Processed foods have been accused of increasing rates of disease, harming the environment, and driving up healthcare expenses. But what exactly is it that makes Whole Foods that much healthier than Processed or Fast Foods? Many of us can argue the fact that we should eat less processed foods and fast foods. But how many of us could describe exactly why?
By definition, processed foods are those which have undergone specific food engineering. They are mass-produced, have the same properties from batch to batch, use specialized ingredients, and have a long freezer or shelf-life. This definition doesn’t really tell us why they differ from whole foods however, and these differences are vast!
Low Levels of Vitamins, Minerals and Antioxidants
Processed foods contain far too few vitamins and minerals, known as micronutrients. These micronutrients are absolutely essential for the proper functioning of every system in the body. They are vital for a health – think Vitamin C for the immune system or Magnesium for stress, muscle cramps or sleep issues.
Low Levels of Fiber
The majority of processed foods have a significantly lower fiber content than whole foods. Fiber is important for gut health, which in turn impacts overall health. Fiber not only keeps your digestive system regular and eliminates toxins, but feeds our beneficial gut bacteria.
High Levels of Fructose
Fructose is commonly used as a sweetener in processed foods (High Fructose Corn Syrup for example). Fructose is a type of sugar that gets broken down in the liver in a similar manner to alcohol. Excess fructose intake can eventually lead to liver damage and fatty liver disease, much like excess alcohol intake.
Low Levels of Omega 3
Omega 3 fatty acids are called “essential” because our bodies are not able to produce them, and we instead need to get them from our diet. These are our primary anti-inflammatory nutrients, and also play a crucial role in brain health, memory and concentration. Omega 3 fatty acids are primarily found in fish and nuts and are not generally found in processed foods.
High Levels of Omega 6
Omega 6 fatty acids are also “essential” in that we need to obtain them primarily through the diet. However, Omega 6 in excess amounts can actually be pro-inflammatory to the body. We need a balanced ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 in the diet for a healthy body. Omega 6 fatty acids are widespread in seed oils, which are commonly used in processed foods. A high intake of processed foods thus throws out the balance of Omega 3 to Omega 6, and can lead to pro-inflammatory state.
Excess Unhealthy Fats
We are learning more and more that we should not fear the fats found in whole foods. This does not apply to the fats found in processed foods however. The oils and fats used in processed foods are generally heated to very high temperatures or processed in a manner that changes them into compounds known as Trans Fats. Trans Fats are known causes of heart disease.
Excess Branched Chain Amino Acids
Processed foods tend to contain a high level of branched chain amino acids. Branched chain amino acids are necessary for building muscle and are commonly used by athletes looking to bulk up. However, when a person eats to many branched chain amino acids, the excess may be taken to the liver and converted into fat stores.
This comes as no shock to us all, but processed foods contain more salt than whole foods. Excess salt in the diet is linked with high blood pressure and heart disease.
Nitrates are compounds found in cured and processed meats such as bacon, sausages, salami etc. These are classed as Type 1 Carcinogens by the World Health Organization, and high intakes of these food products has been linked to colon cancer. To put this into perspective, tobacco products are also a Type 1 Carcinogen.
Education is power, and whilst we are all for balance in life, it is important to make educated choices when it comes to our diet. What we feed ourselves with today will impact our health for years to come. Processed foods can either be empty calories (meaning zero nutrition with high calories) or overtly harmful to the body. When we choose a whole foods based diet, we get foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and essential fats. All of which contribute to a long and healthy life!