What are processed foods, and are they bad for us?

As the Medical Director of the Kansas Business Group on Health I’m sometimes asked to weigh in on hot topics that might affect employers or employees. This is a reprint of a blog post from KBGH:

Are Processed Foods Bad for Us?

We hear a lot about eating “real” foods and avoiding overly processed foods. Food writer Michael Pollan famously said his rules for the ideal diet were to 1) eat food, 2) not too much, and 3) mostly plants. He went so far as to say that any food with more than five ingredients, or an ingredient you can’t pronounce, is probably bad for you. But what’s the evidence that this is right?

Thanks to the work of investigators at the NIH, we have new evidence that processed foods should not make up the bulk of our diets. Researchers paid twenty volunteers to live in a research hospital for a month. Ten of them were men, and ten were women. The volunteers were randomly assigned to eat either an “ultra-processed” diet or an unprocessed diet for two weeks. The diets were identical in the number of calories and amount of nutrients like fat, sugar, protein, and fiber. The volunteers were observed closely for food intake, and frequent testing was done to determine how many calories they were burning.

An example “ultra-processed” meal was:

  • steak (Tyson)

  • gravy (McCormick)

  • mashed potatoes (Basic American Foods)

  • margarine (Glenview Farms)

  • corn (canned, Giant)

  • diet lemonade (Crystal Light) with NutriSource fiber (researchers had to add fiber to the drinks in the processed diet to match the fiber of the unprocessed diet)

  • low fat chocolate milk (Nesquik) with NutriSource fiber.

In contrast, the unprocessed meal on the same day was:

  • beef tender roast (Tyson)

  • rice pilaf (basmati rice (Roland) with garlic, onions, sweet peppers and olive oil)

  • steamed broccoli

  • side salad (green leaf lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers) with balsamic vinaigrette (balsamic vinegar (Nature’s Promise)

  • orange slices

  • pecans (Monarch)

  • salt and pepper (Monarch)

In spite of having equal numbers of calories available to them at every meal and snack, the people eating the processed diet ate about 500 calories per day more than the people eating the unprocessed diet.

After two weeks each person in the study was “crossed over” to the opposite diet from what they’d started on. That is, the processed diet folks started eating the unprocessed diet, and vice-versa.

What the investigators found was dramatic. In spite of having equal numbers of calories available to them at every meal and snack, the people eating the processed diet ate about 500 calories per day more than the people eating the unprocessed diet. This showed up in their weight: the processed dieters weighed, on average, 2 pounds more at the end of two weeks than they did at the start of the diet. All their extra weight was in the form of fat.

This finding could have a real impact on your employees’ health. When you are thinking of food for a large function, or thinking of how to contract food in an on-site cafeteria, it may be worth looking at the NOVA food classification system and working to increase the availability of Group 1 foods, those that are “unaltered following their removal from nature.”

Examples of these would be:

  • vegetables

  • fruits

  • potatoes (fresh, packaged, cut, chilled, or frozen)

  • whole-grain wheat, oats and other cereals

  • eggs

  • fresh, chilled or frozen meat, poultry, fish and seafood

  • pasta, couscous, and polenta

  • milk or yogurt without added sugar

Bon appetit.

My remarks from the Wichita Business Coalition on Health Care's Obesity Forum this morning

