processed-foods

 

 


STORY AT-A-GLANCE

  • 18.5 percent of American children and nearly 40 percent of adults are now obese, not just overweight. Research has linked growing waistlines to processed foods, sodas and high-carbohydrate diets
  • For each 10 percent increase in the amount of ultra-processed food consumed, your risk of death rises by 14 percent; the primary factors driving the increased death rate are chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer
  • While 6 of 12 obesity-related cancers are on the rise, only 2 of 18 cancers unrelated to obesity are increasing, and rates of obesity-related cancers are rising at a far steeper rate among millennials than among baby boomers
  • Those who eat more ultra-processed food have higher rates of obesity, heart problems, diabetes and cancer. Each 10 percent increase in ultraprocessed food raised cancer rates by 12 percent

Classifying processed foods

I like to divide processed foods into four categories:

  1.  Minimally processed

These are nutritious items such as pre-cut and peeled pumpkin, potatoes and other veges, bagged salad leaves, bagged spinach, sliced vegetables, and unsalted, roasted nuts — often simply prepped for cooking convenience. These preserve freshness, improve taste and save us time.

  1. Lightly processed

These are also nutritious and convenient for busy folk. They include those foods that have been canned, dried or frozen such as dried fruit, canned legumes, cheese, pasta, canned sardines, frozen peas and other vegetables, pasteurised milk, bran cereal, yoghurt. They supply nutrients and make foods available out of season. You can still recognise the ingredients that go into them.

  1. Heavily processed

This is food that’s not in its original form or food that is not naturally occurring such as deli meats, many breakfast cereals, grain bars, oils, sugars and flours. Plus those culinary ingredients such as salt, butter or sugar and food industry ingredients such as maltodextrin and citric acid.

  1.  Ultra-processed

These are what you and I would recognise as ‘junk food’. These are the items that give all processing a bad name.

Often dubbed “convenience foods”, they include pre-made easy snacks like chips, fries, biscuits, chocolates, sweets, nuggets, energy bars, and carbonated and sugared sweet drinks.

 

The word “processed” often causes some confusion, so let me clarify what I mean.

Obviously, most foods we eat are processed in some way. Apples are cut from trees, ground beef has been ground in a machine and butter is cream that has been separated from the milk and churned.

But there is a difference between mechanical processing and chemical processing.

If it’s a single ingredient food with no added chemicals, then it doesn’t matter if it’s been ground or put into a jar. It’s still real food.

However, foods that have been chemically processed and made solely from refined ingredients and artificial substances, are what is generally known as processed food.

Here are 9 ways that processed foods are bad for your health.

1. High in sugar and high-fructose corn syrup

Processed foods are usually loaded with added sugar… or its evil twin, High Fructose Corn Syrup.

It is well known that sugar, when consumed in excess, is seriously harmful.

As we all know, sugar is “empty” calories – it has no essential nutrients, but a large amount of energy.

But empty calories are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the harmful effects of sugar…

Many studies show that sugar can have devastating effects on metabolism that go way beyond its calorie content (1).

It can lead to insulin resistance, high triglycerides, increased levels of the harmful cholesterol and increased fat accumulation in the liver and abdominal cavity (23).

Not surprisingly, sugar consumption is strongly associated with some of the world’s leading killers… including heart diseasediabetesobesity and cancer (45678).

Most people aren’t putting massive amounts of sugar in their coffee or on top of their cereal, they’re getting it from processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Bottom Line: Processed foods and beverages are the biggest sources of added sugar (and HFCS) in the diet. Sugar is very unhealthy and can have serious adverse effects on metabolism when consumed in excess.

2. Engineered for over-consumption

We all want to eat good food. That’s just human nature.

Evolution provided us with taste buds that are supposed to help us navigate the natural food environment.

Our appetite gravitates towards foods that are sweet, salty and fatty, because we know such foods contain energy and nutrients that we need for survival.

Obviously, if a food manufacturer wants to succeed and get people to buy their product, it has to taste good.

But today, the competition is fierce. There are many different food manufacturers, all competing with each other.

For this reason, massive resources are spent on making foods as desirable as possible.

Many processed foods have been engineered to be so incredibly “rewarding” to the brain, that they overpower anything we might have come across in nature.

