If you are a health enthusiast and fitness freak, then you might have heard all the negative comments about processed foods.
Processed foods offer a plethora of health issues for the human body like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and whatnot.
But do you exactly know what are processed foods and how are they really bad for your health? Generally, you cannot avoid processed food from your diet.
Due to this, you should know all about the advantages and disadvantages of the processed foods that you are eating.
You may have quite misconceptions about the term processed food and so you might think that all processed foods are harmful to your health.
And also you have to completely evade them from your diet. However, this is not true.
Processed foods include all the food items that have been altered from their natural state.
This could include cleaning the foods, cutting them, chopping them, or even modifying their flavors using additives, or preservatives.
So processed food may not just include your box of potato chips, hamburgers, and macaroni and cheese.
Instead, you may be shocked to hear that it may even include your homemade soup, chopped apple, or whole wheat bread.
So though you may not be consuming some of the processed foods regularly, others may have a place in your balance diet. So let’s know about processed foods in detail.
What Are Processed Foods?
Processed food is any raw agricultural commodity that might have been washed, heated, pasteurized, canned, frozen, cleaned, dehydrated, dried, or even packaged.
The gist of this definition is that if any modifications have been made to the raw agricultural commodity, then it might be termed processed food.
This modification could be in the form of adding nutrients or other food additives to your food items like salt, sugars, or fats.
You may know it includes a wide array of food items that you might be eating regularly in your daily diet.
These processed foods do not just undergo chemical changes, but also physical changes like frying, baking, mixing, or chopping.
Here’s an example that may help you to understand vividly the term processed foods.
When we adhere to the definition of processed foods, we know that these food items may include a major part of your balanced diet like
- Low-fat cheese
- Cut fruits, sauces
Moreover, processed foods may even include any food item or dish prepared by you from scratch.
Let’s take the example of homemade sourdough bread. Here, while you make a loaf of sourdough bread, you will need flour, water, oil, and salt.
You will prepare the dough by kneading, proofing and folding. Then once, you place it in the oven, it may undergo several physical and chemical changes to get prepared.
Although this sourdough seems like an unprocessed food, it isn’t and so are the other food items.
Most of the food that we consume undergoes chemical and physical changes. Only the levels involved in the processing are different.
So, you must remember that not all processed foods are bad for your health.
Certain food items are highly processed and consist of a lot of artificial ingredients like sugar, trans fats, and refined carbs in them.
Such foods are called ultra-processed foods and these could be detrimental to your health, despite the tastes and flavors.
In recent decades, the consumption of highly processed foods has amplified significantly and is the main reason leading to the risk of obesity.
Reasons Why Processed Foods May Be Harmful To Health
As mentioned earlier, you may be eating processed foods in your day-to-day lives without knowing.
However, it is the ultra-processed foods that tend to taste good and might be harmful to your health.
This is because these foods might contain ingredients that, consumed in excess could be harmful to the health.
Additionally, these foods may also have fewer levels of vitamins, dietary fibers, and other minerals as compared to whole Foods.
There are many harmful effects of highly processed foods. The adults who ate 10% more ultra-processed foods could also have a 10% higher risk for several diseases like
- cerebrovascular disorders
- coronary heart disease
- cardiovascular diseases
There are five major reasons which could be linked to the intensified risks of highly processed foods to a person’s health.
As we all know, carbohydrates might be a crucial component of any diet.
However, the carbs which you may receive from whole foods are always better as compared to refined carbs.
This is because when you consume refined carbs, your body will break them into simple carbohydrates which could lead to a rise in insulin and blood sugar levels immediately.
Due to this, refined carbs might even be linked with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Generally, all highly processed foods might be high in refined carbs.
So you may resort to other healthy sources of carbohydrates like beans, pulses, fruits, whole grains, and vegetables.
Low In Fiber
Natural fiber is lost from processed foods during the processing stage.
This dietary fiber has a wide array of health benefits, like it may help to slow the absorption of carbohydrates in people and hence help them to feel more satisfied quickly.
