Food is medicine. What we eat either builds or destroys our health, especially over time. Are you eating for life? Here are 7 foods we commonly eat but which we should avoid like the plague if we want to guard our health and live well.
#1 – Processed Meat
Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by curing, salting, smoking, drying or canning. Food products categorized as processed meat include:
- Sausages, hot dogs, salami.
- Ham, cured bacon.
- Salted and cured meat, corned beef.
- Smoked meat.
- Dried meat, beef jerky.
- Canned meat.
Processed meat includes most sandwich and deli meats but also meats like chicken nuggets and other prepared meats loaded with additives and preservatives.
Eating processed meat is associated with increased risk of many chronic diseases that include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension) (3, 4).
- Heart disease (2, 5).
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (6, 7, 8, 9).
- Bowel and stomach cancer (2, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14).
One thing is clear, processed meat contains harmful chemical compounds (like sulfates and nitrates for startrs) that may increase the risk of chronic disease.
Better alternative: Instead of eating these kinds of meats, switch to fresh meats from your butcher’s section in your grocery store or grab frozen fish fillets and other cuts of meat that are free of additives and preservatives. For even better nutrition, start eating more beans and pulses in place of meat – they are high in protein, vitamins and minerals and feed your beneficial gut bacteria in ways that meat won’t.
#2 – Soda
It’s no secret that most sodas come loaded with sugar or sugar replacers linked to health problems. Studies have shown a clear link between cancer and sugar. The phenomenon in which cancer cells rapidly break down sugars, stimulating tumor growth, even has a name – the Warburg effect.
A 2019 study reported an association between higher consumption of sugary drinks and an increased risk of cancer. The results show that a 100 mL (roughly 3.4 oz) per day increase in the consumption of sugary drinks like soda was associated with an 18% increased risk of overall cancer and a 22% increased risk of breast cancer.
Possible explanations for these results include the effect of the sugar contained in sugary drinks on visceral fat (stored around vital organs such as the liver and pancreas), blood sugar levels, and inflammatory markers, all of which are linked to increased cancer risk. Other chemical compounds, such as additives in some sodas might also play a role.
The message is clear: steer clear of soda.
Better alternative: Drink tea, water, carbonated water with lime and natural juices, kombucha.
#3 – Cereal
Most cereals come loaded with sugar and sugar as we have seen isn’t a friend to our health. Added sugar may very well be the single worst ingredient in the modern diet. It contributes to several chronic diseases, and most people are eating way too much of it (2, 3, 4). Notably, most of this sugar comes from processed foods — and breakfast cereals are among the most popular processed foods that are high in added sugars. In fact, most cereals list sugar as the second or third ingredient and many will contain more than one form of sugar. Next time you’re thinking of grabbing healthy-sounding Raisin Bran, just check out its ingredient list, then carefully set it back on the shelf like it’s radioactive.
Starting the day with a high-sugar breakfast cereal will spike your blood sugar and insulin levels. A few hours later, your blood sugar may crash, and your body will crave another high-carb meal or snack — potentially creating a vicious cycle of overeating (5).
Additionally, most cereals are made with refined wheat or other refined grains that spike blood sugar or cause digestive, neurological or inflammation issues from gluten intolerance. Many cereals may seem healthy due to being fortified with a host of “vitamins and minerals” but don’t be fooled. These are synthetically produced chemical vitamins and minerals, not the ones nature provides in whole, real food.
The sugar and refined carbohydrates that make up most of cereals can increase your risk for cancer, obesity, heart disease and metabolic disorders like diabetes, and may also cause digestive disorders and diseases (6, 7, 8). Sugar and refined carbohydrates also will harm your beneficial gut bacteria which help regulate everything from digestion, neurological functions, metabolism, our immune systems and even our moods.
Despite their clear drawbacks, breakfast cereals are often marketed as healthy — with boxes featuring health claims like “low-fat” and “whole-grain.” Yet, their first listed ingredients are often refined grains and sugar. Small amounts of whole grains don’t make these products healthy. However, studies show that these health claims are an effective way to mislead people into believing that these products are healthier (9, 10).
Better alternative: Eat oats (a whole grain) as either hot oatmeal or cold oatmeal. Load them up with fruit, nuts and seeds or stir in peanut butter or other nut butters. Want a decadent treat? Stir in a teaspoon of cocoa powder.
#4 – White Bread
Today’s engineered and chemically loaded bread that can sit on shelves for weeks without molding is a far cry from the bread of our grandparents or ancestors. The flour is far different and today’s breads are mostly made of refined wheat flour as opposed to the whole grain wheat of yesteryear. As such, it’s been stripped of all nutrition and is basically a powdery sugar that will spike your blood sugar and insulin levels. For instance, did you know that white bread has a higher glycemic index than sugar? So does whole wheat bread.
White bread has several problems:
- Low nutritional value. Really it’s just empty calories.
- Usually packed with added sugar, additives, preservatives and emulsifiers.
- Full of gluten from wheat but also added gluten for elasticity – all of which cause digestion and neurological issues (see my article How Wheat and Gluten are Damaging Your Brain and Body and What to Do About It With the Book of the Month: Grain Brain)
Don’t be fooled by the health claims. In the US and elsewhere, the nutritional content of processed wheat flour is so poor that companies automatically fortify it with four to five nutrients like riboflavin, folate, etc. These are synthetic chemicals added into the flour and not endemic to the ingredients.
Better alternative: Skip the packaged “whole grain” breads. Like with cereals, the whole grains are usually a minor ingredient which doesn’t make the bread healthy. If you’re lucky, you might find a truly whole grain bread but they’re usually pricey. Try switching to rice, especially its whole grain varieties or try cooking with quinoa. They’re much more nutritious and won’t spike your blood sugar or come with the problems of gluten.
