One could argue that all of our food is in some way processed. But it's the food that has been chemically-processed that needs to be avoided. Foods that fall into this category have refined ingredients and artificial substances that are not generally good for our bodies. After all, they are chemicals!
A great deal of planning and engineering goes into processed foods. The ultimate goal of food manufacturers is to get the consumer hooked on their product. To make foods this desirable, they have to taste great. But Shayna Komar, a licensed and registered dietitian at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, warns that our bodies are not designed to break down chemically-processed foods.
"Our bodies were not made to digest processed foods, so they don't really know how to use them. As a result, these foods don't give us the fuel our bodies need. Instead they are filled with empty calories."
Sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Sweeteners are used in processed foods because people generally love sweet food. Some say sugar is even more addictive than cocaine, and many studies show a link between high sugar intake and diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Artificial ingredients. It's not a good sign when you can't pronounce the ingredients on a package. Hard-to-pronounce words are usually added chemicals. Common additives include preservatives, coloring, flavor, and texturants, which are all used to enhance the appearance, taste and shelf life of a product.
Refined carbohydrates. Carbohydrates you find in processed foods are usually refined, "simple" carbohydrates. These lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, and can leave people craving more carbs in just a few hours.
Trans fats or processed vegetable oils. In an effort to keep prices down, many food manufacturers use cheap fats and oils which are hydrogenated, meaning they turn into trans fats -- the worst kind for you. Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. According to the American Heart Association, eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke, and it is also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Nutrients. Some synthetic nutrients may be added to processed foods, but these are not a good replacement for natural ones found in whole foods. Processed food just doesn't carry the nutritional value found in real food.
Fiber. Most processed foods are very low in fiber because it is lost or intentionally removed during processing. Fiber plays a few very important roles in our bodies. It functions as a prebiotic, feeding the friendly bacteria in the intestine, it keep constipation in check, and there is also evidence that fiber can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates allowing us to feel more satisfied for longer periods of time.
While processed foods are typically convenient, Komar warns that they should be eaten in moderation.
"The best foods to eat are always clean, whole foods. They are the ones that provide power for your body which actually energizes you."
Komar believes people who have poor eating habits ultimately are "hangry" in life – hungry and angry. Processed foods may contribute to sluggish and irritable feelings. Often people don't even realize they are living in this rut, but there is a way out. Komar has seen many patients change their eating habits and ultimately "come alive."
For additional healthy lifestyle ideas, visit Health & Wellness.