Apart from this, the fiber may even be a reason behind bolstering your heart health. In the absence of this fiber, you may not be able to reap all such benefits.
Also, you may get affected by health issues such as constipation and others.
So you could focus on certain other food sources like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds for high fiber.
Generally, processed foods contain high levels of added sugar, specifically high fructose corn syrup. Besides having no nutrients, added sugar is high in calories.
Other than this, regular consumption of added sugar in a high amount could lead to compulsive overeating.
It might even be linked with certain health conditions like inflammatory diseases, obesity, diabetes, and whatnot.
Among processed foods, sweetened beverages might be a significant source of added sugar.
You could cut off your consumption of added sugar by replacing your soda with sparkling water.
Low Nutrient Levels
The highly processed foods may have very low nutrient levels as compared to the minimally processed or whole foods.
In certain cases, the manufacturers may even replace the nutrients that are lost during the processing stage by adding certain synthetic minerals and vitamins.
At the same time, they may not provide you with the additional helpful compounds that could you could get from minimally processed foods or whole foods.
Since highly processed foods lack dietary fiber, they may be easy to chew and swallow.
Moreover, your body will require less energy to digest these foods as compared to whole or less processed foods.
As a result, you may resort to eating more of these products in a shorter duration and hence it may lead to an increase in your calories.
Thus, these are just some of the reasons why you may avoid consuming highly processed food items.
The Positive Side Of Processed Food
Besides having certain harmful effects, minimally processed food could provide you with certain benefits as well.
You could be eating more nutrient-dense foods when you include these items in your diet.
Say, for example, milk and juices mightbe fortified with vitamin D and calcium, and the breakfast cereals may have good quantities of added fiber in them.
At the same time, minimally processed food items like pre-washed spinach or pre-cut vegetables might even be convenient to use during your hectic schedules.
You could even opt for the canned fruit when you are getting late for your office and fresh fruit is not available.
Let Us Wrap It Up!
Working4Health prefers using primary and verified references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and our primary references include peer-reviewed research, academic, and medical institution studies.
- Processed Foods and Health Available from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/processed-foods/
- Jennifer M. Poti, Bianca Braga, and Bo Qin Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health – Processing or Nutrient Content? Curr Obes Rep. 2017 Dec; 6(4): 420–431.doi: 10.1007/s13679-017-0285-4
- Leonie Elizabeth, Priscila Machado, Marit Zinöcker, et al. Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review Nutrients. 2020 Jul; 12(7): 1955.Published online 2020 Jun 30. doi: 10.3390/nu12071955
- Bhaskar Bhardwaj, Evan L. O’Keefe, and James H. O’Keefe. Death by Carbs: Added Sugars and Refined Carbohydrates Cause Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease in Asian Indians Mo Med. 2016 Sep-Oct; 113(5): 395–400.
- Lee S Gross, Li Li, Earl S Ford, Simin Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the United States: an ecologic assessment Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 May;79(5):774-9. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/79.5.774. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15113714/
- Erika Vanhauwaert, Christophe Matthys, Lies Verdonck Low-Residue and Low-Fiber Diets in Gastrointestinal Disease Management Adv Nutr. 2015 Nov; 6(6): 820–827.Published online 2015 Nov 10. doi: 10.3945/an.115.009688
- Added Sugar Available from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/added-sugar-in-the-diet/
- Eating highly processed foods linked to weight gain Available from: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/eating-highly-processed-foods-linked-weight-gain
- Connie M Weaver, Johanna Dwyer, Victor L Fulgoni, III Processed foods: contributions to nutrition Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun; 99(6): 1525–1542.Published online 2014 Apr 23. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.089284
- About the Author
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Alisha Matthew has been a practicing nutritionist since 2016. She holds a master’s degree in nutrition from the University of IOWA. She is a staunch believer in improving the human health index by educating people about nutrition and the importance of nutrition in leading a healthy and happy life. Her long-term goal is to keep educating people on general health and keep herself updated with the latest trends in the field of health.