Each month, I fast for three or more days. Fasting triggers ketosis. When this happens, the body converts fats in the liver into ketones as an alternate fuel. Metabolically, it's a lot like switching from coal to solar.
After breaking my fast, I took a trip to the grocery store for nuts, avocados, olives, coconut milk, berries, and foods with the micronutrients the body needs (beets, greens, ginger, garlic, etc). Everything in my cart came from the ground and could be identified.
I made my way to the register and stood in line. I noticed shopping cart after shopping cart laden with ultra-processed foods, sugary drinks, sweets, and boxes listing ingredients made in a lab that could neither be named nor readily identified the way one could name, say, spinach. Many of those pushing the carts did not radiate health. I stood in solidarity with them. I couldn't be 100% certain that the foods in my cart had not been genetically modified, sprayed with pesticides, contaminated with molds, or grown in mismanaged and degraded soils depleted of their nutrients. Levels of proteins, B vitamins, and minerals like magnesium and zinc essential for health, are diminishing.
I felt sadness, disgust, and compassion. Behind the sadness was concern for the people consuming foods that were compromising their long-term well-being. My disgust and anger was targeted at the duplicitous marketing of pro-inflammatory products promoted as organic, sugar-free, or healthy by smart, well-to-do people. The compassion I felt prompted me to act and to write.
After my trip to the supermarket, I came across a disturbing study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics on the doubling of pre-diabetes in children 12 to 19 years old. Pre-diabetes is a condition marked by high blood sugar levels that have not yet crossed the diabetes threshold.
"If we do not intervene, the children who have pre-diabetes have a higher risk of developing diabetes and also have a higher risk of all cardiovascular diseases," study author Junxiu Liu said. Type-2 diabetes, in turn, accelerates aging, cognitive decline, and other forms of neurodegeneration (Antal et al., 2022).
My father died from complications due to diabetes. He was 64. Today would have been his 79th birthday.
I run an after-school program at the Boys and Girls Club. Our program integrates science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics which I've written about here. The program is holistic. We focus on each child's emotional, social, physical, and cognitive well-being. Nutrition is one component of our program. What we eat affects cognitive functioning and development for better or worse.
Last week, I shared the above study with the children and unpacked it. What they eat is outside of my circle of control and somewhat outside of their circle. But I explained that they had some influence over their parents purchases. My children, for example, would occasionally pester me for fast food or ultra-processed foods to which I'd reply: "I've learned too much and love you too much to get that." Today, they hardly bother requesting stuff just to avoid the lecture on nutrition.
The problem is not with processed foods per say. People have been processing foods for tens of thousands of years. Fermentation, pickling, milling, baking, salting, and brining are examples of processing. Processing allowed our ancestors to travel greater distances by preserving them. Processed foods allowed them to survive cold winters, long droughts, and harsh famines.
Today, many ultra-processed foods are engineered to last longer on shelves and to taste good. They use additives – colors, "natural" flavors (that are not natural), thickeners, emulsifiers, and gelling agents to improve the properties of foods that might otherwise taste bland. Ultra-processed foods often lack the antioxidants and phytochemicals we find in whole foods. The nutrients added to foods that have been stripped out during processing are inferior to those found in whole foods, according to Priscila Machado, a public health nutritionist at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia.
Many ultra processed foods contain sugars. "Sugars obtained by chemical synthesis, such as high-fructose corn syrup and invert sugar, are common low-cost ingredients of ultra-processed foods," says Fernanda Rauber, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo.
Many products advertised as sugar-free contain sugary substitutes. Ingesting these foods or beverages can be dangerous for those with diabetes. Many "sugar-free" labels are misleading. Maltitol syrup, for example, has a glycemic index of 52; table sugar has a glycemic index of 60. If a manufacturer substitutes table sugar with a sugar alcohol like maltitol, the pancreas will still secrete more insulin.