#5 – Microwave Dinners
Frozen dinners are the next best thing to takeout: a complete meal with an entrée, vegetables, and a starch, all on one plate, right out of the microwave. However, classic frozen dinners are often packed with sugars, fat, and sodium. Those additives can lead to weight and heart problems. They can also raise your blood pressure, putting you at danger for stroke. And this leaves out all the other added substances on the ingredient list you’d need a chemistry degree to decipher.
Many dinners are high in refined carbohydrates like sugar and refined flours which we’ve learned can really do a number on our bodies and health. Most frozen dinners are nutritionally weak, even the “healthy” low-calorie versions. They’re basically fast food you can nuke at home.
Better alternative: If you do get frozen meals, focus on organic or low-sodium, low sugar versions with an ingredient list containing foods you recognize. Better, make your meals ahead and freeze them. This might require more planning on your part but if you’re serious about your health, you’ll drop frozen meals and their low nutrition, high health-harming contents for real food that will rebuild, repair and maintain your body.
#6 – French Fries & Chips
The typical American diet is 62% processed foods, 26% meat, and only 12% fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, tubers, and nuts and seeds. Of this last 12% category, arguably the most important for our health, Americans consume 50% of it as french fries. This is a terrifying – and enlightening – statistic that underscores the causes of our current health crisis.
Potatoes have been blamed for contributing to obesity and weight gain (68, 69), cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. The main reason for this is that potatoes are widely consumed as french fries and potato chips — high-fat foods that harbor a number of unhealthy compounds. French fries are also frequently associated with fast food, compounding our poor nutrition and health woes.
Acrylamides are contaminants formed in carb-rich foods when they’re cooked at very high temperatures, such as during frying, baking, and roasting (45). Compared to other foods, french fries and potato chips are very high in acrylamides (48). Studies have linked acrylamides with an increased risk of cancer of the breasts, ovaries, kidneys, mouth, and esophagus (62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67).
Glycoalkaloids. Plants of the nightshade family, such as potatoes, contain a class of toxic phytonutrients known as glycoalkaloids. In mice, long-term intake of glycoalkaloids may increase the risk of cancer in the brain, lungs, breasts, and thyroid (38). Other animal studies indicate that the low levels of glycoalkaloids likely found in the human diet may exacerbate inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) (39).
Salt has been linked with a number of health problems, including hypertension. However, salt is also a preservative, which means its a bacteria-killer. While this is great for preventing spoilage of food, it also means killing off our beneficial bacteria which as we’ve discussed above do so much for our overall health.
For all these reasons, high consumption of fried potatoes — especially french fries and chips — should be avoided.
Better alternative: Enjoy snacks like hummus or other bean dips with veggie dippers or whole grain crackers. Snack on unsalted nuts and seeds rather than chips. Go for bean salads or choose healthier sides with your meals. Switch to sweet potatoes if you need a potato fix.
#7 – Milk
The dairy industry has succeeded in its campaign to promote milk as a staple of our modern diet, especially for children. And yet 75% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant and milk causes a number of health risks. Don’t you find it strange that we’re the only species on earth that consumes the milk of another species and in such large quantities?
While milk does have some health benefits, recent studies suggest milk has harmful effects on the body that outweigh its good points.
- Acne. A 2016 study found that teenagers with acne drank higher amounts of low-fat or skim milk. Adult acne may also be triggered by dairy.
- Eczema is worsened by some foods, including milk and dairy, according to a clinical review.
- Dairy may also be a trigger food for some adults with rosacea.
- Allergies. Milk allergies in children come with gut symptoms like colic, constipation, and diarrhea. Antibiotics given to dairy cows may also be linked to milk allergies.
- Bone fracture risks. Bone fractures in elderly adults due to osteoporosis are highest in areas that consume more dairy, animal protein, and calcium. Drinking three or more glasses of milk a day may increase the risk of bone fractures in women.
- Cancer. Excess calcium from milk and other foods may increase the risk of prostate cancer. Milk sugars may be linked to a slightly higher risk of ovarian cancer. Milk from cows given growth hormones contains higher levels of a chemical that may increase the risk of some cancers.
The milk industry touts the benefits of milk but leaves out the poor nutrition of most dairy cows fed a primarily grain diet and loaded with antibiotics. These are not the healthier, pasture-fed cows of our ancestors. You’d get all or more of milk’s vitamins and minerals by eating a whole foods diet or foods like kale (high in calcium). You also wouldn’t be drinking your calories or consuming the 12 grams of sugar commonly found in milk (3-4 teaspoon equivalent).
Better alternative: Tons of milk substitutes exist from soy milk to almond milk. Just watch the added ingredients on these as the “healthy food” industry has gotten their claws in these popular lines of milk replacers and started loading them with sugar and additives.
Good Health Is Straight-Forward
Our “health” industry is actually a disease management industry and it doesn’t focus on disease prevention or health promotion. The path to good health is pretty straight-forward. The healthiest cultures in the world (like the Seventh Day Adventists in California who live on average 10 years longer than other Americans) eat a whole foods based diet.
This means they are eating real food, not the processed, high sugar, fat and salt foods that most of us consume daily. Instead, they eat real fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, tubers, and nuts and seeds for most of their diet. In this way they provide their bodies all the nutrition they need to build, repair and maintain themselves in good condition. They’re also refraining from loading their bodies with the foods that will tear them down or sicken them. As a result these people live longer but also live without the high numbers common to the US of obesity, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, cancer and autoimmune issues, etc.
Avoid the 7 heath-destroying foods discussed in this article and consider consuming a whole foods based diet of real food. Your body and health will thank you.
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