We have complicated mechanisms in our bodies and brains that are supposed to regulate energy balance (how much we eat and how much we burn) which, until very recently in evolutionary history, worked to keep us at a healthy weight.

There is quite a lot of evidence that the reward value of foods can bypass the innate defense mechanism and make us start eating much more than we need, so much that it starts to compromise our health (910).

This is also known as the “food reward hypothesis of obesity.”

The truth is, processed foods are so incredibly rewarding to our brains that they affect our thoughts and behavior, making us eat more and more until eventually we become sick.

Good food is good, but foods that are engineered to be hyper rewarding, effectively short circuiting our innate brakes against over-consumption, are NOT good.

Bottom Line: Food manufacturers spend massive amounts of resources on making their foods as “rewarding” as possible to the brain, which leads to over-consumption.

3. Contain artificial ingredients

If you look at the ingredients label for a processed, packaged food, chances are that you won’t have a clue what some of the ingredients are.

That’s because many of the ingredients in there aren’t actual food… they are artificial chemicals that are added for various purposes.

This is an example of a processed food, an Atkins Advantage bar, which is actually marketed as a low-carb friendly health food.

atkins ingredients for AN article

I don’t know what this is, but it most certainly isn’t food.

Highly processed foods often contain:

  • Preservatives: Chemicals that prevent the food from rotting.
  • Colorants: Chemicals that are used to give the food a specific color.
  • Flavor: Chemicals that give the food a particular flavor.
  • Texturants: Chemicals that give a particular texture.

Keep in mind that processed foods can contain dozens of additional chemicals that aren’t even listed on the label.

For example, “artificial flavor” is a proprietary blend. Manufacturers don’t have to disclose exactly what it means and it is usually a combination of chemicals.

For this reason, if you see “artificial flavor” on an ingredients list, it could mean that there are 10 or more additional chemicals that are blended in to give a specific flavor.

Of course, most of these chemicals have allegedly been tested for safety. But given that the regulatory authorities still think that sugar and vegetable oils are safe, I personally take their “stamp of approval” with a grain of salt.

Bottom Line: Most highly processed foods are loaded with artificial chemicals, including flavorants, texturants, colorants and preservatives.

4. People can become addicted to junk food

The “hyper-rewarding” nature of processed foods can have serious consequences for some people.

Some people can literally become addicted to this stuff and completely lose control over their consumption.

Although food addiction is something that most people don’t know about, I am personally convinced that it is a huge problem in society today.

It is the main reason why some people just can’t stop eating these foods, no matter how hard they try.

They’ve had their brain biochemistry hijacked by the intense dopamine release that occurs in the brain when they eat these foods (11).

This is actually supported by many studies. Sugar and highly rewarding junk foods activate the same areas in the brain as drugs of abuse like cocaine (12).

Bottom Line: For many people, junk foods can hijack the biochemistry of the brain, leading to downright addiction and cause them to lose control over their consumption.

5. Often high in refined carbohydrates

There is a lot of controversy regarding carbohydrates in the diet.

Some people think that the majority of our energy intake should be from carbs, while others think they should be avoided like the plague.

But one thing that almost everyone agrees on, is that carbohydrates from whole foods are much better than refined carbohydrates.

Processed foods are often high in carbs, but it is usually the refined variety.

One of the main problems is that refined, “simple” carbohydrates are quickly broken down in the digestive tract, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels.

This can lead to carb cravings a few hours later when blood sugar levels go down again. This phenomenon is also called the “blood sugar roller coaster,” which many people who have been on a high-carb diet can relate to.

Not surprisingly, eating a lot of refined carbohydrates is associated with negative health effects and many chronic diseases (131415).

Do NOT be fooled by labels like “whole grains” that are often plastered on processed food packages, including breakfast cereals.

These are usually whole grains that have been pulverized into very fine flour and are just as harmful as their refined counterparts.

If you’re going to eat carbs, get them from whole, single ingredient foods, not processed junk foods.

Bottom Line: The carbohydrates you find in processed foods are usually refined, “simple” carbohydrates. These lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and cause negative health effects.

6. Low in nutrients

Processed foods are extremely low in essential nutrients compared to whole, unprocessed foods.

