We’ve all heard that you should avoid processed foods, but what exactly qualifies as “processed food” and how do these foods affect our physical and mental well-being?
According to the FDA (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), “processed foods” refers to any food that has been subjected to cooking, canning, dehydrating, freezing, or milling. Thus, the “processing” of food isn’t inherently bad. Out-of-season frozen fruits and vegetables, for example, are actually more nutritious than their fresh counterparts, which had to travel hundreds of miles before arriving at the grocery store.
Where we run into problems is with “ultra-processed foods.” Ultra-processed foods are defined as “industrial formulations” that, in addition to the inclusion of extra salt, sugar, oils, and fats, also contain substances not used in culinary preparation – in particular additives used to improve the sensory quality and/or shelf life of food. Basically, if the ingredient list contains substances that you don’t immediately recognize as food, then what you are looking at is ultra-processed. This includes everything from fruit roll-ups and ramen noodles, to most breakfast cereals and deli meats.
But given that processed foods (or technically “ultra-processed foods”) are so convenient and (quite honestly) delicious, why is it so important that we avoid them as much as possible? Let’s take a closer look at exactly what these foods contain, as well as what they lack, and how this affects your overall health.
Processed foods are usually loaded with sugar and/or high-fructose corn syrup – sugar’s cheaper, more highly processed cousin. (Note that although people often talk about high-fructose corn syrup more negatively than sugar, the two substances stimulate identical responses in the body). We are genetically programmed to like sweet foods since sweetness usually indicates lots of calories and quick energy – two things that were important when food wasn’t as abundant as it is today.
Unfortunately, though, our bodies are not designed to handle a consistently high intake of sugar. To give you a bit of an understanding of exactly why sugar is problematic, here’s a look at the science behind how your body handles sugar. A diet high in sugar causes blood glucose levels to skyrocket. In order for the cells to utilize this fuel, insulin needs to signal the cell to uptake glucose from the blood. It does this by binding to its receptor on the cell surface and instigating a set of reactions that allows glucose to enter into the cell. When blood sugar levels are high, the pancreas works overtime to produce enough insulin. Chronically high levels of insulin will eventually cause the receptors to become insulin resistant, which in turn makes the pancreas work even harder. If this process continues for long enough, you end up with a failing pancreas, the inability to produce enough insulin, chronically high blood sugar which will start causing inflammation, and the development of diabetes.
Furthermore, when there is plenty of sugar around, the body happily converts any fat that you consume into stored body fat. This especially occurs in the liver (since the liver is main organ responsible for processing glucose) and around other abdominal organs, resulting in the development of dangerous visceral fat (visceral fat is problematic because it has a high turnover rate, meaning it is constantly being broken down and reformed. When it breaks down it releases triglycerides into the bloodstream).
This is why diets high in processed foods are associated with a host of health problems including:
– Chronically high blood sugar
– Insulin resistance
– An accumulation of visceral fat (fat surrounding your organs)
– High LDL cholesterol and blood triglyceride levels
– Heart disease
– Fatty liver disease
– Metabolic syndrome
What’s more, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are empty calories – meaning that they provide you with energy, but are completely devoid of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
But regardless of all the health problems sugar creates, manufacturers love adding it to everything! It improves the flavor and acts as a preservative, allowing the food to stay on shelves longer. It also goes by a lot of different names so it may very well have even slipped into your favorite “health food” without you realizing it. Here are a few things to look for on the label if you are trying to avoid sugar:
– Maple Syrup
– Anything containing the words “corn,” “cane,” “malt,” or “rice” as many sweeteners are derived from these produces (ex: malt syrup and evaporated cane juice)
– Anything with the suffix “-ose” (ex: fructose, dextrose)
– Anything with the prefix “iso-” (ex: isoglucose)
Simple carbohydrates refer to any form of carb that has been pulverized into flour and/or had all the fiber removed. This process essentially turns what was once a whole food into sugar. Simple carbohydrates are absorbed just as readily as sugar and rank similarly on the glycemic index.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) of various different foods (the glycemic load is the GI multiplied by the number of grams of carbohydrates in a serving, then divided by 100. It’s a more effective tool to understand how much any given food will spike your blood sugar since it takes into account the quantity of the food normally eaten).
Notice, that bagels, instant oatmeal, and jelly beans all have a high glycemic load! That’s because the flour in the bagel and the finely processed oats are absorbed just as readily as sugar. Thus, a heavy consumption of simple carbs is correlated with all the same health issues as a high-sugar diet.
