Processed foods are bad.
They are the main reason why people all over the world are getting fat and sick.
How do we know?
Every time a population adopts a “Western” diet high in processed foods, they get sick.
It happens within a few years. Their genes don’t change, their food does.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Real vs. Processed Food
The word “processed” often causes some confusion, so let me clarify what I mean.
Obviously, most foods we eat are processed in some way. Apples are cut from trees, ground beef has been ground in a machine and butter is cream that has been separated from the milk and churned.
But there is a difference between mechanical processing and chemical processing.
If it’s a single ingredient food with no added chemicals, then it doesn’t matter if it’s been ground or put into a jar. It’s still real food.
However … foods that have been chemically processed and made solely from refined ingredients and artificial substances, are what is generally known as “processed food.”
Here are nine ways that processed foods are bad for your health.
1. Processed Foods Are Usually High in Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup
Processed foods are usually loaded with added sugar … or its evil twin, High Fructose Corn Syrup.
It is well known that sugar, when consumed in excess, is seriously harmful.
As we all know, sugar is “empty” calories—it has no essential nutrients, but a large amount of energy.
But empty calories are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the harmful effects of sugar …
Many studies show that sugar can have devastating effects on metabolism that go way beyond its calorie content.
It can lead to insulin resistance, high triglycerides, increased levels of the harmful cholesterol and increased fat accumulation in the liver and abdominal cavity.
Not surprisingly, sugar consumption is strongly associated with some of the world’s leading killers … including heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.
Most people aren’t putting massive amounts of sugar in their coffee or on top of their cereal, they’re getting it from processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Bottom Line: Processed foods and beverages are the biggest sources of added sugar (and HFCS) in the diet. Sugar is very unhealthy and can have serious adverse effects on metabolism when consumed in excess.
2. Processed Foods Are “Hyper Rewarding” and Lead to Overconsumption
We all want to eat good food. That’s just human nature.
Evolution provided us with taste buds that are supposed to help us navigate the natural food environment.
Our appetite gravitates towards foods that are sweet, salty and fatty, because we know such foods contain energy and nutrients that we need for survival.
Obviously, if a food manufacturer wants to succeed and get people to buy their product, it has to taste good.
But today, the competition is fierce. There are many different food manufacturers, all competing with each other.
For this reason, massive resources are spent on making foods as desirable as possible.
Many processed foods have been engineered to be so incredibly “rewarding” to the brain, that they overpower anything we might have come across in nature.
We have complicated mechanisms in our bodies and brains that are supposed to regulate energy balance (how much we eat and how much we burn)—which, until very recently in evolutionary history, worked to keep us at a healthy weight.
There is quite a lot of evidence that the reward value of foods can bypass the innate defense mechanism and make us start eating much more than we need, so much that it starts to compromise our health.
This is also known as the “food reward hypothesis of obesity.”
The truth is, processed foods are so incredibly rewarding to our brains that they affect our thoughts and behavior, making us eat more and more until eventually we become sick.
Good food is good, but foods that are engineered to be hyper rewarding, effectively short circuiting our innate brakes against overconsumption, are NOT good.
Bottom Line: Food manufacturers spend massive amounts of resources on making their foods as “rewarding” as possible to the brain, which leads to overconsumption.
3. Processed Foods Contain All Sorts of Artificial Ingredients
If you look at the ingredients label for a processed, packaged food, chances are that you won’t have a clue what some of the ingredients are.
That’s because many of the ingredients in there aren’t actual food… they are artificial chemicals that are added for various purposes.
This is an example of a processed food, an Atkins Advantage bar, which is actually marketed as a low-carb friendly health food.
I don’t know what this is, but it most certainly isn’t food.
Highly processed foods often contain:
- Preservatives: Chemicals that prevent the food from rotting.
- Colorants: Chemicals that are used to give the food a specific color.
- Flavor: Chemicals that give the food a particular flavor.
- Texturants: Chemicals that give a particular texture.
Keep in mind that processed foods can contain dozens of additional chemicals that aren’t even listed on the label.
For example, “artificial flavor” is a proprietary blend. Manufacturers don’t have to disclose exactly what it means and it is usually a combination of chemicals.
For this reason, if you see “artificial flavor” on an ingredients list, it could mean that there are 10 or more additional chemicals that are blended in to give a specific flavor.
Of course, most of these chemicals have allegedly been tested for safety. But given that the regulatory authorities still think that sugar and vegetable oils are safe, I personally take their “stamp of approval” with a grain of salt.
Bottom Line: Most highly processed foods are loaded with artificial chemicals, including flavorants, texturants, colorants and preservatives.
4. Many People Can Literally Become Addicted to Processed Junk Foods
The “hyper rewarding” nature of processed foods can have serious consequences for some people.
Some people can literally become addicted to this stuff and completely lose control over their consumption.
Although food addiction is something that most people don’t know about, I am personally convinced that it is a huge problem in society today.
It is the main reason why some people just can’t stop eating these foods, no matter how hard they try.