In some cases, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to the foods to compensate for what was lost during processing.

However, synthetic nutrients are NOT a good replacement for the nutrients found in whole foods.

Also, let’s not forget that real foods contain much more than just the standard vitamins and minerals that we’re all familiar with.

Real foods… like plants and animals, contain thousands of other trace nutrients that science is just beginning to grasp.

Maybe one day we will invent a chemical blend that can replace all these nutrients, but until that happens… the only way to get them in your diet is to eat whole, unprocessed foods.

The more you eat of processed foods, the less you will get of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various trace nutrients.

Bottom Line: There are many nutrients found in whole foods that are not found in processed foods. The more processed foods you eat, the less you will get of these nutrients.

7. Low in fiber

Fiber, especially soluble, fermentable fiber, has various benefits.

foods high in fiber

Processed foods may have less fiber than unprocessed fruits, oats, and bran.

One of the main ones is that it functions as a prebiotic, feeding the friendly bacteria in the intestine (1617).

There is also evidence that fiber can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and help us feel more satisfied with fewer calories (1819).

Soluble fiber can also help treat many cases of constipation, which is a very common problem today (20).

The fiber that is found naturally in foods is often lost during processing, or intentionally removed. Therefore, most processed foods are very low in fiber.

Bottom Line: Soluble, fermentable fiber has various important health benefits, but most processed foods are very low in fiber because it is lost or intentionally removed during processing.

8. Require less time and energy to digest

Food manufacturers want their processed food products to have a long shelf life.

They also want each batch of the product to have a similar consistency and they want their foods to be easily consumed.

Given the way foods are processed, they are often very easy to chew and swallow. Sometimes, it’s almost as if they melt in your mouth.

Most of the fiber has been taken out and the ingredients are refined, isolated nutrients that don’t resemble the whole foods they came from.

One consequence of this is that it takes less energy to eat and digest processed foods.

We can eat more of them in a shorter amount of time (more calories in) and we also burn less energy (fewer calories out) digesting them than we would if they were unprocessed, whole foods.

One study in 17 healthy men and women compared the difference in energy expenditure after consuming a processed vs a whole foods-based meal (21).

They ate a sandwich, either with multi-grain bread and cheddar cheese (whole foods) or with white bread and processed cheese (processed foods).

It turned out that they burned twice as many calories digesting the unprocessed meal.

The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) is a measure of how much different foods stimulate energy expenditure after eating. It totals about 10% of total energy expenditure (metabolic rate) in the average person.

According to this study, people who eat processed food will cut their TEF in half, effectively reducing the amount of calories they burn throughout the day.

Bottom Line: We only burn half as many calories digesting and metabolizing processed foods compared to whole foods.

9. Often high in trans fats

Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats.

They usually contain cheap fats, refined seed- and vegetable oils (like soybean oil) that are often hydrogenated… which turns them into trans fats.

Vegetable oils are extremely unhealthy and most people are eating way too much of them already.

These fats contain excessive amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids, which can drive oxidation and inflammation in the body (2223).

Several studies show that when people eat more of these oils, they have a significantly increased risk of heart disease, which is the most common cause of death in Western countries today (242526).

If the fats are hydrogenated, that makes them even worse. Hydrogenated (trans) fats are among the nastiest, unhealthiest substances you can put into your body (27).

The best way to avoid seed oils and trans fats is to avoid processed foods. Eat real fats like coconut oil and olive oil instead.

Takeaway

When we replace real foods like fish, meat, fruit and vegetables with processed junk foods, we increase our risk of illness and poor health.

Real food is the key to good health, processed food is not. Period.

Low to varying amounts of intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and animal-based omega-3, along with excessive consumption of processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages account for more than 45 percent of all cardiometabolic deaths

The struggle with weight gain and obesity is a common and costly health issue, leading to an increase in risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer, just to name a few.

According to the latest available data,1 18.5 percent of American children and nearly 40 percent of adults are now obese, not just overweight. That’s a significant increase over the 1999/2000 rates, when just under 14 percent of children and 30.5 percent of adults were obese.

