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I was recently asked by someone to rank the food choices – salt, sugar, and fried foods – into which are most harmful to health. He was somewhat surprised by my answer. So I give the answer here along with a short explanation on each.
Least Harmful: Salt. For certain, table salt (sodium and chloride) is a very essential mineral in our body. The American Heart Association recommends daily sodium consumption to be around 2 grams per day. However it is estimated that the average American consumes a little over 3 grams per day. It has been noted to contribute to high blood pressure which is a risk factor for heart disease. For those who have a history for congestive heart failure and kidney failure, the impact of excessive sodium can be even more dramatic for bad events. But at the same time as noted in various vegetarian studies, healthy vegans have lower blood pressures than semi-vegetarians versus the non-vegetarians. Moreover, the majority of sodium in the American diet comes from processed foods, particularly processed meats. The number one source of sodium in the American diet comes from bread due to the quantities consumed each day. As the overall theme presented here is to limit or even eliminate processed foods, the sodium issue should take care of itself as well as the other problems to follow.
Moderately Harmful: Sugar. Refined sugar (and all of its forms) has received plenty of press. It carries an association with heart diseases, high cholesterol, diabetes, as well as its effects on the immune system. Sugar is a very useful compound, particularly for energy creation. But it can also be used to create other useful compounds in our bodies. However the reason that too much sugar causes problems is not so clear. Within the immune system, sugar may decrease recognition of bacteria, thus allowing infections to take hold. At the same time, it can create an increase in immune system chemicals, thus keeping inflammation ongoing. However, the most studied effect appears to be indirect on our health. It affects the intestinal microbiome, the trillions of bacteria and other organisms that live in the GI tract. Refined sugar as a free energy source is known to make rapid changes in this bacteria population. This free energy source can favor the most rapidly growing, adaptable, and independent bacterial species. These have been linked to obesity, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel diseases, like Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. Consider also that the average American consumes more than 120 lbs/year or 1/3 lb/day of refined sugars. Safer sugar sources are those associated with whole fruits and vegetables and can still be just as enjoyable.
Most Harmful: Fried Foods. A point to remember here is that all food comes with some amount of damage, even raw foods (meat, fruit, or vegetables). The damage is the form of a protein building called an amino acid (AA) makes a chemical bond with other AAs, sugar, fatty acid, or other chemicals present. Amino acids contain nitrogen and nitrogen is a very reactive atom. Most of our biochemical reactions are centered around nitrogen. At room temperature and even normal body temperatures, AAs at the nitrogen component can form abnormal compounds. Furthermore, cooking any food type creates even more damage to the nutritional value. Also, the hotter the cooking temperature, the more damage created. As this damage is unavoidable, my personal preference is to draw the line at avoiding deep fat frying, as well as battering and frying, as we may tend to do with flour, corn meal, or bread crumbs. The liquid batter tends to allow this type of product to form. Also, the older the food, particularly in a liquid state, the more damage is created. This would include packaged and processed foods as well. For academic purposes, the compounds have names – heterocyclic amines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, advanced glycation/lipidoxidation end-products, and acrylamides. The names are not important. But the effect of these products are that they can either directly damage DNA, making them cancer causing, and/or directly cause inflammation which can give rise to many of our chronic diseases that we are all too familiar with – heart disease, brain disease, diabetes, and so on. Certainly the human body has ways of clearing these damaged compounds; however, as we get older these clearance mechanisms begin to dwindle. Once weakened, the remaining defenses are easily overwhelmed. After the defenses are silenced, the real damage can begin. Many of these chemicals have a toxic and potentially lethal dose in animal studies for which even a human can consume with enough determination. As one would suspect most of our precooked, prebaked, and highly processed foods are very high in these type of chemicals.