Try to steer clear of processed foods

A new Israeli e-book recommends cooking from scratch as much as possible – with your family – to avoid obesity and improve ties with children.

BARBARA SCHIPPER-BERGSTEIN (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Processed food that one had only to heat up in the oven or microwave or munch by handfuls out of the bag was considered a generation ago to be a great gift to busy parents.
Almost nobody thought then about what came with it – salt, sugar, artificial flavorings and colors and a palette of preservatives.
Walk down your supermarket’s aisles, or especially past stands at the checkout counter. The amount of readymade food is huge compared to the natural vegetables, fruits and grains, poultry, fish and meat that have to be chopped, cut, diced, mixed, cooked, baked, grilled, boiled or stir fried before they are ready for serving.
The World Health Organization (WHO) alarmed the public – and the prepared-food industry – when it designated processed meats a few weeks ago as a potential carcinogen.
Some even interpreted the news as meaning these products were “as dangerous as tobacco” – a wild exaggeration.
While certainly to be avoided as much as possible, processed meats certainly can’t be compared to cigarettes, which are the most dangerous products freely sold that one can put in one’s mouth.
The WHO confused the world even more when it backtracked somewhat, saying its experts never meant to infer that processed meats – such as hamburgers, hot dogs and pastrami containing nitrates, nitrites and other chemical additives should not be eaten by adults at all but rather up to once or twice a week and even less frequently in children.
But at a time when Master Chef and other TV cooking programs are very popular, processed foods of all kinds continue to be more popular than dishes you prepare from scratch in your kitchen. Not only can such food cause overweight and obesity, raise blood pressure, lack needed vitamins and minerals, trigger attention-deficit disorders and contain carcinogens, but they also help break down the “glue” among family members.
Now a British-born Israeli who studied criminology and social work – but is not a clinical dietitian – has written an English-language e-book that clearly and fastidiously explains the dangers of a gamut of processed foods and urges readers to get back into the kitchen. It is titled The Only Way Out: Steer Clear of Processed Food.
Although scientists and nutrition experts have presented the evidence in the past, layman Barbara Schipper-Bergstein presents her arguments in a persuasive and informative way. As the e-book costs only $4 in Israel and $3 elsewhere, it’s a bargain that should be read, studied and applied to one’s lifestyle over and over.
Schipper-Bergstein earned her degrees at Cambridge University in England and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“For a number of years, I worked with disturbed adolescents to help them understand their anger, the source of their low self esteem and that they actually had good qualities. This experience informed my weight-loss counseling later. Controlling my weight was a lifelong burden, but when I reached menopause I was down to one meal a day, hungry all the time and gaining weight. Then I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, and it was difficult for me to come to terms with taking medication forever.
This was the engine that propelled my unrelenting resolve to lose weight,” she says.
“My search introduced me to the glycemic index that was almost unheard of over 15 years ago. It sounded reasonable and scientifically valid. I understood that I was addicted to sugar and changed what I ate. I eventually lost all the weight and was no longer fighting hunger all day... I was liberated!” The glycemic index (GI) is a number associated with a particular type of food that indicates the food’s effect on a person’s blood-glucose (blood-sugar) level. A value of 100 represents the standard, an equivalent amount of pure glucose. Foods with the lowest glycemic index, such as most vegetables, nuts (15) or even 85% chocolate (with very-low sugar content, 20 on the GI) and numerous fruits when consumed in moderation, are the most beneficial for losing weight and for maintaining a proper sugar-insulin balance in type II diabetics.
“I was getting older, but my friends were also getting heavier. They moved from diet to diet, but hunger conquered their attempts. When asked, I would share with them what I knew. Many improved, but most didn’t. And that’s when... I understood that the principles I used to help my troubled adolescents can help adults who want to lose weight but can’t.”
She realized that the GI books she had read were too professional and esoteric, so she wrote The Glycemic Index to explain the concept in simple language. Recently she published her e-book on processed foods, and she is now completing her third book on GI; each of the volumes explains the concept to suit different reader populations.
THE US Food and Drug Administration has only now, for the first time, recommended a daily limit on sugar of less than 10 percent of daily calories – over the age of three, the limit for a day is 12.5 teaspoons as natural sugar, added to foods such as cakes and cookies, yogurt, ice cream, ketchup, sauces and dressings and bread, or 50 grams daily.
But, according to the FDA, that goal won’t be easy for Americans (or Israelis) to meet, as there are about 12 teaspoons in a single bottle or can of cola. Food doesn’t have to taste sweet for there to be sugar inside.
Under the age of three, the limit should be 25 grams, the FDA says.
Sweetened drinks – even natural juices – are a major cause of overweight, obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes – and should be avoided as much as possible. It’s better to eat an orange or apple than to squeeze them and lose the fiber.
