Few of us could claim to have never eaten processed foods. They’re all around us: as instant meals, packaged cereals, ready-to-go lunches, condiments, and snacks. In fact, almost anything that comes in a packet is a processed food.
Processed foods are those that contain multiple ingredients from manufactured formulas. That usually means products like chips, cookies, candy, and other snacks. Foods such as soups, canned vegetables, and some cereals are typically considered to be ‘lightly processed’.
Even some of the foods that appear ‘healthy’ might be more processed than you realize. A recent report revealed that additives are present not only in obvious offenders (such as artificially flavored popcorn and novelty candy bars) but also packaged fruit salad. (1)
What’s wrong with that? Well, let’s take a look at the top four reasons.
1. Additives, Preservatives and Colorings
The problem with food additives and preservatives is that no one really knows how dangerous they are. There are hundreds of additives that have been ‘approved’ by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but there are few clinical studies to show how these affect human health. The studies that do exist are often too small to assess the degree of risk.
Artificial food colorings are used to create the bright colors you see in candy, baked treats, sports drinks and other processed foods. They are also used in smoked salmon and salad dressing, and even some medications.
In fact, the use of preservatives, colors and other additives has increased by 500% in the last 50 years. Alarmingly, the biggest consumers of foods containing these additives are children. There are many claims that these substances may be responsible for certain behavioral disorders such as hyperactivity, as well as food allergies and even some cancers. (2)
Animal studies have linked food additives and preservatives to disorders and health issues such as:
- Certain cancers
- Asthma and allergic reactions associated with sulfites, nitrites and nitrates (used to prevent discoloration)
- Digestive issues such as nausea and diarrhea
- Possible preterm delivery
- Hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder in children
- Antibiotic resistance
- Headaches (especially from monosodium glutamate)
- Increased risk of heart disease due to accumulation of phosphates
- Hormone imbalance due to added hormones
- Neurologic problems, like those from aspartame consumption in rats
2. Excessive Salt
Sodium is often used as a preservative and to enhance the flavor of foods. It can be difficult to gauge your salt intake because even if you don’t add it to your food from the saltshaker, many flavorings or condiments can contain high amounts of sodium.
Processed foods that are high in salt or sodium include deli meats, condiments, chips, crackers, pizza, canned foods, processed cheese, dried meats, baked beans, and fast foods.
Salt is great as a preservative because it’s made up of sodium and chloride ions that reduce water activity of foods. Water activity is the amount of liquid available in the food for supporting bacteria growth or allowing other chemical reactions to take place.
Many people argue that salt is necessary, and it’s true that the human body requires a small amount of sodium to conduct nerve impulses, contract and relax muscles, and maintain the proper balance of water and minerals.
However, too much sodium in the diet causes the blood vessels to constrict, leading to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. It can also cause your body to lose large amounts of calcium, some of which may be leached from your bones.
As sodium levels increase, the body holds onto water to dilute it. This increases both the amount of fluid surrounding cells and the volume of blood in the bloodstream. A higher volume of blood means more work for the heart and more pressure on your blood vessels. Over time, the extra work and pressure can cause blood vessels to stiffen, worsening high blood pressure and increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease. (3)
There is also evidence that too much salt can damage the heart, aorta, and kidneys without increasing your blood pressure first.
3. Low nutritional value
Highly processed foods sometimes contain added nutrients – but even so, they cannot deliver the same level of nutrition found in whole, fresh foods. In many cases, they simply add extra calories with little to no nutrient value.
When processed foods such as pizza and fries become staples, your health will suffer. You’ll also be at higher risk for weight gain and other chronic diseases.
When compared to ‘real’ foods, processed foods are extremely low in essential vitamins and minerals. (4)
Even if synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to the foods to compensate for what was lost during processing, these ‘fortified’ foods are nowhere near as valuable as unprocessed foods. Synthetic nutrients are NOT a healthy replacement for natural nutrients.
In any case, real foods such as plants and animal products contain thousands of other trace nutrients that cannot be manufactured.
A very important component of unprocessed food is soluble fiber, which is needed to help your body move food through your digestive system. However, the fiber content of whole foods is lost during processing or storage.
As a result, most processed foods are very low in fiber unless it is added afterwards. This can lead to poor digestive function and slow bowel transit time. In addition, a lack of fiber in the diet means your gut microbiome has no ‘fuel’ to support its growth, which can further contribute to weak digestion.
4. Added Sugars
Sugars, syrups and other sweeteners are often added to foods during processing. Foods with large amounts of added sugars are typically cakes, cookies, sodas, energy drinks, and candy. While this may seem obvious, there are plenty of other foods that are high in sugars.
Sugar is added to foods to improve its taste. We humans love sweet things – and a little extra sweetness can make almost any product irresistible. But sugar is also added to foods for other reasons. It improves the flavor, texture and color of baked goods, and can even help preserve fruit-based foods such as jams and jellies.
Sugar also aids fermentation, which is required for wheat products such as bread and cakes to rise properly.
Unfortunately, too much added sugar is a major problem in the Western diet. Most foods with high sugar content simply add unnecessary calories to daily intake but little nutritional value. Worse still, added sugars are often used in baked goods that also contain saturated fats (i.e., butter, shortening and margarine), which spells even more problems for your arteries.
There are numerous health risks associated with a high-sugar diet, including:
- Poor nutrition
High-sugar foods typically contain fewer vitamins and minerals than natural, unprocessed foods. Soda and candy are especially bad! Your body needs a regular supply of nutrients in order to function properly every day. Over time, a lack of these nutrients will have detrimental effects on your immune system, brain function, metabolism and many other areas of the body.
- Weight gain
While weight gain can be attributed to many different factors, diet is certainly a major one. Adding sugar to foods and beverages increases their calorific content, and their addictive taste means you’re likely to eat far more than your body needs. Excess calories that aren’t used up immediately as energy are stored as fat. (5)
- High triglycerides
Triglycerides are a type of ‘bad’ fat in the bloodstream and body tissues. Eating large amounts of added sugar can increase triglyceride levels, which may increase your risk of heart disease.
- Candida yeast overgrowth
Candida albicans is a type of yeast that lives in your gut. While it usually exists without causing any problems, it thrives on excess sugar. Sugar is the ‘fuel’ of yeast, allowing it to multiply and spread throughout the body. Candida overgrowth can lead to all sorts of digestive issues such as IBS, diarrhea, constipation, gas, and bloating. As it worsens, symptoms can develop into brain fog, fatigue, joint pain, hormonal imbalance, and skin issues.
- Tooth decay
Sugar is the worst substance that your teeth can come into contact with. All forms of sugar promote tooth decay, causing bacteria to thrive. The more sugar you snack on throughout the day, the more likely you are to develop cavities, especially if you don’t brush your teeth after every sugary indulgence! Oral thrush is also linked to a high-sugar diet.
Minimize Your Intake of Processed Foods
While the odd snack or treat won’t harm you, a diet high in processed foods could very well lead to some serious health conditions. Candida overgrowth alone can upset your daily digestive function, which in turn can weaken your immune system to the point where you are more susceptible to other conditions.
Reducing your intake of processed foods is simple: just stop buying so many packaged items! Also, check the labels of foods that come in packets to see just how many ‘chemicals’ they contain.
Look for sugars, artificial additives, sodium content and any ingredients that are followed by a number – these are usually artificial.
Replace those foods with ‘real’ fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean meats – and you’ll be surprised by how much better they taste!
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