How Do Processed Foods Affect Your Health? 7 Risks You Can’t Ignore

  • Usman 
processed-foods

When starting the journey of weight loss, there are certain conditions that need to be applied on your diet and some restrictions as well. Your diet is one of the most important deciding factors during the weight loss process and it’s medically proven that without changing your diet and adding healthier alternatives in it, no weight loss can actually be achieved in a healthy manner.

The usual changes in every diet involve the removal and cut down of carbs, sugar and unhealthy fats. However, one thing found in almost all the diets out there is the reduction of processed foods.

Processed foods are already considered extremely unhealthy as they contain a high amount of carbs, sugar, fats and sodium but also because the chemicals and preservatives added in processed foods is extremely harmful for our body.

The important thing to note is that keeping diets aside, processed foods are still unhealthy for our health, and they affect our internal body system dangerously. Read below to learn more about processed foods and how they affect our health.

What is a processed food?

Processed food is any food that’s chemically treated with preservatives and additives to make it more convenient and to develop its taste, texture, and aroma. Most importantly, to make it shelf-stable.

Some foods are much more processed than others and processed foods are known to contain an excessive amount of harmful ingredients like saturated fats, added and artificial sugar, salt, and at the same time, it provides very few vitamins and dietary fiber.

Most foods need some degree of processing in order to be marketable. Food processing is required to ensure the safety of perishable items, such as fresh meat or dairy.

Some foods are minimally processed in which the natural state of food is not changed. Whereas some are highly processed, mostly known as ultra-processed foods and such foods are chemically altered with artificial flavors, additives, and other ingredients.

These foods are high in all sorts of additives, chemicals, sugar and saturated fats and carbs. Processed foods are a major contributor to obesity and a rising incidence of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

Mechanical Processing VS Chemical Processing

During mechanical processing, food is slightly altered and not treated with chemicals and flavors. Such processing does not change the nutritional content of food, and the health content of food is not lost. For example, cleaning, grinding, refrigeration, heating, freezing, and pasteurization.

Such procedures are adopted to store food for a greater amount of time and slightly alter it from its natural state. Fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, meat, whole grains and some dairy products are mostly minimally processed and stored using this method.

Food is altered with artificial flavors, preservatives, stabilizers, and chemicals with little nutritional value during chemical processing. These methods are adopted to improve taste, color, texture or to extend the shelf-life of products.

Such food contains a high ratio of calories to nutrients and is low in fiber and nutrients. They are typically ready-to-eat foods that require minimal additional preparation. They are also called ultra-processed food. Such foods are extremely convenient and tasty to consume however, they’re damaging our health more.

Examples of Ultra Processed Foods

Processed foods are mostly pre-prepared, and they include convenience store items as well. These foods are designed to increase cravings so that people will overeat them specifically. Some examples are:

  • Frozen or Ready-Made Meals
  • Cereals (especially sweetened which are ultra-processed)
  • Packaged Bread
  • Canned Goods
  • Chips, Crackers and Biscuits
  • Cheese Slices
  • Spreads
  • Baked Goods like cakes, burgers and pizza that have been shelved.
  • Instant Soup and Noodles
  • Sodas (soft drinks and energy drinks)
  • Fruit juices
  • Frappuccino
  • Candy bars and chocolates
  • Cake and brownie mixes
  • Sweeteners and artificial flavoring
  • Deli meat

Is processed food considered unhealthy?

Everything that we eat is processed to one extent or another before we consume it. Some foods require processing in order to maintain their freshness and nutrients, in some cases. Almost all foods are processed in one way or another.

Not all processed food is a bad choice. Processing by certain methods like pasteurization and drying is useful as it can stop harmful bacteria growth. Iodine is added in salt to prevent goiter. Milk is pasteurized to remove harmful bacteria.

Similarly, some additives are added to preserve foods’ texture, such as preventing peanut butter from separating into solid and liquid parts. On the other hand, food processing has many drawbacks too. Processing may result in loss of certain vitamins and minerals, such as peeling of fruits and vegetables may result in loss of plant nutrients and fiber. 

Overconsumption of heavily or ultra-processed foods is considered unhealthy and will put your health at extreme risk to many serious diseases. So, always read the product’s ingredient list before purchasing; if you see a list of ingredients with unknown and complicated names, it indicates that it’s ultra-processed food.

How to spot processed foods

Ultra-processed foods contain the following ingredients, which should help you spot processed foods:

A high amount of added sugar and sodium

Processed foods and beverages are major sources of added sugar in the diet. Added sugar has no nutritional value instead, it only contains excess calories. Similarly, sodium is added for developing the taste and texture of food. High amount of sodium leads to many diseases and an increased risk of cancer as well.

Artificial flavors

The word artificial flavor is a proprietary blend. Manufacturers add thousands of chemicals and additives under this name to your food. It contains additives to change texture, color, flavor, and ingredients like preservatives and sweeteners.

