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The Problem with Processed Foods (Even Vegan Ones)

Take one trip to your local grocery store and you’ll find boxes upon boxes of processed foods cascading down virtually every aisle. From boxed granola bars to sugar-filled treats by the register, the options are pretty endless.

Growing up, our parents warned us against eating these foods, yet we sometimes fall prey to their GMO-filled temptation. Of course, most foods are okay in moderation – BUT we need to be careful. Why? Because before long, you can get hooked!

Did you know that these processed foods are created to be addicting?

Today, we’re breaking down why you should stay away from processed foods, even the vegan ones.

Why You Should Stay Away from Processed Foods

Before we dive into the problems with processed foods, let’s review the definition of “processed.”

Defining Processed Foods

The National Health Service defines processed foods as foods that have been changed in any way, during preparation.

That may include processes, like freezing, canning, baking and even drying of ingredients. You may be shocked to know that not all processing is bad.

For example, freeze-drying foods are not necessarily bad (that is actually one process we use for our own whole foods). The key is to keep foods minimally processed.

So, when the do the problems arise?

Well, the problems arise when unnecessary ingredients are added into the mix. For example, salts, sugars and artificial flavorings are sometimes added to make foods taste better.

What’s more, these additives are meant to change texture and perception, even at a detriment to health. For example, some vegan meat brands “bleed” and “look real” because of additives and artificial ingredients.

Are those necessary? No. But companies inject these ingredients to make their products look more appealing and seem better for consumers.

But are they really better? Not really.

Negative Effects of Processed Foods

Now that we know the definition of processed foods, let’s talk about some of the negative effects associated with them.

You can become addicted.

It may seem like we’re overreacting, but it’s actually true. Some processed foods are genetically modified to encourage cravings. You may notice this one when you take one chip out of the bag, and then find yourself at the bottom of the bag in less than 2 minutes! (We’ve all been there.)

In fact, some studies have linked the mechanisms of food addiction with the mechanisms of drug addiction.

One study published in Brain Imaging in Behavioral Neuroscience analyzed brain activity of both obese and drug-addicted individuals. (1) They found that the neural systems controlling impulse control and incentive-motivation were similar in both groups.

The release of dopamine in the brain stimulates a sort of “hyper-rewarding” feeling, encouraging us to seek this feeling even more. Because that food is associated with that feeling, we turn to the processed junk for that umph of goodness.

That makes sense when you think about it. When your sad, don’t you always want to reach for a sweet?

But you may want to reconsider. Let’s learn about what else processed foods can do to your body.

They can cause you to gain weight.

Well, duh, right? Let’s get into the details.

We just talked about how these foods can be addicting. As you keep coming back for more, the empty calories and artificial flavorings add up.

In fact, one literature reviews published in Current Obesity Reports linked obesity with consumption of “ultra-processed” foods. (2)

Another recent study published by National Health Science and published in Cell Metabolism studied just how much extra foods we might eat. (3)

The randomized, controlled study followed 20 adults who ate either an “ultra-processed” or “unprocessed” diet for 14 days. Researchers ensured that each group had access to the the same amount of fats, fiber, calories, carbs, protein and more. However, the groups were allowed to eat as they please.

So, what happened?

The group who ate processed foods ate about 508 MORE calories each day than the other group. What’s more, the group gained an average of two pounds by the end of the experiment.

This experiment took place over two weeks. Imagine if the group had continued to eat a diet of processed foods for longer? How much weight would they have gained?

Part of the reasoning for the weight-gain is most likely due to processed foods and their high sugar, high-fructose, and trans fat content.

But weight gain is not the only thing associated with these ingredients.

Processed foods can contribute to disease.

Eating a diet of processed foods can increase your risk for various diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. (4) Its ingredients can wreck havoc on the body.

Just using one ingredient, sugar, as an example illustrates what processed foods can do to your body. An analysis of several university studies linked sugar with diabetes, most especially type-2 diabetes. (5)

In addition, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked sugar (and fructose) with kidney disease and cardiovascular diseases (6).

What’s more, diets of “ultra-processed foods” have also been linked with an increase in risk for cancer, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

Last, but definitely not least, a diet of ultra-processed foods could increase the risk of death. A study published by the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain analyzed this association. (7)

Here’s what they found:

A higher consumption of ultra-processed foods (>4 servings daily) was independently associated with a 62% relatively increased hazard for all cause mortality. For each additional serving of ultra-processed food, all cause mortality increased by 18%.

Excerpt taken from Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study

It is also worth mentioning that these diets can contribute to mood and emotion-related disorders, including depression. (8)

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  1. Kenny, P. J. (2011). Common cellular and molecular mechanisms in obesity and drug addiction. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 12(11), 638.

  2. Poti, J. M., Braga, B., & Qin, B. (2017). Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health—Processing or Nutrient Content?. Current obesity reports, 6(4), 420-431.

  3. Hall, K. D., Ayuketah, A., Brychta, R., Cai, H., Cassimatis, T., Chen, K. Y., … & Fletcher, L. A. (2019). Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: an inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Cell metabolism.

  4. Srour, B., Fezeu, L. K., Kesse-Guyot, E., Allès, B., Méjean, C., Andrianasolo, R. M., … & Monteiro, C. A. (2019). Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé). bmj, 365, l1451.

  5. Schulze, M. B., Manson, J. E., Ludwig, D. S., Colditz, G. A., Stampfer, M. J., Willett, W. C., & Hu, F. B. (2004). Sugar-sweetened beverages, weight gain, and incidence of type 2 diabetes in young and middle-aged women. Jama, 292(8), 927-934.

  6. Johnson, R. J., Segal, M. S., Sautin, Y., Nakagawa, T., Feig, D. I., Kang, D. H., … & Sánchez-Lozada, L. G. (2007). Potential role of sugar (fructose) in the epidemic of hypertension, obesity and the metabolic syndrome, diabetes, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 86(4), 899-906.

  7. Rico-Campà, A., Martínez-González, M. A., Alvarez-Alvarez, I., de Deus Mendonça, R., de la Fuente-Arrillaga, C., Gómez-Donoso, C., & Bes-Rastrollo, M. (2019). Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. bmj, 365, l1949.

  8. Gómez-Donoso, C., Sánchez-Villegas, A., Martínez-González, M. A., Gea, A., de Deus Mendonça, R., Lahortiga-Ramos, F., & Bes-Rastrollo, M. (2019). Ultra-processed food consumption and the incidence of depression in a Mediterranean cohort: The SUN Project. European journal of nutrition, 1-11.

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