Stay home, but don’t rely on quick, easy, ultra-processed foods

Over the last several weeks, public health experts have been urging Americans to stay at home to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Following this advice presents its own set of challenges, for sure. But there is one clear upside…

More Americans are preparing meals at home.

And that’s great news! (Plus, it’s something I’ve always recommended you do.) Because according to a new report out of George Washington University, there’s a strong link between a diet high in ultra-processed, “convenience foods” and poor health outcomes.

I’ll tell you all about that new, eye-opening report in a moment. But first, let’s back up to look at why useful scientific research into diet took so long to get going…

Mainstream medicine didn’t properly research diet from the get-go

In the early 19th century, French physicians began to look at dietary and nutritional approaches to treat patients with infectious diseases. And during the 1920s, the British Empire Cancer Campaign pointed out foods that were beneficial for health—like greens and dairy—which were fresh and what we would call “organic” at that time.

But the ideas didn’t gain much traction within mainstream medicine.

Then, in the 1950s, following the advent of penicillin and other antibiotics, mainstream medicine began to celebrate its “victory” over infectious diseases—with drugs. So, they didn’t think much about diet and its role in chronic disease. (Or if they did think about it, it was only in terms of frank nutritional deficiency diseases, like scurvy or rickets.)

Of course, in the 1980s, just as doctors began considering diet and nutrition again, medicine began to experience some setbacks in the war on infectious diseases—like the emergence of AIDS and antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

Still, they didn’t put much stock into research or findings on diet and nutrition. In fact, I well remember during my hospital residency in the early 1980s, I came across a pioneering, new scientific article that examined diet—for the first time—as a risk factor for cancer!

Even the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—the nation’s flagship organization for medical research—dragged its feet on research into diet. It wasn’t until 1976 that Senator George McGovern (who had been the Democratic nominee for President in 1972) held congressional hearings on diet and disease. After that, congress began to mandate that federal science bureaucrats begin looking at this important connection.

The first big, quasi-government research institution to follow those clear marching orders was the National Academy of Sciences. It issued a compendium on the published research to date on the role of diet and nutrition in cancer and chronic diseases. Infamously, there was just one paragraph about sugar in the entire 1,000-page report. And it dismissed sugar as a cause of cancer and other disease. (Although, we now know there was a conspiracy to hide the evidence that sugar does, in fact, cause cancer, Type II diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases!)

In other words, even once diet became a topic of research, the mainstream still found a major way to keep getting it all wrong. For decades, they chased failed theories about “bad” foods and nutrients. For example, without any evidence, they blamed cholesterol, fats, and sodium—as naturally found in wholesome foods like full-fat dairy, eggs, meat, and seafood—for our common, chronic conditions, like heart disease and cancers.

Of course, we now know their cockamamie theories were all wrong, all along. But it remains one of the saddest tales in all of medicine of ignorance, incompetence, and wasted decades and billions of tax dollars.

Thankfully, as I mentioned at the beginning of this Dispatch, some researchers are finally beginning to focus on the correct connections between diet and diseases…

It’s high time Americans eliminate low-quality, ultra-processed, ready-to-eat foods

In this new report, researchers compared the U.S. diet to diets in populations where a high proportion of people live to age 100 and beyond (so-called “super agers”) without chronic diseases And they found a clear link between an increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods and obesity (as well as related chronic diseases).

In fact, in one study in the report, emulsifiers (which are common in ultra-processed foods) were found to:

  • Trigger hunger
  • Increase body weight
  • Alter the gastrointestinal (GI) microbiome, the environment in your gut where billions of healthy bacteria thrive (researchers now call it “ground zero” for your health)
  • Increase blood sugar
  • Damage the liver

In other studies included in the report, ultra-processed foods were found to:

  • Decrease satiety (the feeling of fullness)
  • Worsen cholesterol
  • Lead to chronic inflammation

And they confirmed that fish has the best satiety index of any food, as I’ve always said.

The Mediterranean diet—full of wholesome, natural foods—is still the best answer

Back in the 1980s, when I was still working at NIH, everyone was worried about eating some seafood because it was “high” in cholesterol.

But I suggested to my bosses at NIH that wild-caught fish and shellfish was a very healthy choice. Of course, back then, it all still came straight out of the oceans and waters as Nature had made it—making it the one food that was still not processed or subject to all kinds of artificial chemicals.

They agreed it was a good idea. But then, they simply went back to blaming the wrong foods and nutrients. And I went about my own business. Yet, here we are right back where we started, 40 years ago, discussing the dangers of processed foods.

So, since you’ve probably found yourself cooking at home a bit more often during quarantine, here’s a simple reminder…

Strive to follow a healthy, balanced, Mediterranean-type diet, full of fresh, wholesome, unprocessed foods, such as:

  • Full-fat dairy, including butter, eggs, cheeses, and yogurt
  • Wild-caught fish and grass-fed, free-range meats, especially lamb, which has the best essential fatty acid nutritional profile of all meats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Six to eight servings of fruits and vegetables each day
  • Alcohol in moderation

Even some unprocessed whole grains are okay, in moderation. Just don’t rely on them for your fiber intake. Instead, you get plenty of the right fibers from fruits and vegetables, as I explain in the April 2019 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter (“Going against the grain. Don’t be fooledeating more bread and cereal WON’T make you live longer”).

And when you go grocery shopping, stay away from the center aisles, where they keep all the processed junk. Instead, stick to the perimeter of the store, where you’ll notice they display the fresh foods in refrigerated cases. Or better yet, if a local farmer’s market is still operating in your area right now, I suggest doing your shopping there, as I like to do.

P.S. Tune back in tomorrow for my report on the dangers of cutting out meat from your diet.


Beyond the Calories—Is the Problem in the Processing?” Current Treatment Options in Gastroenterology, 2019; 17: 577–586.