health depends on it.