Spending an extended period of time in provincial Georgia alongside a large group of other foreigners from industrialized nations has given me the opportunity to informally test a theory I’ve been tossing around for a while.
Another volunteer teacher recently posted the amount of weight she’s lost since arriving in Georgia nearly four months ago. It was something like 8-10 kilos (17-22 pounds), which is especially significant considering that she had not been actively dieting (as far as I understand). A slew of other teachers responded to her post with gleeful details of their own inadvertent slim-downs.
Considering the contents of our diet here, this news might seem impossible to believe. How can gorging oneself on cheese-and-butter lasagna, mountains of bread slathered with honey and cream, and Ajaran “Heart Attack on a Plate” khachapuri bring about dramatic weight loss? Sign me up!
But wait—the situation is more complicated than that. (At this point another teacher interjects that chronic bacterial infections may be responsible for the trend. Touche.)
A few of us, myself included, have put on weight since August. Not massive amounts, but enough to make my host father point at my face last week with a twinkle in his eye and say, “It’s rounder than when you got here! What’s that—2, 3, 4 kilos?” (Thanks, Dad.) Why the discrepancy? Granted, I eat a lot, but not so much more than the people whose clothes are now several sizes too big for them.
My theory is that the near-complete absence of highly processed foods in our diet here is showing its beneficial effects on many teachers’ waistlines. My informal survey of those who have gained weight shows that highly processed foods were not a significant part of their diet prior to coming to Georgia. (This was certainly the case for me.) The daily doses of cheese bread and fried potatoes we get in our host families have had a predictable effect on our figures.
In my entirely unscientific opinion, the chemical additives, preservatives, and artificial flavors that make prepackaged foods palatable are the real culprits behind America’s obesity crisis. I hypothesize that these substances “confuse” our digestive systems, which were designed to break down things like fruit and vegetables and animal flesh, not propylene glycol and Yellow 5 Lake. Since the body may not be able to process these ingredients like “normal” food, perhaps it develops fatty tissues in which to store them indefinitely, or releases a cocktail of hormones that end up triggering weight gain.
I don’t have the background in biochemistry to provide any concrete evidence supporting this theory. But I’m certainly not the only one to point the finger at highly processed foods as the source of America’s collective hulk. In his recent commentary for the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, professor Carlos Monteiro argues that “the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, especially since the 1980s, is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world.” Well-respected public health and nutrition expert Marion Nestle summarized his remarks and lent her support to them in a Nov. 4 piece for The Atlantic Food Channel. And, of course, Michael Pollan has more than a few thoughts on this issue.
My big takeaway from all this is that—paradoxical as it may seem—we and our waistlines are better off ditching the “diet” soda and “lite” crackers and opting for some homemade bread and good-quality cheese instead. Your body will thank you (and your tastebuds will, too).
The blog Eating Rules recently challenged readers to eat only unprocessed foods for the entire month of October. Over 400 people signed on to the pledge. You can do the same with the month’s worth of tips and ideas conveniently listed here. Who knows, it might change your life!