Processed foods may be convenient, quick to make and relatively cheap, but they are not very good for our bodies. These foods have more calories, fat, sugar and salt than whole foods. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, processed foods make up more than 60 percent of the calories in products Americans typically buy in grocery stores—including frozen meals, white bread, cookies, chips, soda and candy.
Highly processed foods are chemically treated with additives and preservatives to help extend their shelf-life. That doesn’t sound healthy for any human body, and it’s not. How exactly do processed foods threaten your health? Below are six of many ways they put you at risk—six health complications that will hopefully convince you to eat more clean, all-natural foods instead.
A lot of highly-processed foods contain loads of sugar and “empty calories” which add no nutritional value and actually encourage your body to consume more calories. This makes it harder for you to turn down seconds of sugary foods, or stop yourself from consuming an entire bag of chips in one sitting. All those unhealthy snacks ultimately lead to increased weight gain, and if you’re not careful, obesity.
Research done by Queensland University of Technology actually showed that excessive sugar consumption increases a person’s dopamine levels in a similar way to addictive drugs such as cocaine. That means you could become addicted to highly-processed snacks and meals. To prevent that from happening, try to decrease your sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories, as recommended by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And there are plenty of healthy yet delicious snacks are the perfect substitute for less nutritional, sugary ones.
2. Metabolic Syndrome
All those processed foods you’re eating are also linked to metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed by a variety of factors, including increased waistline, increased triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol levels (that’s the good cholesterol), high blood pressure and high fasting blood glucose.
Although these symptoms can be caused by other things, the sugars in highly processed foods are one of the main offenders. The sugars in processed foods are carbohydrates and typically our body uses them for energy, but when we consume too much of them our bodies store them as fats, leading to metabolic syndrome and other negative consequences. The next time you’re cooking something that involves sugar, use substitute sweeteners for a resulting dish that’s just as good as the original recipe but way better for you.
3. Inflammatory Bowel Disease
This disease, also known by the name Crohn’s disease, is caused by emulsifiers—a chemical additive found in nearly all processed foods to help extend shelf life and hold shape and texture. They do this by holding together food substances together that would otherwise naturally separate. You probably don’t want to know that those emulsifiers are similar to those found in your dish soap and detergent. Yikes.
A study conducted just last year was realized on mice to see what effect emulsifiers (commonly found in the highly processed foods you eat) have on bodily functions. The study found changes to the mice’s gut bacteria that triggered obesity, metabolic syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Inflammatory bowel disease can cause diarrhea, colon cancer, ulcers and/or malnutrition. A lot of foods that you normally eat probably contain some of these harmful, disease causing additives. Make sure you know what’s in your food before you eat it because as they say, you are what you eat.
4. Autoimmune Diseases
There are over 100 different types of autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, lupus and multiple sclerosis. These diseases are caused by additives commonly found in processed foods that damage the tight junction between intestinal epithelial cells in your digestive tract. This junction forms a strong barrier against bacteria, toxins, and other harmful substances that may make their way into our bodies. When the junctions break down, the body’s defense mechanism is weakened and causes a “leaky gut.”
There are seven additives that contribute the most to autoimmune diseases: glucose, salt, emulsifiers, organic solvents, gluten, microbial transglutaminase and nanoparticles. All of these are usually found in the processed foods you probably eat every day. Of course there are many more additives you should worry about avoiding, no matter how good they might taste.
5. Colon Cancer
When it comes to colon cancer, the main processed food contributor is meat. This includes lunch meats, bacon, sausage, hot dogs and beef jerky—or any other meat that has been chemically treated to preserve its shelf life. Red meats such as beef and pork can also increase your risk of colon cancer. This is because the chemicals used to preserve these meats or the cooking process through which they are preserved deal with carcinogenic compounds.
It’s been found that eating just 50 grams of processed or red meat a day can increase your risk of colon cancer by 18 percent. To decrease your risk try steadily lowering your meat intake, starting with a meatless Monday dinner ritual.
6. Anxiety and Depression
What you eat not only affects on your bodily health, but on your mental health as well. Diets high in processed foods have been shown to cause higher rates of anxiety and depression. Bacteria in our gut produce mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, but eating sugary, highly processed foods with chemical additives can unfavorably affect your body’s ability to maintain healthy levels of them. Added sugars also cause spikes in blood glucose, causing you to have some serious mood swings that might not react well with others.
The more processed foods you’re eating, the less real food you’re eating, meaning your body is missing out on valuable vitamins and minerals needed to support you physically and mentally. Our bodies aren’t made to handle the chemical additives processed foods contain. Of course it’s hard to avoid processed foods completely, but being mindful of just how much of them you’re eating and trying to avoid them when you can is important for taking care of yourself.