Have you ever found yourself reaching for another chip, even though you’re not hungry anymore? Or have you finished a box of cookies and wondered where they all went? If so, you’re not alone.
Designed to be addictive, processed foods can wreak havoc on our health. They’re everywhere we look—supermarkets, gas stations, even food labeled as healthy
It’s convenient, often affordable, and, let’s be honest, sometimes downright delicious. But beneath the surface of these seemingly harmless snacks and meals lurks a dark side: a cocktail of ingredients designed to be addictive and detrimental to our health.
60 MINUTES TV SEGMENTS
I became aware of this issue after watching 60 Minutes several years ago. Morley Safer reported on a segment called The Flavorist. In it, he speaks with scientists who create flavors that make foods and beverages so tasty that critics say they’re addictive.
60 Minutes, Australia produced a different segment called Secret Sugar. It’s also an eye-opening look inside the secret food labs that are getting us hooked on sugar
Quoting from the reporter’s introduction, “Many of the foods marketed as healthy are, in fact, chock full of sugar. There’s a massive industry pulling every trick in the book to get you and me hooked on sugar.”
These two episodes (linked above) are worth watching if you struggle to let go of your food obsessions.
THE DANGERS OF PROCESSED FOOD
Processed foods are often high in unhealthy sugar, sodium, and fat. While these ingredients make the food taste good, they may lead to serious health problems like:
- Obesity: Processed foods are often calorie-dense, meaning they provide a lot of calories in a small serving. Higher calories lead to weight gain and obesity, and this is a major risk factor for many ongoing diseases.
- Heart disease: Processed foods are high in saturated and trans fats, which may contribute to heart disease by raising bad cholesterol (LDL) levels.
- High blood pressure: High blood pressure can result from processed foods high in sodium.
- Diabetes: Processed foods are often high in sugar, and this can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
- Cancer: Some processed foods contain preservatives and chemicals that may increase the risk of cancer.
THE Attraction OF ENGINEERED FLAVORS
It’s shocking just how many ready-to-eat, overly processed, and flavored-enhanced foods there are in the market. And they’re hard to avoid. Read on to find tips for avoiding them below.
Processed food manufacturers use a variety of techniques to make their products more appealing. They add artificial flavors, colors, and textures that are designed to be irresistible.
These foods are often engineered to surpass the natural limits of flavor, creating what is known as “supernormal stimuli.”
Engineered flavors are often far more intense and concentrated than anything in nature. As a result, they can create a disconnect from the subtle yet rich flavors and textures of whole, natural foods and make them seem bland and unappealing.
The high sugar, fat, and salt in these foods can also lead to addictive eating behaviors, making it hard to control portion sizes and food choices.
In the News
A recent article published in National Geographic warns us that our love for convenient, hyper-palatable, ultra-processed foods like soda, candy, and frozen meals comes at a cost for our mental health as well as physical health. Research suggests a link between high ultra-processed food intake and increased risk of anxiety, depression, and even cognitive decline.
The article, Ultra-processed food isn’t just bad for your health—it messes with your mind, is for premium members, but here’s a short summary of what’s covered:
The article explores several possible culprits for these negative effects:
- Nutritional displacement: Ultra-processed foods often replace nutrient-rich whole foods, depriving the brain of essential vitamins and minerals.
- Chronic inflammation: High-calorie, sugary, and fatty ultra-processed foods contribute to chronic inflammation linked to mood disorders and cognitive decline.
- Reward system hijack: Food addictive cocktail of salt, sugar, and fat activates the brain’s reward system, potentially leading to cravings and compulsive eating, negatively impacting mental well-being.
While the research is still young, the growing evidence suggests a clear connection between the consumption of processed food and mental health, as well.
Are any processed foods OK to eat?
There are degrees of processing when it comes to store-bought foods and some packaged items are indeed OK to eat on a whole food, plant-based diet.
Here’s a list of definitions from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics when deciding if a food is OK to eat. These are listed in order of best to worst.
- Minimally processed foods such as bagged spinach, cut vegetables, and roasted nuts are often simply pre-prepped for convenience.
- Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes, frozen fruit, and vegetables.
- Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture (sweeteners, spices, colors, and preservatives) include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt, and cake mixes.
- Ready-to-eat foods like crackers, granola, and deli meat are more heavily processed.
- The most heavily processed foods often are pre-made meals, including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.
So, don’t despair because you can create healthy plant-based meals using many of the minimally processed foods found in the market. Here’s a roundup of 49 Recipes Using Canned and Packaged Foods.
A WHOLE FOOD, PLANT-BASED DIET IS BEST
The best way to avoid the dangers of processed food is to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet that includes eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Whole foods are low in unhealthy fats, sodium, and sugar and high in nutrients essential for good health.
In stark contrast to processed food, whole, plant-based foods offer a wealth of nutrients and health benefits. These foods are packed with:
- Essential vitamins and minerals: Whole foods provide important nutrients our bodies need to function optimally.
- Fiber: Fiber aids in digestion, promotes gut health, and helps control blood sugar levels.
- Antioxidants: These protect our cells from damage.
- Phytonutrients: These plant-based compounds offer various health benefits, including reducing inflammation and boosting immunity.
A whole food, plant-based diet improves heart health, reduces the risk of cancer and lifestyle health issues such as high cholesterol and blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, and helps with weight management. It can also improve mental health and cognitive function.
TIPS FOR AVOIDING JUNK & PROCESSED FOODS
Here are a few tips for avoiding processed food:
- Avoid grocery store aisles that have tempting foods: Steer clear of the chip aisle and any aisle that you know is tempting.
- Cook more meals at home: This is the best way to control what goes into your food.
- Read food labels carefully: Avoid products with a long list of ingredients, especially those that are hard to pronounce or understand. Pay attention to the serving size and the amount of added sugar, sodium, and fat.
- Choose whole foods over processed foods: Eat fresh fruits and vegetables instead of muffins and chips. Choose whole grains over refined grains.
- Plan meals and snacks: Meal planning will help you avoid unhealthy choices when you’re hungry.
- Make healthy substitutions: Instead of chips, try popcorn or baked kale chips. Instead of soda, try water or unsweetened tea.
- Don’t give up! It takes time to change your eating habits. Be patient and keep working at it.
More articles on how to resist temptations:
- Why You Can’t Resist Food Temptations and What to Do About it.
- How to Easily Stop Eating Junk Food
- How Do I Minimize My Craving for Sweet & Salty Snacks?
- 12 Tips for Avoiding Added Sugar
- 6 Tips for Dealing with Food Triggers
Making a Change to a Healthier You
One of the best things you can do for your health is to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet. It can reduce your risk of chronic disease, help you lose weight, and improve your energy levels. You can make a big difference in your diet by making small changes to your overall health and well-being.
Remember, you’re not alone on this journey. There are millions of people out there who are eating plant-based and loving it. With a little effort, you can too!