Fast food is a food item that has had a series of mechanical or chemical operations performed on it to change or preserve it. Although today processed food has taken its licks, the human race has been processing food for over 10,000 years. That’s about the time we started growing and processing certain grains, and these substances often needed to be milled (crushed) somehow to isolate the edible parts. Our ancestors also used salt to preserve many types of food, so it wouldn’t quickly spoil, and this is also a form of processing. The next step in the processed food story is canned goods introduced in the middle of the 19th century. Once again, this was a way to preserve real food for a more extended period.
The Birth of Modern Processed Food
We didn’t get into trouble until we moved on to what I call “highly processed food.” This type of food is typically made from scratch in a factor like setting, and the end product has little in common with food made by Mother Nature. This food was produced by what I called the Food Industrial Complex. They started to deconstruct real food and then rearranging the ingredients and adding other substances as colorants, preservatives, and flavor enhancers. Michal Pollin referred to this fare as “fake food” because it doesn’t have much in common with real food. Real food is something you can find, dig up, pick from a tree or bush, kill or catch with a line or net. Even today, animals and birds raised on a farm can be considered to be real food if they are grass fed throughout their lives—a very uncommon practice.
Factory processed food started in the early 19th century. The Kellogg brothers started making cereal flakes for their patients in a sanitorium (not a good choice as you will learn later). Over the next 20 years, they formed the Kellogg Company to make a much broader range of sugar-sweetened cereals that we would recognize today. When the mother of processed food the Twinkie was first introduced in the 1030s, it was made with real cream, butter, and eggs and had a shelf life of only two days. They kept playing with the formula and added more ingredients until finally, it achieved a shelf life of 21 days. That was one of the main goals of the food industry—to prolong shelf life, so they didn’t have to restock so frequently. Fast forward to today, and the Twinkie has 37 ingredients. It essentially became the food industry’s “moon shot” because of its long shelve life and popularity.
The Definition of Highly Processed Food
Now I’m going to dig deep into the true nature of highly processed food. In my opinion, such food must contain the following four ingredients:
- Excessive fructose mainly from added sugars like HFCS. Sugar comes in many different forms. For details, I recommend that you read my friend Robert Lustig’s book “Sugar Has 46 Names”. My medical school classmate Richard Johnson is one of the world’s foremost fructose experts and I recommend reading one of his excellent books like “The Sugar Fix”.
- Excessive high glycemic carbohydrates mainly from grains. These are grains like white flour that have been finely milled to form that other dangerous white powder!
- Excessive omega 6 fatty acids relative to omega 3 fatty acids. We need both for health. Omega 6 fatty acids turn on inflammation to help fight infections and heal wounds. Omega 3 fatty acids turn of inflammation with chemicals called resolvins and protectins that come from omega 3 fatty acids. We evolved consuming about equal amounts of both fatty acids, but now most of the fatty acids we consume are omega 6 fatty acids from vegetable oils. There is a test called the AA/EPA ratio that measures this critical balance. The ideal ratio is 1-3. The average Japanese has a ratio of 1.9, whereas the average American has a ratio of almost 20. The Japanese also have the most extended lifespan and the lowest incident of chronic disease in modern societies.
- Preservatives, additives, colorants, enhancers, and other odd chemicals. These chemicals didn’t exist in our food supply until processed food hit the scene over 100 years ago. We don’t even know what these chemicals do in our bodies because they are foreign substances, but it’s likely not anything positive.
So now you have the low down of “highly processed food” (HPF). What exactly does this type of food do to your health? There’s pretty good evidence that it’s horrible for your metabolic state, driving metabolic problems like obesity, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. As most people know, these are the scourges of all societies that have adopted the so-called modern western diet or Standard American Diet (SAD), but that doesn’t necessarily tell the worst part of the story. There is mounting evidence that HPF is neurotoxic or directly damaging to your brain. Diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes often take decades to develop and cause problems with various organs in your body, but HPF starts to do its damage on the first day you consume it. The take-home message: your brain is the first organ to take a hit rather than the last. Although there is an association between HPF and common brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and other chronic brain conditions, that’s not what I am talking about.
More Anti-Wisdom From the Donut Munching Experts
The first day that you eat this type of food, it adversely affects your brain function. Over a period of time, it appears to trigger a form of food-induced brain dysfunction that fits the pattern of a disease. This disease was completely missed by the experts and the medical and scientific communities. The one exception is major depression. Since the days of ancient Greece, depression or melancholia was a depressed person who lost their appetite and lost weight—they virtually wasted away. Melancholia stayed this way until the late 1050s when we started to see a lot of folks who appeared to be depressed, yet they had an increased appetite and weight gain, the exact opposite of melancholia. This was a rather strange development and the people at Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) who define the criteria for mental illnesses didn’t quite know what to do with it. After careful discussion, while consuming coffee and donuts, they decided to include both! If you look at DSM V you will see that they include classic melancholia depression which is rather rare, and “atypical depression” which is now the much more common increased appetite and weight gain form of depression. It gets really confusing when you read the criteria for “major depression” which includes both increased and decreased appetite and weight loss and weight gain.
