The case of a British girl's strange eating disorder became a media sensation back in 2003.
At age five, Georgi Readman became unable to stomach anything but ramen noodles … and continued eating nothing else.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, her doctors deem Ms. Readman malnourished, with the health profile of an 80-year-old woman.
Her case may be extreme, but millions eat ramen daily … and new research confirms that the habit is very damaging.
Ramen noodles dominate the diets of many young people, especially college students … a nutrition-free habit that undermines their physical and mental health.
How is commercial ramen made?
Traditional, non-instant ramen noodles are made from wheat flour, salt, water, and alkaline mineral water.
Most major brands follow the same pattern, but they add fat, chemicals, and unhealthful amounts of sodium.
Commercial brands machine-slice white wheat dough to make their noodles, steam them, and then fry them in oil to remove moisture.
Palm oil is the second biggest ingredient in some bestselling ramen products. While unrefined “red” palm oil is rich in colorful carotenes and other antioxidants, the refined oil in the mass market brands lacks them.
And unlike other saturated fats – such as the stearate abundant in meats, coconut, and chocolate – palmitate appears to raise the risk of cardiovascular disease (WHO 2003).
In addition, many ramen products contain added sugar and MSG, and synthetic preservatives such as BHA, BHT, or THBQ.
Instead of being fried, some ramen noodles are blow-dried at high temperature to remove moisture. These brands cost a bit more and take a bit longer to cook (six minutes instead of three).
Additives aside, the health drawbacks of commercial ramen stem from the fact that it's nutritionally “empty”, offering little but refined white flour, oil, and salt.
Instant ramen noodles drive metabolic disorder
In 2014, Korean doctors reported that diets heavy in starchy refined grains – mostly white ramen noodles and white rice – put people at high risk for metabolic syndrome (Song S et al. 2014).
And a study from Baylor University Medical Center confirmed that diets heavy in instant ramen noodles raises the risk for metabolic syndrome, especially in women (Shin HJ et al. 2014).
South Korea has the world's highest proportion of instant noodle consumers, and in recent decades has suffered a rapid rise in rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
The Baylor study was led by Hyun Joon Shin, M.D., a clinical cardiologist and doctoral student at Harvard School of Public health.
Dr. Shin's study linked consumption of instant noodles two or more times a week to cardio-metabolic syndrome … a cluster of several symptoms that raises the risks for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
And women who ate ramen regularly were more likely than men to display cardio-metabolic syndrome.
Dr. Shin attributed this gender gap to genetic, hormonal, and metabolic differences between the sexes.
As he said, “This research is significant since many people are consuming instant noodles without knowing possible health risks.”
Ramen noodles linked to gastric reflux disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a nasty condition in which stomach contents leak backwards into the the tube from the mouth to the stomach ... called the esophagus.
This acidic backup irritates the esophagus, causes heartburn and nausea, and raises the risk of a cancer called Barrett's esophagus.
Korean researchers studied the relationship between GERD symptoms and dietary factors, in 81 people with diagnosed GERD and 81 healthy controls (Song JH et al. 2011).
As they wrote, “We found that noodles, spicy foods, fatty meals, sweets, alcohol, breads, carbonated drinks and caffeinated drinks were associated with reflux-related symptoms.”
And they came to a conclusion that should disturb instant-ramen lovers: “Among the investigated noodles, ramen (instant noodle) caused reflux-related symptoms most frequently”.
Instant ... and nearly indigestible
Thanks to a multivitamin-sized camera, Dr. Braden Kuo of Massachusetts General Hospital shows what happens in the gut during the two hours after someone eats instant ramen noodles, versus fresh homeade ramen noodles.
As he said, “The most striking thing about our experiment when you looked at a time interval, say in one or two hours, we noticed that processed ramen noodles were less broken down than homemade ramen noodles.”
One hopes that the news about metabolic and gastric risks – and Dr. Kuo's disturbing video – will lead people to choose healthier alternatives.
Healthier ramen replacements
Fortunately, there are far healthier choices available online and from natural food stores.
These include whole-wheat ramen, and gluten-free choices like buckwheat, brown rice, or black rice noodles … see our list below.
It's easy to make healthier alternatives to instant ramen pretty quickly, either by cooking the noodles in vegetable or chicken broth, or by cooking them in water and adding soy sauce, miso, or bouillon.
To make quick noodles extra healthful, try these add-ins:
- Protein: Wild seafood (petite cooked, shelled shrimp, or pieces of salmon or white fish), organic beans, organic tofu, organic grass-fed beef, and organic poultry.
- Fresh or fermented vegetables: leafy greens (spinach, chard, kale, mustard/beet greens), mushrooms, cabbage, scallions, garlic, carrots, sliced fresh ginger, zucchini, bok choy, and broccoli.
We found several brands of whole grain or buckwheat noodles. This writer has enjoyed Eden's buckwheat and mugwort sobas, but the other brands offer good choices:
Buckwheat noodles: A great choice
Many find buckwheat noodles tastier (and heartier) than white wheat or rice ramen noodles, and they're far healthier.
Despite its name, buckwheat is not a cereal grain, but a leafy, flowering plant related to sorrel and rhubarb … and it has no gluten.
Unlike cereal grains, buckwheat is rich in complete protein (all eight amino acids), as well as minerals, “resistant” starches that stabilize blood sugar, and indigestible fibers that act as “pre-biotic” fuel that fosters the growth of healthful gut bacteria.
Last but not least, buckwheat provides antioxidants like those in fruits (e.g., rutin and procyanidins) … and, like oats, buckwheat can help lower high cholesterol levels.
Note: This article originally appeared in December, 2014.
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- Kawa JM, Taylor CG, Przybylski R. Buckwheat concentrate reduces serum glucose in streptozotocin-diabetic rats. J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Dec 3; 51(25): 7287-91. 2003.
- Shin HJ, Cho E, Lee HJ, Fung TT, Rimm E, Rosner B, Manson JE, Wheelan K, Hu FB. Instant noodle intake and dietary patterns are associated with distinct cardiometabolic risk factors in Korea. J Nutr. 2014 Aug;144(8):1247-55. doi: 10.3945/jn.113.188441. Epub 2014 Jun 25.
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- Song S, Lee JE, Song WO, Paik HY, Song Y. Carbohydrate intake and refined-grain consumption are associated with metabolic syndrome in the Korean adult population. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 Jan;114(1):54-62. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2013.08.025. Epub 2013 Nov 5.
- World Health Organization (WHO). Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases, WHO Technical Report Series 916, Report of the Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. Geneva, 2003. p. 88 (Table 10). Accessed at http://whqlibdocupwho.int/trs/who_trs_916.pdf