The No.1 dietary choice you should NEVER make

Plus, how to eat a balanced diet on a balanced budget

The science has become clear in recent years: Increased consumption of ultra-processed foods is putting our health at risk. 

Yet sadly, a new study from New York University shows that more Americans are making that choice—especially during the pandemic.1 

And it’s hardly a coincidence that heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other life-threatening, chronic illnesses are on the rise as well. 

These “Frankenfoods” include ready-to-eat, or ready-to-heat, products with artificial ingredients and additives—and little (if any) whole food ingredients. (Fast food and many takeout options also fit the bill.) They are the absolute worst dietary choice you can make. 

In fact, as noted by study author Filippa Juul: “Eating more ultra-processed foods is associated with poor diet quality and higher risk of several chronic diseases. The high and increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in the 21st century may be a key driver of the obesity epidemic.”1 

So, let’s talk more about it.  

And then, I’ll explain why you should always choose REAL, whole foods. I’ll also reveal simple tips for keeping your diet (and your pocketbook) healthy throughout the pandemic, and beyond… 

More than half of all foods consumed are ultra-processed 

The NYU research on processed food consumption dates back to 2001. But ultra-processed foods have been around for decades before that.  

I’m talking about most breakfast cereals, canned soups, fast foods, frozen dinners, snack foods, sweets, and sodas (with sugars or artificial sweeteners). Basically, anything packaged in cardboard or plastic (which isn’t healthy for the planet, either).  

According to the NYU research, for the last two decades, more than half the calories Americans consume every day come from these ultra-processed foods. And that number has been steadily increasing. 

The researchers analyzed government food data and found that between 2001 and 2002, ultra-processed foods accounted for 54 percent of the calories consumed in the average American diet. And from 2017 to 2018, that number grew to 57 percent 

Even more worrisome, people ages 60 years and older had the largest increase in ultra-processed food consumption. At the beginning of the study, they had consumed the least amounts of ultra-processed foods and most whole foods…but consumed the most ultra-processed foods and the least whole foods by the end. 

Overall, consumption of whole foods fell from 33 percent to 27 percent of total calories during the study period, mostly due to people eating less dairy and meat. 

The one slice of good news? Intake of some sugary foods and drinks declined. But that decline was offset, health-wise, by the increase in processed food consumption. 

So, how did we get to this point? As with many snafus with health and nutrition, I blame crony-corporatist bureaucrats and the Big Food industry. 

A history of inept nutrition decisions 

It was never the right path to single out selected nutrients and food constituents like cholesterol, fats, or even protein as “unhealthy.” And it has never made any sense scientifically to try to demonize entire food categories like dairy, eggs, meat, and even certain kinds of seafood. 

Rather, as I suggested to my bosses while I was a research investigator at the National Institutes of Health during the mid-1980s, we should look at why whole, natural foods have always been linked to good health.  

My argument was based on clear data going back to the 1920s showing that eating fresh produce and dairy was associated with lower rates of chronic disease. Plus, other studies have consistently demonstrated that eating more fish and seafood is good for health, too.    

But my bosses were not convinced. 
And misguided dietary recommendations against eating foods with cholesterol and fats helped shift popular consumption toward fake, processed, “low-fat” products that typically contain high sugar and refined carbs instead. 

Fortunately, after decades went by and billions of research dollars were spent, some scientists began reporting that these ultra-processed foods are the real problem. 

And FINALLY, awareness of the importance of whole, organic foods is increasing among consumers and grocers.   

But the flawed dietary recommendations against dairy and meat, which were promulgated for years by government and public health experts, still have many consumers going the wrong way—against healthy whole foods and away from a balanced diet.  

Why we need real—not fake—dairy and meat 

As you know, science increasingly shows that organic, whole dairy products are healthy (see page 1), while processed, artificial dairy products pose health hazards. The same holds true for organic meat—a healthy, much-needed source of protein, especially as you get older.  