Manufacturers add salt to processed foods for two reasons. First of all, it improves the flavor. We are biologically wired to seek out salt, just as we are sugar, and therefore find salty foods to be particularly addictive. Salt is also an excellent preservative and has been used to preserve food for centuries (think salted pork, pickles and canned goods). But like sugar, a diet too high in salt is problematic. A high-salt diet will eventually result in high blood pressure; and as we all know, this isn’t good. High blood pressure is correlated with both heart disease and stroke.
Processed foods often contain vegetable oils such as soybean oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, and safflower oil. All these oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which stimulate the production of inflammatory substances called prostaglandins. Granted, omega-6 fatty acids aren’t inherently bad. They are one of two essential fatty acids that we must get from our diet – the other being omega-3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory. Together, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids regulate the inflammatory response of our immune system.
For our immune system to function properly, however, these two fatty acids need to be consumed in the proper ratio. Evolutionarily, humans consumed a ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s that was about 4:1. Today, because of the prevalence of vegetable oils in processed foods, the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in the typical American diet is between 15:1 – 20:1! The result is chronically high levels of inflammatory chemicals circulating throughout the body. In the short term, a meal high in omega-6 fatty acids can cause irritability and headaches, but a diet chronically high in omega 6s will lead to bigger problems. Studies have found high prostaglandin levels in patients suffering from all types of inflammatory diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and obesity.
Another problem with vegetable oils is that they are polyunsaturated fatty acids. This means that the fatty acid chain contains multiple double bonds. For comparison, saturated fats contain no double bonds. The more double bonds in the fatty acid chain, the more susceptible the fat is to rancidity. If polyunsaturated fats, such as those found in vegetable oils, are exposed to oxygen, light or heat they turn into free radicals (a free radical is a hyper-reactive molecule that has the ability to destabilize healthy cells. Every single free radical created will react with other molecules in your body to make 500 more free radicals! Talk about a problematic cascade of reactions). This creation of free radicals is what is known as “rancidity.” If you are eating a lot of processed foods there is a good change you are also consuming a lot of fatty acid free radicals – something you definitely want to avoid.
The third problem with consuming all these polyunsaturated fats is that they are often paired with simple carbohydrates and/ or sugar. The combination of sugar and fat is what Dr. Mark Hyman, the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, calls “sweet fat” and it is highly problematic. It is a magic cocktail for weight gain and rapidly increases LDL cholesterol levels – this is the cholesterol you want to avoid.
It should be noted that there are some healthful vegetable oils – namely, olive oil (a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids) and coconut oil (a good source of MCTs). Both of these oils, when consumed in moderation, can promote overall health. But generally speaking, vegetable oils (especially those mentioned above) should be avoided as much as possible.
Processed foods tend to have long ingredients lists and very few of the items listed are recognizable as food. These mystery ingredients include colors, flavorings, preservatives, and materials to enhance the texture of the food.
There are also often a number of chemicals within processed foods that aren’t listed on the label. For example, “artificial flavors” is code for “a mixture of chemicals that we aren’t going to tell you about.” Many of these chemicals and additives are considered GRAS, “generally recognized as safe,” but a growing body of research suggests that the consistent consumption of these ingredients can cause health problems. Below are a list of some of the most problematic food additives and the effect they can have on your health.
A recent study found that emulsifiers cause changes to the gut microbiome that can trigger obesity, metabolic syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Another study found that these food additives damage the tight junctions of the small intestine epithelial cells, causing leaky gut syndrome. A leaky gut is problematic because it allows for the entrance of foreign immunogenic antigens into the body. This can cause the immune system to become hyperactive and lead to the development of autoimmune diseases.
Nitrates are another common additive that is well known to be problematic. Sodium nitrite is often added during the processing of meat. This nitrate reacts with protein to form N-nitroso, a carcinogenic compound. As a result, the consumption of processed meat increases your risk of colon cancer.
These chemicals are responsible for the butter taste of microwave popcorn. Both have been correlated with poor brain health, Alzheimer’s, and respiratory toxicity.
This additive has been lucky enough to make headlines recently and for good reason. Research has found that it can cause cell damage and brain dysfunction related to diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
You may have heard of Red #40 or Yellow 5. That’s because the media got wind of the fact that these food dyes can cause a number of health problems, including brain tumors, hyperactivity, and behavioral problems in children.
