We hear that processed foods aren’t good for us. But Why Are Processed Foods Bad?
I’m going to tackle that question in this article and I’m also going to talk about the differences between whole foods, minimally processed foods, and heavily processed foods.
Now, I’m not saying that you need to cut out processed foods completely and that they are toxic and they’re bad for you in that sense.
I think it’s all about balance I don’t think it’s realistic to completely cut out processed foods, but it is important to know that they aren’t the best choice when it comes to good health.
Before we dive into the 7 reasons why processed foods aren’t the best choice, I wanted to talk about the differences between different categories of food.
- Whole foods
- Minimally processed foods
- Heavily processed foods
I’m going to give you an example to explain the differences.
So let’s start with something like strawberries. So strawberries are a whole food because they are in their natural form, there is no fiber removed, no nutrition removed.
That’s just the way they are, that’s the way they grow, it’s a whole food. It’s a nutrient dense food.
Minimally processed foods
So the same berries could become minimally processed foods if they are processed a little bit in such a way that they are still nutritious, but slightly processed.
An example would be frozen berries. So if you buy frozen berries that have no added sugar, nothing is done to them. They are as they are and they are just frozen – that would be a minimally processed food.
The processing is the freezing process, but it’s not changing the nutrition too much. The minimally processed foods are actually ok.
Another example of something that is minimally processed would be almond butter. So almonds would be the whole food. Almond butter would be the minimally processed food. It’s still nutritious.
Heavily processed foods
Now the third category is the heavily processed foods. These are the foods that you want to avoid and limit. So heavily processed food is so different, so far removed from the original food that it doesn’t have the original nutrition and it has a lot of added ingredients.
Let’s go back to our strawberry example. So if I were to take strawberries and create some sort of a berry spread. A lot of companies do this.
That berry spread will have added sugar, it won’t have as much vitamin C as the berries and it may even have artificial coloring and flavors.
That is a heavily processed food. That is not a nutritious food compared to the strawberries.
So now that you know the differences between the different categories, let me talk about the 7 reasons why heavily processed foods are not so great for you.
1. Lower vitamins and minerals.
In general, when foods are processed, they lose some of their nutrition. So let’s go back to that berry example.
The berries, when it becomes a berry spread, loses a lot of its vitamin C. So it’s not as nutritious as the original food. Now, someone who eats a lot of processed foods will end up not getting enough vitamins and minerals.
So that’s why having a heavily processed diet means you’re not getting the full nutrition.
2. Lower fiber
So a lot of processing removes the fiber from the original food.
A good example of this is white bread. So white bread does not contain the fiber that the original wheat kernel has.
So if you were to eat something like farro, which is the wheat kernel just boiled or steamed. That actually has quite a bit of fiber, but white bread – hardly anything.
So there is that difference So if someone were to eat a lot of processed foods, they wouldn’t get enough fiber compared to someone who eats more whole foods.
Now, why is fiber important?
Well, it’s important for a number of different things, mainly for digestive health, for good bowel movements and just, in general, having your system run smoothly and having you feel fuller for longer.
People who eat more fiber tend to be a lower weight because they get satisfied with smaller amounts of food.
Now, what about foods that have added fiber?
There’s a granola bar company that does this – they add fiber. I’m not going to name them. You probably know who they are. So they add fiber to their granola bars.
Does that make the processed food good for you? I don’t think so! Adding fiber to a food that doesn’t have much nutrition doesn’t help. Ideally get your fiber from whole foods.
So ways to get fiber from whole foods would be things like legumes, fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, that sort of thing.
So a lot of processed foods have added sugar. It can be in anything – salad dressings, it can be in cakes and cookies, it can be in soups.
They will add sugar for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s the taste, sometimes it’s the texture.
So a good idea is to read the nutrition labels so you know if you’re getting added sugar.
Now when it comes to added sugar, the World Health Organization has a guideline, it’s not a limit, but it’s a guideline. It’s 25 g of added sugar per day. No more than that.
But the average American gets over 100 grams of added sugar a day. Where does it come from? Mostly processed foods.
So if you reduce the processed foods in your diet, automatically you’re eating more whole foods and whole foods don’t have added sugar.
So many processed foods contain a variety of additives. Things like stabilizers, artificial food colorings, artificial flavors, uh what else? Gums, texturizers, everything.
There are a lot of different additives. Now I don’t want to paint all of the additives with the same picture. I know a lot of people on the internet will tell you – additives are toxic.
I disagree with that because not all additives are bad for you, but many of them can be. So whenever you’re in doubt, do your research – read the nutrition label and do your research.
And figure out if it’s something you want to have or something you want to avoid.
Now the other thing I wanted to say about additives. Additives affect everybody differently. So MSG is a good example.
MSG does not affect everyone the same way. Some people can tolerate it with minimal issues, some people cannot.
The same thing goes for a lot of gums. So nut milk contains gums like locust bean gum, xanthan gum, carrageenan. Again with gums, everyone is a bit different.
Someone who has a very strong digestive system can handle most of them. Some people with a weaker digestion cannot.
So with additives, it really depends on the person and my philosophy is: avoid having too many in your diet because you really don’t know how they may impact you long-term.
5. Processed foods can change your taste preferences over time making it harder to stick to whole foods
So most processed foods are engineered to taste irresistible and to be extremely tempting.
Food engineers, food scientists, lots of different people work on creating products that you can’t stop eating.
So it’s like a bag of chips. You think you’re going to have a few and then you have the whole pack – they’re engineered to taste that good.
So with processed foods what happens is over time your taste buds get so accustomed to that punch of flavor that whole foods start to taste kind of bland.
When I used to eat a lot of processed foods, especially the sugary kinds, I was so used to that sugary flavor – that hit of sweetness that I couldn’t enjoy things like an apple or an orange.
Because it just didn’t have that same hit – it wasn’t enjoyable. But I think eating too many processed foods keeps you in that processed food space.
6. Processed foods contain refined carbohydrates.
So carbs are not evil. You can eat carbs and be healthy. It totally depends on how much you eat, what you eat it with and your body type and the biggest thing – what’s the source of the carbs?
So when it comes to carbs – whole food carbs – carbs that come from actual whole foods that haven’t been changed (in their original form) that is the best kind of carb.
It’s the refined carbs – the ultra-processed foods that contain those refined carbs – that’s the problem.
So what exactly is the issue with refined carbs?
Well, it causes blood sugar spikes. So what happens when you eat them is you have that big rush of blood sugar and then you have that drop and then you’re hungry again.
You’re constantly snacking, constantly hungry, never satisfied. Because there is not enough fiber as well.
So refined carbohydrates in processed foods are the problem.
Good examples would be things like cookies, muffins, cakes, white bread, white pasta. So the best choice really is to stick to whole foods when it comes to your carbohydrates.
7. Processed foods are associated with obesity, associated with changes in metabolism as well as a higher cancer risk in certain cases.
I’ll put a couple of the scientific peer-reviewed journal articles at the end of the article, so you can read them. But basically, the reason why processed food has a negative impact on health is that of two things.
This is how I view it. One is the fact that it’s so easy to overdo processed foods. They’re tempting, they’re irresistible.
You tend to eat a lot and then that can cause weight gain in some people. But the biggest thing is when you’re eating a lot of processed foods, you’re crowding out the whole foods that could have been part of your diet.
And you’re crowding out all that good nutrition that you could have received from your whole foods.
So in that sense, a processed food diet doesn’t have as many vitamins and minerals and phytochemicals. All those good things that keep you healthy.
So that really is the main issue with processed foods.