The impact of processed foods on the body

The impact of processed foods on the body

For most Americans, more than half of their diets consists of processed foods.

By U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) definition, processed foods are any commodity that has gone through a processing method such as canning, cooking, dehydration or freezing. For a food to be “fresh,” it must come straight from the source such as a piece of fruit. Examples of lightly processed foods include pre-cut apples, canned tuna and frozen vegetables.

When we think of processed foods, items such as soda, candy and baked goods typically come to mind. These foods are heavily processed and often referred to as “ultra-processed.” They contain synthetic flavors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives in an attempt to imitate the sensory qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods or to disguise undesirable qualities.

Processed foods are often lacking in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, which can be lost during production. To make matters worse, companies will add sugar, unhealthy fats and sodium to enhance a product’s flavor. To extend sell by dates, a multitude of preservatives are used. Research shows the more altered foods are, the worse they are for your health.

In response to the increased consumption of processed foods, there has been a negative impact on the health of the American people. Our bodies were not designed to thrive on processed foods.

The excessive intake of sugar, fat and salt from these foods has led to an increase in chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Particularly damaging are the addition of refined sugars, like high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which mess with insulin and leptin levels leading to increased fat storage.

Sadly, processed foods remain in high demand due to their affordability, convenience and delicious flavor. These foods can become addictive because they can stimulate dopamine, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter that affects the brain in a similar way to drugs. That is why many people find it hard to say no to the candy dish or free donuts at work. They start depending on processed foods, particularly sweets, for a pick-me-up.

Break the Cycle
Make your health a priority by choosing to consume more foods in their natural or whole form.  Work toward a goal of 80% of your diet consisting of whole foods like lean meats, beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Start this process by looking for foods with shorter ingredient lists. The longer the ingredient list, the more processed a food is likely to be. Take even more control of your diet by preparing the majority of your meals at home.

Cleaning up your diet may seem like an overwhelming task at first, but it will get easier as you adapt to your new eating patterns. If you stay focused on achieving this goal, the rewards will be plenty. Having increased energy, being sick less often and losing weight are just a few possibilities.


Jessica Meek, MS, RD, LD

Jessica Meek, MS, RD, LD, developed a passion for nutrition during her teenage years and strongly believes in the healing power food. After completing her undergraduate and master degree program at Ohio University, she became a registered dietitian in 2006. She has been practicing professionally for over 10 years in the tristate area. She uses her knowledge of nutrition to empower individuals living with diabetes to make positive lifestyle changes and lead healthier lives. Jessica is a dietitian with the Bruce Chertow Diabetes Center.