What'll Really Happen If You Eat Processed Food Every Day?

Foods from a box aren't the only ones that are processed.
Foods from a box aren't the only ones that are processed. Dragos Rusu / 500px via Getty Images

When we think of processed food, fast food probably comes to mind. But the truth is, almost all foods we consume are altered in some way.

“Processed food is any kind of food or raw material that has been changed,” Dr. Pauline Jose, a family medicine specialist, told HuffPost. “Processing is anything that can include washing, cleaning, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, fermenting, salting and smoking. Anytime you do anything to raw material, it’s processed.”

Jose said that adding nutrients, like putting vitamin D in milk, falls under the category of “good processed,” but ultraprocessed foods — which are made by adding flavor and chemicals to foods like ice cream and frozen pizza — should be avoided. “I would just maybe make it a point not to eat anything ultraprocessed,” she said. “I can’t think of any ultraprocessed foods that can be OK, versus some processed foods, which can be OK.”

Many breads, such as white bread, are processed — look for words like “enriched” on the label and you’ll know.

Jose said that the best approach is to prepare food at home and use fresh vegetables. “[Those foods are] not processed at all,” Jose said. “It’s probably the healthiest way to eat.”

But if you must buy packaged foods, Jose said to read the labels and avoid anything that you can’t pronounce or recognize. She also noted that some food packaging contains titanium dioxide, which prevents bacterial growth in the packaging but might cause lesions in the colon or inflammation in the intestines.

And don’t be fooled: Buying groceries from a “healthier” place like Trader Joe’s isn’t much better.

“When my daughter was in high school, I was getting frozen food from Trader Joe’s and she said, ‘Mom, this is processed,’” Jose said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, my god.’ But I thought these were less processed just because they’re Trader Joe’s. It’s not really true.”

First Of All, Let’s Not Demonize Food

Kim Shapira, a dietitian and nutritional therapist, takes a different approach to nutrition by not using words like “bad” or “good.”

“I think when you label foods as ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy,’ you basically could end up in a shame spiral,” said Shapira, who wrote the book “This Is What You’re Really Hungry For.”

“I would really prompt people to ignore a lot of what people are telling them and focus on what health professionals are telling them. I would look at somebody’s overall dietary pattern rather than focus on labeling the food bad or really bad for us, and turn it more toward how well I take care of my body in general — that this will be a blip and not affect me in an overall negative way.”

Technically, this is processed — which isn't always a bad thing.
Technically, this is processed — which isn't always a bad thing. Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

One way to take care of your body is to eat the right foods, including ones that naturally combat disease. Our bodies produce nitric oxide, and foods like spinach, beets and bok choy contain high amounts of it.

“It creates a gas that makes our cells slippery so disease can’t really stick to it,” Shapira said. “The foods we eat should be improving our health, and if some of our diet has birthday cake on occasion, I feel like that’s normal.”

Of course, eating cake on a regular basis can be a bad habit, so Shapira suggested consuming fruits, veggies, fermented foods, probiotics and whole grains. “They really help keep our body really intact and help us prevent chemicals from affecting us,” she said.

How People Really Feel When They Eat A Lot Of Processed Foods

Jose, who focuses on wellness and functional medicine, has patients who complain of fatigue and gastrointestinal issues. Her job is to pinpoint the cause, and a lot of time it’s the food they’re eating or not eating.

“They don’t understand what they’re feeling,” she said. “They’re like, ‘I’m dizzy,’ or ‘I have a headache.’ It’s the inflammation that’s starting to develop in their bodies, because maybe some of the preservatives or some of the additives that they’ve included in the processed foods are causing some sensitivities to certain people, and we’re not able to identify them.”

In the long term, eating too much processed food can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and “brain fog” or other reductions in cognitive abilities.

Shapira suggested eating a minimum of four servings of fruits and veggies every day. That can include frozen and canned veggies.

“In some ways they’re better for you and higher in vitamin content, so there’s a lot of good ways to get them,” Shapira said. “Research shows that adding one to two green leafy vegetables every day lowers your cognitive age by 11 years.”

Exercising also helps. She suggested that we make 10,000 movements — not necessarily steps — a day.

But what about low-income people who don’t have access to healthier food?

“The solution is education,” Jose said. “We can’t really do much about these companies who sell processed food. It’s getting really bad, but there’s still some that are better than others.”

Canned fish, for example, is a good option because it can be found at many grocery and convenience stores.

“If we could just look in the back of packaging all the time or stay as simple as possible in cooking, that would be the best,” Jose added.