Thanks for inviting me to kick off this very important event. Let’s start with a healthy dose of intellectual honesty. Obesity is a disease. It has arguably been so since the beginning of time, but it was made official in this country in 1985 when the National Institutes of Health issued a statement following its Consensus Development Conference on Obesity. This was followed by the report of the World Health Organization’s Consultation on Obesity and then the report of a committee of the Institute of Medicine, now known as the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academy of Sciences. Finally, the American Medical Association in 2013. Obesity is a disease because it is a “definite, morbid process with characteristic symptoms which affects the entire body; and has a known pathology and prognosis.” Obesity shouldn’t need this label in order to be taken seriously. Whether we--our institutions and organizations--pay for obesity treatment should ultimately depend more on what outcomes we value and the cost of achieving those outcomes. That is, the material inputs and outputs of the process, not our opinions of the people or behaviors that lead to them. A materialist versus spiritualist argument. I recently spoke at the Chronic Disease Alliance of Kansas meeting. Some of you were there. I made the argument that even if you are a spiritualist by nature, if you’re interested in medicine or public health, you must invest in a materialist point of view. That means you have to provide evidence for your assertions. How does this little philosophical cul-de-sac apply to obesity? Because I would argue that in spite of ample evidence and the label of disease applied by the NIH, the National Academy of Sciences, the AMA, and others, we don’t treat obesity in this country as a disease.

Think of what happens if you have, say, osteoarthritis of the knee. If you go to the doctor complaining of knee pain that fits the pattern of knee osteoarthritis, within some small confidence interval, you’ll get the same treatment regardless of what doctor you visit: x-rays to confirm the diagnosis, then some initial combination of anti-inflammatory drugs plus or minus strength training or physical therapy; then possibly an injection of hyaluronate or another agent; then a surgical procedure. All backed by some degree of clinical evidence as to their efficacy, with a set of professional guidelines that dictate the order and intensity in which they’re used.

And treatment for the disease--osteoarthritis still--is not limited to the clinical environment. We live under a robust set of laws, regulations, and expectations surrounding the humane treatment of people with osteoarthritis: handicapped parking stalls, construction standards around accessibility (curb cuts and whatnot). Furthermore, an enormous industry exists which caters to osteoarthritic people’s needs: handrails, higher toilets, special bathtubs, purpose-designed kitchen utensils, and others. For all its imperfections, this set of guidelines and expectations has the hallmarks of science: organization of knowledge, adaptability, the ability and willingness to change as evidence evolves.

But what happens if a patient goes to see his or her doctor for obesity? Even if the patient is lucky enough to encounter a doctor that considers obesity a disease and not a personal character failing, no such predictability exists. Doctor one may prescribes meal replacements, a la Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, or dozens of competitors. Doctor two recommends avoiding “carbs.” (once called Atkins, now called paleo or ketogenic diet; it never goes away, we just change the name every ten years or so to convince people to avoid whole grains, the single most protective dietary component against diabetes) Doctor three prescribes phentermine, or if the patient is lucky, one of the drugs actually approved by the FDA for weight loss, all of which are exorbitantly expensive and modestly effective. Doctor four recommends the Diabetes Prevention Program. Doctor five recommends bariatric surgery. Doctor six recommends probiotics or another microbiome-directed treatment.

When the patient leaves the doctors office, she enters a built environment designed to be maximally obesogenic. Four-lane arterial roads replacing walkable, bikeable streets, even though we know beyond certainty that trips taken by car, rather than by bike, foot, or public transportation, are perfectly, directly related to the obesity rate in any community. And the amount of money any community spends on car-related transportation is perfectly aligned with obesity rates. Our patient pays sales taxes on obesogenic foods (red meat, refined carbohydrates, sugared beverages, and fats) at exactly the same rate as protective, high-fiber, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, in spite of evidence that Pigovian taxation, in which unhealthy foods are taxed at a rate equal to their the social cost and healthy foods are subsidized, has a powerful effect. Similarly, crop insurance and subsidy programs--in whatever form they take--favor meat and dairy production over fruits and vegetables.

When a peer gets cancer, we offer words of encouragement and give her rides to the doctor. We judge those with obesity and say they’re getting what they deserve for their weakness and sloth. We consider people who are competent, functioning members of society to be somehow constitutionally flawed and subject them to various levels of social discrimination. Obesity, along with intelligence, seems to be one of the final acceptable targets of discrimination; we casually make jokes about fat people and stupid people with none of the anxiety that accompanies insensitive remarks about race or sexual orientation. This is surely short-lived; over 80 million people in the U.S. have an I.Q. less than 90, and over 100 million are obese by body mass index criteria. These are groups large enough to fight back.

