Top 10 Dangers of Processed Foods
By : Jon Yaneff
If you knew a knife was sharp would you stab yourself with it? Seems like a stupid question; of course you wouldn’t. The same goes for processed foods. They can be damaging to your health—if you only knew what was going on behind the wrapper.
Chemicals are added to help prevent food-borne illness and food waste, while increasing the shelf life and storage time. After a while, the general public becomes accustomed to certain tastes, which is why more chemicals are added in to make them more addicting and convenient. Isn’t that nice of the food industry?!
Here are 10 dangers of consuming processed foods. Maybe you will think twice the next time you bust open that frozen pizza box…
Danger No. 1: Artificial Ingredients
What is the difference between processed foods and the real foods we should be eating? Whole foods typically contain one ingredient, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, wild fish, and organic meats and eggs. Processed foods may contain ingredients that aren’t in your vocabulary, such potassium bicarbonate, aluminum hydroxide or glutamic acid.
In other words, there are artificial chemical ingredients such as preservatives, flavors and colors. These artificial ingredients can cause long-term health problems such as allergies, heart issues, hyperactivity, diabetes, even cancer. According to 2006 research and meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Cancer, nitrites within processed meats can increase the risk of colorectal cancer. Three studies from the 2006 meta-analysis showed consumption of these nitrates would result in a greater risk of distal colon cancer, and overall red meat and processed meat were linked to colon and rectal cancer.
Danger No. 2: High in Unhealthy Fats
Many processed foods and snacks often contain cheap fats, hydrogenated oil and trans fats. Most people don’t realize they are consuming too many of the fats and oils with higher amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. The consumption of too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 can increase inflammation within the body and heart disease risk. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested a diet rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids—the healthy fats—can help reduce the risk of factors related to heart disease such as obesity, hypercholesterolemia, and high blood pressure. The study put 814 men aged 40 to 59 on a long-term diet rich in healthy fats. Risk factors, over time, were reduced in participants.
Try to eat a moderate amount of these healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil, sesame seed oil, ghee (clarified butter) or coconut oil.
Danger No. 3: High in Sugar
In the United States, the average person consumes 20 teaspoons of sugar a day in processed food. Sugar within processed food can lead to several conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and especially liver issues. The over-consumption of beer and alcohol is also linked to liver disease from the abundance of sugar found in the beverages.
Unsure if there’s sugar within your food or drinks? The food industry does a good job of avoiding the word “sugar” and you often will see sucrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup or evaporated cane sugar listed instead. It is the liver’s job to metabolize any sugars, and when too much is consumed, it gets stored as fat. Extra flab around your middle? Could be processed snacks and meals-in-a-box.
Danger No. 4: Weight Gain
The food industry will use distinct flavors you may crave and often overeat. Do you ever polish off a whole bag of potato chips or a half a box of cookies and think nothing of it? Do you try weight-loss program after weight-loss program, and yet continue to put on the pounds?
Processed foods have even found their way into the weight loss industry with low calorie microwaveable foods. People focus too much on counting calories instead of eating nutrient-dense foods. Anything that is considered low-calorie becomes OK to eat, even though it has limited nutritional benefits. You can’t blame the weight-loss industry either. The best option to lose weight is to choose unprocessed whole foods as a big part of your diet.
Danger No. 5: Low in Nutrients
People think nutrients are still present in processed foods. After all, the nutrition label shows the important macronutrients such as carbohydrates or protein and the calories. However, many of the vitamins and minerals typically are removed and replaced with synthetic nutrients. Consider the nutrient losses with the processing of wheat. It’s a staple of the standard American diet. Wheat products are a good source of carbohydrates and protein; however, in processing, they lose 88% of manganese, 76% iron, 72% zinc and 60% of calcium among other minerals.
There is also another major nutrient that is missing from processed foods, and that’s fiber. According to the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences in 2002, the recommended dietary fiber intake for men aged 14 to 50 is 38 g of fiber, while women aged 19 to 50 require 25 g of fiber. The average person on a processed foods diet won’t even come close to those numbers.
Danger No. 6: Impair Your Mental Health
Processed and junk food consumption is connected with irritability and angry behavior, whereas a nutrient-dense diet can help a person maintain a calm mood. It makes perfect sense.
