5 Colors a Day Blog - What are the Effects of Consuming Processed Foods

Processed food is generally considered to be any food item that has gone through a series of mechanical or chemical operations to alter it from its natural state or preserve it. Typically, they come in a box and contain more than one ingredient. Processed foods lack the many benefits of plant based diets and are considered a great contributor to the rising obesity epidemic and chronic diseases such as diabetes.

Types of Processed Foods

In 2009, a popular system called the NOVA classification was introduced to classify processed food. These foods range from minimally to highly processed.

Unprocessed Or Minimally Processed Foods

Unprocessed foods are the natural edible parts of plants and animals. Minimally processed foods have undergone slight alteration for preservation purposes. They are mostly packaged or preserved at peak freshness and include fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, meats, and milk.

Processed Culinary Ingredients

These are derived from minimally processed food by pressing, refining, grinding, or milling. They are mostly not eaten on their own but instead used to prepare minimally processed foods. Examples include nuts, flour, seeds, and oils from plants.

Processed Foods

These are foods from the last two processes that have added salt, sugar, or fats. They are usually made from at least 2 to 3 ingredients and come ready to eat. Examples of processed foods are canned fruit and vegetables, freshly made bread, and canned fish.

Ultra or Highly Processed Foods

These are foods that include artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives to preserve texture and promote shelf stability. They are ready-to-eat foods on the more heavily processed side. Examples include crackers, cookies, sugary drinks, deli meat, and some frozen dinners.

The Effects of Processed Foods

Processed foods especially the highly processed ones could contain ingredients that are harmful if consumed in excess such as saturated fats, added sugar, and salt. Among the many health benefits of plant based diets is they are full of dietary fiber. On the other hand, processed foods contain less dietary fiber and fewer vitamins. A study found that eating 10% more ultra-processed foods was associated with a 10% increase in the risks of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disorders.

Poor Gut Health

A healthy gut has a diverse number of bacteria. The food we eat has the potential to change the bacteria composition in the gut. One benefit of plant based diet is its abundance of dietary fiber which is vital for gut health by relieving constipation and feeding the beneficial bacteria in the gut. 

70% of the body’s immune system is located in the gut. Research has shown that some of the common additives found in processed foods can damage the intestinal walls and increase intestinal permeability. This allows more toxins to enter the body raising the likelihood of developing an autoimmune disorder.

Processed foods have less dietary fiber. This can negatively alter the gut bacteria and cause poor gut issues such as indigestion, bloating, and acid reflux. Researchers have also found a link between artificial sweeteners and glucose intolerance.

Weight Gain and Obesity

Processed foods have been linked to weight gain since they are loaded with calories. A 2019 study discovered that people who follow a highly-processed diet will eat around 500 more calories than those eating a minimally processed regimen.

They are low in protein, a nutrient responsible for blood sugar control. Proteins promote a feeling of fullness and help reduce levels of ghrelin, a hormone that drives appetite and increases calorie intake.

Causes Cardiovascular Disease and Other Chronic Diseases

Eating ultra-processed foods such as sodas, salty snacks, and meats has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease. High sodium levels in food are related to high blood pressure, a risk factor for stroke and heart disease.

Some processed foods have alarming quantities of trans fats. A 2019 study found that eating trans fats is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

Compromised Brain Health

A benefit of plant based diet is it improves the brain’s cognitive function. Processed foods lack most if not all of the nutrients present in whole foods. A March 2021 study of 500,000 people discovered that eating processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, and deli meats causes a higher risk of dementia. 

According to Harvard Health Publishing, refined sugar has also been linked with reduced brain function and worsening mood disorders, such as depression.

Metabolic Syndrome

Processed food consumption is linked to metabolic syndrome, a risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. When refined carbohydrates are consumed in excess quantities, the sugars are stored in the body as fat causing metabolic occurrences. One example is the spike in blood glucose level which will need insulin to stabilize. Over time, this causes insulin resistance and increased levels of triglycerides in the blood. Ultimately, these metabolic disturbances increase the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.

Bottom Line

Unlike plant-based diets which come packed with nutrients, heavy processing strips away many foods of their basic nutrients, like fiber and vitamins that our bodies need. To counter this, manufacturers now add synthetic vitamins and minerals to replace nutrients lost during processing. However, processed foods can never outmatch the health benefits of a plant based diet.