Hint: One is related to the season and the other to your skin
Before we add two more reasons for reducing your intake of processed food, let's look briefly at why that's a good idea to begin with. Processed foods – and you can figure anything that comes in a can, a box, a bag or a carton is processed – have been associated with a number of chronic diseases that are plaguing America, and the evidence keeps mounting.
For example, eating processed food more than infrequently (and remember that virtually all fast food is part of that category) contributes to the kind of unhealthy diet that's a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The reason behind this negative health impact is based on how and why processed food is … processed.
Processed food is loaded with exactly what we need to limit of in our diet
The main goal of processing food is to lengthen its shelf life. The second goal is to make it taste good enough that you'll want to eat it again. To reach those two objectives, processed foods are compromised by the addition of preservatives, synthetic flavors and colors and a wide range of other additives. In addition, processing also includes chemical or heat treatments that destroy or greatly reduce the natural healthy enzymes, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals that are valued in our food.
Sodium: Along with the laboratory list of additives, processed foods generally contain high amounts of sodium to help prevent spoilage and improve flavor. All that extra salt – the Mayo Clinic estimates that up to 75% of our total sodium intake is from processed foods – can lead to health problems that include high blood pressure and heart disease. Canned foods, processed meats and baked goods are all likely to have high sodium content.
Trans Fats: Other culprits in processed foods are trans fats which are used to enhance flavor and texture and are less likely to spoil than naturally occurring oils. These trans fats, also called trans fatty acids or TFAs, are created through the partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats.
Studies over the past decade have shown that synthetic trans fats can increase unhealthy low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) and decrease high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), a combination that can raise the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Examples of trans fats sources and processed foods cooked with trans fats include margarine and shortening, chips, cookies, salad dressings and crackers.
Sweeteners: To round out the problem with processed foods, they can also contain high levels of sugar, a major contributor to our national epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Along with the large amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners – which may carry their own health concerns – processed foods are usually lacking in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (plant-based chemicals considered to have disease preventive qualities), making them empty calories instead of nutrient-dense foods.
Foods particularly high in added sweeteners, which can be listed on a nutrition label as cane sugar, raw sugar, or corn syrup, include ice cream and frozen desserts, baked goods, sodas and energy drinks, sauces and salad dressings – and that's only partial list.
Back to those two additional reasons to cut back on processed food
Now that we've had a quick overview of processed foods and their unhealthy potential, it seems that there are a couple of more reasons why it makes good sense to significantly reduce processed foods in our diet (truly eliminating them is a daunting task for most of us) and focus more on whole, nutrient-rich foods.
1. Because the season is at hand
Right now summer is just kicking into gear in this part of the country and that means you have access to a lot of good food that doesn't spend a lot of time getting from the field to your table. From home gardens to farmers' markets to fresher and more local produce in the super market, this is the season to take advantage of Virginia's bountiful harvests.
This time of year the regional farmers' markets (go to www.virginia.com and search farmers' markets in your area) are an excellent source of fresh fruits, vegetables, produce, seafood, meats, poultry and other unprocessed foods. The markets, which sometimes include entertainment, offer a wonderful opportunity to support local farmers while providing yourself and your family with healthy, natural and whole foods.
2. Think about your face
This consideration for cutting way back on the processed foods will appeal directly to your vanity, but that's OK because health has always been considered the best approach to appearance. As it turns out, according to a growing body of research, when you eat badly (and processed foods not only fall into that category but practically make it up) your skin is one of the first places it will be noticed.
The reason is that the additives and high sugar content in many processed foods block collagen production, the naturally occurring fibrous proteins that keep our skin smoother (fewer wrinkles) and more supple. A recent study in the United Kingdom made a strong link between diets high in processed food and a lack of luster and smoothness in the skin, the characteristics of reduced collagen. Those who ate a diet richer in fresh, whole foods were shown to have "more radiant skin" while the appearance of wrinkles was "significantly reduced". So there really is something to that old saying that we are what we eat.
Where do I start?
As mentioned a little earlier, completely avoiding processed foods may be possible but achieving this is highly unlikely. In fact, there is some processing – some people would point out the addition of vitamin D to dairy products – that has some benefit. But in general the best place to begin is to cut back. Avoid fast food whenever possible. Buy fresh rather than canned products. In general pay more attention to what you're bringing home for yourself and your family. And follow the simple rule of thumb that the fewer ingredients the better. To accomplish that pay even more attention to the nutritional labels on the food you eat. Sometimes they'll surprise you with the amount of unhealthy fat, sugar and salt they contain, especially with those foods that are purported to be "healthy."
In the meantime, check out those farmers' markets, grow your own whenever possible, head to the produce department of your market first and consider eating only those foods whose ingredients you can recognize and pronounce!
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