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Processed People: You Are What You Eat

“You are what you eat.” It might be the oldest form of nutritional rhetoric. The logic couldn’t seem simpler and the importance of this phrase was only compounded for me when I learned the true capabilities of proper nutrition.  A food choice is not merely an ephemeral decision: it holds systemic, physiological consequences. When you eat, you swallow the raw materials for the synthesis and repair of every cell in your body. Your skin and organs rebuild themselves every 6 weeks out of the very foods you ingest. Tearing down a dilapidated house and rebuilding it with a similarly weak foundation will yield little functionality, support, or progress. The solution is a concrete, reinforced foundation—REAL foods. 

After my year in Israel, I began a foray into healthier living. After examining my typical food choices (often fried, packaged, and/or swimming in a mysterious sauce), I realized my nutrition might be correlated with my shifting moods, energy levels, and overall state of wellness. I experimented with some changes in lifestyle principles and started seeing a connection between my health and the way I’d eat, breathe, and function. It’s been quite a journey:  I’ve brewed kombucha, done bikram yoga (in a 137° room), tried raw veganism, and worked as a juice cleanse specialist. But the most powerful (and simplest) advice I’ve come across is to limit processed foods.

The body needs vibrant, complete fuel to function optimally. Processed foods may appear to be real foods, but be warned, they are, in reality, food-like synthetics. Processed foods are engineered to be tasteful for both the eyes and mouth. Salt, sugar, and fats are combined with nutrient-deficient, synthetic ingredients to create an aesthetic of real food. According to Dr. Robert S. Harris (in his Nutritional Evaluation of Processing), “Nutrients are destroyed when foods are processed because many nutrients are highly sensitive to heat, light, oxygen, and the pH of various substances and additives used in the process. There is no question that processing foods reduces the amount of nutrients that are contained within.” These foods are in an altered state, and their vitamins, enzymes, and proteins are denatured and inactivated. As a result, these nutrient-deficient foods are “fortified” with synthetic nutrients, which are unrecognizable and have little (if any) nourishing effect.

These colorful foods can also contain a range of deleterious ingredients derived from chemical extracts. Many are banned in other countries and are known carcinogens. You shouldn’t need a chemistry major to understand your meal (maltodextrin, polysorbate 60, potassium bromate, BHT, acesulfame K, sodium nitrate, etc.). Natural flavors, a common ingredient, are used to create the illusion of a real food, using an addictive additive. Castoreum (derived from beaver’s behind) and glutamate bi-products (AKA the infamous excitotoxin MSG) are just two of the thousands of “natural flavors” approved by the FDA for industrial foods, simply because they are found in nature. These flavorings trigger uncontrollable neural sensor cravings—the reason one chip or cookie is never enough.

Real foods come from nature itself, in the form it was intended to possess. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and unprocessed (or minimally processed) animal-based products are REAL foods. Chemical-laden mixtures starve the body of nutrients and vitality. When these processed foods enter our cells, they weaken our bodies and deplete our energy stores. The choice is yours: you can be cheap and nutrient-deficient (i.e. potato chips or candy bar) or synergistically complete and carefully crafted by nature (i.e. apple or eggs).

The easy solution? Replace some of those foods in a box, can, bag, or bottle with complete foods, the way nature intended. Your body and brain will really appreciate it.

Zachary Mostel is a third-year chemistry major and food renegade