Just like a name brand shoe that didn’t seem to exist before, and then appears on feet everywhere, it feels like everyone is using protein powder these days. There is certainly a big push for it by so-called influencers on social media (spoiler alert: they are paid money to hawk items) and ultra-processed food companies (yes, protein powder is an ultra-processed product) make a ton of money off of them (protein powders are usually made from waste products of industrial production of other processed foods and then marked up heavily at every stop on the supply chain).

Rule of thumb: where people can make lots of money in the food and supplement industry, expect to find products heavily promoted, especially products we don’t really need. As a wise person once told me—no one has to advertise the stuff you actually need.

So, here are some reasons why you probably can save yourself the $30 a bag—hopefully you haven’t been paying more than that.

  1. Protein powder isn’t likely to help you build more muscle—Americans are not protein deficient. We get lots of it and certainly enough of it to build muscle. You can absolutely build muscle eating a normal diet and even a vegetarian or vegan one. How do you think cows build their muscle in the first place? If you are an elite athlete or body builder and have reached your chicken, egg, bean, and peanut butter limit, your body might need more protein. If you are not an elite athlete or gym rat, save your money on protein supplements.
  2. Protein powder isn’t likely to help you lose weight—it might even make you gain weight. Protein has 4 calories per gram. If you are adding it to your regular diet, you are adding extra calories. Now, that isn’t a bad thing if you are trying to gain weight for some reason, but if you are trying to lose it, protein powder isn’t likely to help. While there is some evidence that protein can fill us up, when food components are taken out of their natural food homes and become more easily digested, they can do unexpected things. Like most ultra-processed foods, just what those things are, are usually discovered years later.
  3. Protein powder contains a bunch of additives you definitely don’t need and that aren’t all that healthy. On the ingredient list of almost every one I looked at there were sugar substitutes (which the WHO recently put out a warning on), maltodextrin (linked to inflammatory bowel disease/colitis and metabolic issues), and all kinds of gums (linked to colitis and irritable bowel syndrome). While there are some brands that don’t have these fillers, they tend to be more expensive and harder to find. But if you just must have protein powder in your life, try to find one of them.
  4. Real food contains…wait for it…protein and is actually healthy! Anything protein powder can do, real food can do better. If you are just looking for a quick breakfast, try using additive-free Greek yogurt and your favorite nut butter in a smoothie in the morning. Or hard boil some eggs to keep in the fridge to grab and go on busy days. Chia puddings, that take a couple of minutes to put together are also a great protein-rich way to start the day.

Basically, when you see an ad for protein powder, buyer beware. Save your money to buy those expensive sneakers that seem to be everywhere instead.

The word is out–ultra-processed foods are leading to declining life expectancies in the US, poor gut health, more dementia, rising rates of diabetes, and many other health issues. We don’t have to take this lying down. Let’s start to get these foods out of our diets. Here’s how to do it.

First, let’s talk about what an ultra-processed food is and isn’t. It isn’t simply a “processed food” although a lot of times these terms are used interchangeably. People have been processing food for thousands of years. When food is dried, canned, milled, or fermented, it is being processed and that’s not a bad thing. Processing food has helped humans survive and thrive by making it last a bit longer and stabilizing our food supply.

On the other hand, ultra-processing food is a modern creation, that until very recently, we didn’t realize was doing as much harm as it is. Ultra-processing food started to really take off in the mid-1900s with the addition of all kinds of substances that were added to traditionally processed food to make it last longer—perhaps years longer. As more thickeners, stabilizers, and emulsifiers were discovered, they were added to myriad foods to the point that now ultra-processed foods make up nearly 60% of the standard American diet for adults and as much as 70% of our kids’ diets.

