Why Processed Foods Are Bad For Your Health
In contemporary society, it can be more difficult now than ever to decide what to eat. We’re constantly exposed to different diets, whether it be keto, paleo, or any other diet of the moment. It’s understandable why so many of us have trouble determining which type of diet is best for our health. Some people swear by being vegan, while others think eating little to no carbs is best. One thing is for sure, the fewer processed foods we eat, the better for our health. Most of us know that processed foods are bad for us, but how can we replace them with better choices?
What Is Processed Food?
Processed food is anything that has been artificially altered as part of its preparation to increase its convenience, shelf life, or flavor. The processing of some foods is much more extensive than in others. In fact, a huge majority of foods that we eat are processed in some way, but because some are in their natural state, they are only minimally processed. As such, a lot of processed food looks to be pretty similar to what you would find in nature. The foods we really need to look out for are those with heavy processing such as the addition of artificial flavors, additives, and lots of preservatives.
The majority of the food we eat has undergone some form of processing before it reaches our plates. However, items like canned tomatoes or canned tuna, which are also processed, do not pose much of a problem as they usually stills remain fresh and nutrient-dense. However, heavily processed foods such as cakes, crackers, boxed macaroni and cheese, and jarred pasta sauces tend to be heavily processed and can present a serious health risk.
Unfortunately, it’s estimated that more than half of the calories consumed by Americans come from foods that have been very heavily processed. This means that a huge portion of the average American diet is made up of foods not found in nature and full of a lot of chemical that aren’t good for us.
What Are The Health Risks of Heavily Processed Foods?
Of course, the biggest issue with highly processed foods is the health problems they can pose to consumers. In fact, processed foods have even been linked to high risk of cancer. So much so that researchers found that for every 10 percent increase in consumption of ultra-processed food, cancer risk increased by 12 percent.
The sugar, sodium, and fat in heavily processed foods can be very unhealthy. They’re generally added in an attempt to add flavor to food, but these ingredients are associated with serious health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. What’s more, processed foods don’t tend to be nutritionally dense. Foods stripped of nutrients by heavy processing may be fortified with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, but they’re no substitution from fresh foods that are naturally high in nutrients.
Processed foods are also addicting and they contain a large number of calories, which is a problematic combination. Because they tend to taste good, there is a lot of temptation to eat unhealthy foods and thus consume more calories than we realize. Processed foods stimulate the dopamine center in our brains, making us crave them more in the future.
Processed foods are also more easily digestible than whole foods. While this might sound like a good thing, it’s actually not. Why? Because the easier a food is to digest, the less energy we burn in the digestion process. Processed foods are estimated to burn half as many calories during digestion. This makes it even easier to gain weight by eating processed foods, especially because they are high in calories.
Last, but certainly not least, artificial ingredients are abundant in processed foods. Ingredients such as preservatives and sweeteners are added, along with additives that change color, texture, flavor, and odor.
Reducing Processed Foods in Your Diet
It can be very difficult and overwhelming to completely cut all processed foods out of your diet. In fact, without hectic, busy lives, it simply isn’t realistic to expect people to never consume anything processed. However, cutting the number of processed foods you eat is very doable. Try the following tips to achieve a diet filled with more healthy, whole foods.
Always check the labels. Heavily processed foods tend to have a long list of ingredients. When the most prominent ingredient is a chemical instead of actual food, there's a good chance the food has been heavily processed.
If you go shopping at the grocery store, check out the outside aisles. Most grocery stores offer processed, packaged items in the center aisles. And, of course, aim to purchase more whole, fresh foods rather than anything that comes in a package.
Choose meats that have undergone minimal processing. Avoid heavily processed meats, like sausage and cured meats like bacon, and choose minimally processed meats such as seafood or chicken breast.
Cooking at home from scratch is a great way to make sure you know exactly what you’re eating. Prepare a larger batch and freeze the leftovers for those times when you’re busy and might not have time to cook a full meal.
Take your changes slowly. You can substitute more fresh foods in your diet over time. Taking the process slowly is a great way to improve your chances of making the changes to a more whole-food-based diet for the long run.
Cutting out the majority of processed food from our diet can feel overwhelming, but actually, it’s easy if you do it step by step and educate yourself on the dangers of processed foods and how to avoid them. You may start to notice that you have more energy as you cut processed foods out and you’ll likely feel much healthier. It’s well worth making the change since a whole-food-based diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables is the easiest “diet” to follow if you want to be as healthy as possible.
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