Eating a diet heavy on processed foods is the quickest way to surrender good health and get sick, fat, or both.
It only takes a few years for populations who adopt a Western diet based on processed foods to start coming down with Western illnesses.
Let’s get clear on the definition of processed foods.
If you buy a bunch of asparagus at the market, it’s been cut from the ground, maybe run through some sort of bath to clean off dirt, and often bundled with a rubber band.
Butter is made by separating cream from whole milk, churning it until the fat separates from the liquid, then washing, forming and packaging it.
While these two foods have been processed, sometimes mechanically, they are still whole and real.
If a food has been processed with chemicals, contains ingredients that have been refined, or has artificial flavors, colors or other synthetic components, it’s a processed food.
Here’s why processed foods don’t keep our bodies healthy and happy.
- Artificial Ingredients
Artificial ingredients are most often chemicals, plain and simple.
If you buy a granola bar, you might think oats and puffed rice, nuts, raisins, honey, and whatever else would be pretty healthy.
The problem lies in whatever else the manufacturer chose to include, like maybe guar gum, anhydrous milkfat, hydrolyzed gelatin, maltodextrin, or artificial flavor.
Artificial flavor is considered proprietary, and manufacturers don’t have to list ingredients for it, but you can bet it’s a chemical cocktail developed to yield that special flavor so you’ll buy the product again.
Additives and chemicals serve specific purposes: imparting the desired color; preservation; creating a certain texture, etc.
All food additives are supposedly safe for consumption (1), but keep in mind personal opinions might differ from federal regulatory agencies.
- Plenty of Refined Carbs
Most processed foods are high in refined carbohydrates. While nutritional experts argue about whether or not copious quantities of carbs belong in a healthy diet, everybody seems to agree carbs are best taken from whole food sources.
Simple carbs like those in refined foods are broken down quickly in the digestive system, spiking blood sugar and insulin levels. Cravings hit a couple hours up the road, when the blood sugar roller coaster hits the low spot.
- Low in Nutrients and Fiber
Processing destroys nutrients and pulverizes or removes the natural fiber content of whole foods.
Antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients of every imaginable variety are lost during the manufacturing of processed foods, and science doesn’t yet know what they all are, or what they do.
Whether or not they’ve been identified, these lost components result in gaps in your nutrition. Even if foods have been “enriched,” or claim added vitamins and minerals, these are often synthetic or inferior versions of the real thing.
Both soluble fiber and fermentable fiber play important roles in digestion and nourishment.
Much of the fiber in whole foods isn’t digestible by our systems; this type of fiber feeds the friendly gut bacteria in the large intestine, which ferments and digests it to provide prebiotics necessary for good gut health. (5, 6)
Soluble fiber can also help prevent constipation. Cultivating the proper environment in our guts helps keeps us mentally sharp, cheerful and well. (7)
- High Amounts of Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup
Processed foods are often highly sweetened, and manufacturers hit consumers’ sweet spots with white sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). These two affect the body in the same way: badly.
Everyone knows sugar provides empty calories, but it’s worse than that. Sugar devastates delicate metabolic processes (8) and lines you up for disorders like insulin sensitivity, high cholesterol,and elevated triglycerides. It also helps you tuck away plenty of abdominal fat. (9, 10)
According to the USDA, the average American eats 156 pounds of sugar each year; less than 30 comes from the sugar bowl, maybe added to coffee, tea or cereal. Most comes from processed food and drinks. (16)
- Trans Fats and Vegetable Oils
Cheap fats allow food companies to make more money. Seed and vegetable oils commonly used to enhance flavor and texture like soybean oil have been hydrogenated, which makes them trans fats.
- Hyper-Rewarding Food Experiences
In times past, taste buds steered us toward the food we needed to survive; rich fatty foods, salty foods and foods with natural sweetness helped us hone in on the necessary fuel and nutrient sources for daily activities.
Today, those same instincts are exploited by food manufacturers. The more we love eating it, the more likely we are to buy it again.
Costly evaluations and engineering operations are conducted by food giants in the fierce competition for business. The result is overly-rewarding culinary experiences that encourage us to overeat. (22, 23)
Biochemists who are very good at their jobs are being paid very well to create food products laced with substances that trip our pleasure-meters to the point where reason, logic and common sense can no longer be accessed, and the eating just goes on and on.
- Junk Food Addiction
Arising from hyper-rewards experienced when eating foods designed to hijack brain chemistry, addiction to junk foods is becoming more common. (24)
It doesn’t happen to everyone, but some people just cannot stop, and eat the whole bag of chips or box of cookies. A half-gallon of ice cream is gone in a sitting.
Total loss of control with food is addictive behavior, and studies show sugar and some junk foods light up the same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine. (25)
This prospect alone should be enough to scare some sense into most people.
Summary: The take-home message is simple, processed foods pack on pounds and erode your health. Eat real food.