Illnesses Linked to Industrial Foods, Part I

Why is it that chronic deseases such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, dental crowding, and E. coli 0157:H7 infections have been increasing in industrialized countries (Dowdle 2009; Pollan 2008; Schlosser 2001; Wroth 2009)? Have technological advances in medicine and public health resulted in longer life expectancies and more age-related illnesses? Or, are these illnesses somehow linked with the industrialization of societies and industrial food production? Are these chronic illnesses correlated with an increasingly globalized food market that delivers exotic and out of season foods to ethnic groups that have not physiologically adapted to them? Or are these chronic diseases a product of over-population and insufficient food that is nutritious? Are the ever-more densely populated and urbanized industrial societies exceeding their carrying capacities for providing affordable and nutrient rich foods?

This report is from a research project I did in 2009 for a graduate level class called Social Evolution taught by an archaeologist. My goal was to discover and describe the markers (or in non-archeological terms “physical evidence”) in the human body that indicate habitual industrial food consumption in populations. What I found out was that in populations that consume mostly industrial foods, the markers were mostly bad.

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Stop running (or not) & lose weight by changing your diet to non-industrial foods

I believe that our bodies are adapted to mobility (such as walking or running) and surviving periods of food scarcity. Faced with running each day (or nearly each day), our body’s metabolism adapts and slows down becoming more efficient with it’s caloric fuel. I have a friend who complained to me that she runs hilly trails every day and she feels chubby. I’ve experienced the same thing, when training for a marathon, after awhile my weight plateaus and I will actually gain weight if I eat too many junk food carbs.

Science research (and personal experience!) supports that we crave ingredients that are rare in nature: sugar, fat, salt.So after a period of time, running every day and eating carbs with higher-than-found-in-nature levels of sugar, fat and salt may often result in weight gain or at least, no weight loss.

If you cut your carbs from refined grain sources and add weight training to increase your muscle mass you can increase your metabolism and burn through those excess calories. Follow that up with a decrease in your sugar, fat and salt consumption and I think most people will see the results with a more muscular and lean physique in about a month. This is because they are approaching weight loss on two fronts: increased calorie absorption through increased muscle mass-induced metabolism gains and reduced calorie intake from less nutritionally “empty” calories. Basically they are making their bodies less efficient in fuel consumption–like a big engine SUV. Increasing muscle mass is like increasing the size of one’s engine. I tried this strategy and it worked better than I had expected. I even stopped running due a running injury (plantar fasciitis and hip bursitis) so I was working out less–just weight training for three months– and I still lost weight.

On September 28, the day after I did the Sprint of the Carpinteria Triathlon, I got a cast on my foot. My plantar fasciitis, in spite of not running and daily stretching, arch supports, night splints, ice, tennis balls and other arcane treatments, was getting worse, not better. For the month of October I could not run, bike or swim–nothing but weight train. I was feeling chubby, and pretty bummed about my situation until I applied my nutrition research on myself.

Being my own test subject I radically changed my diet to exclude processed foods and industrially produced foods. By “industrial foods” I mean non-organic produce, genetically modified produce and animal products, animal products produced from CAFOs (Concentrated Agricultural Feeding Operations) and anything already prepared. I’ve been eating solely organic, mostly locally produced produce from a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. “CSA Program” is fancy name for a basket of fresh produce that I pick up each week at a local farm). For protein I get lot’s of nuts, beans, organic dairy products and free-range poultry products. I haven’t baked my own bread yet but I am making my own corn tortillas from scratch to avoid preservatives. By eating these foods I am getting nutrition-dense food and avoiding the big three industrial food additives that are bad for my health in excess: sugar, salt and fat. The organic foods are more costly, but not eating out anymore and not buying energy bars or other processed foods is really saving me money. The cost to our family food budget of the non-industrial diet is significantly less than with our usual diet.

I’ve been researching various diets and native foodways and sports nutrition for a while as an anthropology graduate student (see my foodways research on triathletes and marathon runners in an earlier posting here). I noticed that native populations that consumed their traditional foods did not suffer from chronic diseases that are the number one killers in the United States: heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Yet, healthy and physically fit triathletes and marathon runners still seem to suffer from heart disease and some cancers.

After a bit more anthropological research I’ve found that it’s not all genetics, the industrial diet is a significant factor (if not the root cause) of many of these chronic diseases. It seems that if you avoid processed foods and don’t eat anything made of refined grains (no store bought bread, no pizza, no pastries, muffins, burger buns, flour tortillas, white rice, corn chips, crackers, pasta,etc.), you will be healthier, lose weight (if you’re currently over weight) and feel much better.

In addition to the refined grain foods I have been avoiding processed packaged foods such as frozen foods, canned foods, nutrition bars, or any beverage made with corn syrup such as Gatoraid and sodas.

Since processed foods made from refined grains like corn, wheat, russet potatoes, and rice have nearly no nutrition (just adding fat calories), why do we continue to eat them? It seems to be culture (most of our traditional cuisines in America include one of these processed foods as a staple) and socio-economic status. Eating only whole foods is expensive in food cost and time. It takes a long time to cook a meal from scratch–time that many people working the typical office-hour day just do not have.  I think the traditions and structural forces that keep us consuming industrial foods is making us sick.

For three months (October thru December) I weight trained three times a week and stuck to my whole foods/no refined grains non-industrial diet and lost 5 pounds since September. I’m 5 foot 9 inches and I began at 139 lbs and now weigh consistently at 134 lbs. This is with no cardio workouts. Crazy, huh?

I’m easing back into running again, with short runs of 30 minutes a week focusing on my gait and stretching a lot before and after. The heel pain from my plantar fasciitis is officially gone. (Woohoo!) I’m going to try to stick to my non-industrial diet and see if I can sustain it with increased running mileage and the need for more carbohydrate energy. If the Kenyans and the Tarahumara can run fast for hours on a traditional non-industrial diet, why can’t I?