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 Business 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.
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 Inisider 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.
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 said 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 focusing, 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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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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