Viewed by an outsider, this set of circumstances does not resemble science. This is not the end result of a materialist view of the world. It resembles religion: a cultural system of competing behaviors, world views, and ethics that relate humanity’s problems not to the laws of the universe, but to supernatural elements. This elevation of the spiritual realm above the material realm is perfectly fine on Sunday mornings. I’m not here to make an anti-religion argument. Religion and spiritualism are vital in mobilizing public passion and opinion. NIH director Francis Collins, who discovered the gene mutation responsible for cystic fibrosis and later directed the Human Genome Project, is an evangelical Christian who advocates that religious belief can not only be reconciled with acceptance of scientific evidence, but that spirituality is vital to the responsible advancement of science. But spiritual thought in the absence of material evidence is unacceptable in the pursuit of a public health solution.

So how should we handle obesity as a health problem? As Kansans, we’re lucky to have perhaps the best model in our collective memories. We have Samuel Crumbine, early 20th century Dodge City physician who revolutionized the treatment of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. At the outset of Dr. Crumbine’s career, infections were the leading cause of death by far and were dealt with in a quasi-spiritual manner. The consumption of tuberculosis was seen as God’s wrath. But Dr. Crumbine applied common sense strategies to limit the spread of the disease. He helped established sanitaria for tuberculosis patients, to isolate them from the public until they were no longer contagious. He spearheaded laws against spitting on the sidewalk (remember the bricks?), against shared drinking cups (you have him, indirectly, to thank for the modern bubbler-style drinking fountain), and against shared towels in public bathrooms. He advocated for fly-swatting campaigns. And all the while, he still promoted medical interventions for people already infected. Better antibiotics were developed. The entire specialty of cardiothoracic surgery grew not out of a need for coronary artery bypass grafting, but out of the need to drain tuberculous abscesses from the chests of infected patients.

When applied to obesity, I’m aware that lines blur. Calling something a disease moves individuals across a gauzy barrier between personhood and patienthood. You’re a person up until you’re labeled with a disease, then you’re a patient. The label inherently causes the patient to adopt a role in which he or she is excused from responsibility for his/her condition. This is healthy and appropriate; we know that the vast majority of lung cancers are caused by cigarette smoking, but we do not argue that smokers should be denied treatment. And the label creates an obligation for treatment that many obese people may not want. Roxane Gay and others have argued eloquently against the over-medicalization of body weight. And if this process (labeling of a disease, applying that label to people) entails an obligation for treatment, who will consent to pay the costs for that treatment? This social negotiation is just as big a part of what we need to address as any specific decision on the appropriateness or order of interventions.

I’m no Samuel Crumbine. I don’t even have a mustache. But if I channel Dr. Crumbine, I can see continued progress starting today. I can see the further development of a bike and pedestrian infrastructure, sensible parking policies, and street design that encourages higher density development with widely available green spaces. This can be partnered with local laws and regulations, a more sensible crop subsidy program, and a food tax system that encourages the production and consumption of quality foods over obesogenic foods. For patients who choose to seek help from their doctor, I can see a set of community-wide standards that promote a practical, stepwise approach to treatment that incorporates dietary and behavioral interventions alongside policies that make proven drug and surgical interventions more affordable. I can advocate for the development of a unified, science-based approach to obesity, motivated by spirituality but guided by material evidence.

Disclaimer: Health ICT was also a presenter, and the Forum was supported through a grant offered by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions and Novo Nordisk.

Just minutes a day

Remember the proliferation of exercise gadgets in the 1990s? You had the knee squeezer:

The sit-up machine: 

I don't see how this is better than a sit-up.

I don't see how this is better than a sit-up.

The aluminum pretzel:

I'm sensing a theme here...

I'm sensing a theme here...

And many, many others. What they all had in common (in addition to being highly inefficient ways to part you from your money) was their promise to turn you from "before" to "after" in some small period of time daily, usually under 30 minutes. 

