How To Win The Battle Against Ultra-Processed Foods

There is not much good about processed foods, but let’s face it, for most of us, thinking we will never eat another processed food for the rest of our lives is not realistic.

Unfortunately processed foods are here to stay. We have opened Pandora’s Box and we can’t go back now.

We also need to realize that most of the food we eat is processed in one way or another. Humans have been processing food for a long time to make it easier to eat and to extract more nutrition from each bite.

This ability to extract more and more nutrition allowed our brains to grow, we became smarter, and invented new technology which allowed us to continually evolve our food processing capabilities. We unfortunately became so good at this that it is now a detriment instead of a benefit.

Here is a good example…

A grilled steak is processed. We harvest a cow, cut out the muscle meat and cook it on the grill. This is an example of minimally processed food.

A piece of Oreo Cheesecake is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, it is ultra-processed. Looking at it you have no idea what whole food items went into making it. In fact many of the ingredients in the cheesecake are probably not natural at all. They may have been made by humans in a lab.

Ultra-processed foods are generally the ones we want to avoid most of the time. They light up our brains due to the caloric content and combination of fat, carbs, texture, and flavors.

If we cannot eliminate ultra-processed foods from our environment, how can we live alongside them, and even consume them from time to time and still maintain our health?

Dr. Ben House was recently on the Revive Stronger podcast talking about this very topic.

As you can hear in this clip, the downstream effects of consuming ultra-processed foods is not only the caloric content of the food item itself, it’s that it drives us to eat more of them. When we replace minimally processed foods with ultra-processed foods in our diet it disregulates our hunger signals and causes us to crave them even more. In addition it removes foods that contain many of the nutrients our body needs and this can lead to the body continuing to seek out food even though it has already gotten enough calories. To make this problem even worse, most people fall into this eating pattern while getting 4000 steps a day and not exercising.

It’s the perfect storm for poor health, excess weight gain, and metabolic disorders.

What is the solution then?

Well the solution is certainly not telling people to just not eat ultra-processed foods.

As Dr. House points out, we have been “yelling at people” to not consume ultra-processed foods for a long time, yet 91% of the population is overweight, clearly just telling people to avoid processed foods is not the solution.

The best thing we can do is change our environment so that we can minimize ultra-processed food intake.

What does this environment look like?

The first thing we want to do is to remove ultra-processed foods from our environment so they are not so easily accessible. For most people, knowing the pint of ice cream is in the freezer is enough to cause them to want to eat it.

The solution? Don’t keep it in the freezer!

One problem people have with this part of constructing their environment is that there are other people in the house that are not on board and want these ultra-processed foods in the house. What I tell people to do in this case is to have a conversation with others in the house. Tell them what you are trying to accomplish, and help them understand that you can’t have these foods around. Tell them if they want to have them in the house they need to purchase them themselves and they need to keep these food items somewhere else, outside of your environment. If they really care about your well being I am sure they will understand and a compromise can be reached.

Again this is not saying you can never have any ultra-processed foods, but if you really want them you will have to go through a bit of effort to acquire them, it won’t be as simple as opening the freezer and mindlessly eating them, it will have to be a very conscious decision.

The next thing you want to do is understand the foundation of your diet must be whole foods. If you eat vegetables, fruits, and protein before even considering the ultra-processed foods you will for sure consume less of them. The whole foods will fill you up and give you the micronutrients you need before you even get a chance to eat anything ulta-processed.

This is the complete opposite approach that most people do when they eat. Think about what is considered an “appetizer” in today’s modern food environment. Chips, french fries, nachos, meat covered in some kind of highly palatable sauce and/or fried bread…these are appetizers.

Think of how many times you go out for Mexican and before your meal even comes out you have polished off 2 baskets of chips?

If you were to eat your fajitas, rice, and beans as an appetizer and then were brought out a basket of chips, how much do you think you would eat? I bet it would be far less.

The next critical piece to constructing your environment to win the battle against ultra-processed foods is to move your body! This means both movement throughout the day and formal exercise sessions.

Contrary to what you might think, movement throughout the day is more important than the formal exercise. The reason is because there are many downstream effects of movement throughout the day that play into your want and desire for ultra-processed foods and how your body can handle them if you happen to consume them.

First, your movement throughout the day will play a key role in getting a good night’s sleep and sleeping well helps you resist the desire to eat ultra-processed foods.

Second, when you do have a desire to eat ultra-processed foods, doing some kind of movement before giving in can help take your mind off the desire and help you become more in tune with the ”why”. Do you really want the food or is it boredom, stress, or your current environment that is tricking you into wanting it? Doing some movement gives you some time to come to terms with the desire.

Finally, movement around the consumption of ultra-processed foods can help buffer the deleterious metabolic response to the food. Instead of eating the food and sitting on your butt, just going for a walk will help not only burn some of those calories, but also blunt the potential blood sugar response.

When it comes to the exercise portion of your environment the goal here should be to build muscle mass. Muscle mass has the benefit of being metabolically active all the time, and it provides us with a bigger sink to store all those carbohydrates. Any way you look at it, adding more muscle may be your biggest buffer to the negative effects of ultra-processed foods. Some kind of resistance training done 2-5 times a week is a must no matter whether you are eating ultra-processed foods or not.

When we have proper movement, both throughout the day and via formal exercise, we will be set up for success when it comes to handling the occasional ultra-processed food indulgence. In fact, the more calories you burn and the more muscle you have, the more processing of food you can tolerate. Again, I am not advocating the consumption of Oreo cheesecake on repeat, but ultimately you might need to consider a greater degree of processing to your food in order to get in the calories.

As Dr. House says, when you need to consume 3000+ calories, doing that from whole sources of protein, fruits, and vegetables is nearly impossible. At the very least you might need to use things like smoothies made up of processed whole foods in order to get those calories in. Throwing some coconut milk, nut butter, protein powder, and some fruit into a blender with some ice and pulverizing it into a smoothie is going to make it much easier to consume 800 calories than to do the same thing from whole minimally processed foods.

Unfortunately ultra-processed foods are not going anywhere, so we need to do the best we can to win the battle against them. First, we want to make sure we are not consuming them on the regular. To do this remove ultra-processed foods from your environment and make sure our diet is built upon a foundation of whole foods. Second, implementing a consistent resistance training routine that challenges your muscles and builds lean mass, as well as moving throughout the day is going to provide your best buffer against the occasional consumption of ultra-processed foods.

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