Sugar goes by many different names. I shared a short-list of substitutes with the boys: dextrose, fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, beet sugar, brown sugar, cane juice crystals, cane sugar, castor sugar, honey, malt syrup, maple syrup, coconut sugar, confectioner's sugar (aka, powdered sugar), corn syrup solids, crystalline fructose, date sugar, demerara sugar, dextrin, diastatic malt, ethyl maltol, Florida crystals, golden sugar, glucose syrup solids, grape sugar, icing sugar, maltodextrin, muscovado sugar, panela sugar, raw sugar, sucanat, turbinado sugar, yellow sugar, agave nectar/syrup, barley malt, blackstrap molasses, brown rice syrup, buttered sugar/buttercream, caramel, carob syrup, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, golden syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup. These sugars are in products where you wouldn't expect to find them from salad dressing and breads to condiments and pet food. Alas, even our pets are becoming diabetic.
Natural flavors are another ingredient I avoid. "Natural" flavors may contain solvents, emulsifiers, flavor enhancers, and preservatives. The term has no formal legal definition. "Unfortunately, the United States has not established clear requirements for natural claims and manufacturers are using this term liberally." (Skubisz, 2016) Out of principle, I don't buy products from companies that mislead with doublespeak.
Consumers must be informed and self-advocate... even an eight year old girl diagnosed as prediabetic. Such are the norms of the times. If a child is suckered by false advertising into buying an energy bar and vitamin drink marketed as sugar-free from a school vending machine and becomes diabetic, it's her fault, or we blame her parents. We don't examine poor policy, bad schooling, misleading ads that affect consumers' perceptions, or corporate complicity.
Most of the participants in my S.T.E.A.M. cohort are boys. The decisions they make today will affect the young men they will grow to become tomorrow. Adolescence is a time of profound brain restructuring and reorganization. The habits children adopt as adolescents may remain with them for a lifetime.
We instill within them a sense of agency and arm them with facts. I frame self-exploration as a hero's journey. I invite them to summon their inner wisdom, strength, and resolve. On this journey, they may need to turn away from social norms that keep so many fettered to illness. I warn them to be wary of marketers wishing "to make merchandise of you." (2 Peter 2:3) A healthy dose of skepticism might serve them well. Better to educate ourselves than to trust the integrity of advertisers, the goodwill of marketers, or the moral codes of elected officials.
"G.I.G.O," I explained using an acronym borrowed from computer science. "Garbage in, garbage out." In other words, if you eat garbage, you will begin to feel like garbage. Research has shown that the gut microbiota modulate gut and brain functions. There are gut cells that engage neural synapses (Kaelberer, 2018), and certain types of gut bacteria influence the activity of the immune cells in the brain (Sanmarco et al, 2021). Gut bacteria produce neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes which affect learning, memory, mood, and by extension behavior.
When the body recognizes something as foreign, whether an allergen, pathogen (like a virus or bacteria) or chemical, the inflammatory response is triggered. "Inflammation is the body’s response to a problem," writes Edwin McDonald, M.D. of the University of Chicago School of Medicine. And much of what we eat is the problem. Many of the foods we eat trigger inflammation. "All processed foods can cause inflammation," asserts Dr. McDonald. "They can alter the bacteria that live in our gut, and that alteration has the ability to interact with our immune system and eventually trigger it in a way that leads to chronic inflammation."
Morganella, Klebsiella, and other gram-negative bacteria in the gut (e.g. Hafnia Alvei, Pseudomonas Aeruginosa, Pseudomonas Putida, Citrobacter Koseri) have been implicated in depression and other diseases. Their presence triggers the activation of the inflammation response system. Once these molecules cross the blood brain barrier and enter the brain, microglia are activated. Microglia, the resident immune cells of the central nervous system, respond to neuronal damage and remove the damaged cells by phagocytosis. Chronic microglial activation is a hallmark of brain pathology. The brain gets flooded in an inflammatory bath. Over time, inflammation causes neuronal damage through the release of toxic molecules such as proinflammatory cytokines, reactive oxygen intermediates, proteinases and complement proteins (Dheen, 2007).
Conversely, other gut bacteriophages particularly in the Caudovirales order may improve executive function and memory (Mayneris-Perxachs et al, 2022). Diet has been shown to alter the composition of the gut biome. (Schulfer et al., 2020). The microbiome thrives on fermented foods. Nutrient dense foods also provide the body with the macro and micronutrients the body needs.
Food affects mood. In a recent study, researchers found that "young men with a poor diet saw significant improvement in their symptoms of depression when they switched to a healthy Mediterranean diet" (Bayes, 2022).
