I once made a joke to a friend looking to get into shape, “You want a six-pack? Go get one at the store.” Now while that was meant to be funny, in truth nutrition DOES start at the grocery store (just maybe not in the beverage aisle).  If you’re like a lot of people, you’re starting to feel like the grocery store is a minefield. After all, in the modern era, much of what we consume is technically processed. You’ve heard the warning a million times: processed foods make you fat. They’re loaded with empty calories and unnatural ingredients which can be toxic. They may even increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, and early death.  

Our food goes through so much before it lands on our plates. How are you supposed to know what’s really good for you and what’s not? Does all processed food make you fat? And if not, how do you know which processes and added ingredients enhance your food and which are problematic?

If you’re overwhelmed by food labels and the under-defined concept of “processed foods,” don’t worry.  At PH2 Nutrition, we like to focus more about the abundant whole foods that leave you satiated, give you energy, and improve your digestion that you can add into your everyday life instead of focusing on all the food that you should avoid.  However, in order to understand the issues with processed foods, we have created this guide to clarify the details. 

First, let’s look at what it means for food to be “processed.”

What are “Processed Foods?”

Technically, nearly everything you consume is processed. Any food that passes through a manufacturing plant before landing in your grocery cart is processed. This includes plenty of perfectly harmless foods. Pre-washed spinach. Pre-cut broccoli. Frozen strawberries. These are all processed foods.

When dieticians warn that processed foods cause weight gain, they’re really talking about highly processed foods. These are the foods that contain industrial ingredients, including:

    • High-fructose corn syrup
    • Hydrogenated oils
    • Flavoring agents
    • Emulsifiers
    • Fruit juice concentrate
    • Gums
    • Maltodextrin
    • Inulin

In fact, the ingredients list is a great resource for determining just how processed your food is. If the label lists items you would never use to cook a meal from scratch, then that product is far from its natural state. The question is: Does that matter?

Yes, it does. Natural, whole foods are crucial for a healthy diet and well-managed weight.

The purpose of processing is to make food more convenient, cheaper, longer-lasting, and better-tasting. But there’s no doubt about it—those benefits often come at the expense of weight gain or lack of wellness such as low energy, poor sleep or digestion, other chronic illnesses. Here’s why.

The Ingredients in Processed Foods That Make You Fat

Generally speaking, ultra-processed foods tend to be high in the wrong type of calories, salt, fat, and sugar compared to whole foods. In fact, processed foods are responsible for nearly 90% of the sugars added to the average diet. For example, fruit sugar or simple carbohydrates react very differently in the body to refined sugars. Trans fat is much more unhealthy than natural fats. Salt used for preservation does not have the same beneficial properties as himalayan or sea salt.

And not only do highly processed foods hit you with an excess of sugars, salts, and fats responsible for weight gain, but they’re also low on the ingredients that help you stay healthy and active. Although processed food can contain the same amount of proteins, fats, or carbohydrates, they also contain the fillers and additives. Whole fruits, vegetables, organic meats and nuts contain a higher amount of quality vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Even “diet” foods that we believe to be healthy such as the prepackages meals, powders, and the drinks can have ingredients that can be harmful long term.

Low-Quality Nutrients

And when processed foods do contain nutrients? Well, it’s just not the same. Some of the food that has been fortified with nutrients are not in a form that is digestible or ideal for the human body.  The protein, fiber, calcium, iron, among other things that you find in processed foods are often added to the product during manufacturing. For example, a popular cereal brand that was advertised as being fortified with iron underwent tests that showed that it was an elemental form of iron oxide that was picked up by a magnet and is not the preferred form of iron to the be consumed. If our body’s do not have the right ingredients to perform the necessary chemical reactions to build tissue, grow, dispel waste, etc., then the body cannot function properly.  Weight gain, which is really more a symptom of unhealthiness, can occur because of a lack of nutrients. 

Researchers suggest that these naturally occurring nutrients do more to make us feel satiated than additives can. As a result, many people fall into the trap of trying to fill up on snacks and energy bars supposedly loaded with fiber and protein. But because these options are less satisfying than natural nutrient sources, people must consume more in order to feel full. As they do, they’re also loading up on those industry ingredients and extra sugars.

Excess of Toxicity

Processed foods can contain chemicals that our body has to work to expel.  This can tax our filtering organs like the kidneys or liver.  Dealing with a toxic overload can be stressful which increases cortisol and subsequently insulin.  In the same way that a lack of nutrients can stop important body processes, toxins can also block or impede reactions.  

Oxidation (cell damage) that occurs from toxins can cause inflammation that forces the body to hold onto excess water that can also appear as weight gain. 

Processed Foods Cause a Rise in Hunger Hormones

The National Institutes of Health recently conducted a study in which the same people were fed highly processed foods for two weeks and minimally processed foods for two weeks. Participants gained an average of two pounds while on the highly processed diet. Dr. Kevin D. Hall and his team presented multiple observations regarding this weight gain, including the discovery that the difference in diet seemed to have an effect on hormone production.

The short version: people who ate minimally processed foods produced more of a hormone that suppresses appetite, called leptin. When they consumed ultra-processed foods, they produced more of a hormone that causes hunger, called ghrelin. As a result, when the same people ate highly processed meals, they ate more overall.   

One of the issues of flavor additives is that it is supposed to taste like the very essence of a food that we recognize.  For example: the orange flavor in orange soda is an extremely concentrated flavor of orange, a flavor that is familiar which makes our brain want more.  Combine that with sugar and what we have is a very addictive drink.  

Even natural flavors are not safe.  Companies have loopholes that allow them to add synthetic preservatives, emulsifiers, and solvents without disclosing them on the back of an ingredients list.   

The conclusion of the study had a correlation that people who ate more processed foods, tended to eat more.

Faster Consumption of Processed Foods

The same study revealed that people consume highly processed foods more quickly.  While researchers can’t pinpoint a definitive explanation for the difference in pace, it may be simply that processed foods are easier to eat and contain additives that make the food more appetizing. Consider chicken nuggets versus a broiled chicken breast.  The former doesn’t require utensils, is softer and easier to eat, and -to some- is tastier.

So, what does speed have to do with weight gain? Well, it takes awhile for food to move through the body, which means your stomach doesn’t immediately know what your mouth is doing.  When you eat slower, you give your body a chance to respond to the amount of food you’re giving it. In other words, you feel full when you’re full, instead of over-eating and feeling stuffed twenty minutes later.

Practical Solutions for Avoiding Highly Processed Foods

While we’re still learning about the effects of processed foods on the body, there is no question that whole foods are better. If you want to manage your weight more effectively, cutting back on processed foods is an excellent first step.

That may seem easier said than done. Processed foods are prevalent for a reason. If you have a full schedule or a tight budget, you may already feel like eating a whole foods diet just isn’t practical. But there are always small changes you can make today towards building a healthier diet in the long-term. For snacks, choose nuts, veggies, or fruit over chips or cookies. For sandwiches, use leftover chicken from dinner instead of highly processed, packaged deli meat full of nitrates. Start your day with eggs instead of a sugar-packed breakfast bar.

And if you feel like you’re in over your head, reach out to us at PH² Nutrition for an intake appointment. We’ll go over your specific goals, lifestyle needs, and health history to design a nutrition plan that is practical and effective. 

Invest in your health today and reap the benefits for the rest of your life.