Processed foods are often referred to as convenience foods as they make life easy. These foods are cheaper, ready to eat and tasty, and can be taken on the go. But the fact is that the processed foods are bad for your health as they lead to obesity, heart problems, and other health issues. Processed foods like chips, frozen pizza, soda, and so on are high in salt, sugar and fat. Scientists have identified packaged processed foods as the reason for rising obesity rates around the world.
Food processing can be as basic as freezing, canning, baking, and drying. Some common processed food include breakfast cereals, cheese, tinned vegetables, bread, savoury snacks, such as crisps, sausage rolls, pies and pasties, meat products, such as bacon, sausage, ham, salami etc, convenience foods, such as microwave meals or ready meals, cakes and biscuits, drinks, such as milk or soft drinks. Another category of unhealthy foods are ultra-processed items made mostly from fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. These foods contain additives like artificial colours and flavours or stabilizers. A study published in The BMJ reported that ultra-processed foods are the main source (nearly 58%) of calories eaten in the US, and contribute almost 90% of the energy we get from added sugars.
Processed and Ultra-processed Foods – What Studies Found
A recent study published in the journal Cell Metabolism compared the effects of an ultra-processed diet to the effects of an unprocessed diet on calorie intake and weight gain. The study participants were 20 healthy, overweight adults staying at a medical facility. Each participant was put on an ultra-processed diet phase and an unprocessed diet phase for 14 days each. During each diet phase, the study subjects were presented with three daily meals and were instructed to consume as much or as little as desired. Each participant was given 60 minutes to consume each meal, with snacks (either ultra-processed or unprocessed, depending on the study phase) available throughout the day. The study found that 83.5% of calories came from ultra-processed food in the unprocessed diet phase and 83.3% of calories came from unprocessed foods. Eleven people gained on the ultra-processed diet as much as 13 pounds over 14 days, while a few participants saw no weight gain.
To study the effects of processed foods, researchers at the National Institute of Health conducted a four-week study involving 20 people. The researchers allowed the 20 participants to eat as much or as little as they wanted. They found that people eat 500 more than the required calories a day when they eat mostly processed foods. However, when the same people were given less processed foods, their calorie intake was within the limit.
In another study published in The BMJ, researchers in France found that people who ate more processed foods were more likely to have heart disease. They examined more than 100,000 French adults and found that those who consumed more ultra-processed food faced problems like higher risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease. The results of these studies remained statistically significant even after the researchers adjusted for the nutritional quality of the diet due to factors such as the amount saturated fat, sodium, sugar, and dietary fiber in the diets. A similar study in Spain linked eating more processed foods to a higher risk of death in general. All of the above studies show that having processed food is harmful for your body.
How Processed Food Affects Your Body
- High in sugar and fructose corn syrup: Processed foods are loaded with sugar and too much of it can lead to serious health conditions. They have no nutrients and can have devastating effects on metabolism. They also lead to insulin resistance, high triglycerides, increased levels of the harmful cholesterol and increased fat accumulation in the liver and abdomen.
- Designed for over consumption: People tend to prefer foods that are sweet, salty and fatty. Due to the increased competition, many processed foods have been engineered to be so “rewarding” to the brain that they overpower any natural food. But this can affect the regulation of energy balance in our bodies. These processed foods are so rewarding that they affect our thoughts and behavior, making us eat more and more, until eventually we become sick.
- High in carbohydrates: Processed foods are often high in carbs, but usually the refined variety. Refined 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” and can be extremely harmful for the body.
- Low in nutrients: Processed food are low in nutrients and sometimes, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to these foods to compensate for what was lost during processing. However, synthetic nutrients are not a good replacement for the nutrients found in whole foods. So the more processed food you eat, the less vitamins, minerals and antioxidents you get.
- Low in fiber: The fiber that is found naturally in foods is often lost during processing, or intentionally removed. Fiber can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and make you feel more satisfied with fewer calories.
Avoiding processed foods can be hard, especially for people with limited time and money. But substituting it with fruits and vegetables is a healthier option. Having whole food that contains natural vitamins and minerals which go through minimal industrial processing is also good for your body. Make sure to have more home cooked food.
Remember – good food is the key to a good life.