What Is In My Food?

The food Americans eat has changed more in the last few decades than it ever has in the last several centuries combined. An apple today is not an apple of the past. Instead of developing better forms of nutrition to create a healthier society, the food people consume has taken a downward turn in terms of  applying nutrition. The question of the day is, does this food effect physical health. Nutrition, as it relates to physical health, has been replaced with the idea of speed and uniformity. As Michael Pollan states, “Pure food has been replaced with food like substances” and these substances would leave our grandparents with a look of horror on their faces.

How Food Habits relate to Physical Health and Psychology

A hamburger and french fries started to become a staple in the American diet in the 1940’s as a result of the clever marketing of fast food chains. Today, in the 21st century, it is estimated that the average American consumes approximately three hamburgers and four orders of fries every week. For most, fast food is considered to be an ingrained part of life, forgetting that what we eat is really a choice and that choice affects physical health. Applying the well-known techniques of brainwashing was indeed, and continues to be heavily enforced, and this industry’s marketing techniques have been very successful.

The idea of eating fast food has taken over, and this concept is so instilled in people’s lives that it is a consistent piece of the American culture. Consuming fast food is now considered to be a normal, healthy way of eating. In 1970, Americans spent $6 billion dollars on fast food. In 2000, Americans spent more than $110 billion on the same fast food.  Part of the reason for this rise is due to the fact Americans are just making poor food choices and priorities have changed. However, another reason for this increase in eating junk food is related to sheer convenience. Fast food is not only served at the fast food restaurant themselves, but also drive ins, stadiums, airports, zoos, elementary and high schools, universities, cruise ships trains, and the list goes on. There are very few places in the 21st century where people can go where they are not surrounded by cheap, unhealthy fast food.  Why not eat fast food? After all, it is quick, cheap, and convenient. On any given day, seven out of every hundred people eat fast food, and this relates to the ways in which people cope with living in this fast-paced culture.

The Psychology behind eating fast food

Food Branding

Creative Commons by Michael Coté flickr

The reason so many people choose to eat fast food, a substance virtually void of nutrition in many cases, is both simple and complex. The simple answer is the immediacy in which the meal is produced and branding. Therefore, it just makes sense in a society that moves along at lightning speed the people in this society also want to eat swiftly.

The more complex level is that there are many sociological forces at play in the undertones of the fast food movement. First, women have entered the workforce in record numbers in the last several decades. The former housewife that cooked healthy meals is now busy with being employed in the workplace.

How people nurture and feed their body is much more complicated, and now enters a solution to providing the family meal. Today, food can be obtained simply by speaking into a microphone. Time has become something people are short of, and priorities have shifted, therefore, going in a fast food direction is one way to reclaim time. However, the real cost factor in deciding to consume fast foods is making Americans physically ill.

People feel safe to a matter of degree with uniformity and consistency. Fast food restaurants apply this concept to their very core. Marketers using the principles based on psychology are aware that people, in general, love the familiar. Advertisers spend a lot of time and money to make sure their product is uniform, a hamburger tastes the same, even in far and distant lands. Customers are drawn to familiar brands as they offer reassurance, and something related to that feeling of regularity, reliability, and stability. This type of marketing has tricked people into believing that fast food is nutritious, healthy and will make life easier.

Fast food today may not be as much about the taste as it is marketing, the branding. The food industry spent more than $4.2 billion dollars in 2009 on TV advertising and other media. The average preschooler saw 2.8 TV ads per day for fast food; children saw 3.5, and teens (12-17 years) saw 4.7. This acceptance and brand advertising led to our children not experiencing life without fast food, and this is how fast food has become a slice of the American way, our culture.

Food advertising markets to children, when they watch their educational cartoons and movies. Children are taught that fast food is good for them, and they will receive a prize in the form of a toy, this is behaviorism associated with positive reinforcement. Fifteen percent of preschoolers request to go to McDonald’s every day, and two-fifths of U.S. children younger than 11 ask their parents to go to McDonald’s at least once a week. Of the 2/5′s of children who ask weekly, 84% of parents admit to giving into their fast food demands. Targeting children in marketing is targeting adults. Parents take the children and purchase meals for the entire family. The commercialization of a kid’s meal turns into a multiple meal purchase which is costly and guess who makes a fortune. This type of marketing puts psychological pressure on the parents who want to give their child what they want, to please and make them happy, a hamburger and french fries but probably more so the toy. The scenario is a no win situation for parents, children, physical health and medicine.

