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As technology advances, the world continues to search for ways to make life just a little more convenient for the next generation. And over the past century, food has been at the center of this mission. From canned and frozen foods in the 1920s to frozen pizzas in the 1980s, processed foods have become a regular and all-too-convenient part of our diet.
While we’ve gained time and energy as a result of processed foods, we’ve also gained a host of health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. But are all processed foods alike? Let’s take a closer look.
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What Are Processed Foods?
Processed foods are altered in some way during preparation to make them more convenient, shelf-stable, and/or flavorful for consumers.
It’s important to remember that the processed foods discussed here are chemically processed in addition to being mechanically processed. For example, if apples are peeled, cored, and cooked to make apple sauce, it’s considered to be mechanically processed and would count as a healthy option. But if sugar and artificial flavors and/or colors are added to the apple sauce, it would be considered chemically processed.
Processed foods can also be broken into minimally processed and heavily processed. Minimally processed foods are often washed, peeled and/or cut for convenience, such as bagged salads and pre-cut vegetables. Canned vegetables and fruits, frozen vegetables and fruits, and canned fish and seafood fall somewhere in between, while foods containing multiple ingredients to enhance their flavor, texture and stability would be considered heavily processed.
According to a study of 9,000 participants published by BMC, more than one-half of the calories consumed by the participants came from heavily processed foods, while less than one-third were from unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Let’s take a look at this sobering statistic.
Looking to remove some processed foods from your diet? Try making these healthy swaps to get started:
- Bottled sauce and dressings = dry rub and homemade dressing
- Tortilla chips = high-fiber crispbread
- Canned fruit = fresh fruit
- Instant oatmeal = slow-cooked oats
5 Reasons to Quit Processed Foods
#1. Processed foods may raise your cancer risk.
A recent study, which was published in the BMJ, found that foods that are ultra-processed—foods that contain artificial colors and flavors, additives, and emulsifiers—are linked to an increased risk of cancer.
The link was found when the 24-hour dietary records of over 100,000 French adults were analyzed. The researchers found that participants who ate 10 percent more processed food than their peers also had a 10 percent increase in cancer risk. The study also revealed that the elevated cancer risk was not erased for those that don’t smoke or who exercise less.
#2. They’re loaded with added sugar, sodium, and fat.
Too much sugar, sodium, and fat in your diet can lead to serious health issues, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer. Unfortunately, processed foods are often packed with these ingredients.
#3. Processed foods are designed to make you overeat and become addicted them.
Studies show that the “reward system” in our brain can sometimes allow us to consume more of our favorite foods than our bodies actually need. Processed food manufacturers, according to Medical News Today, know this lucrative fact, so they purposely include ingredients—most commonly sugar, salt, and fat—that make their products highly rewarding to us. These ingredients lead us to overeat—and then buy some more.
#4. They contain lots of artificial ingredients.
If you’re looking at the label on a box of your favorite junk food, there’s probably a bunch of ingredients that you can barely pronounce. If that’s the case, your cookies are packed with artificial preservatives, colorants, and flavorings that could be negatively affecting your health, even if it’s been deemed as safe by the FDA.
Some of these ingredients have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, blood clots, and obesity, while others may aggravate ADHD symptoms in children.
#5. Processed foods are high in carbs and low in nutrients and fiber.
Not all carbs are bad, but processed foods are often packed with refined carbs, which can cause your blood sugar to spike too quickly, thus leading to a drop a few hours later that will make you feel even hungrier.
And on top of that, processed foods often lose their nutrients during processing, so synthetic nutrients are added in, which aren’t as effective. The fiber is often stripped away as well, which your body needs to properly digest food.
4 Processed Food Groups to Avoid
While avoiding processed foods completely can be easier said than done, here are four food groups that you should avoid as much as possible:
- Deli meat, bacon, hot dogs, and sausages. Processed meats have been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. They also contain high levels of saturated fat, sodium and preservatives. For more information, check out Processed Meat Risks Include Potentially Cancer-Causing Carcinogens.
- Sodas and sweetened beverages. Soda and other sugary drinks contain way more added sugar than one should consume in a day, plus soda (both regular and diet) are linked to an increased risk of heart, kidney and liver disease, stroke, diabetes, pancreatic cancer, and osteoporosis. For more information, check out What Does Soda Do to Your Body? 7 Reasons to Kick the Habit.
- Quick meals. Jarred, canned, frozen, and microwavable meals often contain too much sugar, sodium, and preservatives. Plus, they often lack enough vegetables and contain too many refined carbs.
- Commercially baked goods. Besides the sugar and fat content, packaged cookies, cakes, and doughnuts often contain trans fats, which are linked to cancer, infertility, and cognitive disorders. For more information, check out Junk Food Effects: Stay Away from These 6 Foods and Beverages.
The Good News About (Some) Processed Foods
As we mentioned earlier, not all processed foods are unhealthy. Foods that are minimally and/or mechanically processed can be a part of healthy balanced diet because they contain little to no added sugars and/or chemicals. It’s important to read the ingredient labels to check the sugar and sodium content.
The following processed foods can be healthy for you:
- Frozen veggies and fruits. Because they’re minimally processed, they retain most of their nutrients.
- Canned beans. They’re rich in fiber, protein, and iron. Plus, they’re low in fat and cost.
- Yogurt. It’s a great source of calcium, protein, vitamins, and probiotics. Steer clear of the flavored varieties, and add fresh fruit and a little honey for sweetness.
- Packaged nuts and nut butters. They’re a great source of fiber and protein, but watch out for added sugar, salt, and trans fats.
- Popcorn. Minus the melted butter and extra salt, popcorn is a healthy way to get some whole grains into your diet.
- Jarred and canned tomatoes. Minimally processed tomatoes actually contain more cancer-fighting lycopene than fresh ones. Just watch out for the added sugar and salt. For more information, check out 6 Health Benefits of Tomatoes.
- Whole-grain breads, crackers and pasta. Whole grains can improve your cholesterol levels, blood sugar regulation, digestion, immunity, and more. For more information, check out What Are Whole Grains? 6 Tips for Replacing Refined Grains With Nutritious Alternatives.
- Bottled water and seltzer. It’s the healthiest way to hydrate! For more information, check out Is Seltzer Water Healthy?
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