- Eating processed foods containing high-fructose corn syrup, nitrates, artificial sweeteners, MSG, food colouring, and other ingredients can take a toll on your health.
- These ingredients are hiding in many of your favourite foods including breakfast cereals, take-out meals, soda, and deli meats.
- Eating too much processed food is linked to obesity, digestive issues, and sleep disturbances.
Processed foods, defined by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as any food that has been “cooked, canned, frozen, packaged, or changed in nutritional composition,” now take up multiple aisles in the grocery store. They’re a staple at some of our favourite places to visit such as coffee shops, theatres, and retail stores. You can even find them in school lunches. Since these products make an appearance in so many of our diets, you might be wondering just how dangerous they are to your health.
Well, like most things in life, eating processed foods in limited amounts is OK, especially if the food has been minimally processed. It’s when you find yourself eating too many foods filled with sugar, salt, and questionable ingredients that things can take a turn for the worse. That’s why INSIDER asked the experts to give their input on the scary things that can happen to your body if you eat too much processed, junk food.
Digestive issues can be a result of excess junk foods
It’s no secret that what goes in must come out. And when the foods you’re putting in your body are processed, there’s a good chance you’ll experience some digestive issues. Dr. Farshad Fani Marvasti, MPH, director of public health, prevention & health promotion at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, told INSIDER that any processed foods – which according to the USDA comprise over 60% of the standard American diet – can cause digestive problems.
“These foods have various chemicals and additives in them that are very difficult for our bodies to digest and process,” he explained. Plus, the additives are toxic to our microbiome (the good bacteria in our bodies). Marvasti said a good way to know the difference between a real food or processed food is to see the list of ingredients.
“If you don’t recognise the ingredients, it’s unlikely to be a ‘real’ food and you may have digestion issues and other related health issues,” he added.
Eating too much sugar and simple carbohydrates can cause fatigue and brain fog
The energy crash and resulting brain fog that happens as a result of too much processed food is something most of us are all too familiar with.
Licensed Physician Assistant Kate Martino, MS, PA-C told INSIDER that if you eat a diet high in processed foods, you’re probably deficient in many important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants needed to boost energy and brain clarity which she said may result in difficulty focussing, finishing tasks in a timely manner (or at all), and reduced energy.
“Processed and packaged food labels make it seem like they contain a lot of nutrients, but when compared with natural, real foods they are seriously lacking,” she added.
Low blood sugar can happen when you eat a lot of simple carbohydrates
When you eat a lot of simple carbohydrates, your blood sugar initially increases.
In an effort to decrease it quickly (Martino said the body prefers blood sugar to be in a normal range), insulin is secreted. The higher the blood sugar, the more insulin is secreted which Martino said often causes blood sugar to decrease quickly or to very low levels.
“This causes weakness, hunger, carb cravings, and increased appetite,” she added.
You might experience less discipline when it comes to eating
“Processed foods are hyper pleasurable,” Martino said, meaning every time we eat, we get a positive reward response.
“This helps motivate us to eat in order to survive,” she said.
Martino also explained that most processed foods contain more sweeteners and fats and have specific textures that elicit a more intense pleasure reward.
“This makes it difficult to stop eating when we’re full and have less restraint around food,” she said. “My patients commonly say they lack willpower or discipline around food, and it’s usually because they’re eating a lot of processed and premade foods,” she said.
Insulin resistance is a possibility if you eat too much sugar
Registered dietician Linzi Cruz, LDN, CLT told INSIDER that when we consume processed foods hidden with high fructose corn syrup we force the liver to output more sugar, raising blood glucose levels and contributing to increased insulin production to counteract this cascade of events.
Over time, Cruz said too much correctional insulin around the cells could cause them to become insulin resistant, leading to pre-diabetes and obesity.
Processed foods can lead to an increase in anxiety and other mood disorders
When anxiety strikes, it’s not uncommon to reach for sugar-packed snacks and other processed foods. Unfortunately, the more you eat, the worse your anxiety gets. Which makes you wonder if an increase in processed foods can trigger anxiety and other mood disorders.
Cruz said more research is being done to learn how processed foods can strip away and deplete vital nutrients such as B vitamins, omega 3s, magnesium, and other key nutrients that are a hot topic in the area of mental health and eating to prevent mental health disorders.
Eating too many processed foods can affect your sleeping patterns
A good way to throw your circadian rhythm off balance is by eating processed foods before bed. “An imbalance of too many processed carbs and too little proteins and healthy fats can send your adrenaline into a frenzy,” explained Cruz. Eating sweets at night can cause a surge of adrenaline, which Cruz said, prevents the natural pattern of serotonin and often impacts sleeping patterns.
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