In order to successfully juggle work, exercise, leisure activities and commuting, many people are no longer choosing to cook in the middle of the day and are instead buying their lunch ‘on the hoof’. They either get something delivered, or buy a ready-meal that they quickly polish off at their desk (1-2). And for those who prefer to have lunch in a restaurant, the problem will be more or less the same: what they eat will almost certainly be full of salt and contaminated by phthalates.
That’s the summary of two studies revealing the shortcomings of restaurant food and the consequences of leaving our diet in the hands of the big manufacturers …
Even though the recommended intake for sodium has been set by several bodies at 1600mg a day (3), our daily consumption may actually be in the region of 3400mg (4). Our growing indifference to cooking is to blame, since around 72% of our daily salt intake comes from food prepared outside the home (5) – either from restaurants or from ready-to-eat dishes sold at bakeries, fast-food outlets or supermarkets. Needless to say, the biggest offender is fast-food such as cheeseburgers, pizzas or take-away dishes in sauce.
Unfortunately, such findings are rarely taken seriously. Between those who see little point in reducing their salt intake as long as they don’t have high blood pressure, and those who think they can compensate for it by eating healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables, salt continues to find easy victims.
Like all animals, humans need salt. It helps maintain acid-base balance as well as being essential for the transmission of nerve impulses and muscle contractions. Anyone who deliberately eliminates salt from their diet will see their health decline within a few weeks. It’s such an important mineral that in the course of evolution, an astonishing survival system developed in herbivores and omnivores: each mouthful of food that contains salt produces a sensation of instant pleasure. Stimulation of the sodium receptors located close to taste receptors activates a gratification mechanism in the hypothalamus and in this way, we naturally gravitate towards foods that contain salt.
Thousands of years ago, this system made sense as foods containing sodium were relatively rare (6), but nowadays, with unlimited access to salt, it has become a death-trap. If we humans continue to consume salt in excessive amounts even though we know it’s bad for our health, it’s not through a sense of challenge but because it’s irresistible. Salt does not provide more taste, but more pleasure. It’s a complex pleasure which over time becomes insidiously associated with taste and flavour. It has the drug-like ability to alter neural circuits and sensory plasticity (7): in order to achieve the same feeling of pleasure, you have to keep increasing the dose. It’s the kind of escalation that can lead to complex behavioural patterns of addiction, deprivation and compulsion. Over the long term, excess salt consumption alters our taste receptors and reversing this change becomes difficult: any reduction in salt intake causes withdrawal syndromes (such as irritation, excessive perspiration, and the uncontrollable urge to eat junk food) and the sensation that healthy foods are tasteless (8).
The agro-food industry, which is always one step ahead, is obviously well-aware of this property in salt: the fact that salt is so prevalent in catering and food products is not because it’s good at preserving them. It’s because manufacturers want to make the end products – depleted of micronutrients and full of unpleasant compounds – more appetising. Eye-watering sums of money are spent on finding the right combination - one which will satisfy the palates of the maximum number of people while using the cheapest possible products. Such is their drive to do so that they regularly use other flavour enhancers, such as potassium chloride or monosodium glutamate (suspected of causing a number of symptoms such as nausea, headaches, muscle pain, impaired insulin secretion (9) and which is implicated in the physiopathology of migraines (10-11)). An analysis of 222 dishes from 12 of Canada’s most popular restaurants showed that 69% contained at least one flavour enhancer (in addition to salt).
Though they normally prioritise quality products, our top restaurants also make abundant use of salt, though not always for the same reason: the tendency of chefs to constantly taste the food they’re preparing sooner or later makes them succumb to salt’s siren call to ‘season’ their dishes and they too fall into the trap. Their taste receptors are not immune to its pull and the amounts of salt required to achieve the same sensation of pleasure get progressively greater.
Given its ability to significantly alter our neural circuits, it makes sense to free ourselves from its grip as soon as possible and keep within the amount recommended . There has long been a strong association between salt consumption and hypertension (12), the leading risk factor for premature death in the world (13). It’s estimated that reducing salt intake to 1200mg a day could prevent 2.5 million deaths each year (14). This sobering figure shows the full destructive power of salt, a fact which is too often played down. It could even be behind the obesity epidemic which is currently harming Western populations (15).
To restore your taste receptors, rediscover the authentic flavour of food, and free yourself from salt’s infernal spiral, here are some practical steps you can take right now:
The findings of a second study have also made uncomfortable reading for the catering sector. It seems that eating out – in cafes or fast-food restaurants - may increase our levels of chemicals called phthalates. These hormone-disruptors are classed by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) as substances presumed toxic for human reproduction and are associated with a list of diseases and dysfunctions as long as your arm. In laboratory animals, the side effects caused by exposure to phthalates (particularly when ingested) are spine-chilling: reduced fertility, testicular atrophy, restricted foetal growth, increased malformations, harmful effects on the liver and kidneys …
The researchers behind this study (17) discovered that people who frequently took their meals outside the home had 55% higher phthalate levels than those who normally prepared their own food at home. The use of gloves by restaurant staff, contact with food packaging containing phthalates as well as certain kitchen equipment are believed to be responsible for these worryingly abnormal concentrations.
In the space of 40 years, total sperm counts have fallen by around 60% in the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand and concentration of sperm has declined by 53% (1 8). Like other hormone disruptors which are part of everyday life (bisphenol A, diesel fumes, PCB, DDT), phthalates are thought to be a contributing factor.
If you regularly eat out, you need to take action now. Here are some practical suggestions as to how you can avoid phthalates in the future and eliminate your existing levels:
Devote more time to preparing your own meals using raw ingredients, preferably bought direct from the producer in order to avoid packaging and handling.
Maintain a healthy weight. Animal studies have shown that hormone disruptors target fat cells and may be associated with insulin resistance (a risk factor for type 2 diabetes). It’s highly likely that some of them accumulate in adipose tissue.
Hormone disruptors stimulate the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) which damage DNA and impair the body’s antioxidant defence system (19). The best way of neutralising them is with a well-researched antioxidant formulation such as AntiOxidant Synergy preferably combined with a diet rich in seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Help your body eliminate undesirable substances. The detox formulation Rehab has the advantage of containing several potent antioxidants (flavonoids from kudzu, vitamin C, glutathione precursors) as well as compounds that facilitate the detoxification mechanism initiated by the liver (dimethylglycine, curcumin and calcium D-glucarate). Supplements are also available for cleansing the body and helping it to function better.
References1. Guthrie JF, Lin BH, Frazao E. Role of food prepared away from home in the American diet, 1977–78 versus 1994–96: changes and consequences. J Nutr Educ Behav 2002;34:140-50.
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