“More and more food is being manufactured in order to reach the table trouble- free, and more and more families live less like wholesome dynamic units, especially at mealtime... Food and family are intimately bound and mutually reinforcing, which is what this book is about.”
When children “are not given the fundamental experience of family intimacy from eating together around the table at dinnertime, engaged in family banter, infused with the aromatic scent of home cooking and sharing the chores that go into the preparations, the essence of family togetherness is diminished.”
Today’s eating habits are increasingly being determined by a processed food industry that is compromising family dynamics and children’s health, she said.
Currently, 60% of Americans are overweight, and obesity is reaching epidemic proportions. The author notes that the Walmart chain now provides chairs on wheels equipped with baskets that were originally intended to help the handicapped do their shopping. They are being used by obese people who can’t navigate the aisles.
Half of all Israeli adults are overweight or obese – and it’s even worse when only men are counted and weighed. Israelis who are well educated are less likely to be overweight than those at the lower socioeconomic levels.
Oversized portions have become the norm.
“Eating is not always correlated with hunger...giant portions at fast food restaurants affect our choice of where to eat. If we can pay less and get more, why think twice? Oversized meals lead to oversized appetites, and so as one feeds the other, giant portions are becoming the norm.”
At least if children played in schoolyards and outside their homes, there would be fewer overweight youngsters, but increasingly, they are indoors busy with their smartphones, tablets and laptops, often while eating snacks. Only their fingers get exercise.
Children are presenting with allergies more than ever, more children are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, more children are loitering in malls, more are obese, sexually active at an earlier age and suffering from parental diffusion.
Parents, she says, are aware of the importance of spending quality time with their children, but it seems to be sadly overlooked.
Working parents are looking for shortcuts, and processed food provides them. Parents come home tired seeking quiet but their kids generate noise they’d prefer to avoid, so TV and electronic games do it.
“Manufactured foods are plying families with chemical substances and fillers that downgrade the quality of their health. Escaping from the noise of healthy active children means less interaction with them. Too many families are following the unspoken message – eat fast and be quiet.”
Families should enjoy eating together knowing that the food is nutritious, writes Schipper-Bergstein. Science has progressed and is now able to instruct us about what causes the feeling of satiety rather than feeling stuffed, how to feel satisfied without gaining weight, what foods actually cause cravings and what to eat to help ward off illness. That may be true, but for the most part it has gone unheeded. Most people are eating foods that are causing their health to deteriorate.
Food technology, maintains the author, manipulates and embellishes food products with artificial flavoring, artificial aromas, artificial color, substance fillers, and food additives that go into the manufacture of sweetened desserts, fried food, processed meat, refined grains and highfat dairy products are also packed with oil, high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners, flavor enhancers, binders, coloring, fillers, preservatives, stabilizers, emulsifiers, bleaches, texturizers and preservatives to make the food more attractive, more tasty, and to extend their shelf life rather than to maintain good health. According to one report, there are about 6,000 chemicals developed to process foods.
These “come in attractive, easy-toopen boxes, easy-to-eat meals that can be stored for months or years as frozen meals or dehydrated packages that need little work to make them edible.”
On labels, one may find “sugar disguised as cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, beet sugar, glucose, purified honey, maple syrup, malt, molasses, rice syrup, date sugar, xylitol, mannitol, sucrose, dextrose and others. This is a cunning practice because they all have almost identical effects on the biochemical process in digestion.”
Factory food is addictive. A three-year study on rats at Florida’s Scripps Research Institute divided the rodents into two groups. One was fed regular food, while the other ate sweet factory foods. The rats became obese when they were fed factory food and eventually became addicted to it. As the rats continued to eat the sweet, fat factory food, they wanted more. As they gained weight, they became compulsive eaters and were willing to endure little electric shocks to be allowed to gorge themselves. The other group ate regularly and showed no signs of weight gain during the same period.
The author, who provides lists of hundreds of natural and processed foods according to their glycemic indices, notes that people who consume foods with a low GI can lower “bad cholesterol” and blood pressure; prevent stimulation of food cravings; exchange stored fat for muscle; help balance diabetes; and help reduce fat storage.
SCHIPPER-BERGSTEIN strongly urges family members to prepare healthful food.
“Rare is the smell of supper roasting in the oven. Home for the most part was a safe, nonthreatening environment where kids were helped to establish their self esteem and their identity. This is true to this day, except that the parents’ role is much diminished as the result of reduced family contact and intimacy,” she argues.
“Cooking together helps them with math as they measure amounts and cooking times, their reading becomes more meaningful when they understand first hand the usefulness of reading recipes looking for ingredients. They become aware of the need for safety, and they learn about hygiene. Cooking dinner together is a most natural way to connect with your children, to learn who they are.”
Another benefit of children being involved in food preparation from a young age, she concludes, is that since they often shy away from eating new foods and tend to go for the familiar, when kids are in the kitchen helping to prepare meals, they’re much more likely to try new food.
Try it some time; it may become a habit.