By Dr. Mercola *
Processed foods are typically loaded with excess sugar, salt, unhealthful fats, preservatives and other additives.
But you probably know this already. What you may not know about processed foods is the extent of the havoc they can wreak on your body, a closely guarded secret that the processed food industry doesn’t want you to know.
In short, though they may taste good and be easy to prepare, when you eat processed foods you’re exchanging convenience for your health.
1. They’re Addictive and May Cause You to Overeat
Processing modifies or removes important components of food, like fiber, water and nutrients, changing the way they are digested and assimilated in your body.
Unlike whole foods, which contain a mix of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fiber and water to help you feel satisfied, processed foods stimulate dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, making you feel good even though the food lacks nutrients and fiber. This artificial dopamine stimulation can lead to excessive food cravings and, ultimately, food addiction.
2. They’re Linked to Obesity
Processed foods are virtually guaranteed to contain additives that are linked to obesity. This includes monosodium glutamate (MSG), high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and more. Plus, refined carbohydrates like breakfast cereals, bagels, waffles, pretzels, and most other processed foods quickly break down to sugar.,
This increases your insulin and leptin levels, and contribute to insulin resistance, which is the primary underlying factor of nearly every chronic disease and condition known to man, including weight gain.
3. They Break Principles of Food Combining
Some nutrition and health experts, such as Wayne Pickering, believe that eating foods in certain combinations helps your body’s digestive processes to work more efficiently and absorb more nutrients. Wayne actually constructed a very useful food combining chart that can be obtained on his website. According to one such premise, eating proteins and starches together, which is common in processed foods (such as a pepperoni pizza), inhibits digestion leading to putrification of your food, acidic conditions in your blood and supports disease-causing pathogens in your gut.
4. Processed Foods Lead to an Imbalanced Inner Ecosystem
The microorganisms living in your digestive tract form a very important “inner ecosystem” that influences countless aspects of your health. Processed foods disrupt this system, suppressing beneficial microflora and leading to digestive problems, cravings, illnesses and chronic disease. Beneficial organisms in your gut thrive on whole, unprocessed foods.
5. They’re Detrimental to Your Mood and Brain
Mood swings, memory problems and even depression are often the result of a heavily processed-food diet. In fact, the greatest concentration of serotonin, which is involved in mood control, depression and aggression, is found in your intestines, not your brain! Your gut and brain actually work in tandem, each influencing the other. This is why your intestinal health can have such a profound influence on your mental health, and vice versa – and why eating processed foods that can harm your gut flora can have a profoundly negative impact on your mood, psychological health and behavior.
6. Processed Foods Encourage ‘Eating on the Run’
Processed foods are quick and easy, making them ‘perfect’ to grab when you’re on the go. But eating on the go, or while you’re multi-tasking, can cause you to lose touch with your body’s natural signals telling you you’re full, leading to overeating and weight gain. It’s also more difficult for your body to digest properly when you’re busily engaged in other tasks.
7. Nutrition Labels Can be Misleading
A processed food may be labeled ‘natural’ or ‘sugar-free,’ but that doesn’t make it healthful. For instance, the natural food label on a processed food has no standard definition and really no meaning at all. A “natural” product is meaningless as it can legally be genetically modified, full of pesticides or made with corn syrup, additives, preservatives and artificial ingredients.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also allows processed food manufacturers to use absurdly tiny serving sizes on their labels, which can lull you into a false sense of security when it comes to determining how much of each stated nutrient or toxin, like trans fat, you’re actually consuming.
8. Processed Meats Are Linked to Cancer
Processed meats are those preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or the addition of chemical preservatives, which includes bacon, ham, pastrami, salami, pepperoni, hot dogs, some sausages and hamburgers (if they have been preserved with salt or chemical additives) and more. Particularly problematic are the nitrates that are added to these meats as a preservative, coloring and flavoring.
The nitrates found in processed meats are frequently converted into nitrosamines, which are clearly associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. Meat cooked at high temperatures, as many processed meats often are, can also contain as many as 20 different kinds of heterocyclic amines, or HCAs for short. These substances are also linked to cancer.
9. Processed Foods May Increase Your Risk of Infertility and Malnutrition
Because processed foods are stripped of nutrients your body needs, you could be eating a large number of calories but still become malnourished. In just three generations, a nutrient-deficient diet can lead to infertility, which is on the rise in the US.2 Plus, processed foods often contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients, which are also linked to reproductive problems.
10. Processed Foods Lead to a Long Shelf Life, Not a Long Human Life
Processed foods can last a long time on the shelf without going bad, thanks to their chemical cocktails of preservatives and other additives. Unfortunately, their makers put a lot of money and time into strategies to increase shelf life and create attractive packaging, with little attention put on the foods’ nutrient value or how it will actually detract from lasting health.