The problem is that there was very little testing involved in approving the substances that go into ultra-processed foods, since most of them aren’t digested by our bodies. It was long thought that the additives were something our bodies couldn’t use and they would just pass right through us, like the random facts we’d cram right before an exam, gone the next day. Only, it turns out that our guts aren’t empty tubes, they are lush gardens, and the substances that we don’t digest—fake sugars, emulsifying agents, and thickeners—the bacteria that make up our microbiome do digest. And what we feed our microbiome matters a lot. Our ultra-processed diets have been fertilizing the microbial weeds instead of the flowers, leading to increased rates of obesity, diabetes, and maybe even some cancers.

So, what’s a good gut gardener to do? Most importantly, don’t panic. Nothing has been done that can’t be undone. You can make choices today that can radically benefit your health. Cut out the ultra-processed stuff, replace it with whole foods that you enjoy, and within a day or two you will start to see big changes happening in your bowels, your blood sugar, and quite possibly your mood. So, here’s how you do that.

In my book, Eat Everything, I list 25 additives to avoid, but for the sake of simplicity, a good rule of thumb is to look at the ingredient lists on the foods you are buying. If an ingredient is listed that you can’t picture in nature, put the package back on the shelf. It’s important to recognize that ultra-processed foods aren’t just the chips and candy bars that we might be avoiding when trying to eat healthy. We are getting tripped up because many of the so-called healthy foods that are promoted as being good for us, are just as ultra-processed as the chips, maybe even more so.

When you go shopping, ignore the front of packages that have words on them like “natural” or “organic” or even “handmade” and start becoming an ingredient list reader. Instead of ultra-processed, too sweet yogurt with 10 ingredients, opt for yogurt made with just milk and bacterial cultures. Top it with some fresh fruit. Instead of a shelf-stable salad dressing made to last for years with all manner of gums and additives, mix up some oil and vinegar or lemon juice and dress your salad with that. This week, maybe don’t buy the supermarket bread that may say “whole grain” or “whole wheat” on the front of the package, but the back of the package reveals a whole bunch of ingredients that you can’t picture in your mind’s eye as growing anywhere but on a laboratory bench. Instead, look in the freezer section for bread with minimal ingredients, preserved by freezing, not additives. By making a change or two every time you go to the grocery store, within a few weeks, you will start to walk back the ultra-processed takeover of your kitchen.

Lastly, ignore the voices that are telling you that you can’t do this—that we all just have to accept that our food supply is a mess and we will have to struggle with diet-related diseases as a consequence. When we first can recognize an ultra-processed food (read those labels!) and then instead choose a whole food or less processed alternative, we are taking back control over our bodies. Food should be a source of joy, not discomfort. Replace those ultra-processed products with things that you enjoy just as much or even more. You absolutely can make positive changes to get this stuff out of your diet. It starts with just one bite.

Get the book!



“Seriously people, just use a teaspoon of sugar and throw out the garbage additives! The stuff tastes horrible anyway!”

That was the first text I sent to a friend when I saw the recent study on the artificial sweetener erythritol. The study reported an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes in people who had higher blood levels of the substance. The sugar-substitute, called erythritol, is a type of sugar alcohol, known as a polyol that has long been associated with short-term gastrointestinal side-effects. People who suffer with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have been told to avoid the polyols for years due to their causing flatulence, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Erythritol was thought to be the best of the bunch in terms of these unwanted effects. Current evidence, however, suggests that it might be far more dangerous than having to spend the day in the bathroom.

The study researchers did not expect to find erythritol in high amounts in the blood of heart attack and stroke victims and weren’t particularly looking for it when they started analyzing the study participants’ blood. Because they were so surprised by these findings, they then tried to figure out why the erythritol was leading to strokes and heart attacks by investigating whether it increased the ability of the blood to clot. It did.

The study reported an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes in people who had higher blood levels of the substance.

Looking at what additives do in the real world, on a variety of different human bodies, is leading to a plethora of disheartening findings, with diseases such as diabetes, colitis, and cancer, having been recently associated with some. Nutrition studies are far from perfect and the association with various disease states isn’t settled science. But from the perspective of scientific rigor, the erythritol study is superior to the small scale, short-term, mostly animal studies that get additives approved in the first place.