That’s why substituting plant-based “fake meats” is not a real solution. I’ve written before about how plant-based, artificial beef products and fake hamburgers are among the most ultra-processed foods on the planet (with a terrible carbon footprint for the planet, to boot).  

Then, there’s fake chicken. I recently checked out the “nutrition” label of the vegetarian, Impossible Chicken Nuggets and found they contain 30 different ingredients!3 (That beats the numbers in fake beef.) 

The top 10 ingredients are water, wheat flour, soy protein concentrate, soybean oil, sunflower oil, potato starch, methylcellulose, salt, natural flavors, and cultured dextrose.   

Compared to a whole food, that doesn’t sound healthy to me with all of those processed ingredients. Not to mention, soy is almost all genetically modified now, and cellulose is indigestible (by humans, but good for cows and termites). Plus, “natural flavors” is a catch-all term with little regulation, so it can mean virtually anything.  

On the other hand, a piece of chicken has one ingredient: Chicken. So—it’s certainly not impossible, or even difficult, to figure out whether real chicken or “impossible” chicken (or any REAL meat, for that matter) is better for you. 

While the science clearly points to the importance of eating healthy, single-ingredient, whole foods, this kind of artificial “food” engineering (and marketing) is taking too many of us down the wrong track…and in the wrong direction.   

Pandemic made processed food diets worse 

As I mentioned earlier, the NYU researchers are also concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic (and inept government response) may have prompted Americans to eat more foods that are less nutritious but have longer shelf lives.  

“In the early days of the pandemic, people changed their purchasing behaviors to shop less frequently, and sales of ultra-processed foods such as boxed macaroni and cheese, canned soups, and snack foods increased substantially. People may have also eaten more packaged ‘comfort foods’ as a way of coping with the uncertainty of the pandemic,” said study author Juul.  

And now, nearly two years later…part of the lasting impact of the pandemic panic is the acceleration of a worsening diet that will contribute to more chronic diseases down the road. 

Of course, economic issues and job losses during the pandemic also impacted food budgets. And the sad truth is, in our country, cheap, processed ingredients and packaged fake foods are generally less expensive than healthy, whole, organic foods—whose prices also went up due to economic disruptions). (Although the marketing experts found ways for people to pay significantly more for “impossible” fake meats, compared to the real thing, too.) 

So, how can you make smart, healthy food choices while still balancing your grocery budget? I’ve got some ideas… 

10 tips to keep your diet and your pocketbook healthy 

Know what’s realistic. Every month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) releases average grocery costs for a nutritious diet. This can be helpful for budgeting, especially because there are plans for four different cost levels: thrifty, low cost, moderate cost, and what they call “liberal.”  

The USDA average grocery costs are also broken down into different age-gender groups, including realistic numbers for individuals, a family of two, and a family of four. Budgets are adjusted by weekly or monthly spending and by age, ranging from 1 to 71 years or older. 

The latest report available when I was writing this article—October 2021—listed the following average monthly grocery costs for a couple ages 51 to 70 years:  

  • Thrifty: $429.50
  • Low cost: $472.30
  • Moderate cost: $590.20
  • Liberal: $713.40

You can find this potentially useful budgeting tool at: https://www.fns.usda.gov/cnpp/usda-food-plans-cost-food-reports-monthly-reports 

Forget the fad foods. As with too many dietary supplements, the current “it foods” are hot (and expensive) because of hype, not nutritional science. Stick with the “tried-and-true” foods you read about in Insiders’ Cures and my Daily Dispatch. 

