I have long stated that if you want to be optimally healthy, you should spend 90 percent of your food budget on whole foods, and only 10 percent on processed foods. Unfortunately, most Americans currently do the opposite, and their health suffers as a result.
With most foods, the closer they are to nature, the better. It’s possible to have some processed foods that are still healthy; for instance, frozen green beans have been “processed” as has butter, grass-fed ground beef, or freshly prepared almond butter.
In most cases, however, the term “processed food” refers to those that are chemically processed and made from heavily refined ingredients and artificial additives. Such processed foods are the bane of Western civilizations’ diets.
Processed Foods Are To Blame…
It’s not a stretch to blame processed foods for the rising rates of chronic disease and weight gain around the developed world. Why? Let me count the ways…
1. Processed Foods Are High in Sugar and/or High Fructose Corn Syrup
This isn’t only a matter of “empty calories” causing you to gain weight without getting proper nutrition. Excess sugar consumption is linked to insulin resistance, high triglycerides, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.
Refined fructose, typically in some form of corn syrup, is now found in virtually every processed food you can think of, and fructose actually “programs” your body to consume more calories and store fat.
Fructose is primarily metabolized by your liver, because your liver is the only organ that has the transporter for it. Since all fructose gets shuttled to your liver, and, if you eat a typical Western-style diet, you consume high amounts of it, fructose ends up taxing and damaging your liver in the same way alcohol and other toxins do.
And just like alcohol, fructose is metabolized directly into fat – it gets stored in your fat cells, which can lead to mitochondrial malfunction, obesity, and obesity-related diseases, especially if you are insulin or leptin resistant.
The more fructose or HFCS a food contains, and the more total fructose you consume, the worse it is for your health. As a standard recommendation, I advise keeping your TOTAL fructose consumption below 25 grams per day.
For most people, it would also be wise to limit your fructose from fruit to 15 grams or less, as you’re virtually guaranteed to consume “hidden” sources of fructose if you drink beverages other than water and eat processed food.
It’s important to realize that added sugar (typically in the form of high fructose corn syrup) is not confined to junky snack foods or sweets; it’s also common in savory processed foods.
For example, most of Prego’s spaghetti sauces have one common feature and that is sugar — it’s the second largest ingredient, right after tomatoes. A half-cup of Prego Traditional contains the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar!
2. Processed Foods Are Designed to Make You Overeat
Your body is designed to naturally regulate how much you eat and the energy you burn. But food manufacturers have figured out how to over-ride these intrinsic regulators, designing processed foods that are engineered to by “hyper-rewarding.”
According to the “food reward hypothesis of obesity,” processed foods stimulate such a strong reward response in our brains that it becomes very easy to overeat. One of the guiding principles for the processed food industry is known as “sensory-specific satiety.”
Investigative reporter Michael Moss describes this as “the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm your brain.”2 The greatest successes, whether beverages or foods, owe their “craveability” to complex formulas that pique your taste buds just enough, without overwhelming them, thereby overriding your brain’s inclination to say “enough.”
In all, potato chips are among the most addictive junk foods on the market, containing all three bliss-inducing ingredients: sugar (from the potato), salt, and fat.
3. Processed Foods Contain Artificial Ingredients
Processed foods may contain dozens of artificial chemicals that are in no way real “food.” These include:
- Artificial colors
- Artificial flavors (the term artificial flavor on a label may include 10 or more chemicals)
- Texturants (chemicals that add a texture to food)
Food manufacturers typically claim that artificial food additives are safe, but research says otherwise. Preservatives, for example, have been linked to health problems such as cancer, allergic reactions, and more.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydrozyttoluene (BHT) are preservatives that affect the neurological system of your brain, alter behavior, and have the potential to cause cancer. Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is a chemical preservative so deadly that just five grams can kill you.
Or take artificial colors. Nine of the food dyes currently approved for use in the US are linked to health issues ranging from cancer and hyperactivity to allergy-like reactions — and these results were from studies conducted by the chemical industry itself.3 Artificial flavors aren’t much better.
The artificial flavoring called diacetyl, which is often used as a butter flavoring in microwave popcorn, has several concerning properties for brain health and may trigger Alzheimer’s disease. Genetically engineered flavor enhancers can also be listed under the artificial flavor (or natural flavor) label.
4. You Can Become Addicted to Processed Foods
Addicted to junk food? Yes, this is a real phenomenon that’s backed up by science. Processing modifies or removes important components of food, like fiber, water, and nutrients, changing the way they are digested and assimilated in your body.
Unlike whole foods, which contain a mix of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fiber, and water to help you feel satisfied, processed foods stimulate dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, making you feel good even though the food lacks nutrients and fiber. This artificial dopamine stimulation can lead to excessive food cravings and, ultimately, food addiction.
Last year, Oreo cookies were found to be just as addictive as cocaine or morphine, with Oreos activating more neurons in the pleasure centers of rat brains than exposure to illicit drugs did. Potato chips, however, are among the most addictive junk foods on the market, containing three bliss-inducing ingredients: sugar (from the potato), salt, and fat. According to Moss:4
“The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an additive but in the starch of the potato itself — all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food.”