No one could have predicted that erythritol would increase the risk of blood clotting and cardiac events because no one had ever looked for anything like this before. Additives are not generally studied for their long-term effects on our bodies. They are also not studied in very large groups of people and usually not in combination with other things that we might be ingesting.

A wise person once said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

But here’s what we do know. A teaspoon of sugar has about five grams of carbohydrates. How many grams a day of carbohydrates someone consumes is important to people struggling with their blood sugar. In general, I ask patients with diabetes to try to keep their carbohydrate count for the day to less than 150 grams and to try to get those carbohydrates in the form of whole foods like fruits and vegetables with small amounts of minimally processed whole grain products. And if they want a spoon of sugar in their coffee or a cookie? I tell them it is absolutely fine. Because it turns out that what’s most important is what their entire day looks like, or better yet, what their week looks like. Eating whole foods, consistently, while avoiding the highly processed, additive-laden stuff, is the key to a healthy diet. Unfortunately, for many of us, we’ve forgotten how to do this.

This study is a bitter pill for us all to swallow. We’ve become accustomed to artificial sweeteners like erythritol. Even though I don’t personally use them and haven’t for years due to my own struggles with IBS, I keep some packets in my house for guests who prefer them. It won’t be as difficult for me to toss them out as it might be for everyday users who may not have had a teaspoon of real sugar in years.

And that’s okay. This study isn’t cause for panic, but it is a good reason to reflect on what we are eating. While this is only one study pointing to one additive, the evidence for eliminating highly processed foods in favor of real, whole foods, has been building for years.  If you’ve been thinking about ditching your highly processed and maybe artificially sweetened breakfast cereal and instead going for a bowl of oatmeal, sweetened with just a little sugar and lots of natural fruit, tomorrow would be a great day to try it.

To learn more about how avoiding key additives can help you feel better:

weight loss drugs versus eating real whole food

In 2005, I started writing a medical mystery called Not Quite Dead, where a diabetes researcher discovers a drug that helps people to lose a remarkable amount of weight. Only there might be significant side effects. My idea was that if people knew about these side effects, the drug might flop.

…After three months on the experimental drug, the mice were losing about fifteen percent of their body weight. Of equal importance, no significant side effects could be noted. So none were.

—Not Quite Dead (page 7)

If you think this sounds a little like semaglutide, a medication initially developed to control blood sugar (also called Ozempic or Wegovy), but which turned out to be a jaw-droppingly effective medication for weight loss, you’d be wrong. Because despite a link to thyroid cancer, the drug is an absolute blockbuster. These side effects might turn out to be much ado about nothing. Or, they might not.

What happens when there is a new medication that gets widely used by millions of people, possibly for decades, is that we learn more about the drug—both good and bad. Using a newly approved medication is a little bit of an experiment, but if the benefits outweigh the potential costs for a given individual, it is not unreasonable to try it. I have prescribed semaglutide (and others in this medication class) for patients who are able to get a hold of it (read: afford it, because in the US, it is almost $1,000 a month without insurance) and who medically qualify for it. It’s hard not to get excited about this medication, especially for people who struggle with their weight and diabetes.

For years, the medications to control diabetes led to further weight gain, precipitating a vicious cycle in which people with diabetes would need more and more medication to control their blood sugar as their weight increased. Drugs that help people with diabetes to lose weight and break this cycle were long sought after. These drugs got additional approval for people with a medical problem that wasn’t diabetes, like high blood pressure or sleep apnea, and obesity. It makes sense that people with stubborn medical problems would want to take a newly approved drug that might help them lose weight and better control their medical issues. But now, it seems that everyone wants semaglutide. Articles are being written about healthy people who want to lose 10 or 20 pounds and find a provider to prescribe the medication. Instead of being afraid of side effects, which I thought would doom the fictional medication in my book, people are more concerned with weight loss, even in the absence of medical problems.