Newsflash: doing anything--anything--physical for 30 minutes a day is going to help you out. It doesn't have to be a gymnastics routine. Hell, try doing push-ups, planks, and crunches for 30 minutes a day. It's a lot of work.


Both pictures are "after." Where can I buy those shorts? Rowrrr.

Both pictures are "after." Where can I buy those shorts? Rowrrr.

But that's all an aside. Here's the thing I'm really thinking of today: I’m not sure how may times I’ve had a parent or grandparent of young kids tell me how much physical activity he or she gets as a result of “chasing around a two-year old.” I’ve always been suspicious of the claim. Don’t get me wrong--parenting, especially at the toddler phase--is exhausting. But it tends to be exhausting in the way a stakeout is exhausting, mostly from monotony and sleep deprivation. It’s emotionally taxing because of the lingering self-doubt about the quality of your parenting and the everyday small decisions you fear will lead to some real harm if made improperly. Physically, it never seemed demanding at all with my two kids. There was some lifting, sure. But most of the parents I see in public with their kids are sitting somewhere gazing into their smartphones. It’s the kids who are doing all the physical activity. The parents are unlikely to take twenty steps in an hour, it seems. [note: none of this cynicism applies to daycare workers, most of whom really hustle]

Obviously I’m a little jaded. As I write this, I’m sitting in a fairly spectacular local park, taking part in a fundraiser. I can see eleven parents from my perch at a picnic table (at least I think they’re parents. They’re sitting adjacent to the playground with small children zipping between them. Oh, and there are 12 if you count me). Of the 12, twelve are either writing (that’s me), texting, or eating. Zero are interacting with children in any physical way. In an unusual turn of events, I’m actually primed for some moral superiority, since the kids and I got here by bicycle, in the #familypeleton, so I have the ~3.5 miles to the park and the 3.5 miles home on my side. That's enough self-congratulation for the day. My point is, being with your kids might bring you joy most of the time, but it won't bring you physical activity unless you do it self-consciously, just like any other activity. 

What got me thinking of this is the fact that I’ve had innumerable conversations with people about physical activity over the last decade in which one or both of us advocated for “Simple strategies to add physical activity to your routine!” These discussions were often irrationally enthusiastic about the awesomeness of parking at the far end of the parking lot, or substituting a rake for a leaf-blower, or using a whisk instead of an electric mixer. You get my drift, I hope. Here’s the problem: it’s almost all bunk. Desperate, depressing bunk. And I say this as the person who has on many occasions been on the giving end of this advice. Now, before Blue Zones fans come at me with pitchforks and torches (both good ways to “Add physical activity to your routine!”, by the way), let’s perform a little thought experiment.


Let’s imagine that you wake up from a routine surgical procedure to find a doctor solemnly standing over your bed.

“Justin, I have some bad news,” she says as she pulls up a chair. Your name is Justin in this dream, by the way.

“Your appendectomy went fine. You’re going to heal right up. But you had a rare complication of the anesthesia, and it appears you’re now paralyzed from the neck down. The good news [doctors always try to segue into the good news as quickly as possible, amiright?] is that you’re still able to breathe on your own, so you shouldn’t have any trouble talking, and you won’t need a ventilator.” As you try to shake off the last remains of the sleeping medicine, and as your spouse softly weeps at your side, the doctor goes on. “But you won’t be able to do any intentional physical activity beyond breathing, talking, smiling, and blinking.” She then explains that the condition is likely permanent, at least as permanent as you are.