This is actually supported by many studies. Sugar and highly rewarding junk foods activate the same areas in the brain as drugs of abuse like cocaine.
Bottom Line: For many people, junk foods can hijack the biochemistry of the brain, leading to downright addiction and cause them to lose control over their consumption.
5. Processed Foods Are Often High in Refined Carbohydrates
There is a lot of controversy regarding carbohydrates in the diet.
Some people think that the majority of our energy intake should be from carbs, while others think they should be avoided like the plague.
But one thing that almost everyone agrees on, is that carbohydrates from whole foods are much better than refined carbohydrates.
Processed foods are often high in carbs, but it is usually the refined variety.
One of the main problems is that refined, “simple” carbohydrates are quickly broken down in the digestive tract, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels.
This can lead to carb cravings a few hours later when blood sugar levels go down again. This phenomenon is also called the “blood sugar roller coaster”—which many people who have been on a high-carb diet can relate to.
Not surprisingly, eating a lot of refined carbohydrates is associated with negative health effects and many chronic diseases.
Do NOT be fooled by labels like “whole grains” that are often plastered on processed food packages, including breakfast cereals.
These are usually whole grains that have been pulverized into very fine flour and are just as harmful as their refined counterparts.
If you’re going to eat carbs, get them from whole, single ingredient foods, not processed junk foods.
Bottom Line: The carbohydrates you find in processed foods are usually refined, “simple” carbohydrates. These lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and cause negative health effects.
6. Most Processed Foods Are Low in Nutrients
Processed foods are extremely low in essential nutrients compared to whole, unprocessed foods.
In some cases, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added to the foods to compensate for what was lost during processing.
However, synthetic nutrients are NOT a good replacement for the nutrients found in whole foods.
Also, let’s not forget that real foods contain much more than just the standard vitamins and minerals that we’re all familiar with.
Real foods … like plants and animals, contain thousands of other trace nutrients that science is just beginning to grasp.
Maybe one day we will invent a chemical blend that can replace all these nutrients, but until that happens … the only way to get them in your diet is to eat whole, unprocessed foods.
The more you eat of processed foods, the less you will get of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various trace nutrients.
Bottom Line: There are many nutrients found in whole foods that are not found in processed foods. The more processed foods you eat, the less you will get of these nutrients.
7. Processed Foods Tend to be Low in Fiber
Fiber, especially soluble, fermentable fiber, has various benefits.
There is also evidence that fiber can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and help us feel more satisfied with fewer calories.
Soluble fiber can also help treat many cases of constipation, which is a very common problem today.
The fiber that is found naturally in foods is often lost during processing, or intentionally removed. Therefore, most processed foods are very low in fiber.
Bottom Line: Soluble, fermentable fiber has various important health benefits, but most processed foods are very low in fiber because it is lost or intentionally removed during processing.
8. It Requires Less Energy and Time to Digest Processed Foods
Food manufacturers want their processed food products to have a long shelf life.
They also want each batch of the product to have a similar consistency and they want their foods to be easily consumed.
Given the way foods are processed, they are often very easy to chew and swallow. Sometimes, it’s almost as if they melt in your mouth.
Most of the fiber has been taken out and the ingredients are refined, isolated nutrients that don’t resemble the whole foods they came from.
One consequence of this is that it takes less energy to eat and digest processed foods.
We can eat more of them in a shorter amount of time (more calories in) and we also burn less energy (fewer calories out) digesting them than we would if they were unprocessed, whole foods.
One study in 17 healthy men and women compared the difference in energy expenditure after consuming a processed vs a whole foods-based meal.
They ate a sandwich, either with multi-grain bread and cheddar cheese (whole foods) or with white bread and processed cheese (processed foods).
It turned out that they burned twice as many calories digesting the unprocessed meal.
The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) is a measure of how much different foods stimulate energy expenditure after eating. It totals about 10 percentof total energy expenditure (metabolic rate) in the average person.
According to this study, people who eat processed food will cut their TEF in half, effectively reducing the amount of calories they burn throughout the day.
Bottom Line: We only burn half as many calories digesting and metabolizing processed foods compared to whole foods.
9. Processed Foods Are Often High in Trans Fats or Processed Vegetable Oils
Processed foods are often high in unhealthy fats.
They usually contain cheap fats, refined seed- and vegetable oils (like soybean oil) that are often hydrogenated … which turns them into trans fats.
Vegetable oils are extremely unhealthy and most people are eating way too much of them already.
Several studies show that when people eat more of these oils, they have a significantly increased risk of heart disease, which is the most common cause of death in Western countries today.
If the fats are hydrogenated, that makes them even worse. Hydrogenated (trans) fats are among the nastiest, unhealthiest substances you can put into your body.
The best way to avoid seed oils and trans fats is to avoid processed foods. Eat real fats like butter, coconut oil and olive oil instead.
Just Eat Real Food!
When we replace real, traditional foods like butter, meat and vegetables with crappy, processed junk foods, we get fat and sick.
Real food is the key to good health, processed food is not. Period.
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The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
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Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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