Vanity often gets the blame for the incredible off-label demand for these new medications. But, I don’t agree with this. Besides marketing and societal pressures to be thin, we are actually hungry—hungrier than we think we should be—and we are looking for something, anything to help control our cravings.

Besides marketing and societal pressures to be thin, we are actually hungry—hungrier than we think we should be—and we are looking for something, anything to help control our cravings.

A piece of the puzzle that I write about in Eat Everything: How to Ditch Additives and Emulsifiers, Heal Your Body, and Reclaim the Joy of Food, is the idea that when our digestive systems are presented with certain food additives, they encourage us to eat more.

In Eat Everything, I tell the story of a patient named Thomas (not his real name), who reports that he feels like he can’t control himself around store-bought ultra-processed cookies and cakes. But, Thomas has a lot more control over his intake of sweets when he is eating homemade desserts made with whole ingredients—even if they are cookies and cakes. Those treats have lots of sugar and flour in them too, but they don’t generally have a substance, ubiquitous in ultra-processed food, called maltodextrin.

Maltodextrin imparts a sweetness to foods and can allow producers to use less “sugar.” So, it can make an ultra-processed food appear lower in sugar than it otherwise would be. It helps the product to last longer on the shelf too. As a result, you can now find it on ingredient lists on everything from breakfast cereals to pricey chocolates. But, it has been noted to raise blood sugar faster than real sugar does, causes mice to consume more calories when they are given the substance in their water, and is even taken by bodybuilders who are trying to bulk up on purpose. There have also been studies linking it to changes in our gut microbiomes that may contribute to colitis. The International Organization for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases asks patients suffering from colitis to avoid maltodextrin in their 2020 guidelines. While maltodextrin might be the biggest offender, there are plenty of other reasons to avoid ultra-processed foods.

Most of my patients can’t afford expensive weight loss drugs, even if they have diabetes or other conditions for which they’ve been approved. Sometimes we turn to less expensive medications to help with weight loss (after discussions about benefits and possible side effects), but sometimes we are only left with dietary modification and that can work, too.

In one of the best-done studies on ultra-processed versus whole foods, participants lost two pounds in just two weeks of being on a whole foods diet, while they gained two pounds when on the ultra-processed one. Large population-based studies have also shown a strong association between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and weight gain. Importantly, ultra-processed foods aren’t just what we think of as “junk” foods like fast food and candy. Many whole-grain breads and yogurts marketed as health foods are classified as ultra-processed.

Whether or not you are in the market for one of the new weight loss drugs, if you want to cut cravings and increase your ability to be sated by your food, skip the ultra-processed stuff (especially foods with maltodextrin) and try to eat as whole food-based a diet as possible. Sure, eggs are expensive these days, but not as expensive as semaglutide.

To learn more about how avoiding key additives can help you manage your weight more easily:

best diet for losing weight

“Which diet is best for losing weight?”

That’s a question I’m asked a lot.

Few seem to have a straight answer for that one, except for people who have deeply held religious-like, ideological beliefs around food. Keto adherents are quite sure that avoiding carbs is the way to go. For vegans, eliminating animal products provides a clear path to health. If you’d like to experience the passion of an old school religious war without the bloodshed, head over to your favorite social media battlefield and read a few keto responses to a vegan post or vegan responses to keto posts. While they may not actually be killing each other, each is convinced that the other’s dietary habits will do it for them.

Low-carb, High-fat vs. High-carb, Low-fat

That brings us to Dr. Kevin Hall of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), who has entered the arena as a peacemaker of sorts by providing combatants with a healthy dose of science. Dr. Hall designed a study where participants would be fed either a high-fat, low-carb diet or a low-fat, high-carb diet. The participants had two weeks in each arm of the trial, so that they could be compared to themselves. Like a previous study he had done at the NIH looking at an ultra-processed diet vs. a whole foods diet, all the food was provided to the participants and their activity was carefully tracked. Also like the former study, participants could eat as much as they wanted and the food was rated by them as pretty good in both arms of the trial.

