What Are Processed Foods & Their Effects on Your Health?

Processed foods are, strictly speaking, any foods that have been altered from their natural state. They can include foods that have only been washed, sliced, cooked, etc. But this article focuses on heavily or ultra-processed foods that include added preservatives, artificial colorings/flavoring, fats, salts, sugars, etc.

The allure of processed foods

The effects of processed foods are undeniable. Though they affect each person differently, their ability to attract people and gain a loyal following is unsurpassed by any other type of product. And why not? You have to eat and…well…processed foods are everywhere.

An image of various processed foods, including soda, cereal, cookies, syrup, French fries, and pancakes.They command the center aisles — the biggest section — of every grocery store. They sit on the shelves in their bright, eye-catching packages. These products look healthy or interesting or exciting enough to convince us to shell out our hard-earned dollars to purchase them.

Processed foods affect our minds and our emotions before they ever reach our bodies.  Advertisers always sell us a fantasy, an ideal. This processed food will make you strong and healthy. This one will bring you an exciting life. This one is great to sip while you’re having fun in the sun. You get the idea…if not the promised ideal.

What do the effects of processed foods bring you? For far too many people, they bring weight gain and sickness, and, ultimately, death. For many, it brings an addiction as great as heroin or cocaine. Yet, the consensus among many diet gurus and nutrition “experts” is that every food is okay if eaten in moderation. Is that really true, though? Is it really possible to eat certain processed foods in moderation? If not, isn’t it irresponsible of these “experts” to give not only incorrect but harmful advice?

How it affects your life

Have you noticed the effects of processed foods in your life? Do you have a craving for the same foods, and do you keep eating the same processed foods over and over?

How many processed foods do you eat? Have you ever tried to reduce your consumption of them, and, if so, how did that go? Were you able to cut back, or were your cravings so intense you couldn’t help yourself; you had to start eating your favorite foods again?

Well…would it surprise you to learn that certain processed foods are addictive, making it difficult for you to reduce consumption? That is probably why you started binge-eating your favorite food after you had managed to stay away from them for a while.  You were addicted to them.

You might be wondering if the effects of processed foods are always bad. Well, that actually depends on the extent of the food processing.

What is food processing?

Food processing is the process of making raw food ready for human consumption. So by this definition, washing, removing stems, canning, freezing, and even cooking food is processing it.

It is nearly impossible, then, to claim a diet completely free of food processing. Even if you grow your own garden, you are still a “food processor” when you wash the produce and can it, freeze it, or cook it.

But the health effects of processed foods from your garden that you do yourself, and many of those from the store, are vastly different. The point is that it’s not processed foods themselves that are bad; it is the level of processing.

Types of food processing

There are 3 main types or categories of commercial food processing that will help you determine the SANEity or inSANEity of consuming them.

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed: Only minor changes, such as washing and peeling, are done to them. This category includes bagged nuts, bagged spinach, bagged salad, frozen fruit, frozen vegetables, and individual produce items such as raw broccoli, cucumber, and onions.
  • Processed: Foods that have undergone some processing but usually contain no more than 3 ingredients. They retain most of their nutritive properties, and consumers typically use them to help make cooking a meal more convenient. They are not typically used as “ready-made” meals by themselves. This category includes canned tuna, canned tomatoes, and salted nuts.
  • Ultra-Processed: food-like products made in a laboratory. They contain chemicals that make the food look, taste, and smell like real food, but it is not real food. These foods last a long time on the shelf without spoiling.  This category includes ice cream, soda, candy, breakfast cereals, and soups.

When we refer to the effects of processed foods, we are talking about ultra-processed food. These foods are high in calories, sugar, salt, and fat while providing few nutrients and no fiber. Because there is no fiber to slow their absorption into the bloodstream, ultra-processed foods cause blood sugar spikes. This not only contributes to obesity but also leads to type 2 diabetes and many other diseases.

Eating too many ultra-processed foods is one of the biggest reasons for the obesity epidemic and the high numbers of diseases we have in America today. One study showed nearly 60% of our calories come from ultra-processed food sources.

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These foods destroy “self-control”

Now, let’s go back to that belief by weight loss gurus and nutritional “experts” that everything can be eaten in moderation and that all it takes is willpower. Just eat ONE double chocolate chip cookie, they’ll say. Or how about eating half that cookie? Leave the other half for later. Or eat just one jelly doughnut or one piece of carrot cake with decadent cream cheese frosting, or one spoonful of a hot fudge sundae. As IF!!!

Those “experts” have obviously never tried to stop eating something they’re simply obsessed with, something that pulls them in and won’t let them go until the very last morsel is gone. And even when it’s gone, it’s not really gone. You can’t stop craving it. It keeps hounding you until you drive to the store or restaurant to buy some more of whatever it is that has trapped you so thoroughly.

Sound familiar?

If you’ve ever felt like this…felt compelled to overeat or compulsively eat certain foods, even though you know you’re going to feel terrible afterward, you likely suffer from food addiction.

Food manufacturers purposely promote food addictions.