Sugar is known to suppress the function of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is a growth hormone in the brain. People with depression and schizophrenia are known to have low BDNF levels. A 2011 study published in PLOS One measured diet and mental health in 3,040 Australian teens aged 11 to 18. An unhealthy diet was associated with poor mental health and a healthy diet was linked to improved psychological function.
Which foods improve mental health? Foods high in omega-3 are known to lower signs of depression, ADHD and schizophrenia; they include wild, cold-water fish like salmon, along with flaxseed and walnuts. Foods that are high in B vitamins, such as lentils, broccoli, spinach and avocado, are also known to improve mental health.
Danger No. 7: Wreck Your Digestion
Digestion troubles and high sales of antacids? Processed foods are part of the problem. The digestive process starts with what you put into your mouth. The artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and sweeteners found within processed foods all lead to a toxic digestive system.
“Food that lacks life cannot sustain life,” nutrition educator David W. Rowland writes in his book, Digestion: Inner Pathway to Health. The harmful ingredients within processed foods create a toxic environment within the digestive tract and they kill the good bacteria or beneficial microflora within the body. Improper food combinations are known to contribute to poor digestion, and people with compromised digestion should avoid eating proteins with carbohydrates or fats and oils. Processed foods don’t often follow these digestion rules (such as processed meat with white bread). Probiotics and the consumption of fermented foods (kifir, kimchi or kombucha) can also help balance the good bacteria in the body.
Danger No. 8: Highly Addictive
Processed foods are highly addictive! Food addictions often go unnoticed because people just think they are eating food; however, anything processed can’t truly be considered real food. The top three substances that make processed foods so addictive include sugar, fat and salt. On top of this, processed foods lack fiber, vitamins and minerals; however, they stimulate the feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain that leads to your food cravings and addictions. Potato chips are known for a high salt content and cookies are a common treat full of sugar. Both are popular go-to snacks for people hooked on processed foods.
Danger No. 9: Promote Food Waste
Processed foods were meant to cut down on waste; however, uneaten food is still filling up our landfills. According to a 2012 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40% of food is wasted on landfills every year. This amounts to $165 billion food dollars on an annual basis. The report also says that 25 million Americans could be fed if food losses were reduced by just 15%. Why the waste?
People tend to purchase too much processed food because it might be on sale; however, often foods like processed cheese or meat will go bad when kept too long, and these processed foods will add to landfill waste.
Danger No. 10: Future Generations Will Buy In
What can be more dangerous than knowing that future generations will grow up in a society where they understand “fake” foods to be their nourishment?
Obesity among children and teenagers is an epidemic because processed food consumption is an epidemic. The art of cooking is replaced with a hectic lifestyle that would be “insane” to slow down. Where is the time to make a meal for your family when guitar lessons, hockey practice and karate class are priorities? The youth would certainly benefit from holistic nutrition classes within their schedule as well, instead of picking up a burger and fries en route to the next appointment.
Benefits of Processed Foods?
There are processed foods that have minimal ingredients, such as organic and grass-fed meat, some frozen vegetables, and almond or pumpkin seed butters, for example. Do you buy processed foods to save money? When it comes down to it, processed foods may save time, but not money. Making food from scratch helps you save in the long run, including your life.
Haas, E., et al., Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2006), 153, 435-436.
Christakis, G., et al., “Effect of the Anti-Coronary Club Program on Coronary Heart Disease Risk Factor Status,” JAMA, Nov. 7, 1966; doi:10.1001/jama.1966.03110190079022.
Larson, S., et al., “Meat consumption and risk of colorectal cancer: A meta-analysis of prospective studies,” International Journal of Cancer, Sept. 21, 2006; doi: 10.1002/ijc.22170.
Gunders, D., “Wasted: How American Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” Natural Resources Defense Council website, August 2012; http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-ip.pdf.
Jacka, F., “A Prospective Study of Diet Quality and Mental Health in Adolescents,” PLOS One, Sept. 21, 2011; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0024805.
Rowland, D., Digestion: Inner Pathway to Health (Parry Sound: DW Rowland Enterprises Inc., 2006-2013), 1.
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