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Nutrition is one of the most important factors in promoting the quality and longevity of life. Yet, for many individuals, it is a known area of weakness. Most people know their diets could use improvement, but struggle to identify exactly how they could optimize their eating for better wellness. The simplest answer lies in the elimination of processed foods.
Although modern science has come a long way in terms of helping the human population maintain wellness, there is still no manufactured substitute for the nutritional value provided by natural sources. Processed foods only add cost to foods, and their creation is driven solely by consumer demand. Yet, while the food industry continues to churn out processed products, we continue to see startling disease rates linked to poor diet: as of 2016, obesity affected more than 93 million U.S. adults .
Indeed, the dangers of consuming processed foods are serious and often underappreciated. Here, we will explore some of the potential impacts of processed foods, along with dietary alternatives. Firsts, we will begin by finding out exactly what defines this type of food. You may be surprised to learn just how much of your diet comprises processed food sources.
Processed foods tend to be readily available, nutrient-poor but calorie-dense, and have a decreased ability to promote feelings of fullness. Yet, the reason people keep coming back to them is simple: these foods are highly palatable, which is largely due to their high concentration of excess additives like sugars, sodium, and fats.
Because the term “processed” is so vague, however, it is no surprise that there tends to be confusion around what is considered processed and what is not. Oftentimes, the term “processed food” is used synonymously with “junk food,” but, in reality, it also includes many food sources which are typically perceived as healthy. Any grain – including multigrain bread and whole wheat pasta – is a processed food, for example. In fact, by the strictest definition, any food source that is not a raw vegetable, fruit, or meat product would be considered processed.
Yet, in practical terms, it is important to understand the varying degrees to which foods can be processed. Bagged or frozen vegetables and roasted nuts, for instance, are less processed than pre-made meals, such as microwavable dinners, which fall at the other end of the spectrum. “Ready-to-eat” foods requiring minimal or no preparation, including cereal, oatmeal, dairy products, and deli meats are also considered processed . The more additives and processing a food source has, the more harmful it may be.
Processed foods are harmful for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are often high in refined carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the primary factor that most substantially increase cardiovascular related disease by modulating insulin and inflammation. They also contribute to obesity more than any other macronutrient (including protein and fats).
Most processed foods are exceptionally high in added sugar, which can have a significant detrimental effect on the metabolism. Added sugar plays a role in the epidemics of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome . Sugar consumption is also strongly linked to obesity and heart disease.
It is not a single offending ingredient but rather a plethora of artificial ingredients found in processed foods that contribute to them being so harmful. Highly processed foods typically contain additives including preservatives, colorants, flavors, and texturants, all of which are chemicals used for specific purposes.
Some foods even contain additional chemicals you will not find on nutrition labels, since manufacturers do not have to disclose what comprises blends, including “artificial flavors,” for instance . In addition, while some contain added synthetic vitamins and minerals (to compensate for the nutritional value lost during processing), their nutrient level pales in comparison to that of whole, unprocessed foods. They are also low in fiber, which supports appetite regulation and aids in digestion.
Perhaps most alarmingly of all, highly processed foods are even linked to an increased risk of cancer. A 10% increase in the intake of highly processed foods is associated with an increase of greater than 10% in risk for overall and breast cancer .
These ultra-processed foods associated with extra cancer risk include sweet or savory packaged snacks, soda and other sweetened beverages, mass-produced and packaged breads and baked goods, chicken and fish nuggets, industrialized desserts, and frozen ready meals.
For individuals who are used to following an eating plan primarily consisting of processed foods, eradicating these sources from their diet may seem overwhelming.
Yet, these harmful foods can be phased out gradually, by moving away from the most heavily processed foods first until only minimally processed or entirely natural food sources are left.
While processed foods are indeed highly palatable and are in fact made for the very purpose of appealing to appetites, there are still hundreds of natural alternatives, which can be enjoyed. More importantly, natural food sources provide the nutrients needed to support healthy functionality for the body’s major systems, as well as minimized disease risk.
From trying unique pairings to adding different blends of seasonings, there are many ways to tailor whole foods to your own liking. Finding vegetables, lean meats, and fruits that you enjoy most and replacing processed snacks and meals with these natural food sources can have far-reaching benefits.
Nutrition is one of the most important factors in promoting the quality and longevity of life. However, many individuals struggle to identify food necessary to optimize eating for better wellness. Processed foods tend to be readily available, nutrient-poor but calorie-dense, and have a decreased ability to promote feelings of fullness.
The reason so many people return to these foods is simple: they are highly palatable, due to their large concentration of excess additives like sugar, sodium and salt. By the strictest definition, any food source that is not a raw vegetable, fruit, or meat would be considered processed.
Processed foods are dangerous and play a significant role in increased risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and even cancer.
As an alternative, to reduce the risk of disease based on diet, find vegetables, lean meats, and fruits that are enjoyable and replace processed snacks and meals with these natural food sources. Eradicating sources of processed food from one’s diet reduces the risk of disease and though it may seem overwhelming, these harmful foods can be gradually phased out.
The Cenegenics Elite Health programs take a comprehensive approach to nutrition, unlike other diets which tend to focus on a single facet of life – changes in eating habits.
The Cenegenics approach assures long-term results in comparison to “fast” weight loss solutions by customizing programs based on individual needs.
Our world class physicians create a personalized plan to help you feel 10+ years younger. You'll be more energetic, lose weight, sleep better, have more libido, and think more clearly. Click below to schedule a free consultation with one of our physicians. It's quick + easy.
About the Contributor
Global Director of Nutrition & Exercise
Rudy Inaba is Cenegenics’ Global Director of Nutrition & Exercise. He is a recognized fitness and sports nutrition consultant with nearly 15 years of experience in clinical exercise physiology and lifestyle management. After pursuing his Master of Science in Clinical Exercise Physiology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Rudy joined Cenegenics where he leads 20 clinical locations nationwide in their advancements in kinesiology, nutritional biochemistry, and their analyses of industry research & market trending.
 “Adult Obesity Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from URL: https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
 “What is a Processed Food? You Might Be Surprised!” International Food Information Council Foundation. Sept. 2010. Retrieved from URL: https://www.foodinsight.org/sites/default/files/what-is-a-processed-food.pdf
 Stanhope et al. “Adverse metabolic effects of dietary fructose: results from the recent epidemiological, clinical, and mechanistic studies.” Current Opinion in Lipidology. June 2013. Retrieved from URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23594708
 Stanhope et al. “Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans.” Journal of Clinical Investigation. 1 May 2009. Retrieved from URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2673878/
 Gunnars, Kris. “Nine ways that processed foods are harming people.” Medical News Today. 01 August 2017. Retrieved from URL: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318630.php