Research has linked growing waistlines to a number of different sources, including processed foods, sodas and high-carbohydrate diets. Risks associated with belly fat in aging adults includes an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.2

Researchers have actually predicted obesity will overtake smoking as a leading cause of cancer deaths,3 and recent statistics suggest we’re well on our way to seeing that prediction come true as obesity among our youth is triggering a steep rise in obesity-related cancers at ever-younger ages.

List of processed foods to avoid

 

1. Low-Fat Yogurt

Eating the right kind of yogurt can be a healthy choice, but low-fat yogurt isn’t the way to go.

Because much of the good flavor in dairy products comes from the fat, this discrepancy is usually corrected by plenty of added sugar.

Sometimes yogurt has been pasteurized after culturing, which wipes out the friendly bacteria. Look for full-fat yogurt with live cultures for probiotic benefits.

2. Processed Meat

Meats can be part of a healthy diet, but processed meats like sausage, pepperoni and bacon are poor choices.

Eating processed meats raises the risk of developing chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and heart disease. (12)

While this information is based on observational studies, the association is strong; if you must have processed meats, try to find local sources with minimal additives.

3. Cookies, Pastries and Cakes

These foods are loaded with calories and have essentially no nutrients to deliver.

The refined sugar, white flour and trans fats commonly found in these treats not only add empty calories, but introduce problematic foods that can contribute to other health problems.

4. White Bread

Made with refined wheat flour, white bread can also be categorized as empty calories, and will spike blood sugar just as effectively as a dose of table sugar. (3)

All the nutrients contained in whole wheat have already been sacrificed to grinding and processing, and even if you can tolerate gluten (the protein contained in wheat) there’s nothing to nourish your body in white bread.

Ezekiel bread or whole grain breads have more to offer.

5. Sugary Drinks

Most modern diets are rich in added sugar, which we all know is detrimental to health on many levels. But some sources of sugar are worse than others, and sweetened drinks are the worst.

The brain “gets it” when we eat sugar-rich foods because of the bulk, but sugary drinks have the opposite effect: the system doesn’t register the calories, and we end up consuming more. (456)

Excess sugar consumption causes insulin resistance and can lead to fatty liver disease, as well as increasing the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other serious disorders including obesity. (789)

6. Ice Cream

Because it’s usually loaded with sugar, ice cream is also a poor nutritional choice. Eating it for dessert is even worse, because you’re piling it on top of a meal, adding even more calories.

And everyone who loves ice cream knows how difficult it can be to eat the amount designated as a serving, which is usually a skimpy half-cup.

If you can’t live without ice cream, consider getting a small hand-crank freezer and making your own with less sugar, or using a healthy alternative sweetener.

7. French Fries and Potato Chips

This is probably no surprise: eating potato chips and French fries is associated with weight gain. (1011)

Always boil potatoes; baking, roasting or frying causes acrylamides to form. These are carcinogenic substances, and should be avoided. (1213)

Be creative and find other foods to satisfy your desire for something crunchy or crispy. Try nuts or baby carrots.

8. Fruit Juices

Fruit juice is commonly mistaken for a healthy food because it comes from fruit, which everyone knows is healthy.

The problem with juice is that it’s been separated from the natural fiber that slows down the assimilation of fructose (the sugar found in fruit).

Drinking fruit juice slams your system with as much or more sugar as sweetened soft drinks. (14)

While fruit juices contain antioxidants and vitamins, benefits can be cancelled out by the sugar content. Pomegranate or acai berry juices, for example, should be taken as a supplement, not consumed to quench thirst.

Drink water.

9. Processed Cheese

Including cheese in your diet can be a smart choice, since it’s rich in vital nutrients, and a single serving delivers all the goodies you’d get in a full glass of milk.

Processed cheese is a different story. Filler ingredients are combined with small amounts of dairy derivatives and carefully engineered to taste, feel and look like genuine cheese.

Invest in the real thing.

10. Agave Nectar

This sweetener is presented as natural and healthy, but it’s actually a highly refined product with more fructose than either table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. (15)

Added fructose in the diet can be destructive to your health, although the fructose in fruit is not a problem. Burdening the liver with the work of processing large amounts of fructose can raise the risk of developing various chronic disorders, like diabetes. (16)

Explore healthier options like erythritol and stevia.

11. Pizza

This may be the most popular “junk food” choice in the world, probably because it tastes divine and is convenient and easy to eat.

