Danger: processed foods

The Equinox nutrition philosophy continues with this month's installment: Eat Minimally Processed Foods without Added Sugars

The Equinox nutrition philosophy is comprised of 12 fundamental nutritional pillars, all of which support the health of your cells, and thus increase your body’s overall energy capabilities while decreasing acidity and inflammation. The result: A younger, healthier (and we bet, happier) you with a metabolic system that hums. Here, pillar 3:

Forget the proverbial Ah-ha moment. Eating sugar provides the quintessential Ahhh moment — euphoria that brain scientists liken to the feeling of romantic love. How can we resist? But that sugar high is fleeting at best and damaging on the cellular level at worst. Chronic consumption of sugary, processed foods sets off a chain reaction in the body that goes way beyond the superficial “moment on the lips, lifetime on the hips” consequence. Nowadays, your health is at stake.

“Processed foods made from sugar and white flour like cookies, cakes, crackers, and breads contain loads of sugar — one reason we’re eating more sugar than ever before. Consumption has increased 50% in the last 30 years,” says Dr. Jeffrey Morrison, a member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board. “Sugar itself is inflammatory and when you eat a lot of these foods, your body produces insulin in excess, which increases inflammation. Insulin is a growth hormone, so too much of it in the bloodstream can also lead to metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes.” Even if you don’t end up with a future diabetes diagnosis, metabolic syndrome is nothing to ignore. It manifests as high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and increased abdominal fat — the health-damaging kind that ups heart disease risk.

Part of the problem is that today’s processed foods are super-charged, steroid-like versions of junk doctored by big-brand food makers so that they’re even more addictive. The processing of high fructose corn syrup, for instance, actually increases the fructose level. Throw some salt, fat, and synthetic additives into the cake mix and it becomes even harder to say no. “The body has difficulty metabolizing fake sugars, preservatives, and what’s known as ‘natural flavoring’,” explains Morrison. “And this leads to even more inflammation.” And while you don’t see this internal inflammatory response, you can experience life-impacting symptoms: Stiffness in your joints and muscles (bound to impede athletic performance), too red or too pale skin (inflammation affects circulation), allergies (think itchy, watery eyes and a stuffy nose), digestive issues, and fatigue.

Sadly, we’re not done with the lesson here. There’s another health-derailing aspect to highly processed foods. The pesticides and preservatives used in the manufacturing process and the packaging itself can disrupt the endocrine system, interfering with your natural hormonal balance. “These substances can inappropriately activate the estrogen receptors in the body, leading to weight gain, irregular menstrual cycles, acne, hair loss, and even cancer,” notes Morrison. (Bisphenol A, a compound found in plastics and the lining of cans is particularly problematic, so try to minimize exposure).

Time to step away from the cupcakes, don’t you think? We’ve done our best to redirect your thinking, so do your part and redirect yourself when you hit the grocery store. Head to the outer aisles where you’ll find plenty of organic produce, lean meat, and fish. The idea is to go from loading up on bar-coded boxes to filling up bags (preferably the re-useable cotton-canvas type) with fresh, minimally processed fare. Make it a habit.

These Tasting Table recipes offer a natural way to get a sweet or salty fix:

Trail Mix

Roasted Herbed Tomatoes

If you're just tuning into our 12-month eating overhaul, start with our overall nutrition philosophy.