Many of us have heard of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, beans, lentils, whole eggs, etc. But have you ever heard of a diet that includes processed foods? Hopefully not.
Health experts tell us that a diet that includes processed foods such as cereals,refined white bread, pastas, crackers, chips and many more is dangerous to your health. And if you are a healthy eater, you should avoid these foods, which is not something you would ever want to hear.
The bad news is that you can easily get processed foods in your local grocery store. If it is a popular brand, then it will likely contain these ingredients.
And there are more processed foods than ever before. There are so many different types of foods that are made using these ingredients that it is impossible to describe everything in this article.
One of the most common types of processed food is the soft drink. There are over nine hundred varieties of soft drinks on the market today, and that is not counting the myriad of flavors.
How many times have you heard about “soda addiction” or the “dangers of sugar” in the news?
Most people are unaware of the dangers of soda. This is because soft drinks are one of the most popular foods of all time.
People love drinking soda. But the amount of sugar in soft drinks is much more than people may think.
As per a research study https://www.bmj.com/content/365/bmj.l1949), people who consume ultra-processed foods in heavy amounts are highly likely to develop a heart condition and die sooner compared to people who eat more natural, less processed foods.
If you care about how long and how well you live, it’s imperative to learn how processed foods could be a major detriment to your health.
However, before diving into finding out the adverse health effects of processed foods, let’s briefly understand what processed food is.
What is Processed Food?
Processed food is basically any food modified during cooking or preparation to render it more shelf-stable, convenient and/or flavorful.
Certain processed foods undergo a lot more processing compared to some other foods. For instance, pre-cut green beans or bagged salads are technically processed, but the processing is minimal since the food’s natural state hasn’t altered much.
A box of cheese and macaroni, on the other hand, is heavily processed since the additives and artificial flavors sprinkled generously have chemically altered the food.
The majority of food we consume daily is processed at some level or the other. Some of the processing is good and necessary, such as tomatoes canned to lock in their nutrients and freshness.
Things turn worrisome when crackers, cake mixes, pasta sauces and other heavily processed foods become a part of our everyday diet.
Other examples of highly processed foods are cereal, ready-made meals, chips, soda, candy, sausages, hot dogs, cheese spreads or slices, lunch meat, etc.
Why is Processed Food So Bad?
As aforementioned, almost all the food we eat has undergone some processing. Avoiding processed foods completely may not be possible, but understanding why and how excessive consumption can be detrimental is a step forward in the path to better health.
Loaded with sugar
Processed foods usually get loaded with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, sugar is present in processed food so much that close to 90 percent of sugar an average American consumes comes from their diet.
The recommended daily sugar intake should be less than 10 percent of the total calories consumed. Though added sugars provide energy, they offer no nutrients.
On a processed food package, the presence of sugar in the food is not stated clearly. There are different kinds of sugar with various names.
Besides corn syrup, the other most common terminologies for sugar are glucose, malt or maltose, sucrose, molasses, honey, and nectar.
Ingesting any of these kinds in excess quantities would hurt your metabolism and put your health in jeopardy.
Zero fiber content
Fiber – particularly fermentable, soluble fiber – has multiple benefits. One significant advantage is its ability to decelerate carbohydrate consumption and create a feeling of satiety, even when your calorie consumption is low. Processed food is devoid of this fiber, which is why you feel hungry fairly quickly after a bowl of pasta or fried noodles.
Designed to be addictive
Processed foods, such as potato chips, are altered chemically to be “hyper-rewarding”. Scientifically speaking, dopamine or the neurotransmitter related to reward gets released when you consume processed food.
This is primarily the reason why people usually get addicted to processed food and binge on it despite not being hungry enough to stomach what they eat.
Causes mood swings
A hungry person is an angry person. Healthy food should help subside that anger. But if the individual grabs a bag of chips or candy bar instead, his mood doesn’t get any better.
In fact, he could turn a lot grumpier. A study (https://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/index.php/pressrelease/more_trans_fat_consumption_linked_to_greater_aggression/) connects the trans fats found in processed foods with increased aggression and irritability. Eat unprocessed, whole foods when you’re hungry as they help keep your emotions under control.
Has artificial chemicals
Not all chemicals are bad. In fact, all the matter around us is some form of a compound. For instance, water is a product of a chemical reaction. It’s synthetic or human-made chemicals that you should be steering clear of as much as possible.
If you peruse a processed, packaged food’s ingredient label, you would most likely come across constituents you cannot pronounce or recognize. That’s because they are artificial chemicals added to improve texture, extend shelf life, or enhance the taste of the product.
Spike your sodium levels
While your body needs some amount of salt for its proper functioning, excessive salt heightens sodium levels in your system. It could increase your risks of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.
Processed foods usually have added salts to enhance their texture, taste, and shelf life. If you frequently consume these foods, your sodium ingestion could cross the 2,300mg recommended daily limit.
Moreover, the salts that usually go into processed foods lack the trace minerals and other nutrients found in better or healthier salt varieties such as Himalayan sea salt.
Hampers your sleep
When you consume processed food just before bed, it could come between you and your slumber. You would find yourself turning and tossing, as your body grapples with the sudden crashes and spikes in blood sugar, thanks to the refined carbohydrates levels that entered your system.
To ensure your insulin levels remain stable and you have no trouble sleeping peacefully at night, limit the consumption of processed foods to meals and snacks.
Compared to whole foods, processed foods have very less nutrients. Though synthetic minerals and vitamins get added to the food at times to compensate for the natural nutrients lost during the processing stage, those added nutrients just don’t make up for the loss of original nutrients.
With increased processed food consumption, you are depriving yourself of the vitamins, trace minerals and antioxidants your body needs to function and thrive.