Food addictions are more common than you might think, and they are also not accidental. In his book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, author Michael Moss explains how food manufacturers deliberately manufacture food to hook (addict) us. They formulate and test their products to give them the perfect “mouth feel” for fats, the “bliss point” for sugars, and more. Moss discovered that these companies are continually increasing the sugar content of their food because of the addictive quality of this substance. They are reaching for the optimum high.

Food manufacturers have long known about the many studies showing sugar consumption is as addictive as heroin and cocaine, and they have no qualms about using it to their financial advantage.

But this really shouldn’t surprise us. After all, cigarette manufacturers own many of the top food companies. Philip Morris, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, owns Kraft Foods. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company owns Nabisco. Nobody knows how to physically addict people to products better than tobacco companies!

Effects on health and weight

According to recent research, there is no doubt that the effects of processed foods on health and weight are considerable. Professor Carlos Monteiro and colleagues at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, researched the eating habits of many thousands of people in more than 20 countries for nearly a decade and reached a startling conclusion.

Professor Monteiro stated that poor diet is one of the top 10 risk factors for death and disability. The top 4 are high body mass index, dietary risks, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. (These conditions are all risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, and many other chronic diseases.)

Dr. Monteiro said their research shows the main driver of these diseases are the transnational corporations that market and distribute ultra-processed foods worldwide. They bear responsibility, he says, because of the addictive properties of these foods, the fact that the manufacturers market these products to children and adolescents, their health claims, and the chemicals and components of the foods that cause obesity and disease.

One of the effects of processed foods is inflammation caused by the harsh chemicals and sugars they contain. Researchers now believe inflammation to be the underlying cause of most health conditions and diseases, including:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancers
  • Gallbladder disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Autoimmune diseases

And this inflammation is even affecting the brain.

Effects on the brain

New, groundbreaking research shows that over-consumption of processed foods and other poor-quality foods causes neurological inflammation. The discovery that the brain could become inflamed took researchers off guard because neurological inflammation is not supposed to occur.

An image of a paper sculpture of a human face and neck with flames coming out of the brain area.Inflammation is the body’s natural response to protect itself from toxins, bacteria, trauma, injury, and any foreign invaders. The inflammatory response protects the injured site while enacting several healing processes. If you did not have an inflammatory response, you would die. But the brain is too complex and sensitive an organ for the inflammatory response, so it is protected by the blood-brain barrier.

However, if the blood-brain barrier becomes damaged — by something like the chemicals in processed foods, for example — it becomes “leaky,” allowing those dangerous substances into the brain’s environment. This is called “leaky brain syndrome.” The bacteria, toxins, or other substances activate microglia cells causing neurological inflammation.

Cutting-edge research is showing neurological inflammation may be the cause of many diverse symptoms and conditions, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Mood swings
  • Brain fog
  • Slowing metabolism
  • Weight gain
  • Low energy
  • Trouble concentrating

The effects of processed foods resulting in neurological inflammation may even contribute to serious diseases, including:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Metabolic disorder
  • High blood pressure

Processed foods & weight

The effects of processed foods are particularly severe when it comes to weight gain or inability to lose weight. This is because overconsumption of processed foods leads to leaky brain syndrome.

The hypothalamus in the brain is in charge of balancing calories in and calories out so that, ideally, the body never becomes too fat or too thin. The hormones leptin and insulin regulate the hypothalamus. When the brain is healthy, the hypothalamus receives its signals correctly so that when calorie intake increases, your body simply burns more calories. It automatically balances your weight at your setpoint weight with absolutely no help from you.

Neurological inflammation causes these signals to stop working. Your hypothalamus cannot receive these signals. Instead of working to keep you naturally slim, your hypothalamus and hormones now work to hold onto extra fat, no matter how hard you try to lose weight. Neurological inflammation, one of the effects of processed foods, is directly tied to weight gain and an elevated setpoint weight!

The SANE way to overcome the effects of processed foods

Scientists have found that the most addictive “foods” are fat, flour, sugar, wheat, salt, artificial sweeteners, and caffeine. It is no accident that ultra-processed foods combine most if not all of these ingredients — in just the right amounts to addict you — into their products. How could you possibly break free from your food addiction when the food companies have stacked the deck against you?

Well…go easy on yourself. No shame and no judgment. Overcoming addiction of any kind is a huge challenge. It is NOT easy. You have made a great first step by admitting that you do have an addiction to a certain food or foods. But this knowledge alone will not help you beat this addiction.

You will also never beat this addiction by eating smaller portions or eating it only once a week or a month. The advice to eat something in moderation only works if you are not addicted to that food. It will not work if you are addicted. Period.

The only way you can break an addiction to inSANE processed foods is to fill yourself with SANE ones. When you switch to a SANE diet, you’ll be so full of SANE foods you won’t have room for inSANE ones. Plus, research shows these food groups eliminate the most common food cravings, such as sugar and starches.

You can break free from the effects of processed foods with the SANE Diet. No calorie or point counting. No hunger or deprivation. Just real food. You deserve the best.

Next step: End the effects of processed foods with SANE

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