Processed foods, sometimes referred to as refined foods, are not health promoting (not even the organic versions).
You have heard they’re not good, but why? What does the scientific literature say about them?
They are most often highly heated, sometimes fried, loaded with sugar and chemicals and normally stripped of their natural properties.
After all, they taste good, are usually convenient to grab, appear to be inexpensive and it’s not like you develop disease the minute you eat them…so, what’s the big deal? Let’s get right into it…
Processed foods are most commonly:
- Stripped of their natural nutrient value. Some examples- steamed potatoes are full of fiber, manganese, potassium, vitamin B6 and energy…when you turn those same potatoes into potato chips, they become harmful to your health, promoting clogged arteries and a congested liver as well as weight gain which is a risk factor for countless diseases. Raw cacao, in its natural state, is a superfood rich in magnesium and one of the highest sources of antioxidants…in the form of candy bars, smothered in sugar, this same substance promotes insulin resistance, weight gain and energy crashes. Whole grains are associated with a healthy heart and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease1. However, if you take those same whole grains and process them into bread, cereals, or other flour products, they become a perfect storm yielding blood sugar dysregulation2, fatigue and hormone disruption3.
- Nutritionally out of balance. Here’s what this means. Understand that calcium should be taken with magnesium…oh and vitamin D is needed for calcium metabolism…also, you need vitamin K for absorption of vitamin D…ugh, how do you keep it all straight? I’m so glad you asked. When you eat whole foods, meaning foods in their natural whole state, they come perfectly packaged in nature with all the right synergistic cofactors, in the proper proportions. The imbalances come when you consume processed foods which are no longer in their natural state and sometimes fortified with synthetic nutrients (not the same as that found in nature).
- High caloric density. Most processed foods have more calories/lb than their whole food counterparts (think rice vs rice chips, potato vs potato chips, corn vs frosted flakes, etc)…They are often loaded with sugars of various kinds (including high fructose corn syrup) and poor quality oils which increase their calorie content as well.
- Low in nutrient density. The high caloric density would be fine to a degree if it also had high nutrient value (walnuts and avocados would be a good example of this), but that’s not the case for most processed foods. The low nutrient and fiber content coupled with the high caloric density mentioned above leaves you in a perfect storm for getting a “full” belly while at the same time your cells are literally starving for nutrition. Therefore, so many Americans are overweight and yet malnourished.
- They foster nutrient deficiencies. This one is interesting. There are really 2 reasons for this. The first one is obvious and has been hinted at above. There are more nutrients in a potato than a potato chip. That makes sense. But the other reason may surprise you. Most American’s diets are composed of nearly 70% processed foods. We know that these foods have fewer nutrients and usually less fiber (so they’re less filling). That means that you would have to get most of your micronutrients from only 30% of your calories. As a clinical nutritionist, I can tell you, even if that 30% is SUPER healthy and filled with organic whole smoothies and salads and the like, it is not possible to get all you need from that number of calories. It’s also important to note that even one nutrient deficiency can cause major problems in the body. Magnesium for example, is part of over 400 different processes. Low magnesium is associated with cardiovascular disease, the second leading cause of death in the US4. And that’s just magnesium.
- They contain seed oils. Omega 6 -based seed oils, such as peanut, canola and soybean, have been found to be profoundly damaging to the arteries and liver as well as a prime source of systemic inflammation5. This could be an entire post on it’s own, but suffice it to say for now, seed oils are one of the most damaging foods that the body could contend with. These are the main oils used in processed foods so the more processed foods you get, the higher your intake of these toxic fats.
- They reduce energy burn after consumption. In other words, you burn fewer calories after eating processed foods than with whole foods, perhaps due at least in part to the energy crash that often comes after eating processed food6.
- They often contain refined flours, oils and sugars, which all lead to weight gain and are associated with all cause mortality7! Enough said on that one!
- They commonly facilitate passive overeating leading to food addiction and weight gain. In nature, you would never eat more than for example, a few almonds at a time because they would take a long time to harvest and crack open. However, when those almonds are doused in oil and salt and then roasted at high heat and conveniently put into a 1 lb bag, you can easily consume an entire bag of them, yielding an excessive amount of calories, oil and poor quality salt, all leading to the degradation of your health. You know what I mean if you’ve ever tried to quit processed food, even for a few days. It can be really hard because much of the additives are literally addicting. Follow the money…if I make a snack that is addicting, you will buy more of it because you need it!
- They’re more likely to use dyes, preservatives and other additives. Especially if you’re eating organic, you don’t really need to worry about what’s “in” your apple or your carrots or your bananas. Unlike processed foods, natural whole foods are natural and thus have no additives (unless you add them yourself). Processed foods however, require longer shelf lives and thus often need preservatives. Also, because they are dead and commonly void of their natural vibrancy, dyes are added. Cheap processed foods also add flavor enhancers that are most often NOT natural and not health promoting.
