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Two Books Take On Supposedly 'Healthy' Processed Foods

By Russ Klettke

The last year has been pretty rough for processed foods, as two books have earned a big reaction among the health cognoscenti by offering sharp criticisms of what nutrition orthodoxy has fed us (literally) over the past century. For anyone looking to make nutritional and health improvements, Dr. David Kessler’s The End of Overeating (Rodale Press) and In Defense of Food (Penguin), by Michael Pollan, offer a disturbing account of American eating. Both are an indictment of “the industrialization of food,” as Pollan calls it. But what they have to say doesn't just apply to fast food and the obesity epidemic—it's a warning call even for people adamantly pursuing a healthy life, who may not know just what supposedly "nutritional" processed foods are doing to their bodies. Processed food affects long-term health, and short-term beauty, in very bad ways.

David Kessler, formerly the head of the Food and Drug Administration (1990-1997), uses his book to look closely at food companies and what they know about taste stimuli. He finds that much of what we eat is driven not by nutritional need but by taste, and that food manufacturers and marketers exploit this on a very sophisticated level. Those tastes are largely based in three things: fat, salt and sugar. The effects these tastes have on consumers is every bit as addictive as tobacco is to smokers—they're the reason why, as Lay’s potato chips has been telling us for years, you can never eat just one.

These means of flavoring foods, constituting the vast majority of processed products found in grocery stores and restaurants, are almost universally found in everything sold. But don't just look at potato chips and frozen pizzas—the same stimuli are present in our protein bars and energy drinks.  

That brings us to Michael Pollan and the conundrum of the sports supplement. Pollan, a frequent writer in The New York Times Magazine, bases his argument on how we think about food. Simply put, over the last decades, when we quit talking about foods and instead starting discussing nutrients (whether despised or desired—think fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, protein, Omega 3s, transfats, etc.), we tried to find a way to dial up or dial down specific things to achieve specific results. Paradoxically, as more people did this the population got fatter.  

A good example of where Kessler’s and Pollan’s premises coincide is in Nabisco Food’s SnackWell’s brand. This was a line of cookies that answered the 1990’s commandment of no- and low-fat. Conventional thinking migrated to “avoid the fat, eat these fat-free cookies.” People did, by the boatload, and gained a lot of weight. Thinking in terms of a single nutrient—in this case, fat—blinded many to the bigger nutritional picture. 

We’re a little smarter today, at least about cookies. But what about other healthy-sounding products? For instance, “wheat bread” may sound smart, but if it’s not 100% whole wheat it is a processed food, with much of the fiber and the best nutrients removed. Short of whole grain—or whole fruits and vegetables—you’re eating a product that is digested much more quickly and which therefore raises your blood sugar levels rapidly. The sugar content in, for example, a McDonald’s hamburger bun is exceptionally high—and that, as Kessler points out, is a large reason why millions crave it.  

Leaves, Seeds and Acne
In In Defense of Food, Pollan finds that our diets are exceptionally imbalanced in the parts of plants we eat: too many seeds, not enough leaves. Leafy vegetables are eaten in Western diets in much lower proportions to seed-derived foods, which includes anything from wheat to corn to rice (in processed form, breads and sugary drinks and rice cakes). Leafy foods—and animals that eat them, as in range-fed beef—are higher in Omega-3s; seed (grain) foods are high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Our imbalance of too much Omega 6s and not enough Omega 3s may be responsible for inflammation, the body’s natural response to harmful stimuli.  

Inflammation is increasingly implicated in a broad variety of ailments, including acne. This is not covered in either book, but it should have been. Studies of indigenous populations in New Guinea and Paraguay by Loren Cordain, PhD, a Colorado State University health and exercise scientist looked people who eat locally-produced foods. Both peoples natively have clear complexions, with almost no acne whatsoever. But when members of those populations are introduced to processed foods, they get zits in spades—strongly suggesting “it’s not genetics,” says Cordain. His recommendations are to eat “low glycemic foods,” which largely fall under the broader category of unprocessed foods. 

What might all this mean to a RealJock member? We may be more conscious of what we eat than the average guy, though one's lust for a peanut butter cup or deep-dish pizza might overcome even the most concrete of plans for a perfect six-pack. But the fitness community’s obsession with food supplements—prepared protein bars and drinks in particular—might deserve closer examination. How high is the sugar content in the “nutrition” products you purchase at your health club or specialty retailer? Just look at that energy bar—how much processing do you think it took to get food into that state? And how do you feel after consuming such a product on an empty stomach? 

It's time to get the process out of our food in general, and our exercise snacks in particular. And there's no reason not to—it's not about exertion, it's about putting together the right combinations. Here are some seriously simple ideas that show us how less can actually be more:

Pre-workout Snack

  1. Almost any fruit, or carrots: Fruit before a workout gives you some ready carbs to burn for your lifting. But how about a baggie of mini-carrots? Carrots have a higher sugar content than fruits, but with their fiber intact, meaning a more gradual blood-sugar uptake, and better energy regulation.
  2. Fruit with nuts: Again, sugar from fruit fuels workouts, but you want it to release slowly into the blood. So, add nuts to once again slow the sugar uptake and to sustain energy through your workout. Cheaper than an energy bar, too, and without any of the extra sugar, preservatives, and salt.
  Post-workout Something
  1. Smoothie: After you're done at the gym, mix yourself a fruit (bananas, berries) and peanut butter smoothie. There's no need to add sugar, since the fruit is itself a sugar and will give plenty of sweetness. Watch your peanut butter choice, though—you want one that is purely ground peanuts, without added sugar. The ones you see ads for on TV, telling you how much the kids will like them? Avoid. Why do you think kids like those brands, anyway? Because of the sugar. If you want to add some substance to your smoothie, just blend in some oatmeal. There's no need to cook it for this purpose.
  2. Tuna fish: For protein, don't go bar, go with tuna or other conveniently packaged fish or meats, but with a glance at the ingredients on the package. What is sugar doing in your sliced turkey? For this purpose tuna, which may have added ingredients but seldom has sugar, is a good choice. Hard boiled eggs are also a delicious and portable option, and if you don't have time to boil them, many delis and grocery store salad bars sell them.
  3. Good carbs: Put the protein from above on whole grain bread
  4. Full plate: After a workout, there's no reason to snack on bars and beverages—why not have a full, balanced meal? Now, that doesn't mean a hamburger and fries. While you want to take on some carbs for energy, they can be of the more-leafy/less-seedy nature. Instead of an energy bar, try leafy greens and other vegetables lightly steamed or raw, in a four-to-one or greater ratio to meat or other proteins
After a good workout, a full, balanced meal really can be the best choice. Leafy greens and other vegetables should crowd the plate, with a little bit of meat, beans, brown rice, whole grain pasta or potatoes with skin on occupying a lesser portion of the plate.  

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is an ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified fitness trainer and also the author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” (Marlowe & Co., 2004, with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD), available where books are sold and more than 70 public library systems in the U.S., Canada and Europe. For more information, see