The Shocking Truth About How Processed Food Affects Your Health

What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick!

-Michael Pollan, Food Rules

The way we eat has changed more in the past 114 years than in the previous 10,000. In the year 1900, 1 in 150 people in the U.S. was obese. Today, that number is over 1 in 3.

This begs the question, what the hell happened?

Ask 10 health experts and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. However, an emerging body of science shows there’s one scapegoat that now stands out like a vegan at a pig roast.

Processed food.

To some extent, all foods are processed. For purposes of this article, when I say “processed foods” I mean foods that contain chemicals and artificial substances.

If you buy a can of food (e.g., beans) and “beans” is the only ingredient on the food label, this doesn’t count.

If you buy a Frosted Blueberry Pop-Tart, which is made of the following 40 or so ingredients, this most certainly does.

pop tart processed food

In this article, you’ll find out how processed, food-like substances became the cash cow of our food system and Grim Reaper of our collective health, and then you’ll learn some strategies for phasing this crap out of your diet.

A Brief History of Processed Food

Food processing has been around since the caveman days. Fermenting, sun drying, and salt preservation were vital for survival.

It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that chemical processing began to take root with the introduction of the preservative sodium benzoate (which is still used today).

Fast forward about 50 years and the reasons for the surge in processed food become crystal clear. Post-World War II, Americans were struggling. Cheap fast food and canned, processed goods became a sign of progressiveness and national pride. The “Western Diet” as we now know it had humble and well-meaning origins.

Little did we know we were creating a monster.

The State of Processed Food Today

70 percent of our calories now come from processed food.

For most people, long gone are the days where milk came from the farm, bread came from the bakery, and meat came from the butcher.

Much of the responsibility for this dilemma lies with the processed food industry. For 60+ years they’ve been creating salty, sugary, fatty pseudo-foods that are convenient, dirt cheap—and as much as it pains me to say, damn tasty.

Food companies have us wrapped around their Cheetos-stained fingers. Journalist Michael Moss says in his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us:

Some of the largest companies are now using brain scans to study how we react neurologically to certain foods, especially to sugar. They’ve discovered that the brain lights up for sugar the same way it does for cocaine.

This is why it’s so hard to choose the apple over the candy bar. Food manufacturers want you addicted to their products. They need you to be. Because like any market, generating more revenue is priority number one … not worrying about what’s going to happen to your heart in 10 years. The world’s largest retailer of processed foods (Walmart) hauled in $476 billion in revenue this year. By comparison, the entire restaurant industry made $683 billion.

Processed Food and Your Health

Melanie Warner, a former New York Times reporter who authored the book Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal, says there are around 5,000 different additives allowed in our food.

Here’s the scary part: the FDA grants oversight of these chemical additives to the food companies themselves. That’s right, the food industry is self-regulated. This explains why ingredients like these still lurk in your bread, soda, and frozen yogurt:

  • Azodicarbonamide, an additive used as a flour bleaching agent and dough conditioner … and also in the creation of foamed plastic products such as yoga mats. Azodicarbonamide has been banned as a food additive in Europe and Australia—not in the USA though.
  • Caramel color, which is used in many sodas, contains a chemical (4-methylimidazole) that has been shown to cause cancer in animal studies. This led California to place it on its list of banned carcinogens—but soft drink companies still use it in states outside of CA.
  • Propylene glycol, a preservative and thickening agent found in many food products (e.g., frozen yogurt), is also a common ingredient in antifreeze.

And no discussion of processed food ingredients would be complete without mentioning the fast food industry, which creates some true feats of science. Here are a few examples.

processed food facts

While I’ll be the first to admit this is borderline comical, here’s the part that’s not so funny: study after study proves the Western Diet will make you fat. Even more alarming, it will take years off your life.

A comprehensive research review of 172 clinical studies published in the Journal of American Clinical Nutrition concluded that virtually all chronic disease can be traced to our modern diet of engineered foods.

Yet we still eat this way.

We’ve created a mishmash of Frankenfoods so cheap, convenient, and addicting that we’re willing to get fat and die years sooner to keep enjoying them.

How to Ditch Processed Foods

Here’s the silver lining: the effects of the Western Diet can be reversed rather quickly. One research analysis showed departing even modestly from the Western diet could reduce one’s chances of getting heart disease by 80 percent; type 2 diabetes by 90 percent; and colon cancer by 70 percent.

Most people I talk to really do care … but don’t think they have the time, money, or power to change.

It’s easier than you think. Here’s where to start.

1. Slowly phase out these foods. Potato chips, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grains, and sugary snacks are the four processed foods that cause you to gain the most weight over time. Choose one of these foods–just one–and phase it out of your diet (here’s how).

2. Eat out less. It’s hard to tell whether restaurant food is “real” or not because they aren’t required to list their ingredients. For the most part, you get what you pay for. Most chain restaurants and nearly all fast food restaurants use highly-processed, cheap ingredients (and the average meal at chain restaurants has 1128 calories—and that doesn’t include appetizers, drinks, and dessert). Higher end restaurants often use fresh, local ingredients–but you’ll obviously pay more. Staying home is better for your health and your wallet. Check out my recipes for some easy ideas.

3. Put more real foods on your grocery list. The easiest way to stock your kitchen with more whole, natural foods and less processed junk is to plan for it. Using lists works. Research shows vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and yogurt are associated with long-term weight loss. On the flip side, eating highly processed food causes your body to burn fewer calories—50 percent fewer, to be exact.

4. Go public with your real food plan. A research study found that telling people about your health goals can improve your odds of achieving them. So tell your friends you’re gettin’ real.

Action Steps

We’re starting to see legions of empowered consumers demanding better food. We’re going back to our roots—back to the stuff our grandparents and great grandparents used to eat. More and more people want to buy local, eat better, and know where their food comes from.

Phasing this stuff out of your diet takes time—but it’s worth it. So worth it, in fact, that it may even add years to your life.

What are you waiting for?

It’s the million dollar question. Truth is, most people are scared to change. They’re scared they’ll fail to create something that’ll stick.

Here’s what I say to that: if having an extra few years to spend with your kids, your grand kids, your parents, and your friends sounds like fair trade-off for giving up soda and junk food, this is my advice for you: take action today.

Start small. Just start doing and you’ll learn as you go. Action cures fear. Indecision, postponement, and excuses fertilize it. Don’t deliberate. Don’t say you’ll start tomorrow. Do it now.

If not for you, than for the people who love you. ‘Cause at the end of the day, it’s not all about you–there are other people in your life who wouldn’t mind having you around a bit longer.

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