How Processed Foods Affect Our Bodies

Ever wonder what happens to the food that you eat once it digests? Well depending on what you are eating, the internal breakdown and the end result of what that food gets turned into could vary greatly. Junk food is known to digest into the sugar and fatty acids which will, unless you are exercising, store as fat on your body, while healthy food can and will be turned into muscle and good energy for your cells. 

According to the Food Institute’s analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials alone spend 45 percent of their budget’s food dollars on eating out. In comparison to 40 years ago, the average American family now spends half their food budget on restaurant food. In 1977, just under 38 percent of family food budgets were spent eating outside the home.

Effects of junk food on society

Today, more than 2 in 3 adults in the United States are considered overweight or obese. More than one-third of children ages 6 to 19 are also considered overweight or obese.

The growth of fast food in America seems to coincide with the growth of obesity in the United States. The Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) reports that the number of fast food restaurants in America has doubled since 1970. The number of obese Americans has also more than doubled.

Despite efforts to raise awareness and make Americans smarter consumers, one study found that the amount of calories, fat, and sodium in fast-food meals remains largely unchanged.

As Americans get busier and eat out more frequently, it could have adverse effects for the individual and America’s healthcare system.

The basic characteristics of processed/junk foods:

  • Usually full of added sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, and the largest source of added sugar in the diet. Aside from empty calories, sugar has been linked with insulin resistance, high triglycerides, cholesterol, and increased fat accumulation in the liver and abdominal cavity. Sugar consumption also has a strong association with heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer.
  • Designed for overconsumption. These foods are specifically engineered to be especially rewarding to the brain, which can lead to overconsumption.
  • Contain artificial ingredients. Manufacturers use artificial chemicals in these foods for various reasons, which include preservatives, colorants, flavorants, and texturants.
  • Can become addicting because they are designed to be “hyper-rewarding.” In fact, the ingredients in processed/junk food can wreak havoc on the brain’s biochemistry due to the intense dopamine release that occurs in some people after consumption.
  • Often high in refined or simple carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are quickly broken down, and lead to rapid blood sugar and insulin spikes. These in turn can lead to carbohydrate cravings just hours later, when blood sugar levels return to normal.
  • Low in nutrients compared with whole, unprocessed foods. A diet high in processed foods can lead to a lack of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other trace nutrients found in whole foods.
  • Low in fiber. Processed/junk food is typically very low in fiber because it’s either lost or intentionally removed during processing. Soluble, fermentable fiber found in whole foods has various important health benefits.
  • Require less time and energy to digest. Processed foods are easier to chew and swallow, also contributing to overconsumption. More can be eaten in a shorter amount of time resulting in more calories in while less energy is burned (fewer calories out).
  • High in trans fats. The refined vegetable and seed oils used to make processed foods are often hydrogenated, and become trans fats, which have high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which in turn cause oxidation and inflammation in the body.

Additional effects on different body systems include:

  • Digestive system: As processed/junk foods are broken down, carbohydrates are released as glucose into the bloodstream, increasing serum glucose levels. The pancreas responds by releasing insulin. Frequent and continuous spikes in blood sugar, and the ensuing spikes in insulin to deal with them, may increase the risk for insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain.
    In a study, published in the journal Experimental Physiology, rats were fed a junk food diet of chocolate bars, marshmallows, biscuits and cheese for eight weeks. Other rats were fed chow that contained 60% fat for five weeks. By analyzing the rats’ blood sugar levels and the function of blood sugar transporters in the rats’ kidneys, the researchers were able to see what happened to the kidneys of rats that ate junk food and fatty foods, compared to the kidneys of rats with diabetes.
  • Respiratory system: Extra calories from processed/junk food can cause weight gain and obesity. This extra weight can put pressure on your lungs and heart, and cause difficulty breathing. In one study,researchers found that asthma was more likely in children who ate fast food at least three times per week. Further, Australian researchers found that, in non-obese asthmatics, a single fast-food meal high in saturated fat increased airway inflammation and the potential for an asthma attack.
  • Central nervous system: Researchers in Spain found that, in the long-term, people who ate processed/junk foods were 51% more likely to develop depression than those who didn’t or those who ate them infrequently.
  • Reproductive system: Processed/junk food contains phthalates, which can disrupt the hormones in the body. High phthalate levels have been shown to lead to reproductive problems, including birth defects.
  • Endocrine and cardiovascular systems: In a review of studies on junk food and heart health, researchers found that eating fast food more than once per week was associated with a higher risk of obesity, and eating it more than twice per week with higher risks of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and death from coronary heart disease.
  • Integumentary system: Carbohydrates may affect the appearance of the skin, with carbohydrate-rich foods leading to spikes in the blood sugar, triggering acne. In addition, children/adolescents who eat fast food at least three times per week are more likely to develop eczema, according to results from the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood Phase Three.
  • Skeletal system: Bone density and muscle mass can be adversely affected by obesity, which can be caused by eating too many processed/junk foods. In addition, the carbohydrates and sugars in these foods can increase the acids in the mouth, which can cause a breakdown of tooth enamel and lead to cavities.

Taken together, the latest research shows that food affects the body in myriad ways and bolsters the case to cut back on processed foods. “Junk is not food, and food is not junk,”.  Let food be thy medicine.

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