“Food is all those substances that when submitted to the action of the stomach can be changed into life by digestion, and can thus repair the losses that the human body suffers through the act of living.”
– The Physiology of Taste by Jean Brillat-Savarin
There are many reasons to avoid processed foods in favor of whole foods. Here just a few of the benefits:
- Food becomes a truly delightful part of life.
- You’ll consume a greater array of nutrients.
- You’ll avoid a lot of troubles that people face when engaging with the Western food supply.
- You’ll avoid industrial ingredients and chemicals used to make processed foods.
- You won’t eat as much highly processed corn, soy, and wheat—a threesome that along with rice make up 50 percent of the average westerner’s calories.
- You’ll likely eat less sugar.
- You’ll probably have a better body composition and lower body fat percentage.
This article will show you how a diet high in processed food is harmful to your health and give you six reasons to avoid it.
#1: You don’t know what processed food is.
You may be surprised to hear that diets high in processed foods are harmful because they are such a central part of American life. Or you may think you’re already avoiding processed foods, but if you make the mistake of thinking that cereal, bread, and pasta aren’t processed foods, you’re in for a wake-up call.
Further, some mainstream nutritionists make a big deal about the fact that almost all the food we eat is somewhat processed and it would be really inconvenient to eat a diet that was truly free of processed foods.
Obviously, most food is processed in some way:
- When you buy kale and take it home, cut it up, and sauté it with olive oil and ginger, you’re processing it.
- Ground beef has been ground in a machine, fish has been cleaned, and coffee was picked, roasted, and ground.
- Virgin coconut oil (versus conventional) is extracted from the coconut meat using a press and then dried and filtered.
But there is a big difference between mechanical processing and chemical processing. There’s also a difference between overly processed foods that are highly refined so that they are devoid of all nutritional value and food that is minimally processed so that you can eat it.
For example, authentic Greek yogurt and all probiotic foods are considered processed foods and eating them is associated with better health, lower body fat percentage, and less disease risk. They are very different from cheap Greek-style yogurt that is made from milk, thickening agents, and often contains corn starch. Greek-style yogurt is an example of an overprocessed, degraded food.
The Bottom Line
In this article, we will consider all of the following to be processed foods:
Foods that have been processed more than necessary either by adding cheap ingredients or flavor enhancers to them.
Chemically processed foods that have been treated with chemicals, have added artificial flavors, or have been chemically altered in some way that is dangerous to health as documented by research.
Refined foods that contain a lower nutritional value than their unrefined counterpart.
#2: You will probably have a better body composition and easier time losing body fat.
Multiple studies show that people who eat more processed foods have more body fat and have a harder time losing body fat.
A large survey of over 120,000 Americans found a strong association between increased consumption of highly processed foods (chips, processed meat, French fries, refined grains, sweets, and sodas) and fat gain over a 4-year period. Eating vegetables, fruit, yogurt, nuts, whole grains and cheese were protective against fat gain.
A new Brazilian study found that out of the 1,581 calories eaten by the average person daily, 386 calories (25 percent of total calories) came from ultra-processed foods. As intake of these foods increased, so did body fat percentage and risk of being obese. Ultra processed foods included sweets, pasta, bread, baked goods, chips, soda, frozen dinners, pizza, cereal, processed meat, margarine, etc.
Why would eating processed foods make you fat?
- They are specifically formulated for maximum addictiveness so that we crave them and end up overeating them.
- They are high in sugar and refined fat but have zero natural fiber, which is a combination that triggers appetite because it activates the endocannabinoid brain receptors—the same receptors in the brain that bind to THC in marijuana.
- They tend to be quickly digested, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar that activates the hypocretin neurons in the brain that make you feel tired and less active.
- Due to their convenience, processed foods are what people tend to turn to for snacks even when they are not hungry because they can be eaten at any time and in almost any place.
The Bottom Line
What all this means is that people who eat more processed foods tend to eat more calories, which leads them to gain body fat. In addition, certain qualities in processed foods affect how you think about food, making it nearly impossible for people to regulate how much they eat.
#3: You can eat more total food to achieve the same caloric intake by favoring whole foods.