As you let this news settle over you, what will you miss? Will you miss your thighmaster or ab cruncher or aluminum pretzel time? I hope not. But if so, that's cool. Will you miss mowing the lawn? Maybe, if you’re one of the guys Lowe’s advertises to in the springtime. Will you miss using a whisk? Well, I guess, insofar as you’ll miss cooking in general. (note: Julia Child has a great old clip in which she talks about how normal cooking should lead to the cook getting sweaty. It’s awesome. You should look for it. I'd link it, but I can't find it, and I'm in a hurry.) But I’m willing to wager that the walk across a shimmering, sweaty, oil-stained parking lot upon which you’ve intentionally parked your automobile far, far from the entrance to the big box store is something that approximately zero percent of us would miss. Zero percent of responders to this scenario would miss running a vacuum cleaner, or washing their tile floor by hand, or any of the 1,000 other “strategies” I’ve heard in this regard.

What would you miss? Dancing with family at weddings, maybe. The spray of water on your face as you waterski. I’d desperately, achingly, miss my morning cycling route that takes me through the sunrise in summertime and through a crystal wonderland in the winter. I know this because I've been sick lately, and I fear the cold air would make me sicker. I’d miss the bike ride to school with my kids. I’d miss the competent, reassuring thud of a frisbee into my outstretched hand. I’d miss the brace of cool water against my face the first time I dive into a pool in the springtime. I’d miss...nothing at all related to parking.

Here’s my point: Movement isn’t just a utilitarian product of 85 million years of evolution. It isn’t just a means of getting from point A to point B. It is a source of joy. So, sure, park at the edge of the Target parking lot. But even better, leave your car at home and find joy in the 30-minute bike ride or hour walk to the store because it brings you joy, is good for the planet, and it saves you money. Instead of burying your face in your smartphone while your kids play, take pleasure in helping your kids hunt fireflies or throw snowballs or walk around the neighborhood for 30 minutes in the evening. Take a big step, not a small one. Move because it makes you feel good, not because it adds steps to your FitBit.


Super four-pack of links July 11, 2017: the five percent and healthcare money, video game addiction, exercise to prevent diabetes, activity inequality, and evil coconut oil

Super-user sounds great, right? Who doesn't want to be super at something? Only this video (in Memphis-style) refers to the 5% of Americans that account for ~50% of health care spending in a year.

To paraphrase the end of the video: "There's almost nothing insurance companies won't charge, and Americans won't pay." How do you keep yourself from becoming a super-user? Everything medical is a matter of risk, so don't believe anyone who tells you there's a rock-solid simple way to keep from falling into that 5%, at least temporarily. But overwhelmingly, if you can keep a steady job you don't hate, if you can abstain from smoking, if you can get even a small amount of daily exercise (more is better, obviously), if you can keep your alcohol intake to a minimum, if you can abstain from recreational drugs (this includes marijuana, obviously), and if you can choose to eat mostly plant-based foods in semi-sane quantities, you're gonna stay out of The Five Percent.

What does excess immersion into video games mean for young men?

I've tried to set the Weeds audio above to play at about the 46 minute mark. But if that doesn't work, fast forward to the 46 minute mark. Not because the discussion of what "Trumpism" is isn't interesting (it is), but because the discussion that follows helped me think more deeply about the problem of excess immersion into video games that young people, especially young men, are experiencing. I've blogged about this before, and I talked about it at a recent speaking engagement. We seem to be creating a generation of youths who are increasingly isolated in very immersive video games, and then they're growing up into increasingly isolated and lonely people, particularly after age 40. As Ezra Klein says in the piece: if this were a problem of drug abuse, I think we would be acting collectively to do something about it. That's an apt comparison, since game addiction and drug addiction seem to have some physiology in common. But since the solution to technological problems currently seems to be "more technology," we are kinda-sorta just plowing ahead and hoping that video games fix themselves. I'm not optimistic. I think we need to start introducing programs to help kids moderate their exposure to video games and increase their exposure to the world at a young age. Dylan Matthews, who generally defends the idea of video games as a pacifying technology for people who can't or won't work, ends with this quote: "When we're in our eighties, we're all gonna be doing, like, flight simulator stuff. That's, like, how we'll spend--or, VR stuff, at least--that's what retirement's going to look like." Yuck. No. No. No. 