But most commercial pizzas are made with refined flour and processed meats, neither of which are healthy choices. And the calorie count for a single slice of pizza is staggering.

Making your own pizza at home with quality ingredients is a good choice for an occasional treat, but eating fast-food pizza regularly is a bad idea.

12. Fast Food Meals

Most people realize making fast food a habit won’t help cultivate a healthy body, but it’s extremely popular partly because it’s tasty and cheap.

The trouble is, you’ll pay later with the cost of poor health. And if you feed it to your children, it may raise their risk of obesity and chronic disease. (17)

Don’t indulge in junk food that is mass-produced and highly engineered on a regular basis.

13. Industrially Produced Vegetable Oils

It’s only been the last hundred years or so that added oils in the diet have increased dramatically, pushing us into territory where humans have never gone in the past.

Refined vegetable oils like canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil and cottonseed oil are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which have been linked with an increased risk of cancer, as well as creating higher levels of oxidative stress in the body. (18192021)

You’re better off using avocado oil, coconut oil, butter and olive oil.

14. Candy Bars

What’s the harm in a candy bar? It tastes good, goes down quickly, and provides a nice shot of energy.

The sugar is the worst of it, but candy bars are often bulked up with refined wheat flour and other ingredients that are likely to make you want more, and end up eating a larger amount than you intended.

When the body metabolizes this type of high-sugar food, you’ll be hungry again in a flash.

Try some dark chocolate, or eat a piece of fruit.

15. Margarine

Like processed cheese, margarine is an engineered food designed to look, taste and feel like butter.

Usually made from highly refined vegetable oils, margarine’s solidity is often achieved through hydrogenation, which ups the trans fat content. Trans fats are toxic, and have no place in a healthy diet, even in small amounts.

Manufacturers can label products as “trans fat-free” if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats; with serving sizes designated as a teaspoon or some other unrealistic amount, this can add up fast.

Buy real butter.

16. Sweetened Coffee Drinks

People who drink coffee run a lower risk of certain chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. (2223)

Coffee is loaded with antioxidants and can make healthful contributions to your diet, unless you add sugar or other sweeteners and creamers with artificial ingredients.

Try getting quality coffee and drinking it black. If you must lighten it, minimal amounts of cream or full-fat milk are the best choice.

17. Low-Carb Junk Foods

With the growing popularity of low-carb diets, manufacturers have flooded the market with low-carb treat foods like candy bars and replacement meals.

These junk foods won’t make an impact on the amount of carbs you’re eating, but they contain little nutrition and plenty of artificial ingredients or chemicals.

 

Millennials More Prone to Obesity-Related Cancers Than Their Parents

As obesity rates rise, so do related health problems, including cancer. According to a report4 on the global cancer burden, published in 2014, obesity is already responsible for an estimated 500,000 cancer cases worldwide each year, and that number is likely to rise further in coming decades.

As reported in a recent Lancet study5 by the American Cancer Society, rates of obesity-related cancers are rising at a far steeper rate among millennials than among baby boomers. According to the authors,6 this is the first study to systematically examine obesity-related cancer trends among young Americans.

What’s more, while 6 of 12 obesity-related cancers (endometrial, gallbladder, kidney, multiple myeloma and pancreatic cancer) are on the rise, only 2 of 18 cancers unrelated to obesity are increasing. As noted in the press release:7

“The obesity epidemic over the past 40 years has led to younger generations experiencing an earlier and longer lasting exposure to excess adiposity over their lifetime than previous generations.

Excess body weight is a known carcinogen, associated with more than a dozen cancers and suspected in several more … Investigators led by Hyuna Sung, Ph.D., analyzed 20 years of incidence data (1995-2014) for 30 cancers … covering 67 percent of the population of the U.S…

Incidence increased for 6 of the 12 obesity-related cancers … in young adults and in successively younger birth cohorts in a stepwise manner. For example, the risk of colorectal, uterine corpus [endometrial], pancreas and gallbladder cancers in millennials is about double the rate baby boomers had at the same age …

‘Although the absolute risk of these cancers is small in younger adults, these findings have important public health implications,’ said Ahmedin Jemal, D.V.M., Ph.D., scientific vice president of surveillance [and] health services research and senior/corresponding author of the paper.

