[Previous] Plants vs. Mammals (Energy, Digestion, Broad Conceptual Explanations, and the Lion Diet) | Home | [Next] I Less Often Reply to Anons

Beware Processed Food

There seems to be broad agreement that something significant is currently going wrong with health in the modern world. It seems related to food, obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and more. It affects some countries, like the USA, more than others.

There is widespread disagreement about the underlying cause. What should we blame? Fat, sodium, gluten, carbs, overeating, under-exercising, lectins, meat, dairy, soy, sugar, caffeine, vaccines, microwaves, chemical additives, pesticides or GMOs? A lot of potential culprits involve what people eat, though some don’t.

My current, tentative understanding/opinion/conclusion is that there’s something bad about the modern, industrial, mass-produced American/Western diet with its heavily processed food. We don’t know exactly what it is, but something in our food and beverages is bad. Disclaimer: I am not an expert on food and this is not diet advice.

People see improvements on many different alternative diets, particularly diets that have already worked OK for a culture for hundreds of years. The common theme for why many diets work appears to be that they cut down on processed foods and eat more whole foods. There seems to be a pattern there.

Our heavy reliance on a small number of foods (including over half our calories from 4 seeds) seems bad. Eating more variety is generally better.

If I’m right, not all diets would help. An example diet that doesn’t reduce processed foods well is a vegan diet that uses fake substitute foods, like fake meats and cheeses, which are designed to resemble the real thing. Replacing a burger with a portobello mushroom, slice of eggplant or black beans is fine but obviously a different food. Replacing a burger with soy (Impossible Burger) or pea protein (Beyond Burger), plus refined vegetable oil, may taste like a lot like a burger, but it’s probably less healthy than a burger, not an improvement. Be wary of highly processed recipes meant to mimic real foods.

Similarly, some people eat a gluten free diet with highly processed substitutes like gluten free bread and pasta. Another diet that doesn’t cut processed foods is trying to eat a low fat version of the regular industrial diet, or any other version of the regular diet with a few specific things removed. Eating an “organic” version of the regular industrial diet also probably wouldn’t help much. Note that none of these questionable diets are traditional diets; instead, they’re all variants of the modern industrial diet.

Vegetable oils are commonly added to processed foods and might be one of the main problems. They’re a heavily processed food in their own right. They’re made with stuff like high heat, solvents, bleaching agents, etc. Note: “Vegetable oil” is a misleading name which mostly means seed oil and soybean oil, but excludes olive, coconut or avocado oil (which are commonly made with less processing).

Factory farms (and fish farms) mass-produce meat with poor living conditions and unnatural diets for the animals (the diets often involve a lot of US-government-subsidized soy and corn). The animals become unhealthy so the farms add bandaid solutions to cover up the problems, such as antibiotics and heartburn medication. They’ve also bred the animals to be significantly different than wild or historical animals, and the breeding wasn’t designed or tested for health, safety or nutrition. The breeding had other goals like producing a lot of meat quickly with less food, producing a large volume of milk, laying a large number of eggs, etc. (It’s easy to imagine how an animal that produces more milk, muscle or egg might have less nutrients in each ounce of food. Breeding larger plants could similarly dilute nutrients.)

Large plant farms overuse fertilizers and pesticides to cover up problems created from poor, unnatural growing conditions like dense monocrops. And they’ve bred and genetically modified the crops based on concerns like getting more food to market more cheaply, not health or safety. So our plants are different than what humans ate in the past. One thing they’ve done is breed plants to resist pesticides like Roundup so that they can use more of it (but, to borrow a quip, they neglected to also breed humans to resist Roundup). Another change is dwarf wheat (wheat with short stalks, since we don’t eat the stalk – this change might be fine; I don’t know). They’ve bred the parts of plants that we eat to be larger.

Note: There have been some efforts to modify plants for nutrition, such as golden rice, which has more vitamin A. Golden rice could reduce blindness and the deaths of children in poorer countries. Last I checked, they had a lot of trouble getting people to eat golden rice due to the golden color, and it’s a tragedy. Consumers can be unreceptive to plants designed for health rather than color, size, taste, texture, etc.

Here are some aspects of processed foods and the modern industrial diet, which could be good to reduce or avoid:

  • Over-eating the foods that the US government subsidies (e.g. wheat, corn, soy, dairy, factory farmed meat)
  • Eating foods unintentionally, without realizing you’re eating them. (They put soy, corn and vegetable oils in a bunch of packaged and restaurant foods. People apparently eat multiple tablespoons per day of vegetable oil without knowing. A lot of corn and soy is also mixed into other foods without people realizing what they’re eating)
  • Factory farms, processed meats, farm-raised fish. (One of the problems here is feeding a bunch of soy and corn to the animals instead of their normal diet, so you’re indirectly eating corn and soy)
  • Additives including: vegetable oils, gums, fillers, dyes, preservatives, artificial flavors, sweeteners. Generally watch out for any packaged food with a long list of ingredients (especially with weird names that you don’t recognize as a regular food)
  • Candy, chips (with vegetable oil), processed snack food
  • Drinking caffeine and alcohol
  • Processed drinks like soda and juice
  • Food extracts rather than whole foods. (The most concerning extracts require modern machinery or chemistry to get, and use things like solvents, bleaches, high pressure or high heat)
  • Shipping food long distances. (E.g. picking slightly unripe fruit in South America, where it’s warm when North America is cold, then shipping it to the U.S., then spraying it to change the color to look riper than it is. Maybe long distance shipping is fine if the food is effectively preserved first, e.g. by freezing, dehydrating, salting, pickling, canning, etc., but maybe not by adding modern preservative chemicals or just refrigerating it)

One can accept some ideas like this while remaining fairly neutral on specific diet ideas like: carnivore diet, paleo, keto, Mediterranean, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, etc. And you can still pick some of those that you agree with since they’re compatible with the anti-processed-foods ideas. But if in doubt about diet, and trying to be moderate/conservative, then less processed food and more whole foods looks like a good approach. There seems to be something wrong with the modern industrial diet even if we don’t know specifically what’s wrong.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on food. I have not extensively researched this. I am not offering advice or recommendations about what you personally should do. I’m just thinking out loud.

Elliot Temple on July 25, 2022


Want to discuss this? Join my forum.

(Due to multi-year, sustained harassment from David Deutsch and his fans, commenting here requires an account. Accounts are not publicly available. Discussion info.)