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There are many theories about why obesity has risen exponentially in recent decades. Is it genetics? Is it environment? Is it electronics taking over exercise? Is it super-sized fast food portions? The answer probably lies somewhere at the intersecting point of all of these, but today I want to talk to you about what I believe is another key cause: we are not eating real food.

More than 50% of the average American diet consists of ultra-processed foods. “Ultra-processed” refers to foods that are made up of chemicals not usually used in food, like emulsifiers, chemicals to make food taste like something in particular (like chicken flavoring instead of using actual chicken), and a concoction of sugar, salt, oil and fat. Imagine those items lying on a plate…. Does it look like food? Most would say a resounding, “No.” But by the time it’s packaged and sold to you, it looks appealing. Items that are ultra-processed include sodas, packaged snacks, candy, desserts, packaged baked goods, instant noodles and soups, and reconstituted meat products like chicken nuggets or fish nuggets, to name a few.

One of the big problems is that most of these ultra-processed foods are packed with sugar. Sugar is not just in sweet foods like the baked goods, but it’s even in ultra-processed meats, dressings, and frozen pizzas.  As a matter of fact, added sugars make up more than twenty percent of the calories of ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are also packed with salt and fat. One serving of a frozen French bread pizza contains four different kinds of added sugars, 830mg of salt, trans fats, and 21 grams of total fat.

To make matters worse, the companies that make these foods have studied extensively how to make these foods irresistible to you. There is a science to the balance of fat:sugar:salt that makes foods create cravings in consumers, and many of these companies have mastered it.

The bottom line is that we should eat how Mother Nature intended us to eat and not be at the mercy of people who make a lot of money off of us overeating unhealthful foods. We should eat vegetables, lean unprocessed meats and fish, whole grains, and a small amount of natural fruit and healthful fats. A good rule of thumb is that if your food is coming in a box or a bag, think twice and check the ingredients. Can you read and identify everything in the ingredients list? Is there anything in that list that does not look like real food? Is there added sugar? Artificial flavors? If it had to be made in a lab before you eat it, I recommend you put it down and back away slowly.

So what do you do when you are craving that French bread pizza? There are many ways to make this yourself with healthful, read food ingredients that will slash the fat, sugar, and salt loads, and it can be done more quickly than you think. Who knows – it could become a new hobby. Planning and preparing healthful meals can become a great way to spend time with your family and helps teach your children how to eat healthfully too.

Want a little guidance? Make an appointment with our dietician, Heidi Jensen RD. She’d be happy to get you started!