The folks on the low-fat diet ate about 500-700 fewer calories a day, but had higher insulin and blood sugar levels (suspected drivers of some diet-related diseases). The people doing the high-fat diet ate more calories, but had lower insulin and blood sugar levels. There were possibly advantages to both diets.

So, back to the original question, which one produced more weight loss?

Examples of dinners given to study participants: low-carb, animal-based diet (top) and low-fat, plant-based diet (bottom). Amber Courville and Paule Joseph, NIH

Here’s where we need to go back to Dr. Hall’s previous work on ultra-processed vs. whole foods diets.

Participants in this study lost about 2 pounds on the whole foods diet and gained 2 pounds on the ultra-processed one. When he designed the low-fat vs. low-carb study, he pretty much avoided giving the participants ultra-processed foods.

The short answer is that they both resulted in weight loss, but the low-fat diet resulted in more body fat loss in the participants. Case closed? The vegans win, right? But wait! These weren’t restrictive diets. I told you earlier that the people in the study could eat as much as they wanted. Neither the low-fat nor the low-carb participants were hungry and they both lost weight, though the low-fat participants lost a little bit more. How?

OK, but the vegans still win? Sort of. Plant-based diets are probably better for you, both in the short term, like in this study and in the long term, as Dean Ornish and others have shown with improved cardiovascular outcomes. So, if you can avoid eating animals, that might be best for you and for the environment. But even if you can’t or don’t want to (and I don’t want to either, so don’t feel bad), if you can avoid ultra-processed foods (think stuff that has ingredients on the list that you wouldn’t have in your own pantry or in anyone’s pantry for that matter), you’ll be a lot healthier and quite possibly weigh a bit less too.

So, how do I answer the question, “Which diet is best?”

It turns out that it’s not so complicated after all: Any style of eating that avoids ultra-processed foods that you can stick with and enjoy.

Easy holiday foods that are gut-safe

I started watching Ina Garten on the Food Network about ten years ago, when I first attempted to make food from scratch instead of from boxes. She told me to buy “good vanilla” and “good olive oil.” So, I did that. When holiday time came, Ina’s advice was to never spare the butter and to always have extra chicken broth on-hand. I did that too. Afterall, if Ina said it, even if it was a little pricier and a bit more work, I was on it.

Her food is aspirational. Like trying to dance or sing—I’m not going to do it perfectly, but I’m going to be better for having tried. And I figure, the more I try, the better I’ll get (okay, maybe that’s not true for the singing).

But in a twist that felt like a departure from her usual commandments, this year, Ina told us to head to the supermarket and stock up on packages in a New York Times article titled, “Ina Garten’s Store-Bought Thanksgiving: To make the holiday easier for home cooks, we asked the culinary contessa to create a menu that lets premade ingredients do much of the work.”

Reading the headline, I felt gut-punched. If Ina was giving up, what hope was there for us mere mortals? But reading the article, I began to get inspired. In my book, Eat Everything, I devote an entire chapter to making more gut-friendly foods with ready-made ingredients that are less processed. Instead of just everyday foods, could the same strategy also work to make holiday meals more gut-friendly?

I decided, like my idol Ina did, to find out.

Pie is not only a Thanksgiving and Christmas staple but a classic American dessert.

holiday pie crusts without additivesAnd the filling generally isn’t the hard part. It’s the crust that can throw us off track. Could I find a decent pie dough that didn’t have emulsifiers and dough conditioners? I went to Whole Foods to find out.

Wholly Wholesome has a crust that is just flour, palm fruit shortening (which they state is “responsibly sourced”), water, sugar, and salt. No emulsifiers, but also not in stock on the day I went. Instead, Whole Foods was carrying the unrolled-out version by the same company, which contained both guar gum and locust bean gum.

These gum additives have been shown to disrupt the gut microbiome and people seem to feel much better when they cut them out.

