What Are Processed Foods and Why Are They Bad for Me?

By Haley Bass | 10/27/2016

I hear the term “processed foods” thrown around all of the time, but what does that even mean?

Most foods are processed in some way, but there’s a difference between mechanical processing and chemical processing.

Ground beef doesn’t come in that form naturally – it has to be processed through a machine. But there’s still only one ingredient: beef. That’s mechanical processing.

Ground beef is also processed at fast food chains, but you might notice a difference in the ingredients: Beef, water, seasoning [cellulose, chili pepper, maltodextrin, salt, oats (contains wheat), soy lecithin, spices, tomato powder, sugar, onion powder, citric acid, natural flavors (including smoke flavor), torula yeast, cocoa, disodium inosinate & guanylate, dextrose, lactic acid, modified corn starch], salt, sodium phosphates.

Most of the ingredients, several of which you may have never even heard of, are not beef. Many of them aren’t natural at all. That’s chemical processing.
Basically, any food that is filled with:

  • added sugar (apples have natural sugar, most apple juices add sugar on top of that),
  • refined carbs,
  • preservatives,
  • colorants,
  • or flavor is considered processed.

If that’s the criteria, there’s a ton of food that’s considered processed. Why is it so bad for me? 

Processed foods have barely any nutrients and fiber. So even when your stomach hurts from binging on a bag of chips, you aren’t completely full and satisfied. We also don’t burn nearly as many calories digesting processed food as we do whole foods.

On top of that, there are specific problems with some of the main ingredients in processed foods.

1. Added Sugar

Added sugar, or high fructose corn syrup, makes food taste better--but it can also make you gain a lot of weight. A high intake of processed sugars can cause insulin resistance (bad, because insulin protects us from toxic levels of glucose), high triglycerides (which block leptin – the hormone that tells your brain to stop eating), and increased cholesterol (fat that can block your arteries). These issues can lead to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.

The best way to stay healthy or lose weight is to cut added sugar from your diet. Stick to the real stuff, like a healthy serving of fruit.

2. Refined Carbohydrates

While complex carbohydrates come from nature and are rich in healthy, filling fiber, simple or refined carbs are just sugar. They provide a quick source of energy since the digestive tract breaks them down quickly, causing blood sugar and insulin levels to spike rapidly. But you’ll soon feel hungry again when those levels go back down. That’s why you can fill up on those dinner rolls before your meal and feel hungry again when your entrée arrives. When you consume refined carbs, you put yourself at risk for many chronic diseases, including diabetes and cancer.

Check bread labels and make sure you’re getting 100% whole wheat. Deceitful terms like wheat flour, multi-grain, and enriched just mean processed – avoid these.

3. Trans Fats and Processed Vegetable Oils

Processed foods are usually filled with unhealthy oils that are high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Although our body needs these fatty acids to fight infection and illness, an excessive amount can drive oxidation and inflammation in the body. This increases risk of heart disease.

Cook your food in real fats like butter, olive oil, and coconut oil to get the right balance of fatty acids in your body.

So processed foods are definitely bad for me. Why can’t I stop eating them?

The ingredients are built with the sole intent of making food taste delicious.

Eating food loaded with sugar, salt, fat, and carbs increases serotonin – the “feel good” hormone that ignites the reward center of the brain. The food temporarily makes you feel better, so you keep eating. This can lead to food addiction or emotional eating dependency.

Ok, now I know I shouldn’t eat processed foods. What’s my next step?

Learn how to eat better! It might take some time to get used to a healthier diet, but every time you reach for an apple instead of a Twinkie, you’re taking a step in the right direction. Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Avoid going out to eat. Although several restaurants (even fast food) are incorporating healthier options, most of the menu is going to be made up of processed foods. By cooking your meals, you’ll know exactly what you’re eating.

2. Learn how to read ingredient and nutrition labels. Stop getting tricked by promises of whole grains and natural flavors. Use this to help you understand what you’re buying.

3. Find yummy alternatives. It’s hard to give up your favorite foods, so try to find some substitutions that will fulfill the craving. Eat This, Not That! has some great solutions.