An extension of an earlier point, processed foods are stripped off their fiber so that your body can easily process it – some of them, in fact, melt right in your mouth.
As your body needs not to work much to process and consume processed food, and since you usually don’t feel satisfied after eating processed junk, you tend to gobble down a lot more processed food in a relatively shorter time period. Needless to say, such overeating causes considerable weight gain.
Health Conditions Typically Linked with Processed Food Consumption
Now that you have learned how processed foods spell danger, it’s now time to get introduced to the health disorders or illnesses you could end up having with prolonged consumption of processed food.
The fact that sugar puts you on the accelerated path to obesity is well known. Obesity in itself is a major health scare.
But what makes it even worse is the array of other chronic illnesses it tags along. In a study carried out with human volunteers, the participants gained significant weight after two weeks of eating a no-restrictions diet rich in ultra-processed food.
The same study also comprised participants who were asked to consume only unprocessed food.
When the results were compared, the group that was on the ultra-processed food ate 508 more calories than the volunteers who were only eating unprocessed food.
This not just caused the processed food eating group to put on more weight, but the study also confirmed the theory that highly processed food causes people to eat more.
Processed food consumption also has its linkages with metabolic syndrome. The syndrome is basically a cluster of risk factors leading to type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Metabolic syndrome diagnosis must be carried out when you can relate with at least three of the following risk factors.
- Increased waistline with abdominal obesity
- Increased triglyceride levels, or requiring medication for lowering triglycerides
- Low healthy (HDL) cholesterol levels, or requiring medication to treat the low HDL levels
- Increased blood pressure levels, or requiring medicines for treating high blood pressure
- Elevated fasting blood glucose levels or requiring prescriptions to stabilize the condition
The high sugar presence in ultra-processed foods is the leading cause of metabolic syndrome. If the condition is ignored or not treated, it could cause frequent spikes in blood sugar levels, warranting insulin for stabilization.
Over a period, this could end up in insulin resistance, and also increased triglyceride levels in the blood. These metabolic disturbances’ cumulative effect could be increased risks of developing diabetes and heart disease.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Highly processed foods could also have a role to play in causing or aggravating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which is also known as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
The chemical additive, referred to as emulsifiers, is responsible for this condition. Emulsifiers alter the gut bacteria environment, triggering IBD and several other health conditions.
The bacteria affected undermine the mucus protective coating that usually separates the intestinal wall from microbes, causing an inflammatory response in the process and a heightened incidence of these health disorders.
Emulsifiers are used in processed foods to hold the food’s shape or texture. These emulsifiers are found in pretty much all processed food items, including bread, cake mixes, peanut butter, sauces, salad dressings, pudding, yogurt, ice cream, processed cheese, and desserts.
You may be shocked to learn that processed food-based emulsifiers are quite similar to the ones used in detergents or household soaps.
Emulsifiers help oil and water to remain mixed, whether it’s to remove stains and grime or hold together edible substances that usually don’t stick to each other.
Autoimmune issues get triggered when your immune system goes erratic and strikes its own cells. An autoimmune disorder is an umbrella term that comprises more than 100 different conditions.
Some of them are lupus, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Crohn’s disease. In these illnesses, your body’s immune system misinterprets healthy cells as not healthy and attacks your body that it’s meant to safeguard.
Your gut comprises 70 percent of your body’s immune system. This shouldn’t be surprising since all environmental toxins travel via your intestinal tract from beginning to end.
Epithelial cells or the special cell layer lining your digestive tract is a protective membrane. These epithelial cells are bonded by tight junctions’, which help with strengthening your system’s defense barrier against harmful antigens such as toxins and bacteria.
Many additives commonly found in highly processed foods can impair the tight junctions, rendering them weaker and susceptible to intestinal permeability.
This, as a result, makes it easier for toxins to cause harm to your body, raising the likelihood of autoimmune disease development. The processed food additives primarily responsible for this condition are salt, glucose, organic solvents, emulsifiers, microbial transglutaminase, gluten, and nanoparticles.
Unsurprisingly, processed food items could also increase colon cancer risks. Processed meat is the biggest culprit in this case.
The meat in question could be lunch meat, sausage, bacon, beef jerky, hot dogs, or any other product of meat that has gone through chemical treatment for preservation purposes. Red meat, such as pork or beef, also present these risks.
Consuming even 50 grams of red or processed meat daily can increase colorectal cancer risks by 18 percent. The 50 grams of meat is equivalent to two bacon slices or a small-sized hot dog.
The risk is primarily from the chemicals used for preserving the meat or the cooking technique that helps with the preservation – since both are linked to carcinogenic compound exposure.
Anxiety and Depression
A processed food-rich diet also has links to increased levels of depression and anxiety. Exposure to the added sugars found in processed foods can hurt your gut, which is primarily responsible for serotonin production.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being. Moreover, all that added sugar spikes your blood glucose and insulin production levels, which leads to hyperactivity and lethargy thereafter.
And since processed food can be highly addictive, this process turns into a cycle that repeats itself over and over again.
When you consume highly processed foods, you are eating less food. And when you make processed food consumption a part of your lifestyle, your body becomes deficient in the minerals and vitamins it needs to support your physical, mental, and emotional health.
As mentioned earlier, it’s almost impossible to cut out processed foods from our diets altogether. However, we should put in the effort to keep a check on how much of it we are eating.
Also, throw in highly nutritious, raw foods such as nuts, seeds, and fruit juices every now and then to balance or outweigh the negative impact processed food causes.
There is also good evidence that diets with high consumption of nutrient dense foods like fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes are associated with a lower risk of many chronic diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and many types of cancer.