High in trans fats

Processed foods like bakery items and instant meals contain trans fats. Trans fats are artificially made by pumping hydrogen into vegetable oil. Trans fats give foods a pleasing taste and texture. Many restaurants use oil with trans fats as it can be utilized many times in commercial fryers. Trans fat is the unhealthiest type of fat, which increases bad cholesterol, decreases good cholesterol, and causes inflammation.

High in refined carbohydrates

Processed foods are mostly high in refined carbohydrates. Our body breaks down refined carbs quickly, which causes rapid increases in blood sugar, which stimulates a surge of insulin production.

Thus, insulin makes you feel hungry soon after a meal, often craving more sugary food. Processed foods are easier to digest, so our body will burn fewer calories for digesting them. It will be more likely for you to feel hungry and this will lead to heavy overeating which again, is bad for health.

Low in fiber and nutrients

Ultra-processed foods lose their essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals during processing. Manufacturers add synthetic vitamins and minerals to replace that loss. For example, high heat during processing causes vitamin C loss. Similarly, refined grains have less fiber, vitamins, and minerals as compared to whole grains.

Health risks of high processed foods

There are many health risk factors associated with the consumption of ultra-processed foods, such as:

Obesity and Cancer 

Ultra-processed foods are rich in taste, texture and aroma but the ingredients incorporated in them when overconsumed lead to serious health issues like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Sugar has no nutritional value and contains only empty calories, which may encourage your body towards more compulsive overeating.

Manufacturers use different sugar names to fool people, like corn syrup, glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, molasses, nectar, or honey. People tend to eat more than the recommended amounts of sugar, as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the processed food they are eating.

This also happens because even though the recommended serving is mentioned on packets and labels and it is often less than the entire food amount, yet people end up consuming it all because of enhanced cravings and overeating.

According to a Harvard medical school study, eating highly processed foods may put you more at risk of cancer. The cooking process or the chemicals used to preserve meats (sausages, hot dogs, beef, pork) contains carcinogenic compounds that lead to colon cancer.

Cardiovascular Diseases

Consumption of a high amount of processed food may put you at risk of cardiovascular disorder, obesity, and coronary heart diseases. Acrylamide and acrolein are two compounds formed during the healing procedure of food and fats, which may increase the risk of cardiovascular disorders. 

Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

Inflammatory Bowel disease is caused by chemical additives such as emulsifiers used in processed foods. The major function is to allow water and oil to stay mixed and hold together food substances that would separate otherwise after a period of time.

These emulsifiers are added to extend the shelf life of products and hold the texture of food. They are commonly used in cake mixes, sauces, yogurt, bread, and ice creams.

The most common emulsifiers that help prevent the separation of liquids and solids are soy lecithin and monoglycerides. They are detergent-like food additives whose function is to remove grime and stains, which tend to damage the intestinal barrier and cause inflammation.

Anxiety and depression

Serotonin is a chemical found in the gut of the human body. It impacts your body, from your emotions to your motor skills. Serotonin is also known as a natural mood stabilizer. It reduces depression, heals wounds, and helps to controls anxiety.

Processed food contains chemical additives, artificial coloring, and texturing agents, which can adversely affect the body’s ability to produce and maintain healthy serotonin levels, leading to high levels of depression and anxiety.

It is observed that high amounts of added sugar in processed foods can become highly addictive, which causes havoc in your gut, where serotonin production occurs.

Autoimmune diseases

The additives used in processed foods are salt, emulsifiers, glucose, gluten, microbial transglutaminase, and nanoparticles. The intestinal tract cells are tightly packed together and act as the defense barrier against bacteria and other harmful antigens.

Food additives may harm your intestinal tract and can weaken the body’s defense system, and increase the chances of autoimmune diseases.

 Most common autoimmune diseases caused by processed food include type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, lupus, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In these diseases, the immune system confuses healthy cells as unhealthy and thus attacks its own body.

High Blood pressure and infertility

The abundance of sodium present in processed meats causes high blood pressure. Processed meats like bacon contain a high amount of sodium and saturated fats. Your body needs a little amount of sodium to function properly.

A report published in the US food and drug administration reports that diets higher in sodium are associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, a major cause of strokes and heart disease.

Processed foods are also artificially made in laboratories. Such foods are genetically modified and can cause infertility and gastrointestinal disorders.

Metabolic disorder

Sugar is a form of carbohydrate which our body utilizes for energy. Consumption of excess sugar leads to it being stored in the body in the form of fats, leading to several metabolic consequences. Increased waistline, low HDL (healthy) cholesterol levels, high LDL (bad cholesterol), high blood pressure are major symptoms of metabolic syndrome.

Nowadays ultra-processed food intake has increased dramatically worldwide. It would be very difficult to eliminate all heavily processed foods from your diet but it can be easy to replace highly processed foods with whole and minimally processed foods.

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Muhammad Usman

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