A new meta-analysis shows that African-Americans who exercise may not derive the same protective benefit from type 2 diabetes as other races

(brief Healio write-up here)

 I'm not ready to sign on to this point; race is a very blunt instrument when it comes to genetics. As the cost of gene sequencing falls, I think we'll not only be able to tease out drug effects in people with specific genetic features; we'll be able to more precisely target interventions like physical activity. Maybe certain people in this collection of studies would have benefited more from strength training, while others needed more endurance-oriented activities. Maybe some would have benefited from a specific combination of drug and activity. We don't know the answers to these things now, but we will soon. 

Smartphone data shows that countries with the highest "activity inequality" are more likely to have large obese populations: 

More differences in activity within the population equals more obese people. 

More differences in activity within the population equals more obese people. 

So it isn't a surprise that the same investigators found that the higher the walkability of a city, the lower the "activity inequality":

Texas is not a place with a great deal of walkability. 

Texas is not a place with a great deal of walkability. 

The cynical take on this study is something like, "Of course people who are inactive weigh more!" Fair enough. But the obvious policy implication of the study is that, to affect the activity level of the inhabitants of a city, the built environment must give opportunities for activity.

ADDENDUM (make it a five-pack): How coconut oil got a reputation for being healthy in the first place. I don't love coconut oil, but even if I did, I'd think of it like I think of butter: an ingredient to be used sparingly, mostly for flavor. 

Don't wanna see the sausage links made, July 7, 2017: New endocrine society statement on obesity pathogenesis and the danger (danger!) of placenta capsules (placenta capsules?)

"...obesity is caused by two distinct processes: energy homeostasis and energy imbalance – specifically, energy intake greater than expenditure."

This is an excerpt from the Endocrine Society's new statement on obesity pathogenesis. I'm relieved to see it. In the past couple of years, as investigators have (rightly) cast light on some of the shortcomings of the calorie as a measure of energy consumption or energy expenditure, the internet has drowned in chatter about how obesity isn't a matter of energy in versus energy out. When of course it is. You simply can't make fat out of air or sunshine. At some level, people who carry more weight than they'd like are eating an excess amount energy or expending an insufficient amount of energy or both. The fact that we don't have a perfect way to measure or quantify it doesn't change that fact. So this nugget from the Endocrine Society's press release is welcome, too: 

“Because of the body’s energy balance adjustments, most individuals who successfully lose weight struggle to maintain weight loss over time,” said Michael W. Schwartz, M.D., of the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash., and the chair of the task force that authored the Society’s Scientific Statement. “To effectively treat obesity, we need to better understand the mechanisms that cause this phenomenon, and to devise interventions that specifically address them. Our therapeutic focus has traditionally been on achieving weight reduction. Most patients can do this; what they have the most trouble with is keeping the weight off. Healthcare providers and patients need to view this tendency as the body’s expected response to weight loss, rather than as a sign of a failed treatment regimen or noncompliance with treatment,” Schwartz said."

In case you were wondering, the CDC is warning against the consumption of dried placenta capsules because of a risk of group B streptococcal infection.

Why am I so late getting to this news? Anyway: there goes my best baby shower side-hustle idea...

June 2, 2017 links to skim

Michael Bliss, author of The Discovery of Insulin, has died. RIP. I read his book while I was an endocrine fellow, overlapping, ironically, with a trip to Toronto for the Endocrine Society conference. His work was accessible, non-academic, and revealing.

“Family-based weight loss therapy sessions worked just as well whether children attended or not, as long as their parents did,” researchers found in a “two-arm trial” that included “150 overweight or obese children ages 8 to 12 and their parents.” Parents, your work with your children matters a lot. 

Whole-body vibration may be as effective as exercise in mice. Color me skeptical. I first heard of vibration for metabolic disease in a presentation by an astronaut in college in the nineties. And, in spite of the plethora of machines available claiming to vibrate you to better health, the science just doesn't seem to have advanced that much. I'll skip my vibration sessions for the time being.