So, I also looked at their gluten-free version even though, in general, I eat all the gluten I can. And to my surprise, no gums in the gluten-free pie crust! These gum additives have been shown to disrupt the gut microbiome and people seem to feel much better when they cut them out. There were two reasonable options for ready-made pie crust out there (and I wound up finding another at Trader Joe’s a few days later). The key is to always check the ingredient list, even from a brand you might trust.

Next up, potatoes—a holiday table must-have.

Ina suggests that there are good frozen or refrigerated mashed potatoes out there if you add enough sour cream, parmesan, butter, salt and pepper to the pre-prepared stuff. And it’s true for your gut too.There are brands of pre-mashed potatoes like Simply Potatoes that don’t have much else added to them except for dextrose (which is a simple sugar) and a few probably “okay” preservatives.

Check the sour cream for additives (the affordable Daisy brand has none!) and please take a minute to grate your own parmesan from a block to avoid gut-roiling added anti-caking agents. If you are celebrating Hanukkah (I am!), you can get shredded, frozen potatoes to make latkes—a huge time saver—with the same dextrose and probably “okay” preservatives as the mashed stuff. Just remember to defrost and then drain the shredded potatoes on paper towels to get as much of the moisture out as possible before you mix in the egg, onion, salt and pepper, and fry until golden.

Finally, the main course.

If you are tired of turkey after Thanksgiving, so tired in fact that you don’t feel like making anything at all, you could always pick up a rotisserie chicken, or three. But be careful, a lot of store-prepared poultry has flavor-enhancing additives like maltodextrin that you probably want to avoid if you are going for stomach-safe. Many stores will sell chicken that is just chicken, but don’t forget to check how it’s seasoned for a happier holiday.

We’ve been given permission to make holiday cooking easier to do, now we can also harness our ability to make the shortcuts easier on our stomachs, too.

A well-known professor of neurology was giving a lecture to a large audience of internal medicine physicians.

“If a patient says they have a headache, do you believe them?”

The audience nodded in agreement.

“But you can’t do a blood test for a headache. A headache won’t show up on a CT or MRI. How do you know they truly have a headache? How can you confirm it?”

The answer, the professor revealed, was that no one feels compelled to “confirm” that someone has a headache because most of us have experienced a headache. A person merely saying their head hurts is enough to diagnose a headache. It is easy to relate to a pain someone is describing when you yourself, or perhaps a good friend or relative, have experienced similar symptoms.

What can be more challenging is when we are trying to describe a feeling that is not as commonplace as a headache. Sometimes we are experiencing a symptom that will reveal itself as a disorder on a blood test or radiological study. But often, there is a vague discomfort or malaise, that may not show up on any test. The symptoms may range from slight to severe enough to keep someone from being able to go to work or school. Something is wrong and it isn’t clear what that something is.

But you know your body best. You know when something has changed or if something isn’t right. And we want to be able to give a name to something that isn’t right. Because once we have a name for it, we can try to find a reason for it, and then hopefully a way to make it better.

In an era of seemingly endless test options, it can be difficult to accept the fact that we often don’t have a test for many ailments. There is no reliable test to confirm IBS, myalgic encephalitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, long-Covid, various pain syndromes, and a host of other illnesses. We should recall that, before we had widely available imaging tests for conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or endometriosis, patients (who happened to be mostly women in the case of MS and all women in the case of endometriosis) were dismissed as “hysterical” or told it was all in their heads. Abandoned by their doctors, they were more easily victimized by the snake-oil salesmen of their day as they searched for something, anything, to get themselves better.

It is said that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Being taken seriously when we know something isn’t right with our bodies is still a challenge. The big difference today, is that we are now able to share and hear lots of stories from around the world. And there is strength in numbers. It may not raise a diagnosis of IBS or long-Covid to the level of understanding that most of us have of what a headache feels like, but it hopefully will increase empathy for those who experience symptoms for which there is no quick and easy test.