The more your food is in its natural state as when it came from the tree, plant, animal, or fish, the higher the thermic effect, which refers to the number of calories your body will burn digesting it.
For example, a 2011 study found that participants burned 50 percent more calories in the few hours after eating a minimally processed cheese sandwich (whole grain bread with sunflower seeds and cheddar cheese) than a processed food sandwich (processed cheese product and white bread). Both meals contained the same amount of calories and similar proportion of carbs, protein, and fat.
In addition, digestion took an hour longer following the “whole” food meal than the processed food meal, which was due to the higher fiber content in the whole grain bread.
Researchers note that the ingredients used in this “whole” food meal required some processing, but not nearly as much as for the processed food ingredients. They suggest that eating a stricter whole foods diet of fruit, vegetables, and meat that is devoid of processing would increase the thermic effect even more.
This is one of the only studies like it, and it’s indicative of the presence of processed foods in our diets that there are no studies comparing truly whole foods with processed foods.
The Bottom Line: Choosing foods in their most natural state is an easy way to avoid hunger and optimize calorie intake so you have a lean body composition.
#4: Food labels lie.
Nutrition labels lie in a couple of ways.
First, a Harvard study found that food labels significantly underestimate calorie counts on processed foods because energy calculations are based on the calorie content in unprocessed ingredients. Processing or heating ingredients significantly increases the energy present.
Second, you’ve surely heard about the dangers of trans fats—those dangerous “man-made” fats that are closely linked to development of a number of diseases including heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cancer, and neurological problems.
Food companies get away with lying to you and saying a food is “trans-fat free” as long as it contains less than 0.5 g of trans fat per serving. This has led food companies to shrink serving sizes to allow for the “trans-fat free” label.
Third, there are numerous other ridiculous claims on food labels from “natural” to “healthy” to “a good source of protein” to “whole grain” when the food is made from processed flour that was once, in some other incarnation, whole.
The Bottom Line
Food labels are advertisements, not science. Stubbornly protect yourself from these messages by choosing whole unpackaged foods that aren’t trying to manipulate your behavior.
#5: You will probably have better insulin health and blood sugar.
The more processed foods you eat, the more likely you are to increase your diabetes risk and reduce your insulin health for the following reasons:
- They tend to be high in carbs, low in fiber content, and are quickly digested.
- They tend to have way too much of certain ingredients that act as fillers, replacing more expensive ingredients. Corn, soy, and wheat derivatives are the primary ones.
- They almost always have added sugar or artificial sweeteners.
For example, a study that showed how processed food damages metabolism and body composition found that after subjects ate a candy bar or soda and chips, insulin response was 70 percent higher than when they ate raisins and peanuts. Blood glucose also peaked faster and dropped quicker in response to the processed food than the raisin and peanut snack.
The Bottom Line
Promoting insulin health and managing blood sugar is a complex process. It is best achieved by combining intense exercise, regular physical activity throughout the day, and a diet that is high in whole proteins and indigestible fiber from carbs, but low in carbs that have a high-glycemic response.
This means eat plenty of low-carb whole vegetables and fruit, meat, fish, beans, and nuts. Selectively include starchy plants and whole grains if you like.
#6: You may reduce your cancer and disease risk.
By planning your diet around a variety of whole foods you’ll consume more nutrients that are protective against inflammation, and cancer.
For example, indigestible fiber promotes gut and cardiovascular health, antioxidants fight free radicals and cancer, and vitamins and minerals improve enzyme and hormone function.
But, if you plan you diet around processed foods, you will be consuming overly processed sugar, fat, and protein that tend to be the cheapest, most harmful variations of these “foods.” When consumed in large quantities they can cause out-of-control oxidative stress that leads to inflammation and increased disease risk.
For example, numerous studies have found that that regularly eating processed foods, especially processed meat, is robustly linked with risk of cancer of the esophagus and stomach. Processed vegetables have also been linked to esophageal cancer.
In addition, processed meat was linked to risk of colorectal, pancreatic, lung, prostate, testicular, kidney, and bladder cancer in a large group of 19,732 people.
The Bottom Line
Eat nutrient-rich whole foods that are easy for your body to digest to promote health and reduce disease risk. Avoid highly processed foods as if your life depended on it.