‘Given the large increase in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among young people and increasing risks of obesity-related cancers in contemporary birth cohorts, the future burden of these cancers could worsen as younger cohorts age, potentially halting or reversing the progress achieved in reducing cancer mortality over the past several decades.

Cancer trends in young adults often serve as a sentinel for the future disease burden in older adults, among whom most cancer occurs.'”

Changes in Diet Drive Obesity Epidemic

Studies8,9,10 have repeatedly demonstrated that when people switch from a traditional whole food diet to processed foods (which are high in refined flour, processed sugar and harmful vegetable oils), disease inevitably follows.

Below are just a few telling statistics. For more, see nutrition researcher Kris Gunnars’, June 8, 2017, article, which lists 11 graphs showing “what’s wrong with the modern diet.”11

Unfortunately, Americans not only eat a preponderance of processed food, but 60 percent of it is ultraprocessed26 — products at the far end of the “significantly altered” spectrum, or what you could typically purchase at a gas station.

Ultraprocessed Food Has Become the Norm, so Has Chronic Illness

The developed world in general eats significant amounts of processed food, and disease statistics reveal the inherent folly of this trend. There’s really no doubt that decreasing your sugar consumption is at the top of the list if you’re overweight, insulin resistant, or struggle with any chronic disease.

It’s been estimated that as much as 40 percent of American health care expenditures are for diseases directly related to the over-consumption of sugar.27

In the U.S., more than $1 trillion is spent on treating sugar and junk food-related diseases each year.28

 

Representative Photo: Getty Images

Any foods that aren’t whole foods directly from the vine, ground, bush or tree are considered processed. Depending on the amount of change the food undergoes, processing may be minimal or significant. For instance, frozen fruit is usually minimally processed, while pizza, soda, chips and microwave meals are ultraprocessed foods.

The difference in the amount of sugar between foods that are ultraprocessed and minimally processed is dramatic. Research29 has demonstrated that over 21 percent of calories in ultraprocessed foods comes from sugar, while unprocessed foods contain no refined or added sugar.

In a cross-sectional study30 using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of over 9,000 participants, researchers concluded that “Decreasing the consumption of ultraprocessed foods could be an effective way of reducing the excessive intake of added sugars in the USA.”

Over the past 200 years, sugar intake has risen from 2 pounds to 152 pounds per year.12 While Americans are advised to get only 10 percent of their calories from sugar,13 equating to about 13 teaspoons a day for a 2,000-calorie diet, the average intake is 42.5 teaspoons per day.

14It’s important to realize that a goal of 10 percent is nearly impossible to achieve on a processed food diet. Research15 shows only 7.5 percent of the U.S. population, namely those with the lowest processed food consumption, actually meet the U.S. dietary recommendations of getting a maximum of 10 percent of your daily calories from sugars.To burn off the calories in a single 12-ounce soda, you’d have to walk briskly for 35 minutes.

To burn off a piece of apple pie, you’d be looking at a 75-minute walk.16

Soda and fruit juice consumption is particularly harmful, studies17,18 show, raising a child’s risk of obesity by 60 percent per daily serving.19 Research has also shown refined high-carb diets in general are as risky as smoking, increasing your risk for lung cancer by as much as 49 percent.20Between 1970 and 2009, daily calorie intake rose by an average of 425 calories, a 20 percent increase, according to Stephan Guyenet, Ph.D.,21 who studies the neuroscience of obesity.

This rise is largely driven by increased sugar and processed food consumption, and the routine advertising of junk food to children.22To attract customers and compete with other restaurants, companies often add salt, sugar, fat and flavor chemicals to trigger your appetite. Unfortunately, it turns out additives and chemicals supplemented in processing kill off beneficial gut bacteria, which further exacerbates the problems created by a processed food diet.23

