Processed Food – The Danger of All Times

In today’s world of processed and ultra-processed food, the lines between healthy food and imposters can become blurred. Understanding what we eat and what is in the food we eat is the first step to making good food choices every day.

Food items can be classified into ultra-processed and non-ultra-processed categories. Ultra-processed foods include items like soft drinks, sweet or savory packaged snacks, confectionery, packaged breads, margarine, reconstituted meat products, and pre-prepared frozen or shelf-stable dishes. Processed foods encompass breads, cheese, canned fruit and fish, oils other than pure virgin olive oil and salted and smoked meats. Non-processed foods are rice, whole-grain cereals, meat, fish, milk, eggs, fruit, roots and tubers, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

Our palate is highly sensitive to the blend of fat, sugar, and sweet. Food manufacturers have made sure that their products offer the perfect balance and have invested a lot of money into ensuring that we would buy their products and not the ones of their competitors – this is the reason why Oreo aficionados easily make the difference between an actual Oreo and another cookie brand. The food industry has become a science and has created a food culture. Enter a large supermarket in the country and you will find aisles of breakfast cereals in every shape, size, and color. Packaged snacks, soft drinks, bread wrapped in plastic bags, fridges of frozen food and thousands of different candies: processed food is everywhere. 90 percent of the food Americans buy is processed: canned, frozen, dehydrated, or freeze-dried, according to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation.

African Woman Talking On Mobile Phone Buying Food In Supermarket

The extent of the problem depends on the degree of processing, the ingredients used, and the overall nutritional quality of the product. Ultra-processed foods are industrially manufactured, heavily processed products that often contain additives, artificial flavors, and high levels of sugars, fats, and salt, while providing limited nutritional value.

Michael Pollan, a writer and a journalist, tracked our food from the source. He began with corn harvested on a specific farm, tracing it to the factory process. Touring a plant at Iowa State University, he found that corn is basically separated into individual parts, ground into a white, unappetizing slush, and then sent to different factories to be turned into varied corn products. Fructose? High fructose corn syrup? Maltodextrin? Ethanol (alcohol and fuel for our cars)? Xantham gum? Modified starch? ALL CORN. Your typical meal of soda, chicken nuggets with ketchup, and French fries, when viewed by Pollan, is more than half derived from corn. What we have is cheap, processed corn or soybeans under many different guises. “We are processed corn, walking,” says Pollan.

 

We are living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but Americans are facing a problem of malnutrition. We have become a society brought up on fake, processed products, said Dr. Joel Furhman in his book Fast Food Genocide. The main issue remains the health issue and the cost associated to the issue. The CDC statistics show that more than 40 percent of the Americans are obese, 70 percent are overweight, one in ten adults suffer from diabetes. Heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancer, and an increase in autoimmune disease are rampant. In a ten-year-timeframe, 85% of the Americans will be overweight and/or obese. The annual cost of obesity-related diseases is close to two billion dollars each year.

Fat woman eating high calorie food in restaurant

Processed food is highly addictive. They are designed to stimulate our brains. We crave French fries, chips, cakes, cookies, and ice cream. We never crave broccolis or beans. Why? Because the food industry has worked very hard of having our brains hooked of the ultra-brain stimulant. The more heavily processed a food is, the less nutrients it contains. Companies add vitamins and minerals, which is something that confuses people. When you read the word “enriched” on a product, this is a sign that the product is so processed that the manufacturers had to add something to compensate the lack of nutrients. As Sara Bina Barnett, RDN at SBNutrition said: “It means that all the positive aspects of the food were removed, and then synthetically replaced.”

How many of us find ourselves eating when we are bored, nervous, or just as a “reward” after a tough day? It is not just hunger, but rather the emotional aspect of eating. Eating trigger-foods makes the brain release the neurochemical dopamine, which results in a hormonal flood of pleasure – the same “pleasure” we get when we drink alcohol, when we gamble, when we do drunks, or we are on our devices! If you eat too much ice cream, you will soon have to eat more ice just to feel that “rush”. The desire for fast food becomes more intense every time it is ingested, because it excites the brain. Cravings are the result of our addiction to processed food and the triple addictive effect of salt, fat, and sugar. Too much salt prevents the body from feeling fullness. We can then keep on eating long after it is uncomfortably stuffed. With food addiction, instead of eating to live, we live to eat. Food becomes the master.

Potato chips

Equally concerning is the relation between ultra-processed food and mental health. A research from the Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study showed that individuals who consumed a high amount of ultra-processed food were more likely to experience psychological distress – anxiety and depression – more than a decade later. The study sheds light on the links between dietary intake and mental health. It shows that ultra-processed foods early in life, between 13 and 17 years of age, is linked to depression later in life. Participants with the highest levels of ultra-processed food consumption (the top 25% in terms of ultra-processed food intake) had a 14% higher likelihood of experiencing psychological distress compared to those in the lowest 25% of ultra-processed food intake.

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities. It often involves changes in appetite, sleep patterns, energy levels, and concentration. Individuals with depression may experience physical symptoms like fatigue, as well as cognitive symptoms like negative self-perception and difficulty making decisions. It is one of the most frequent mental health disorders worldwide. Numerous factors contribute to the severity of depressive symptoms, but recently, researchers have been particularly interested in a connection between poor diet quality and depression. The link is significant because diet is a more easily modifiable factor than many other depression predictors. According to Dr. Furhman, “It is impossible to have normal brain function, and even healthy emotional life, living on fake food. Fake food changes us, both mentally and physically.” We can eat, we can be overweight, and we can still be starving.

Depressed teenage girl in her room

It is a necessity to be educated. It is not necessarily about eating less – while, research shows that eating less is beneficial for the body and the brain – but about eating right.

Five tips to eat the right thing:

  1. Read the ingredients in a food item: if you don’t understand some of them, or if you don’t have some of them in your pantry, don’t eat it!
  2. Avoid the scam of “no sugar”. Only table sugar has the monopoly of the name “sugar”. Other types of sugar, including the sweeteners, cannot be called sugar. However, they are sugar! The “zero sugar” tricks the customer and his brain. Sweeteners like Splenda for instance, tricks the brain since the brain cannot make the difference in between sweeteners. Thus, sugar or any other artificial sweets lead to a rush of insulin. Research shows that people who drink sweetened beverages have huge cravings for sugar and end up gaining weight.
  3. Include whole grains in your diet: the fibers protect your gut and as the adage says: healthy gut, healthy brain. Regular white flour, white rice, or white pasta are so processed that they contain no nutrients but pure sugar.
  4. Cook your own food as much as you can. This way, you can control what you put in your mouth.
  5. Be self-disciplined instead of being self-control. Eating habits cannot fall under the category of “all or nothing”. How many times can we control ourselves about not eating a cookie? However, with enough discipline and knowledge, we can easily say no to the cookie because we know it won’t do any good to us. What if we fail? Not a big deal, go back to your goals, your discipline and your knowledge and commit to do better next time. Guilt won’t solve the issue.
Healthy food concept
Picture of Dr. Judith Ryba

Dr. Judith Ryba

Hi I'm Dr. Judith. I am a certified Life Coach in Nutrition and Emotional Eating. I help women of all ages find pleasure in food while maintaining healthy eating habits. I am passionate about creating a safe and supportive space for women to honor their needs. I believe food is one of the greatest pleasures in life but also a great healer.

Dr. Judith Ryba - PhD

Coaching in Nutrition and Emotional Eating