The question people should be asking is what are you are not putting in the body when consuming fast food? Most fast food will be missing fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, just to name a few vital nutritional requirements. Many fast food drive-ins use the cheaper cuts of meat with higher fat content, highly refined grains, and a lot of added sugar, fats, and fillers to enhance the taste. All of these factors, including, salt, sugar and fat lead to the highly addictive qualities of fast food along with a supply of calories that could meet the daily requirements of an elephant.

Fat is on the menu when it relates to fast foods. The oxidized fat and polyunsaturated fats that can accelerate plaque buildup in arteries. Transfat is also commonplace in fast food which destroys the good cholesterol and raises the bad. Fast food also has a high energy density meaning people eat too much because the brain cannot regulate the appetite properly.

If people look down the long ingredient labels of fast food items, they will see many dangerous substances that have been linked to various cancers, heart diseases, diabetic diseases and these ingredients most definitely contribute to obesity. While there might be some nutritionally redeeming qualities, the risks associated with the physically harmful ingredients make fast food consumption detrimental to physical health.

What Is In My Food?

Creative Commons by Betsy Weber flickr

Creative Commons by Betsy Weber flickr

 Genetically Modified Organisms, are another concern in foods that are overlooked by average consumers. There are many uses for GMO’s, but the most common use is in food production. The motivation at this time behind using this technology in agricultural is profit driven, secondary to taste, nutritional needs, and physical health. These “food-like substances” are in the mainstream food supply, and some question the research that is being conducted in regards to safety.

GMO’s are organisms with genetic material that have been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These methods are known as “recombinant DNA technology”, which uses DNA molecules from different sources to combine them into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism (corn, soy, beets), giving it a modified or novel genetic form. Transgenic organisms, a subset of GMOs, are organisms that have DNA originating from a different species. At this point in time, it is very difficult to find processed foods, including some organic foods, that do not contain some type of genetic modification.

It has become common practice to introduce bacterial genes into crops to enhance growth and resistance to pests. A common headline today is the introduction of a bacterial gene virtually to eliminate the need for spraying any chemical pesticides. This process introduces a concern over people ingesting genetically altered pesticides that are contained in these foods because their genetic structure contains pesticides. Researchers wonder what harm this may cause to the physical health of the neurological and immune systems. Corn and soy eaten today is of a different species than it was before this genetic alteration, and is not the same of the year’s past, despite the fact that many scientists report nutritional equivalency.

To Regulate or to Not Regulate the Food Industry

When people visit a doctor and are given a medication, the prescribed medication has gone through rigorous testing, and a thorough inspection by the government before the physician can prescribe the drug. The same governmental body, the Food and Drug Administration oversees the food the American people consume. The logical assumption is that any food eaten has gone through the same rigorous testing to ensure its safety before it enters our body.  Right?   No!  The FDA has no rigorous clinical food security requirements for genetically modified foods. The FDA relies on companies that are designed to avoid finding problems because there is a close, intimate relationship between the FDA and the biotechnology industry. This connection most certainly causes a conflict of interest which one might assume is related to profits and the economy.

The stance the FDA takes is that it is not aware of any differences between non-GMO crops and GMO crops and, thus, no environmental or human clinical testing is required. There is, however, evidence that states this is not necessarily true, and requests have been made to test the safety of genetically modified foods, especially those that are transgenic in nature. There are literally thousands of documents on the internet that explain how FDA scientists are aware of the fact that genetically modified foods are quite different from ordinary foods. Consumption may lead to the development of allergens, toxins, disease, and nutritional deficiencies, all of which there are limited studies on pre and post testing of these crops for possible pesticide-related conditions.

Where are the GMO’s?

