Are Processed Foods Bad? Yes. Here's What To Do About It

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The NIH Ultra-Processed Food Study

Study results recently published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that ultra-processed foods cause people to eat too many calories (500 too many, on average) and gain both weight and body fat.

On the flip side, the study showed that unprocessed foods lead to weight loss.

People who ate ultra-processed foods gained about two pounds in a two-week period, while people who ate unprocessed foods lost about two pounds in a two-week period.

But First: What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?

It’s easy to throw around study findings like these. It’s a bit more difficult, though, to use the results to our everyday benefit if we don’t fully understand what constitutes as processed (or ultra-processed) food.

Ultra-processed foodshave ingredients predominantly found in industrial food manufacturing, such as hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents, and emulsifiers,” according to the NIH.  

They have long shelf-lives.

They’re difficult to find at a farmer’s market.

Typically, they have at least five ingredients and include ingredients that are difficult to pronounce. Let’s break those down.

Hydrogenated oil, or more specifically, partially hydrogenated oil, contains a type of man-made fat called trans fat, that increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

High-fructose corn syrup is essentially added sugar. Food manufacturers use it because it’s cheaper than less-processed sweeteners like honey or cane sugar.

Flavoring agents are chemicals that give flavors to ultra-processed foods. They’re the reason that you can get a grape-flavored lollipop without any grape-based ingredients at all.

NPR reminds us that, “instead of seeing ‘apples’ listed on a food label, you might get additives that re-create the scent of that fruit.

Emulsifiers are added to food to mix two ingredients that would not normally combine (like oil and water). Foods that often contain emulsifiers (like lecithin) include bread, chocolate, ice cream, margarine, and processed meat.

The Research Study

20 individuals were randomly assigned to two groups -- one that ate ultra-processed foods and one that ate unprocessed foods -- for two weeks at a time.

Nutrition facts were matched in this study: fats, calories, carbs, sugar, etc. were all the same.

This study is the first of its kind to directly prove that ultra-processed foods cause people to gain weight, compared to a diet comprised of whole or minimally-processed foods, which actually cause weight loss.

Why is this is the first study to determine causality?
Previous observational studies looking at large groups of people had shown associations between diets high in processed foods and health problems. But, because none of the past studies randomly assigned people to eat specific foods and then measured the results, scientists could not say for sure whether the processed foods were a problem on their own, or whether people eating them had health problems for other reasons, such as a lack of access to fresh foods.

The Why

Why do people eat more when offered processed foods?

The study suggests that it has something to do with our hormones:

When the participants were eating the unprocessed diet, they had higher levels of an appetite-suppressing hormone called PYY, which is secreted by the gut, and lower levels of ghrelin, a hunger hormone, which might explain why they ate fewer calories. On the ultra-processed diet, these hormonal changes flipped, so participants had lower levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone and higher levels of the hunger hormone.

Another possible reason?

Processed food can be less dense in protein, and research suggests that we eat until we meet our protein needs.

This is called the “protein leverage hypothesis,” first coined by researchers at the University of Oxford in 2005.

The Significance

The nutritional information of food is important (especially if you are trying to regulate your blood sugar).

But, and this is key, the risk factors surrounding diabetes are causally, significantly reduced through observing a diet of minimally processed foods.

Determining the Difference: Processed vs Natural

This is the most important part! Studies like these are hugely important. But they can only help us if we fully understand them and can apply the learned results to our daily lives.

This wasn’t a McDonalds vs Sweetgreen study. Participants in the ultra-processed group of the study ate foods that seem harmless -- even healthy -- to the untrained eye.

Here’s a breakdown of foods consumed, and whether they were processed (unnatural) or unprocessed (natural):

Processed - turkey bacon, chicken salad made with canned chicken, sweetened Greek yogurt, bagels with cream cheese, diet beverages, some fruit juices, and baked potato chips


Unprocessed - meats and fish, whole fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds, and oatmeal

An article by the New York Times shows photos comparing the meals participants received side by side.

The visuals are helpful when learning how to determine processed foods from unprocessed foods (although it is always important to read labels).

The most striking realization to me? Although they contained the same number of calories, the unprocessed meals looked bigger.

Another way to determine the difference? Ask yourself, Is it naturally occurring on this planet?

Is the food you’re about to consume something found naturally on earth? Is it something that can’t be found in packaging? Is it something our decades-past ancestors would recognize?

If it’s man-made (processed, unnatural), it is not good for us. If it’s nature-made (unprocessed, natural), it’s good for us.

Unprocessed and Accessibility 

The scientists involved in the study recognized that there’s a major barrier to people choosing unprocessed foods, and it isn’t that they’re less satisfying or taste bad.

Participants in the study could eat as much as they wanted. They chose, on average, to eat more of the processed meals, but did not rate them as tastier than the unprocessed meals.

Unprocessed foods are less accessible in respect to time and money. Healthy, unprocessed food often costs more and takes more time to prepare.

While this is true, it's vital to remember the time and money spent on the health risks associated with a processed diet.

Ask yourself: Would I rather spend the time and money now to cook and prepare my own, natural, unprocessed meals, or spend the time and money later in life taking more medications and going from one appointment to the next in efforts to manage a much larger health problem?

The One Drop app offers recipes and coaching to make unprocessed (and low-carb) cooking as quick and simple as possible.

Planning meals ahead of time is a sure way to avoid the temptation to pick up Subway or a frozen meal for the microwave on the way home from work!

And you can always reach out to your One Drop diabetes coach for more low carb, homemade meal plans and recipe ideas. 

Change doesn’t happen overnight! Track your food intake, then start by tweaking your meals, little by little.

It’s the small sacrifices and good habits that slowly add up to great health benefits over time!

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Grace Vlaha
Jul 08, 2019

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