One of the biggest changes Kevin has made to his diet over the years is phasing out highly processed foods. Although definitely not believers in extreme diets, we do believe most people over-consume processed food and we make efforts to limit consumption of canned, packaged, preserved, or boxed products where possible. Kevin has always been a healthy eater, but in recent years this has become more of a focus in general.
As we have learned more and more about nutrition, it became glaringly obvious how many dangerous things are lurking inside heavily processed products. What exactly are processed foods? Raw ingredients that have been transformed by physical or chemical means into other forms of food. For example, food becomes processed whenever it is frozen, canned, cooked, preserved, packaged, dried or pasteurized
What becomes confusing is that not all processing is necessarily bad for you. Obviously some foods like poultry require cooking to be safe for consumption, and dairy requires pasteurization to remove harmful bacteria. Seeds and vegetables must be pressed to make healthy oils. Blending or juicing fruit and vegetables into smoothies is a great way to consume extra nutrients. Any food processing you might undertake yourself is probably relatively harmless.
It is important to note that any processing can diminish the nutritional density of products depending on the method of processing and type of food, but this is not really our primary cause of concern when it comes to processing. The biggest concern for an athlete like Kevin seeking optimal performance, is the amount of hazardous additives introduced into foods during their processing. Typically, any packaged or boxed foods found at normal grocery stores requires scrutiny.
Some of the most harmful culprits include added sugars, salt, fats, carbohydrates or preservatives. We delve a little deeper into each of these dangerous additives below.
The American Heart Association recommends no ore than 9 teaspoons (38 grams) of sugar per day for men and just 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women. By now, most health-conscious people are aware of the dangers attributed to an over-consumption of sugar including weight gain, heart disease, liver damage and diabetes. New studies are underway to investigate links between sugar and cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and premature aging.
As an athlete, sugar is something to be on high-alert for, because it leads to inflammation in the body. A number of tennis players have spoken about pain in their joints disappearing when they commenced a sugar-restricted diet.
In spite of these concerns, studies show that 66% of Americans still consume more than the recommended daily dose of the sweet stuff; how is that possible? Well, there are over 61 different kinds of sugars, so when you read your nutrition label it is not always obvious which ingredients are cause for concern. According to some sources, added sugar is hiding in an estimated 74% of packaged foods sold in supermarkets. One thing you can do is to try to learn all the different names so you can do your best to avoid them. 
In general, The Andersons made a concerted effort to avoid the types of processed foods that are packed with sugar. We check the sugar grams of nearly every product we buy, and anything with too much sugar simply does not make it into our kitchen.
Just like sugar, most Americans are also consuming too much salt on a daily basis. Health risks associated with overconsumption of sodium include cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis. When you consume too much salt, your body retains extra water to dilute the sodium, and this added volume forces the heart to work harder and blood vessels to stiffen over time. It is estimated that 75% of our sodium consumption comes from processed foods.
Unlike sugar, there is something you can do to counteract sodium: consume more potassium. Potassium helps the body excrete sodium while having the effect of decreasing blood pressure and relaxing blood vessels. Kevin and I try to nosh more on potassium rich foods such as dark greens, squash, avocado, yogurt and bananas, while avoiding high sodium foods and snacks such as processed meats, breads, and cheeses.
While fats are an important component of any healthy diet, the fats that are often added to products during processing can be incredibly dangerous. Trans fats, or partially hydrogenated oils, are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, and are pretty universally recognized as one of the worst things you can put into your body. Consuming trans fats raises the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and lowers your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in the bloodstream. Elevated amounts of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, greatly increases your risk of cardiovascular disease.
The sneaky thing about trans fats is that a nutrition label can report “0g trans fats” as long as the total amount per serving is less than .5 grams, so you actually have to read the ingredients to make sure the product is safe. Fortunately, the FDA has banned trans fats in the United States, making it illegal for any food to contain partially hydrogenated oils after 2018. Until then, keep checking those ingredient labels.
Like fat, carbohydrates are an important part of any balanced diet, especially for athletes with high energy consumption. Carbohydrates themselves are not the biggest problem, in fact carbohydrates from whole food are pretty good for you (think fruit, vegetables, quinoa, rice). Where people run into trouble is when they consume refined carbohydrates, which are low in nutritional value and broken down to sugars easily during digestion – and we already learned about the dangers of sugar overconsumption!
Definitely do not be fooled by that “whole grains” label either, when whole grains are highly processed (i.e. pulverized into a fine powder) they are debatably just as dangerous as run-of-the-mill refined carbs, also causing spikes in blood sugar and insulin. Processed carbohydrates are also some of the least fiber and nutrient rich foods you can eat, so they easily contribute to weight gain and obesity.
So how does a professional athlete like Kevin consume enough unprocessed carbohydrates to fuel his exertion? We opt for favorites such as steel cut oats, quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, chickpeas, brown rice, soba (buckwheat) noodles and yogurt
If you are not sure what an ingredient is, put it back (We’re looking at you Sorbitan Monostearate). In general, we try to stick to foods with lower ingredient counts; a good rule of thumb is five ingredients or less. Also, the ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so if sugar, fats, refined carbohydrates or sodiums are near the front of that list, it is probably not a healthy choice.
If you stick to only buying the foods around the outside of the supermarket, you are going to have significantly more success with eliminating highly processed foods. Almost all the highly processed foods in a store are contained in the rows of shelves, so don’t even go there and tempt yourself. Food manufacturers have also found so many sneaky ways to make their products seem healthier than they are through packaging and marketing tactics; it is easy to be tricked into a poor purchase nowadays. Although you will still find unhealthy processed meats and cheeses in the outer perimeter, a majority of the items there are whole foods which is always the best way to go from a health perspective.
Try to make things yourself rather than rely on the store-bought versions. As an example, things like salad dressings, oatmeal, cereals, pancake/waffle mix, baked goods, flavored yogurts, sandwich meats and snack bars are all really easy to make healthier yourself.
The more organized you are, the easier it is to avoid reaching for the processed stuff especially when those hunger pangs strike. Make sure you have not only healthy meals at hand, but also healthy snack options like fruit and nuts. Personally I am much more inclined to cave to unhealthy snacks so having healthy alternatives readily available is key.
In the world we live in, it is not easy to avoid highly processed foods. Sometimes you need to get some help. We like to use the meal delivery service Plated from time to time to help provide fresh healthy new meal choices and ideas. If you are struggling, be patient with the process; it is normal to experience setbacks when trying to change long-standing habits. There are a ton of books and resources on the internet to provide inspiration when you need it.
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