Poop jokes aren’t my favorite, but, they are a solid #2. Okay, not the best dad (or in my case, mom) joke, but I have others! We all do. There are a lot of poop jokes out there.

Gastrointestinal health is something that hasn’t been taken seriously for a long time—at least not since the position of attendant to the British monarch’s stool (known as the Groom of the Stool) was abolished in 1901. Considered a posting of honor (as opposed to a crappy job) for hundreds of years, as flush toilets and toilet paper became all the rage, poop was relegated to becoming the butt of our jokes (sorry).

But with the rise of DNA analysis and the ability to see just what is inside our most comedically valued organ, gut health has become anything but a laughing matter. It may be the key to unlocking better health for many of us.

Let’s examine what’s changed:

  1900s thinking:
Our gut is a long tube from our mouths to our behinds.
2000s thinking:
Our gut is a complex organ made up of our own cells along with trillions of microorganisms. It has vital impacts on our immune system, our moods, and even hormonal regulation of how much and when we want to eat.
1900s thinking:
Our gut will absorb the nutrients we need and poop out the things we don’t.
2000s thinking:
Whatever we aren’t digesting, we are feeding to those microorganisms in our guts (called the microbiome). What we eat promotes which organisms grow and where in our guts they are growing.
1900s thinking:
The total amount of calories you eat along with macronutrients like carbs, fats, and protein will determine how much you weigh and how healthy you are.
2000s thinking:
Calories and macronutrients can be important, but they aren’t the whole story. Eating ultra-processed foods (especially those with emulsifiers) can cause us to eat more and gain excess weight, can disrupt the microbiome and our gut lining, and are a contributor to the exponentially rising rates of a host of diseases.
1900s thinking:
It doesn’t matter how ingredients are processed. Adding vitamins and other supplements to ultra-processed foods is the same as getting them from whole foods.
2000s thinking:
Getting nutrition from whole foods is critically important to good health.

Our bodies, along with our microbiomes, digest whole foods differently than food that has been ultra-processed. We are just beginning to understand how an additive, when extracted from a “natural” source, may be disruptive to the synergistic relationship between ourselves and our microorganisms.

There are a lot of new and exciting discoveries being made in gut health, because ultimately, medical ideas are like diapers (okay, last one, I promise). They need to be examined and changed when they aren’t quite right.

Gluten and dairy have been deemed the enemy. For some people who have celiac disease or complete lactose intolerance, yes, these foods need to be avoided.

But what about the rest of us?

Many people abandon foods that contain gluten or dairy in the hopes of feeling better. Maybe we have joint pains or stomach trouble. Maybe we are putting on weight and don’t understand why. We start by getting rid of these foods and perhaps feel a little better. So then we hear that we should avoid other foods, like tomatoes or garlic, and drop those. Before we know it, our diets are extremely restricted, but we really don’t feel that much better. There may be an easier and far less restrictive way to improve our health.

The biggest problem in the so-called Standard American Diet, which has now become standard in the diets of almost every country today, is ULTRA-PROCESSED foods.

How can we tell the difference between processed and ultra-processed?

There are a few definitions out there, but I’ve found the simplest way to figure out the ultra-processed stuff that should be avoided is to be on the lookout for certain additives in packaged food.
Is this a perfect method? No. Nothing is perfect. Trying to be perfect is a recipe for feeling inadequate and defeated. The goal is to feel better and that means accepting what we are able to reasonably accomplish in the midst of a busy day. Avoid these additives, eat everything that is actual food, and see how much better you feel.

Carrageenan (commonly used in creams and dairy substitutes for stability)

Cellulose (pre-shredded cheeses and powdered parmesan are generally coated in cellulose. DO NOT use pre-shredded and bagged cheeses which can also contain anti-fungal agents.)

