Processed foods are a staple in the American diet, and as a result, we are a heavier, sicker population overall. Processed foods are generally recognized as any food that comes in cans, bags, boxes, or jars, especially if they have a long list of ingredients on the label! Processed foods are very easy and convenient; however, they contain many ingredients used to soften, preserve, color, emulsify, bleach, flavor, and hide odors. These chemicals have been shown to cause cancer, obesity, and heart disease. Consequently, processed foods should be avoided as much as possible.
One reason processed foods have negative health effects is because they are usually very high in sugar or high fructose corn syrup. This sugar laden food is filled with empty calories and negatively affects metabolism. Additionally, excessive sugar intake has been linked with high triglycerides, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance. Fructose is especially damaging and toxic to the liver, since that is where it is primarily metabolized. It also turns directly into fat and leads to obesity and issues with the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell), which also has a role in metabolism.
In addition to sugar, processed foods contain a large variety of artificial ingredients. These ingredients are not real food! They are chemicals used as preservatives, colorants, flavors, or texturants. Further, some of the chemicals in the food may not even be listed on the label and might be grouped in an all-encompassing term, such as “artificial flavors.” Supposedly, these chemicals have been tested for their safety, but how can all of these foreign chemicals actually be good for us? A great deal of research shows that certain preservatives are linked to allergic reactions, cancer, and other health issues. For example, the preservative BHA affects the nervous system and has been shown to change behavior. Food colorings and flavorings also have negative health outcomes. In fact, nine food dyes are linked to hyperactivity and cancer, while a flavoring called diacetyl may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Processed foods are also high in refined carbohydrates, which pass through the digestive system quickly and raise blood glucose levels and insulin levels. This has been associated with many chronic diseases and negative health effects. Additionally, these foods are generally low in fiber, because the fiber is lost during processing. Fiber is responsible for slowing the absorption of food, increasing satiety, normalizing bowel movements, and lowering cholesterol. When foods pass through the digestive system quickly, we require less calories to digest them. Therefore, in a shorter period of time, we can eat more and burn less, a recipe for weight gain! Overall, there is very little nutritional value in processed foods, even when vitamins and mineral are “added back” into the foods.
Many people complain that they can’t stop snacking on processed foods, and they have intense cravings for these items. Research shows that many of these foods have been engineered to be rewarding and desirable to the brain, which makes the food addicting and makes it difficult to stop eating. Even though our bodies are designed to regulate how much we eat, food manufacturers have designed their foods to be “hyper-rewarding” and to bypass these intrinsic regulators. Additionally, since processed foods are missing important components like water, fiber, and nutrients, the hormones in your body do not know how to respond or digest these foods properly.
Today’s society is busy, stressed and overwhelmed, so processed foods may seem like an easy solution. However, in order to remain productive and healthy, it is important to eat real food. Real food with real nutrients will make us look better and feel better!