When I was a naturopathic medical student, surrounded by other naturopathic students making the same lifestyle choices that I was, I didn’t realize what a freak I had become.

(And by freak, I mean outlier.  I’m just being intentionally self-deprecating for effect.)

Once I graduated and rejoined the rest of the population socially, though, I realized that I couldn’t be dogmatic anymore — particularly about my food choices, because so many social activities involve food.  If I insisted on eating only unprocessed whole foods free of trans fats and added sugar, the people around me would feel judged, even if I didn’t consciously intend it.  But on the other hand, I didn’t want to compromise my health, and I knew too much to think it truly wouldn’t make a difference in the long run.

Where Should the Balance Be?

Part of the problem, I think, is that as a population we don’t see the causal link between our food choices and our physical ailments, because our bodies are so marvelously resilient.   We can take a LOT before we begin to develop symptoms of damage – but that doesn’t mean damage isn’t being done long before the symptoms appear.

Just to take one example – trans fats.  They’re not the same as saturated fats – they’re made by artificially hydrogenating (adding hydrogen atoms to) vegetable oils in order to make them solid at room temperature.  This process requires toxic catalysts (like nickel oxide).  Some trans fat products (like margarine) then require deodorizing after that (using more chemical additives), and artificial dyes after that to make them look like their natural counterparts (in this case, butter).  Trans fats are very cheap, and for that reason they’re ubiquitous (in places where they haven’t yet been banned – so far they’ve been banned in NYC, California, Denmark, Switzerland, and Austria).  But, given all that, is it any surprise that they are linked with heart disease, diabetes, obesity, liver dysfunction, depression, reduced immune function, infertility, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease?

Having a constitution that can take a lot of abuse may be both a blessing and a curse.   Younger people who haven’t lived long enough to accumulate much damage yet tend to give almost no thought to nutrition (unless they happen to 1) have a slower metabolism and are concerned about weight gain, or 2) have symptoms so immediate and so severe that they cannot ignore them).  I recently had a patient who knew certain common food additives, like MSG and carageenan, triggered her migraines.  As a result, she had to be meticulous about reading labels, and avoided most processed foods.  But anyone with a less severe reaction would be considered ridiculous for such attention, would they not?

Even some older adults disregard nutrition as long as symptoms are relatively mild and decently controlled with medications.  It isn’t until their symptoms have become very severe indeed that they are willing to consider the impact of their lifestyle choices on their health.

Does A Little Compromise Really Matter?

For instance, it might not seem like a big deal to have that soda with your meal, or even to choose the salad dressing that has sugar listed as its second ingredient.  But look at the big picture. How many other processed foods are you consuming on a daily or weekly basis?  On average, every American (read: YOU) consumes nearly 130 pounds of added sugar per year.  That’s more than I weigh!

And now, for a moment of perspective on the other side.  As isolated events, neither that soda nor the sugary condiment will have a particularly severe impact for most of us, because again, our bodies are amazingly resilient.  That’s why I think treats every now and then are not bad.  I gave a presentation a few weeks back, and after I went on a rant about sugar, one of the audience members asked me, “So you don’t eat sugar at all?” and I said, “Well… I’m not a purist.”  They laughed at me, of course.  The truth is, I do have desserts every now and then.  I’ve even been known to eat fast food from time to time.  But those instances are the exception, and not the rule.

Yes, eating healthy is more expensive than eating processed foods.  But doctor visits, medications, higher insurance premiums, missed work days, and hospital visits are a lot more expensive, not to mention the impact on our health and vitality.  What’s more important to you?

For more on this topic, here’s a highly recommended blog.