Getting sick is almost inevitable if you follow the modern Western diet. Hundreds of quality, peer-reviewed studies have found links between the Western diet and obesity, dementia, prostate and breast cancer, sepsis, chronic gut infections, inflammation, depression, anxiety, and insulin resistance. The Western diet increases cytokines, molecules that promote inflammation. The Western diet also promotes oxidative stress. The changes seen in gene expression in people on a Western diet are typical of people with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease.
The Western diet consists mainly of red meat (e.g. steak, pork, etc.) , processed meat (e.g. hotdogs, burgers, bologna, salami, etc.), prepackaged foods (e.g. most of the items found in boxes, plastic containers, or bags), butter, candy, sweets (e.g. donuts, pancakes, waffles, sugary drinks, most cereals, coffee creamers, etc.), and fried foods (e.g. fried chicken, bacon, French fries, etc). The Western diet is low in fruits (e.g. acai, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, apricots, goji, etc.), vegetables (e.g. kale, spinach, beets, broccoli, collard greens, etc.), whole grains (e.g. bulgur, couscous, barley, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.), nuts (e.g. walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pecans, etc.), fish, seeds (e.g. pumpkin, sesame, chia, flax, etc.), and legumes (e.g. red, white, or black beans, peas, lentils, garbanzos, etc.).
Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School listed 5 foods to avoid to fight inflammation, promote brain health, sharp thinking and good decision-making. All 5 figure prominently in the Western diet, even those marketed as low-fat, low-calorie, or diet (whatever the trending fad happens to be).
Added sugars. High sugar diets are linked with memory impairments. The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 25 grams of sugar and for men no more than 36 grams.
Fried foods. Fried foods cause inflammation. Those who consume more fried foods are more likely to develop depression in their lifetime.
High glycemic load carbohydrates (e.g. bread, pasta, potatoes, white rice, honey, orange juice). Researchers discovered that people who had the highest score on the carbohydrate-quality index, meaning they were eating better-quality carbs, were 30% less likely to develop depression than those who were eating high-GI carbs.
Nitrates. Used as a preservative and to enhance color in deli slices and cured meats like bacon, salami and sausage, nitrates may be connected with depression.
Food also effects cognition. A healthy diet fuels the body, provides energy for the brain, and nutrients for the cells. The ultra-processed, modern diet fuels the body with cheap sugars, inflames the brain, and causes oxidative stress that damage cells. A 30 year study which tracked 1244 children aged 7-15 in 1985 found links between cognition and fitness later in life. Those children who were more active and fit performed better on cognitive tests than those who were obese in early childhood (Tait et al., 2022).
Unfortunately for kids, many adults have abdicated their responsibilities and power. Some shamelessly market garbage to children. Others wallow in guilt and shame or make excuses for poor choices. Many educators approach nutrition as if they feared offending some multinational conglomerate killing us softly or hurting a caregiver's feelings with facts. I compromise my integrity if I withhold truth from children and undermine the faith their parents place in me. “Children, and especially boys,” wrote essayist H.L. Mencken, “have sharp eyes for the weaknesses of the adults set over them. It is impossible to make boys take seriously the teaching of men they hold in contempt.”
Much of the food we eat is grown, husbanded, or prepared by people with low levels of consciousness primarily motivated by greed, not by love.
What policy makers or food and beverage companies do is outside our circle of influence, however. It is foolish to wait for others to grow a conscience. Radical responsibility demands we exercise our power to choose. A marketer can deceive me with clever packaging, but in the end, the body keeps score. The pancreas, the liver, the gut microbiota, the cells and molecules do not respond to clever ads, but to the chemical composition of the mush we put in our mouths.
I leverage my authority as an educator. Parents may stress healthy eating habits, but it is human nature not to give it much weight until someone outside of the family considered an "authority" validates what they've said. This speaks to both the importance of the parent/teacher relationship.
I shared the following two posts with parents which explain the science of nutrition in more detail:
A father replied: "I appreciate your honesty and your story inspires me to eat better. I cheat entirely too much and I know full well how addictive sugar is. I’m about to embark on a colon and liver cleanse come Monday, followed by a 3-7 day fast."
If my beloved father had made different choices like this dad, I would not be mourning his absence today, but celebrating his birthday with the grandchildren he never knew. I pass on what I learned from his suffering and wish you good health.