Even a 7th-grade science student knows that if a parameter qualifies you for diagnosis of a condition throughout the spectrum of the parameter (appetite and weight), then it must be discarded because it can’t possibly help you to make a diagnosis! It suggests that melancholia and atypical depression must be completely separate conditions and I agree with this perspective.
How Highly Processed Food Fries Your Brain
We are now proposing that atypical depression is a form of food-induced brain dysfunction that has nothing to do with true major depression or melancholia. Why does this matter to you? If you and your loved ones are diagnosed with depression, there’s a good chance those professionals making the diagnosis are unaware of the concept of atypical depression. They assume that all depression is the same disease requiring the same treatment—usually high dose SSRI medications like Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro, Zoloft, and others. If you have atypical depression, these drugs in high doses will make you worse rather than better. Atypical depression is associated with metabolic problems like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, and many psychiatric drugs can make these problems worse.
Because atypical depression is diet driven, we have proposed a new name—Carbohydrate Associated Reversible Brain syndrome or CARB syndrome. Over the years, we have learned that people with CARB syndrome may develop up to 22 brain dysfunction symptoms that will qualify them for many other common psychiatric and brain disorders. They end up with “labelitis” and bags full of psychotropic drugs. They don’t do well and become a complete mess because the people treating them have no idea what they are treating. You end up with a diagnostic and therapeutic mess. Walk into any medical waiting room or Psychiatric ward and look around you and you will see a lot of these folks.
Supplement Your Way Back to Your Health
What to do? As this post first discussed, highly processed food is neurotoxic and everyone, especially children should avoid it. There’s only one problem. The first symptom of CARB syndrome is craving sweet and starchy food, pushing you to eat more of the very food that is frying your brain. Years ago, I learned that the priority in treating patients with CARB syndrome is to suppress these cravings. Here are some supplements that can be very helpful:
- L-Glutamine: This common and safe amino acid will suppress cravings when you take 500-1,000 mg capsules 3-4x daily on an empty stomach. You can also take the powdered form and mix it with just about any liquid. You really can’t overdose on this stuff.
- Precursor supplement: This contains the amino acid precursors to all the key monoamine neurotransmitters that are low in people with CARB syndrome. Effective combinations usually include L-tyrosine and 5-htp in a ratio of 10 to 1. I sell one called CARB-22 at cost on my web site. These supplements work very well with low dose drugs, usually combinations of Adderall or Ritalin with drugs like Celexa or Lexapro. The drugs help “jump start” brain function and after a month or so they can be stopped, but the supplement should be continued long term.
- Omega 3 supplements: Humans evolved with approximately equal amounts of pro-inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids and anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids. Because of the large number of vegetable oils in processed food, this balance is now entirely out of whack. A test called the AA/EPA ratio measures this balance, and an ideal ratio is between 1 and 3. Most Americans will need to supplement with a high-quality omega 3 supplement to get to this ratio. I like OmegaRx2 sold by Barry Sears, one of the world’s foremost fatty acid experts. I had to take eight capsules daily to get my ratio to 1.9.
- Measure your blood homocysteine level: This simple blood test is an indirect measure of folic acid in your brain. Folic acid can’t get into your brain until it is converted to L-methylfolate in your body. You need folic acid in your brain to make monoamine neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. If your homocysteine is above 8, take the following four supplements:
- L-methylfolate 5 mg daily.
- Pyridoxal 5’-phosphate 100 mg daily.
- Methylcobalamin 5 mg daily.
- Trimethylglycine (TMG) 500 mg daily.
If your homocysteine is still above 8 after 4-8 weeks of taking these supplements, increase TMG in 500 mg increments until your homocysteine is below 8. All of these supplements are available from Life Extension Foundation (lef.org). It’s interesting to note that L-methylfolate is the only vitamin approved by the FDA to treat a disease. The brand Deplin has been approved to treat depression. The OTC form is much less expensive and just as effective as Deplin, which is only available by prescription.
To sum things up, if you want your brain to grow old with you, it’s critical that you eliminate all highly processed food using the tricks listed above to deal with the cravings. If you are diagnosed with depression, and you have lost your appetite and lost weight, you have classic melancholia that is treated with high dose SSRI type medications. If you have depression with an increased appetite, cravings for sweet and starchy food and weight gain, follow the plan above to treat your CARB syndrome.