Food Gums (commonly used in shelf stable products like dressings):

  • Acacia Gum
  • Cellulose Gum (Also called: Carboxymethylcellulose)
  • Gellan Gum
  • Guar Gum
  • Locust Bean Gum (Also called: Carob Bean Gum)
  • Xanthan Gum

Inulin (Also called: oligofructose, oligofructose-enriched inulin, chicory root fiber, chicory root extract or fructooligosaccharides)

Lecithin(can be derived from soy, sunflower, or other sources and are used in many different packaged foods, so may be the most difficult to avoid—just do your best, but don’t sweat if you are consuming a little of it)

Modified fill-in-the-blank Starch (used in shelf stable products)

Maltodextrin (used as a flavor enhancer and stabilizer in shelf stable products)

Monoglycerides/Diglycerides (used in breads, especially those that stay soft like flour tortillas that don’t need to be kept frozen)

Polysorbate 60/80  (commonly used in frostings and desserts)

The following are generally used as sugar substitutes. Please just use real sugar (in moderation) and NOT these:

Glycerol (glycerin/e)





Stevia (Stevioside)

What should we be eating?


They have lycopene in them! And lycopene should protect us from cancer and heart disease. Do we cook them to get their maximal benefit or eat them raw? Should we be eating them everyday? It was all anyone could talk about ten years ago.

And then…we stopped talking about lycopene and started talking about lectins.

Tomatoes have lectins in them! And lectins might promote disease. Should we remove the seeds from tomatoes? Should we cook them? Should we avoid them altogether?

What’s someone who doesn’t want to die (at least, not right away) to do?

Since pretty much everything we eat has been labeled as potentially toxic by someone, somewhere, calling themselves a health guru (or maybe even a doctor), better be safe and reach for “food” wrapped in shiny packaging proclaiming how natural and organic it is.

GMO-free! Hormone-free! No lectins!

Or better yet, reach for a bottle (or ten) of supplements that are supposed to ward off disease and be much better for us than whatever dangers may lurk in the produce aisle. That we have been lured away from fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains by all kinds of diets and self-proclaimed experts is one of the greatest cons perpetrated on the American people since George Parker was offering to sell his marks the Brooklyn Bridge.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature and am more likely to attribute the missteps we make to earnest ignorance rather than to malicious intent. But, the rate at which the latest entrant into the “real food is bad for you” diet seems to sweep the nation, makes me wonder if the ultra-processed food industry doesn’t give the craze a small, or maybe even a big, push.

It turns out that fad diet gurus and ultra-processed food purveyors make for strange, but profitable, bedfellows. The more real, whole food you are afraid to eat, the more packaged stuff you’ll be forced to buy—after all, you have to eat something to sustain life, let alone prolong it. Whether that package is a cardboard box filled with flakes of questionable health value or a plastic bottle of the latest and greatest dietary supplement, someone, somewhere, is spending very little to charge you a whole lot for what you could probably get from an apple.

The profit margins on produce are thin. The money made on ultra-processed foods runs into the trillions. The supplement industry is also doing quite well. So, maybe it’s not a conspiracy, but there’s not a lot of marketing dollars to be spent on salads.

A professor once told me that any drug the pharmaceutical companies have to advertise probably doesn’t work very well.

“If it’s really good, everyone will just use it. It will advertise itself.”

Well, it turns out, that professor underestimated how effective marketing can be or maybe he just overestimated how smart we are.

Because whole foods have been proven in study after study to promote a healthy weight and long life. No fad diet has ever been shown to do much of anything for adherents long-term (very few people can stick with them for very long anyway). And the evidence for 99.9% of the supplements out there is shaky at best and sometimes shows that they are harmful.

And yet, the hucksters selling us the equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge are making best-seller lists, while whole-food proponents like Marion Nestle and Tim Spector, sometimes seem to be shouting into the void. The latter has the bulk of the evidence, but the former has the sales pitch.

So, I’ll propose a new diet—the half-plate vegetables diet. Just make sure every time you eat, at least half of your plate has veggies on it (and no, French fries don’t count, kids). What I’ve learned though, is that if the diet is going to be a success, it’ll need a catchier name. I’m taking suggestions….