According to epidemiology professor Tim Spector, even eating a relatively small number of highly processed ingredients is toxic to your gut microbiome, which start to die off just days after a eating a fast food heavy diet, suggesting excess calories from fast food may not be the only factor to blame for rising weight.Processed vegetable oils, which are high in damaged omega-6 fats, are another important factor in chronic ill health. Aside from sugar, vegetable oils are a staple in processed foods, which is yet another reason why processed food diets are associated with higher rates of heart disease and other diseases.Soybean oil, which is the most commonly consumed fat in the U.S.,24 has also been shown to play a significant role in obesity and diabetes, actually upregulating genes involved in obesity. Remarkably, soybean oil was found to be more obesogenic than fructose!”Ultraprocessed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain,” recent research25 concludes, showing that when people are allowed to eat as much as they want of either ultraprocessed foods or unprocessed food, their energy intake is far greater when eating processed fare. In just two weeks, participants gained between 0.3 and 0.8 kilos on the ultraprocessed diet, and lost 0.3 to 1.1 kilos when eating unprocessed food.

As Ultraprocessed Food Has Become the Norm, so Has Chronic IllnessUnfortunately, Americans not only eat a preponderance of processed food, but 60 percent of it is ultraprocessed26 — products at the far end of the “significantly altered” spectrum, or what you could typically purchase at a gas station.The developed world in general eats significant amounts of processed food, and disease statistics reveal the inherent folly of this trend. There’s really no doubt that decreasing your sugar consumption is at the top of the list if you’re overweight, insulin resistant, or struggle with any chronic disease.It’s been estimated that as much as 40 percent of American health care expenditures are for diseases directly related to the overconsumption of sugar.27

In the U.S., more than $1 trillion is spent on treating sugar and junk food-related diseases each year.28Any foods that aren’t whole foods directly from the vine, ground, bush or tree are considered processed. Depending on the amount of change the food undergoes, processing may be minimal or significant. For instance, frozen fruit is usually minimally processed, while pizza, soda, chips and microwave meals are ultraprocessed foods.The difference in the amount of sugar between foods that are ultraprocessed and minimally processed is dramatic. Research29 has demonstrated that over 21 percent of calories in ultraprocessed foods comes from sugar, while unprocessed foods contain no refined or added sugar.In a cross-sectional study30 using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of over 9,000 participants, researchers concluded that “Decreasing the consumption of ultraprocessed foods could be an effective way of reducing the excessive intake of added sugars in the USA.

“Definition of Ultraprocessed FoodAs a general rule, ultraprocessed foods can be defined as food products containing one or more of the following:

Ingredients that are not traditionally used in cooking. Unnaturally high amounts of sugar, salt, processed industrial oils and unhealthy fats. Artificial flavors, colours, sweeteners and other additives that imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods (examples include additives that create textures and pleasing mouth-feel).

Processing aids such as carbonating, firming, bulking, antibulking, defoaming, anticaking, glazing agents, emulsifiers, sequestrants and humectants.

Preservatives and chemicals that impart an unnaturally long shelf-life.Genetically engineered ingredients, which in addition to carrying potential health risks also tend to be heavily contaminated with toxic herbicides such as glyphosate, 2,4-D and dicamba.

As described in the NOVA classification of food processing,31 “A multitude of sequences of processes is used to combine the usually many ingredients and to create the final product (hence ‘ultraprocessed’).” Examples include hydrogenation, hydrolysation, extrusion, molding and preprocessing for frying.

Ultraprocessed foods also tend to be far more addictive than other foods, thanks to high amounts of sugar (which has been shown to be more addictive than cocaine32), salt and fat. The processed food industry has also developed “craveabilty” into an art form. Nothing is left to chance, and by making their foods addictive, manufacturers ensure repeat sales.

Processed Food Diet Linked to Early Death

In related news, recent research33 involving more than 44,000 people followed for seven years warns that ultraprocessed foods raise your risk of early death.

The French team looked at how much of each person’s diet was made up of ultraprocessed foods, and found that for each 10 percent increase in the amount of ultraprocessed food consumed, the risk of death rose by 14 percent.

This link remained even after taking confounding factors such as smoking, obesity and low educational background into account. As you’d expect, the primary factors driving the increased death rate was chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

Nita Forouhi, a professor at the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, who was not part of the study, told The Guardian:34

“The case against highly processed foods is mounting up, with this study adding importantly to a growing body of evidence on the health harms of ultraprocessed foods … [W]e would ignore these findings at public health’s peril.

