Characteristics of heavily processed foods

What is it that makes heavily processed foods a concern when consumed regularly?

Heavily processing a food alters seven nutritional characteristics of that food product and, consequently, affects the human body. Michigan State University Extension indicates what this may include:

  • Glycemic load: This is a numerical way to classify foods by taking into account the amount of carbohydrate in the food and the impact of that carbohydrate on blood sugar levels. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, refined (processed) carbohydrates maintain much higher glycemic loads than unprocessed fruits and vegetables. Long-term consumption of high glycemic load carbohydrates can adversely affect metabolism and promote insulin resistance.
  • Fatty acid composition: Processed foods often possess a higher content of Trans fats. Trans fats occur when liquid oil is changed into a solid fat to make a product more shelf stable. Trans fats contribute to cardiovascular disease and are actually worse for you than saturated fat.
  • Macronutrient composition: Macronutrients, which are protein, carbohydrates, and fat, are energy providing nutrients. All three of these are needed in a well-balanced diet. However, a heavily processed food tends to change the composition of the food to make it more “energy dense” which requires a person to consume more food and calories before feeling full.
  • Micronutrient density: Micronutrients, often called vitamins and minerals, are needed in small amounts for proper growth and development. Since heavily processing a food makes that food energy dense, that means the micronutrient composition of that food is low.
  • Acid-base balance: A study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that nearly all foods consumed, digested and absorbed release either acid or bicarbonate (base) into circulation in the body. Foods produced by heavy processing and those used in food processing, such as cereal grains and salt, contribute to an acidic environment. On the other hand, fruits and vegetables are base-contributing foods. If heavily processed foods are present in your diet, make sure to also include fruits and vegetables to create a well-balanced diet.
  • Sodium-potassium ratio: Sodium and potassium have opposite effects on the body. A high level of sodium in the blood stream is hard on the kidneys and the blood vessels and can increase blood pressure. Highly processed foods are often very high in sodium. Potassium helps to relax body vessels and helps eliminate sodium, therefore it lowers blood pressure. To increase potassium, consume more fruits and vegetables, which are naturally an excellent source of potassium and are naturally low in sodium.
  • Fiber content: Often fiber content suffers during food processing. Fiber is an important component of a healthy diet and Americans are already only consuming about half of the recommended amount.

There are many chemical changes that happen to a food when it is heavily processed. If there is a time and place for processed foods in your diet, make sure to also include fruits and vegetables for a well-balanced and nutrient-dense diet.

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