5. Processed Foods Are Typically High in Refined Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates like breakfast cereals, bagels, waffles, pretzels, and most other processed foods quickly break down to sugar in your body. This increases your insulin and leptin levels, and contributes to insulin resistance, which is the primary underlying factor of nearly every chronic disease and condition known to man, including weight gain. As Business Insider reported:5
“One of the main problems is that refined, ‘simple’ carbohydrates are quickly broken down in the digestive tract, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. This can lead to carb cravings a few hours later when blood sugar levels go down again. This phenomenon is also called the ‘blood sugar roller coaster’ – which many people who have been on a high-carb diet can relate to. Not surprisingly, eating a lot of refined carbohydrates is associated with negative health effects and many chronic diseases.
Do NOT be fooled by labels like ‘whole grains‘ that are often plastered on processed food packages, including breakfast cereals. These are usually whole grains that have been pulverized into very fine flour and are just as harmful as their refined counterparts.”
6. Most Processed Foods Are Low in Nutrients
Processed foods often have the real nutrition processed right out, then sometimes added back in in the form of synthetic vitamins and minerals. These synthetics do not fool your body, however, and will not provide the whole, synergistic nutrition that eating whole food will.
Further, there’s no way that a lab can “add back in” all of the thousands ofphytochemicals and trace nutrients found in whole foods. Science hasn’t even begun to uncover all of them. The best way to ensure your body gets the benefits of all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and more that nature has to offer is to eat whole, unprocessed foods.
7. Processed Foods Are Typically Low in Fiber
Public health guidelines from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advise Americans to eat between 20 and 30 grams of fiber a day, but most adults don’t even eat half that much. This isn’t surprising, since fiber refers to the indigestible portion of plant foods, and in the largely refined standard American diet, healthful fibers are often processed right out. Unless you regularly eat whole fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds, you may be missing out on the healthiest forms of fiber available.
8. It Requires Less Energy and Time to Digest Processed Foods
“Vanishing calorie density” is a term used to describe processed foods that melt in your mouth, which has the effect of making your brain think it doesn’t contain any calories. End result — you keep eating. Cheetos is one such example.
Not only can you eat these processed foods faster (think of the difference between chewing a potato chip or a piece of broccoli), but it also takes less energy to digest them. In one study, it took volunteers twice as many calories to digest an unprocessed meal compared to a processed one.6 Those who regularly eat processed food may reduce the amount of calories they burn throughout the day because of this.
9. Processed Foods Are Often High in Trans Fats and Processed Vegetable Oils
Synthetic trans fats are common in foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, such as crackers, chips, most store-bought baked goods, and any fried foods, just to name a few examples. Synthetic trans fats are known to promote inflammation, which is a hallmark of most chronic and/or serious diseases.
Most also contain high amounts of omega-6 fats in the form of processed vegetable oils. These polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) tend to stimulate inflammatory processes in your body, and they are very chemically unstable and prone to oxidation. Consuming these oxidized fats in excess has been linked to all sorts of health problems, such as atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Cancer-Causing Acrylamide Is Another Major Processed Food Risk
If you’re looking for motivation to stop eating processed foods, remember that this is about more than eating empty calories or even too much sugar. Processed foods contain many substances that are contrary to health, and acrylamide is one of them. Acrylamide can form in many foods cooked or processed at temperatures above 212°F (100°C), but carbohydrate-rich foods are the most vulnerable to this heat-induced byproduct. As a general rule, the chemical is formed when food is heated enough to produce a fairly dry and “browned” surface. Hence, it can be found in high amounts in many processed foods, especially:
- Potatoes: chips, French fries, and other roasted or fried potato foods
- Grains: bread crust, toast, crisp bread, roasted breakfast cereals, and various processed snacks
Animal studies have shown that exposure to acrylamide increases the risk of several types of cancer, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer considers acrylamide a “probable human carcinogen.” Potato chips in particular are notoriously high in this dangerous chemical. So high, in fact, that in 2005 the state of California actually sued potato chip makers for failing to warn California consumers about the health risks of acrylamide in their products. A settlement was reached in 20087 when Frito-Lay and several other potato chip makers agreed to reduce the acrylamide levels in their chips to 275 parts per billion (ppb) by 2011, which is low enough to avoid needing a cancer warning label.
The Secret to Better Health: Eat Real Food
The solution to improving your health and losing weight is often as simple as swapping processed foods for real food.Business Insider reported:8“When we replace real, traditional foods like butter, meat and vegetables with crappy, processed junk foods, we get fat and sick. Real food is the key to good health, processed food is not. Period.”
People have thrived on vegetables, meats, eggs, fruits, and other whole foods for centuries, while processed foods were only recently invented. Many of the top executives and scientists at leading processed food companies actually avoid their own foods for a variety of health reasons!
Ditching processed foods requires that you plan your meals in advance, but if you take it step-by-step as described in my nutrition plan, it’s quite possible, and manageable, to painlessly remove processed foods from your diet. You can try scouting out your local farmer’s markets for in-season produce that is priced to sell, and planning your meals accordingly, but you can also use this same premise with supermarket sales.
You can generally plan a week of meals at a time, making sure you have all ingredients necessary on hand, and then do any prep work you can ahead of time so that dinner is easy to prepare if you’re short on time in the evenings (and you can use leftovers for lunches the next day).