Opinion: Let’s bag the ultra-processed food industry

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If you're like me and get what seems like seven million reminders to do things better, you know that January is a self-improvement month.

My inbox is full of suggestions for getting in shape, losing weight, eating better, you name it. Watch the news and you'll see reporters give tips on what diets to follow to help you live longer and healthier. Ironically, those reports are interspersed with ads for the ultra-processed food you're being told to avoid. The processed food industry is spending big bucks to promote their yummies that contain high levels of trans fats, salt and sugar. Having learned long ago that these foods contribute to my chronic inflammation, I'm determined to counteract the $14 billion spent annually marketing these foods.

Did you know that about 73% of our country's food supply is ultra-processed and is about 52% cheaper than less processed alternatives? Further, of all the advertisements related to food or drink, almost 80% were junk food ads. We're being played.

Not everyone has chronic inflammation, a condition that processed foods exacerbate. Inflammation is a player in almost every chronic disease, which affects about 133 million Americans (more than 40% of our population).

"You are what you eat" isn't new. A version of that saying goes back goes back two centuries. The difference today is that science can give us the nasty details. Eating ultra processed foods consistently in early childhood has been associated with lower scores in verbal ability and increased odds of mathematical difficulties. Yes, these foods may hinder the development of cognitive function in children, resulting in a can't-fix-stupid situation for future generations.

And it's not just our young folks who suffer.

Middle-aged people who have eaten the most junk food for years have a faster rate (up to 28%) of cognitive decline, compared with people who ate the least junk food.

Yup, food inflammation affects the neuron cells of the brain, making a mess. If you're already having problems with the way your brain and body work, check out your diet and rule out these foods as a problem.

I didn't know about that when as a teenager, I got out of bed to get ready for school, fell over and couldn't get up. It would be decades before physicians discovered that the inflammation caused by eating wheat/gluten had affected virtually every bone in my body. What I've learned about food inflammation could help you to avoid chronic inflammation too.

Of course, minimize how much ultra-processed you eat. You'll need to be super proactive because the industry can be pretty sneaky. Read all of the labels at the grocery store, especially that tiny print (it's almost as if the manufacturers want to hide that information!) For example, some food items are marketed as gluten-free but the packaging has a small caveat: "made in a facility that processes wheat."

Buyer beware.

Remember, the healthy counter to ultra-processed foods are neuroprotective foods that not only nourish the body but protect the brain as well.

So put a spotlight on your salmon, blueberries and leafy greens. Leave the ultra-processed cereals, crackers and microwave meals on the grocery store shelves. Live long and prosper!

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@ diversityreport.com.

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