Choose your organics wisely. Organically grown foods are more costly, but don’t contain toxic pesticides, chemicals, and genetically modified ingredients. However, not ALL foods you eat need to be organic. Here are my guidelines: 

  • Organic makes sense with fruits and vegetables that you can and should eat with the skin on (which has more vitamins)—like apples. But fruits with thick, inedible skin that you peel, like bananas, citrus and pineapples, can be non-organic because agricultural toxins generally don’t permeate the skin (just make sure to wash them off first). 
  • Know your Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists. Every year, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases lists of the fruits and vegetables grown with the most and least pesticides. You can find the latest lists at their website: ewg.org 
  • Animals that aren’t raised organically can be given antibiotics, growth hormones, and pesticide-laden feed. That’s why I recommend choosing organic meat and full-fat dairy (ideally grass-fed and -finished). Organic animals also have access to pasture, and organic chickens are free-range—which is why I’m a fan (and small-scale producer) of organic eggs. 

Budget for organic beef and lamb. Red meat provides bioavailable protein, B vitamins, essential minerals, and a host of other nutrients that are hard to obtain from other sources.  

But that doesn’t mean you need to eat filet mignon every night. In the December 2021 issue of Insiders’ CuresI discussed how to prepare the less expensive cuts of meat in the tastiest—and most nutritious—ways.  

Don’t buy bagged salad greens. These sacks of lettuce are ridiculously expensive and create unnecessary packaging and waste. Plus, contamination appears to be more of a problem with bagged lettuce.  

Instead, buy loose greens (this is one food where you should choose organic) from produce bins in your grocery store or farmers’ market. You’ll avoid the problems and waste with bagged salads—and also get more variety. It’s a great opportunity to try some greens you don’t normally eat, and make your salad even more colorful, nutritious, and delicious!   

Make your own salad dressings. Bottled salad dressings are expensive and typically full of unhealthy, artificial ingredients, fats, and sugars that have no place in a healthy salad.  

Thankfully, it’s so simple (and tasty) to make your own salad dressing. I combine high-quality olive oil with vinegar or fresh-squeezed lemon. You can also add herbs like dried parsley, chives, dill, tarragon, oregano, basil, thyme, garlic, or mustard for some extra zest.  

Avoid bottled spices. You can find single-ingredient spices at natural foods stores that you can combine on your own. This lets you buy what you need, rather than opting for more expensive, mixed spices that may lose their freshness before you use all of the contents.  

Go nuts. Although tree nuts and seeds are relatively expensive, a little goes a long way. Save by buying them in bulk and keeping what you’re not immediately using in the freezer. Then, I recommend keeping a bowl out on the counter. Grab a handful whenever you’re feeling hungry! 

Keep breakfast simple. Forget the pricey, packaged, processed cereals, and the trendy (and spendy) designer granolas. Try organic, free-range eggs (the best nutritional value), or berries and whole-milk plain yogurt (my favorite), to start the day. 

Give your trash can a break. Some statistics show that Americans waste nearly 40 percent of all the food they buy.4 One way to solve this problem is by shopping more frequently and only buying what you’ll use over the span of a week.  

But even with the best intentions, you may find that some of your produce is not as fresh as you’d like, or a recipe calls for only part of a food. In those cases, here’s what I recommend: 

  • When tomatoes get a little soft, cook them and make your own tomato sauce base. 
  • When vegetables begin to go limp in the “crisper,” use them to make your own vegetable stock.  
  • When bread turns hard, make breadcrumbs or croutons for your salads.  
  • When a recipe calls for egg whites, save and cook the yolk for a healthy sandwich or egg salad.  
  • When cooking a whole chicken, turkey, or ham, use the leftover parts for soup stock. 

While processed foods may seem like an easy choice when time and budgets are tight, they’ll cost you more in the long run. So make the right choice for your health and well-being. Ditch the packaged products and opt for whole foods. You, your family, and the planet will all benefit—for years to come.  

Sources: 

1“Ultra-processed food consumption among US adults from 2001 to 2018.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2021 Oct 14:nqab305.  

2https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2021/october/ultra-processed-foods.html 

3https://faq.impossiblefoods.com/hc/en-us/articles/4407692810135-What-are-the-ingredients-in-Impossible-Chicken-Nuggets-Made-From-Plants- 

4https://www.feedingamerica.org/our-work/our-approach/reduce-food-waste 


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