A vital takeaway message is that consumption of highly processed foods reflects social inequalities — they are consumed disproportionately more by individuals with lower incomes or education levels, or those living alone.

Such foods are attractive because they tend to be cheaper, are highly palatable due to high sugar, salt and saturated fat content, are widely available, highly marketed, ready to eat, and their use-by dates are lengthy, so they last longer. More needs to be done to address these inequalities.”

Ultraprocessed Foods Linked to Cancer

Another French study35,36 published last year also found that those who eat more ultraprocessed food have higher rates of obesity, heart problems, diabetes and cancer. Nearly 105,000 study participants, a majority of whom were middle-aged women, were followed for an average of five years.

On average, 18 percent of their diet was ultraprocessed, and the results showed that each 10 percent increase in ultraprocessed food raised the cancer rate by 12 percent, which worked out to nine additional cancer cases per 10,000 people per year.

The risk of breast cancer specifically went up by 11 percent for every 10 percent increase in ultraprocessed food. Sugary drinks, fatty foods and sauces were most strongly associated with cancer in general, while sugary foods had the strongest correlation to breast cancer.

According to the authors, “These results suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultraprocessed foods may drive an increasing burden of cancer in the next decades.” Study co-author Mathilde Touvier told CNN:37

“It was quite surprising, the strength of the results. They were really strongly associated, and we did many sensitive analysis and adjusted the findings for many cofactors, and still, the results here were quite concerning.”

Diet Is a Key Factor That Determines Your Health and Longevity

Research38 published in 2017 linked poor diet to an increased risk of cardiometabolic mortality (death resulting from Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke).

According to the authors, sub-optimal intake of key foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-based omega-3, along with excessive consumption of processed foods such as meats and sugar-sweetened beverages accounted for more than 45 percent of all cardiometabolic deaths in 2012.

In other words, the more processed foods you eat, and the less whole foods you consume, the greater your risk of chronic disease and death.

Other research published that same year found that eating fried potatoes (such as french fries, hash browns and potato chips) two or more times per week may double your risk of death from all causes.39  Eating potatoes that were not fried was not linked to an increase in mortality risk, suggesting frying — and most likely the choice of oil — is the main problem.

In a 2013 presentation40 at the European Ministerial Conference on Nutrition and Noncommunicable Diseases by Dr. Carlos Monteiro,41 professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Monteiro stresses the importance of creating “policies aiming the reformulation of processed foods,” and limiting children’s exposure to junk food marketing, in order to tackle the rise in diet-related noncommunicable diseases.

In my view, eating a diet consisting of 90 percent real food and only 10 percent or less processed foods is an achievable goal for most that could make a significant difference in your weight and overall health. You simply need to make the commitment and place a high priority on it. To get started, consider the following guidelines:

Focus on raw, fresh foods, and avoid as many processed foods as possible (if it comes in a can, bottle or package, and has a list of ingredients, it’s processed).
Severely restrict carbohydrates from refined sugars, fructose and processed grains.
Increase healthy fat consumption. (Eating dietary fat isn’t what’s making you pack on pounds. It’s the sugar/fructose and grains that add the padding.)
You may eat an unlimited amount of non-starchy vegetables. Because they are so low in calories, the majority of the food on your plate should be vegetables.
Limit protein to less than 0.5 gram per pound of lean body weight.
Replace sodas and other sweetened beverages with pure, filtered water.
Shop around the perimeter of the grocery store where most of the whole foods reside, such as meat, fruits, vegetables, eggs and cheese. Not everything around the perimeter is healthy, but you’ll avoid many of the ultraprocessed foods this way.
Vary the whole foods you purchase and the way you eat them. For instance, carrots and peppers are tasty dipped in hummus. You get the crunch of the vegetable and smooth texture of the hummus to satisfy your taste, your brain and your physical health.
Stress creates a physical craving for fats and sugar that may drive your addictive, stress-eating behavior. If you can recognize when you’re getting stressed and find another means of relieving the emotion, your eating habits will likely improve.

The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can help reduce your perceived stress, change your eating habits around stress and help you create new, healthier eating habits that support your long-term health. To discover more about EFT, how to do it and how it may help reduce your stress and develop new habits, see my previous article, “EFT Is an Effective Tool for Anxiety