We hear it over and over again. For a healthier life, avoid processed foods. Processed foods are blamed for the obesity epidemic, the rise in type 2 diabetes, and a host of other ills. But what is processed food exactly? Is it all unhealthy or do we need to look more carefully at what processed means, which foods to eliminate from our diets altogether, and which convenience foods are still nutritious? Processed foods are foods that have been altered from their natural state for convenience, longer shelf life, or to reduce health risks from food borne illnesses. Processing methods include refining, preserving, canning, freezing and freeze drying, salting, pickling, smoking, fermenting, refrigeration, dehydration, chemically preserving, and aseptic processing, which is designed to prevent infection from pathogenic microorganisms.
We tend to think of processed foods as high-fat, high-calorie, high-sodium foods containing little or no nutritional value that should be consumed with caution or not at all. For sure, unhealthy processed foods expose the human body to additives such as hormones, preservatives, antibiotics, or genetic modification. Chemicals, additives and preservatives are added to processed foods to protect shelf life, not human health. Natural healthy enzymes, fatty acids, fiber, vitamins and minerals are often destroyed during chemical or heat processing. Don’t be fooled by “enriched” foods. Enriched foods are processed to the point where there is little or no nutritional value left, requiring synthetically enriched nutrients to be added back into the food to make it “wholesome.”
Whole foods, on the other hand, are simple and basic. The food industry has attempted to co-opt the word “processed” by citing foods such as canned beans, frozen fruits and vegetables, or hummus, which are all minimally processed, convenience foods. If you can’t make the food at home using all the ingredients listed on the package, the food is over-processed and likely loaded with refined sugars, sodium and a litany of ingredients that you can’t pronounce and that Grandma would never recognize as food. In general, processed food has been changed extensively from its raw state. Whole foods can be traced back to the farm where they were cultivated or raised and contain nutrients, fiber, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and anti-oxidants made by Mother Nature not in a laboratory.
Processed foods fall on a spectrum of minimally to heavily processed. Foods such as bagged spinach, precut vegetables and fruits, or canned tomatoes are pre-prepped for convenience. Vegetables harvested at their peak and quickly frozen are just as healthy and nutritious as fresh and don’t require chemical additives. If you are not going to eat vegetables or salad because you don’t have the time, energy or inclination to chop or prepare them, by all means, buy the convenient packages. But be sure to read the labels and review the nutrition facts and get to know what you plan to eat. Become a food detective and be on the lookout for those unpronounceable ingredients.
There is a strong relationship between food and wellness. The human body requires fresh, whole foods that are rich in nutrients to maintain natural health and energy. By contrast, most processed foods that are high in sugars, including high fructose corn syrup, trans fats and white, refined flour, have a tremendous negative effect on your blood glucose levels and insulin production. Consuming refined carbohydrates regularly can result in elevated blood sugar levels and increased insulin secretion necessary to stabilize that blood sugar. This can lead to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, high levels of circulating insulin can inflame the arteries , stress the internal organs, and impair the immune system. Processed food, which is considered by many nutritionists to be the product of chemical and mechanical manipulation and often contains pesticide residue and genetically altered ingredients, is not real, whole food.
Here’s why nutrition is so important. Every calorie you consume positively or negatively impacts your health. Calories in whole foods add to your body’s nutrient store by providing important vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, fiber and other nutrients. Processed food devoid of nutrients can put you nutrient store in bankruptcy. A constant supply of nutrients is necessary to nourish and rebuild cells and organs and maintain health. Simply put, nutrition is health and health equals life. The answer to a healthy functioning body is making real food the foundation of our diets. The farther food is differentiated from its original source, the more likely we are to develop health issues.
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