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Are Processed Foods Really That Unhealthy?

When you’re looking to eat healthier, cutting out processed foods can be a great place to start. Usually, this is a good call for a number of reasons, but what are they, and do they stand up to scrutiny? The answer isn’t as clear when you consider that some surprising items are technically processed foods. So, are the concerns about processed foods well-founded, or are processed foods demonized unfairly, similar to fat or eggs? That’s just what we, at Medicareful Living, wanted to find out.

What Are Processed Foods?

Before we get into what makes processed food so unhealthy or not, we should probably define what it is. This is important for two reasons. First, understanding what qualifies as a processed food can help you understand why it’s usually not very healthy for you. At the same time, defining processed food can help you to identify which processed foods are, at least a little, OK to include in your diet occasionally.

By definition, a processed food is anything that’s been changed in some way during its preparation.

By definition, a processed food is anything that’s been changed in some way during its preparation. Canning, baking, or freezing a food item qualifies as processing it. As you can see, this means a lot of both healthy and unhealthy products are processed foods. For example, cheese, bread, some meats, and milk can all be considered processed food. At the same time, soda, prepackaged meals, and canned vegetables also qualify. This creates an interesting divide that complicates the “no processed food” rule. That said, a lot of processed foods are still unhealthy, and there’s a good reason for that.

What Goes into Making Processed Foods?

If the problem with processed foods isn’t the processing, then what makes many of them unhealthy? Generally, the problems arise with what is used to process the foods.

Full of What’s “Bad” and Low on Nutrients

Usually, a lot of salt or sugar is used to process foods. (Salt and sugar aren’t inherently bad, but should be used in smart, healthy quantities.) One study found that ultra-processed foods account for nearly 90 percent of added sugars in the American diet. Processed foods are also the sources of 57 percent of sodium in the average diet. Beyond salt and sugar, unhealthy processed foods tend to be high in additives like artificial colorings and preservatives.

One study found that ultra-processed foods account for nearly 90 percent of added sugars in the American diet.

Additionally, unhealthy processed foods tend to be low in healthy nutrients that often make up for the bad. For example, processed foods tend to be high in refined carbohydrates, which have all the cons of carbohydrates, but none of the benefits of whole grains. In fact, nutrition across the board basically decreased significantly in ultra-processed foods in one study.

More Calories, Less Fullness

One of the best ways to lose weight is through portion control, and if this is something you’re working on, avoid heavily-processed foods. Generally, people feel less full eating ultra-processed foods, and eat up to 500 extra calories compared to those who eat healthier alternatives. There are a few reasons this can occur. The lack of nutrients, like protein, in ultra-processed foods can make you feel less full than more nutrient-rich and less-processed foods. Heavily-processed foods also tend to be calorie-heavy, as well. In other words, processed foods can make it so that you’re not as full (eating more) and getting more calories from a smaller amount of food.

Addictive Qualities

Not only is eating processed foods less nutritious, less filling, and more fattening, but it can also be addictive by signaling to your brain to release dopamine. This chemical makes it even more pleasurable to eat these foods and even harder to do something like put down the chips once you’ve opened them. “Betcha can’t eat just one” is essentially a pretty good bet. One study found that junky processed food activates the same region of the brain as drug abuse.

Are All Processed Foods Bad?

With all of this in mind, it’s clear that processed foods aren’t great for you. But, as we learned earlier, not all processed foods are unhealthy. This doesn’t mean that you can indulge in any processed foods without worry. There are still a number of processed foods that you should avoid, though indulging in them once in a while is OK. Just keep in mind that they should be enjoyed sparingly.

A good rule of thumb is the more processed something is (the more ready-out-of-the-package it is), the unhealthier it is.

You may be wondering how you can tell the difference between OK processed foods and unhealthy ones. A good rule of thumb is the more processed something is (the more ready-out-of-the-package it is), the unhealthier it is. (This isn’t a perfect rule, however, since bread can be staple of a diet, but can be eaten without any additional cooking.) Look at how something was processed. If it’s fried in oils or coated in sugar, it won’t be nearly as healthy as if it were baked. At the same time, pay attention to what goes into the food item and read the packaging to determine what’s in it.

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By being a conscientious shopper and using what you’ve learned throughout the Diet section on Medicareful Living, you’ll be able to spot the differences between OK processed foods and unhealthy processed foods pretty quickly.