These are incredibly problematic. Studies have found them to be carcinogenic in mice, they drastically disrupt your gut microbiome, and increase the likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
This is one of the most common preservatives and it is well known to be toxic. According to the FDA, five grams of it is deadly. True, you will never be consuming 5 grams of TBHQ at one time, but do you really want to be accumulating a toxic substance in your body?
You may have heard that food is medicine. This is because whole, unprocessed foods contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that help your body function optimally. Food processing causes the majority of these precious nutrients to be lost. The perfect example of this is bleached flour. If you look at the ingredient list of anything made from this type of flour you will often see listed a whole bunch of vitamins – particularly B vitamins like thiamine and riboflavin. This is because food companies try to repair the damage of processing by adding these vitamins back in, but fortified products simply aren’t of the same quality as whole foods. Additionally, plant foods contain a lot of valuable nutrients, called phytonutrients, that are rarely, if ever, synthesized in the lab and added back into food. These phytonutrients are powerful antioxidants that you don’t want to miss out on.
We’ve touched on this a bit already, but processed foods tend to be low in fiber. This is problematic when it comes to gut health. A high fiber diet creates a diverse microbiome, which research has discovered is essential for health. A healthy and diverse gut microbiome boosts immunity, tames inflammation, and protects against obesity. It also boosts your mood! 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut by the bacteria in your microbiome. This means that if your microbiome is unhealthy you will have lower levels of serotonin which will affect everything from your mood, to your sleep patterns, memory, and libido.
Fiber also helps aid elimination, pulls toxins out of the body, and lowers cholesterol levels. Since fiber slows digestion, it also helps keep you fuller longer and can aid in weight loss.
The current RDA recommendation is that adults should consume between 25 and 30 grams of fiber a day. The average American only consumes about 15 grams. This is largely because of the high quantity of processed foods and the lack of plant foods in the average American diet.
One of the best ways to avoid processed foods and increase your fiber intake is to simply eat more whole plant foods and less foods that come from a box – think big salad, beans, quinoa, and fresh fruit as a snack. If you need some guidance in adjusting your eating habits, the DASH Diet plan is be a great place to start, even if you aren’t trying to lose weight. It emphasizes whole foods that are low in fat, high in fiber, and rich in phytonutrients
Arguably one of the biggest problems with processed food is that they are addictive. We are biologically wired to be drawn to high fat, high sugar, high salt foods since these were necessary for our survival as hunter gatherers. In fact, the neurological reward we receive for the consumption of these substances is so great that it can actually override our natural satiety cues. The creators of processed foods know this, and have specifically engineered their food so that it hijacks your brain, causing the release of high levels of dopamine (your pleasure hormone). This rush of dopamine is highly addictive and it dulls our natural satiety cues. This phenomenon is called hyper-rewarding and many people argue that it is one of the primary causes of obesity.
In Summary: Why You Should Avoid Processed Foods
So what are the big takeaways from all this? If you were to tell someone in 2 minutes why they should avoid processed foods what would you say? The major problem with processed foods is that they tend to be rich in refined carbohydrates (and/or sugar), low in fiber, and high in inflammatory fats – aka, a recipe for weight gain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, fatty liver, and a whole host of other health problems.
They also tend to be loaded with a lot of artificial junk that you don’t want accumulating in your body. Toxins that enter your body either have to be excreted as quickly as possible or stored away in fat so that they don’t harm your vital organs. This means that if you are consuming a diet heavy in artificial ingredients your body has even more reason to convert what you are eating into fat.
And lastly, processed foods are addictive. They can impair the normal function dopamine pathways in your brain, much in the same way as drugs do, making it challenging to know when to stop eating.
We all know how hard it can be to avoid processed foods completely, but now you have the knowledge to know why it’s so important to try and eat as many whole foods as possible. If you choose to consume added sugars or artificial ingredients, try to keep them to small quantities per servings, and make sure that the choice supports your overall dietary efforts. For example, some people find that having something sweet at the end of their meal helps them feel satiated with less, and helps them avoid going back for a second plate of food or a big dessert. If this is the case for you, then feel free to enjoy a small treat. Some ideas for healthier options include a small amount of jam in plain Greek yogurt, zero-calorie herbal tea that contains artificial flavors, or a MealEnder. Like with so many things in your dietary plan, too much restriction can backfire on you by making it harder for you to keep working toward your overall goals.
WHAT TO READ NEXT
The taste-bud scintillating lozenges help to satisfy and end cravings so you can avoid temptation and put the brakes on eating with no drugs or stimulants.