Genetically modified foods are found in many unsuspecting places, and people ingest them daily including those who attempt to follow a purely organic diet

GMOs are found in:

  • Soy
  • Corn
  • Canola
  • Papaya
  • Tobacco
  • Sugar beets
  • Innate Potato
  • Zucchini and Yellow Squash
  • Honey and bee pollen that may have GM sources of pollen
  • Dairy products (from cows injected with the GM hormone rbGH)
  • Meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that have eaten GM feed
  • Food additives, enzymes, flavorings, and processing agents, including the sweetener aspartame (such as NutraSweet) and rennet used to make hard cheeses

Anything, including the soil the food is grown in can retain the element of the  GMO. It is important to know exactly where food comes from, and the environment in which it has been raised or fed. Following the Organic Diet is the only true way to control exposure to genetically modified foods; however applying this to daily life can be very difficult for some parts of the nation.

Pesticides in food  

Public Domain by Internet Archive Book Images flicker

Public Domain by Internet Archive Book Images flickr

Much American food is grown in soil that is deficient in nutrients; therefore the crops do not grow correctly and are vulnerable to diseases because their immune system is compromised. Farmers are now forced to cope with a significant problem of insects invading the plants because the soil lacks the nutrients needed to fight pests which in turn may affect their nutritional value. The plants immune system is compromised by this process, and many researchers wonder if people consuming these crops are damaging their own immune system.

With the development of technology, the agricultural system has decided to use chemicals to kill the insect eating the plants and weeds. Food is sprayed with insecticides and other types of pesticides that threaten the life of the fruit. Although debated some scientists report that these chemicals are passed onto people eating the fruit or vegetable.  While many health experts claim that pesticides are harmless, there is also much evidence arguing the opposite. It is a known fact that pesticides in farming or gardening environments can enter the bloodstream if they are inhaled or come into contact with the skin. They also can be potentially fatal if swallowed. If this is true while the plants are being grown, what is the change process that makes it safe for human consumption? Pets, farm animals, and wildlife are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticides. What does this say about the physical health hazards on humans or the environment?

A few side effects of pesticides include nausea, headaches, vomiting, and dizziness, and some can also severely damage the skin, nervous system, and respiratory system. What are the side effects, even if they are small doses that occur once these substances build up in the body over time?  Science does not know the answer to this question because there are no conclusive studies being performed and minimal regulation from the FDA. It is wise to make informed choices about the meats, fruits and vegetables consumed and is worth the time investigating.

When people consume any conventional fruit or vegetable that has been sprayed with a pesticide, wash it thoroughly to remove as much of the chemical residue as possible. The problem is that with the genetically engineered foods the pesticide cannot be removed despite this cleansing. There is a group of conventional produce that has been tested and has been found to retain more pesticides despite thorough washing. It is important to note that the levels of pesticides that are tested in these foods are well below the FDA’s recommendations and for balance I would refer those interested to listen to this podcast.

The produce is known as being the “The Dirty Dozen” because there are 12 of them. If people cannot avoid all pesticide sprayed food, the “dirty dozen” would be the ones to avoid eating. For those that are concerned buying these foods organic is the best solution to avoid ingesting pesticides. Of all fruits, eating an apple is the number two in the dirty dozen category.

The Dirty Dozen Plus of 2016

  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Celery
  • Grapes
  • Cherries
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Hot Peppers
  • Kale/Collard Greens
  • Blueberries

There is also a group of fruits and vegetables that retain the least amount of pesticides and are relatively safer to eat, despite the fact they have been sprayed with pesticides.

The Clean Fifteen

  • Avocados
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet Peas frozen
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Mangos
  • Papayas
  • Kiwi
  • Eggplant
  • Honeydew Melon
  • Grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower

The most contaminated produce are the varieties where people eat the skins, like grapes and apples. With these food items, it is best to choose organic produce because everything about organic produce is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, except under extremely unusual conditions. In contrast, the least contaminated foods, things like pineapples and bananas, are foods that are peeled and thus, minimize the amount of pesticides consumed. For optimal physical health, it is wise to be aware of food choices. There is a connection between physical illness and the foods that people consume, and this is the health psychology relationship. For more information read Health Psychology for Everyday Lifethe book.

Live Well

© Dr. Cheryl MacDonald

video of Health Psychology and Therapy

Health Psychology

Cheryl Ann MacDonald, Psy’D.
Health Psychology of San Diego

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Health Psychology and Treatment