What Are the Worst Processed Food Additives?
When foods are processed, not only are valuable nutrients lost and dietary fiber removed, but the textures and natural variation and flavors are also lost. After processing, what’s left behind is a bland, uninteresting “pseudo-food” that most people wouldn’t want to eat.
Additives are added back in not only to slow spoilage, prevent fats and oils from going rancid, prevent fruits from turning brown, and fortify or enrich the food with synthetic vitamins and minerals to replace the natural ones that were lost during processing, but also to improve taste, texture and appearance. When reading product packages, here are some of the worst offenders to avoid if you want to protect your health (many of these are already banned in other countries due to health risks):
|Ingredient||Found in||Health Hazards|
|Coloring agents: blue 1, blue 2, yellow 5, and yellow 6||Cake, candy, macaroni and cheese, medicines, sport drinks, soda, pet food, and cheese||Most artificial colors are made from coal tar, which is a carcinogen|
|Olestra (aka Olean)||Fat-free potato chips||Depletion of fat-soluble vitamins and carotenoids. Side effects include oily anal leakage|
|Brominated vegetable oil (aka BVO)||Sports drinks and citrus-flavored sodas||Competes with iodine for receptor sites in the body, which can lead to hypothyroidism, autoimmune disease, and cancer. The main ingredient, bromine, is a poisonous, corrosive chemical linked to major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems, schizophrenia, and hearing loss|
|Potassium bromate (aka brominated flour)||Rolls, wraps, flatbread, bread crumbs, and bagel chips||See bromine above. Associated with kidney and nervous system disorders, gastrointestinal discomfort|
|Azodicarbonamide||Breads, frozen dinners, boxed pasta mixes, and packaged baked goods||Linked to asthma|
|BHA and BHT||Cereal, nut mixes, gum, butter, meat, dehydrated potatoes, and beer||BHA may be a human carcinogen, a cancer-causing agent. BHT can cause organ system toxicity|
|Synthetic hormones: rBGH and rBST||Milk and dairy products||Linked to breast, colon, and prostate cancers|
|Arsenic||Poultry||EPA classifies inorganic arsenic as a “human carcinogen”|
A Simple Step-by-Step Guide to Ditching Processed Foods
When it comes to staying healthy, avoiding processed foods and replacing them with fresh, whole foods is the “secret” you’ve been looking for. This might sound daunting, but if you take it step-by-step as described in my nutrition plan it’s quite possible, and manageable, to painlessly remove processed foods from your diet.
Remember, people have thrived on vegetables, meats, eggs, fruits and other whole foods for centuries, while processed foods were only recently invented. Many of the top executives and scientists at leading processed food companies actually avoid their own foods for a variety of health reasons!
I believe you, too, should spend 90 percent of your food budget on whole foods, and only 10 percent on processed foods (unfortunately most Americans currently do the opposite). This requires that you plan your meals in advance. Ideally, this will involve scouting out your local farmer’s markets for in-season produce that is priced to sell, and planning your meals accordingly, but you can also use this same premise with supermarket sales. You can generally plan a week of meals at a time, make sure you have all ingredients necessary on hand, and then do any prep work you can ahead of time so that dinner is easy to prepare if you’re short on time in the evenings (and you can use leftovers for lunches the next day).
Further, by cutting out these high-glycemic foods you can retrain your body to burn fat instead of sugar. However, it’s important to replace these foods with healthy fats, not protein—a fact that’s often not addressed. I believe most people may need between 50-70 percent of their daily calories in the form of healthful fats, which include:
|Olives and olive oil||Coconuts and coconut oil||Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk|
|Organic raw nuts, especially macadamia nuts, which are low in protein and omega-6 fat||Organic pastured egg yolks and pastured meats||Avocados|
If cravings are a problem for you, please review my article about how to wean yourself off processed food in seven easy steps. If you’re currently sustaining yourself on fast food and processed foods, this is one of the most positive life changes you could ever make.
About the Author
Dr. Joseph Mercola:
My passion is to transform the traditional medical paradigm in the United States, and that consumes most of my free time. Since 1968, though, I have been an active runner; I completed the Chicago Marathon in just over three hours, among other accomplishments. I have also been a computer hobbyist since 1985, with an interest in the Internet that dates back to the early 1990s.
The existing medical establishment is responsible for killing and permanently injuring millions of Americans, but the surging numbers of visitors to Mercola.com since I began the site in 1997 – we are now routinely among the top 10 health sites on the Internet – convinces me that you, too, are fed up with their deception. You want practical health solutions without the hype, and that’s what I offer.