- They’re expensive. Hear me out on this one. I know that they appear to be “cheap” at first glance. But I am not just looking at the cost that you pay when you buy the candy bar (or whatever the given vice might be). We also have to look at the cost of a depressed immune system, altered mood, energy crashes, dental dilemmas, poor quality sleep and all the issues associated with increased weight, which is a risk factor for tons of disease conditions ranging from cancer and diabetes, to covid and fertility.
IMPORTANT TO NOTE: All of this applies even to processed foods that are “organic”, “vegan”, “gluten free” or “non-GMO”, etc. Of course, if you are going to eat processed foods, some may be better than others (I would always choose organic, vegan and non-GMO for example over the alternative), but the principles still apply. Although there are degrees in terms of how much a food is hurting or helping you, I have proven for years with applied kinesiological testing that there are no neutral foods. A food is either promoting your health or it’s harming your health.
But is it really that big of deal? How much is too much? It’s a fair way to think. After all, it’s not like you get sick the minute you eat these products. They’re convenient for sure. And they taste good…I get it.
If you have healthy habits of course you can likely get away with more. Healthy habits aren’t just about diet, although that’s part of it. It also has to do with the way you handle stress, your hydration levels, sleep habits, exercise, rest/recovery, etc. Of course, the point here isn’t to stress over occasional snacks or meals that aren’t part of your regular plan, but too often, “occasional” quickly becomes weekly, then daily and often before you know it, most of your diet is made up of processed foods. So, again, is it really that big of a deal?
There’s not a perfect answer, as every person is unique, but I can give you some important points to consider…
- Are you addicted? If so, moderation can be challenging and elimination may be needed, but even tougher. These foods are addicting on purpose. Sugar is especially addicting and impacts the brain almost instantly8. If you have a problem with alcohol, it’s a good idea to avoid it completely. Processed foods work the same way. If you’re not sure if you have an addiction to your given junk food of choice, try stopping it for 30 days and see how your body (and mind and spirit) responds.
- What’s your standard for your health? If you just want to avoid pain, your health practices and commitments will be different than if your goal is to sleep like a baby, have radiant skin, boundless energy and live a long and healthy life! We often don’t think much about this goal until we are in crisis. NOW is the best time to consider this. Talk to a friend or use a journal to get your thoughts out.
- Who else are you impacting? Maybe you are one of those rare people who can keep a processed treat in the freezer and have it last for months…but what about those you have influence on? If you’re caring for an aging parent with health issues or have kids who are already constantly wanting to live off junk food, how will this impact them? What habits are you fostering, or example are you setting? This isn’t about rigid rules or shaming but rather just setting the tone for optimal health in every way so you can enjoy your loved ones as much as possible for as long as possible.
There are 2 main things that really help…one takes grit, the other just takes a bit of time and creativity.
First, the gritty one…essentially, you want to heal and re-train your palate so that natural healthy foods taste good. This may mean for a short time of transition that your foods may seem different or a bit blander than what you’re used to. But even here, don’t worry. You can flavor your foods with all kinds of natural spices, chopped fruit, etc. for flavor. This will only last for 1-2 weeks typically.
And next, think about your favorite foods and how you can make a TRULY healthy version of them. I’m not talking about trading a junk food banana muffin for an organic vegan gluten free banana muffin (which is just an organic vegan gf muffin that is still highly processed and usually still full of sugar, flour and preservatives). I’m talking about trading those gummy bears for organic date rolls (made from organic dates and coconut). These are some of my favorite sweet treats. There are healthy whole food versions of nearly any food you can think of from pie and cookies to tacos and pizza. The point here is that you don’t have to sacrifice your health to eat amazing food that you and your family can really enjoy!
If you’re feeling stuck in this process, we’d love to help. Feel free to reach out by calling the clinic today! 269-204-6525
1. Kirwan JP, Malin SK, Scelsi AR, et al. A Whole-Grain Diet Reduces Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Nutr. 2016. doi:10.3945/jn.116.230508
2. Srour B, Fezeu LK, Kesse-Guyot E, et al. Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes among Participants of the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort. JAMA Intern Med. 2020. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.5942
3. Fuhrman J. The Hidden Dangers of Fast and Processed Food*. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2018. doi:10.1177/1559827618766483
4. DiNicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe JH, Wilson W. Subclinical magnesium deficiency: A principal driver of cardiovascular disease and a public health crisis. Open Hear. 2018. doi:10.1136/openhrt-2017-000668
5. Esmaillzadeh A, Azadbakht L. Home use of vegetable oils, markers of systemic inflammation, and endothelial dysfunction among women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008. doi:10.1093/ajcn/88.4.913
6. Barr SB, Wright JC. Postprandial energy expenditure in whole-food and processed-food meals: Implications for daily energy expenditure. Food Nutr Res. 2010. doi:10.3402/fnr.v54i0.5144
7. Marti A. Ultra-processed foods are not “real food” but really affect your health. Nutrients. 2019. doi:10.3390/nu11081902
8. Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019
Nothing said or implied in this post is intended to treat, cure, diagnose or prevent any disease. It does not take the place of a health care practitioner. It is for educational purposes only.