A few years back, the latest nutrition craze to hit the market was the introduction of Nabisco’s 100 calorie snack packs like these. You could finally have your cookies and Oreos without having to feel the guilt of eating too many calories.

But if you’ve ever tried any of these snacks, then you may have noticed that they’re almost unrecognizable from the treats you were expecting. These 100 calorie cookies resemble thin crackers in texture, yet the taste is very similar to that of regular cookies.

At the height of their popularity, a girlfriend of mine was totally obsessed with them. She would go out and buy every flavor they had and insisted that I should hop on board with her new found snack revelation.

I have to admit, they didn’t taste too bad and their snack-sized pouches made it really easy to keep an eye on portion control. But the one thing I couldn’t overlook was their processed ingredients.

Take a look at this 100 calorie Oreo pouch:

Processed Foods

For something so small and so low in calories, the length of the ingredient list turned out to be the complete opposite. But it’s not just the amount of ingredients that’s concerning, it’s the actual ingredients themselves.

In this particular snack, you’ll find enriched flour, sugar, canola oil, dextrose, added colors, and artificial flavors, some really unhealthy ingredients for paper thin cracker cookies!

Sure, you may save a few calories, but what are these ingredients doing to your health?

The answer is not pretty. So today’s post will explore the harmful effects of processed foods on your body.

Some of you may say, “But Mike, I know that these 100 calorie snacks are no good, that’s why I stick to the original versions and just limit how much I eat”. Well, you may be in for a surprise.

You see, it’s not only low calorie snacks that contain harmful ingredients, these bad boys are hiding in all sorts of processed foods.

The first two ingredients that we’re going to talk about are carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80.

My guess is that you’ve probably never heard of these, and that’s okay since I was in the same boat a few years ago.

These two potentially harmful ingredients are known as emulsifiers. Their primary job is to keep processed foods from separating. Doesn’t that sound tasty?

Unfortunately, these ingredients are actually more common than you’d think and can be found in condiments such as ketchup, mayonnaise, sauces, and foods like ice cream, and gluten-free and fat free products.

The bad news is that these two ingredients have been linked to increased rates of obesity and can even lead to the formation of gut conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Let’s take a look at a study conducted by Andrew Gewirtz and his team at Georgia State University.

1. Increased Rates Of Obesity

obese woman chocolateThe two emulsifiers mentioned above were added to the drinking water of lab mice at varying levels. Researchers discovered that the mice that sipped on small amounts of the emulsifiers quickly developed metabolic problems and some even became obese.

What was even worse is that the mice fed the largest amounts of the emulsifier started to form gut diseases. On top of that, the more emulsifiers the mice were fed, the more severe the gut issues became.

But that’s not even the scariest thing to note. According to the study, “these effects were seen even in mice that consumed the equivalent of just one-tenth of the concentration of the emulsifiers that the FDA permits in food products”.

Imagine what those ingredients are doing to our bodies if the mice were only consuming a fraction of what is acceptable for human consumption.

The researchers also concluded that the ‘why’ behind these findings is due to the fact that these ingredients actually destroy the good bacteria in our guts.

According to SFGate, when the balance of good and bad bacteria in our bodies is thrown out of whack, you can expect to see symptoms like diarrhea and runny bowel movements. Frequent and persistent diarrhea can also lead to a loss of electrolytes, proteins, and vitamins in your body. The article notes that this causes you to feel weak and further destroys your natural balance.

This persistent imbalance can cause your immune system to be weakened and lead to poor overall immune function. On top of that, you’ll also see an increased risk for issues like cancer.

2. Increased Risk Of Cancer

cold cut processed meats bacon An interesting compilation of studies published in the US National Library of Medicine examined the effects of consuming processed meats such as bacon, ham, cold cuts, sausages, and hot dogs, just to name a few.

The overall conclusion of those studies is that consuming even a small amount of these types of meats can lead to an increased risk for colorectal cancer. Furthermore, the studies found that eating 18 or more ounces of red meat each week can also up your chances of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

According to data presented in the American Institute for Cancer Research, the following ingredients found in processed meats are the reason for increased risks of cancer:

  • Nitrates/ nitrites: These are used to preserve color and prevent food from spoiling. Unfortunately, these can be made from cancer forming compounds known as carcinogens.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs): Also carcinogenic compounds formed from the high heat of smoking the meats.
  • Heterocyclic amines (HCAs): Another compound produced when meats are smoked, HCAs can damage our DNA.
  • Heme iron: Ingredient found in red meat that can damage the lining of our colons when consumed in excessive amounts.

Another common problem with preservatives is the fact that they can cause what’s known as a food addiction.

3. Creates A Food Addiction

woman staring food addictionWe explored the topic of food addiction in this post, and even touched on some of the biggest culprits creating this harmful problem.

Just to reiterate, the following preservatives and ingredients have been studied for their addictive and unhealthy properties:

I really encourage you to check out the full post on the reality of food addiction, but if you want the short version, know this: these ingredients change the chemical balance in our brains similar to how preservatives throw off the healthy balance of bacteria in our guts.

Once our balance has been thrown off, our bodies naturally try to compensate for the difference. This compensation confuses our bodies and can lead to increased cravings, overeating, and even changes in our mood.

Another problem connected to eating highly processed foods is chronic inflammation.

4. Leads To Chronic Inflammation

inflammationAccording to an article published in Harvard Health, inflammation is a normal response that our bodies produce as a way to heal. Without inflammation, we would not be able to fight off diseases, prevent harmful bacteria from spreading, or repair damage done to our tissues, among other important functions.

As mentioned in the article, when certain things like processed foods cause our body to go into a ‘chronic low-grade’ inflammation state, it can eventually lead to heart attacks, strokes, artery disease, and memory loss.

In a study published in the Huffington Post, registered dietician Dee Sandquist, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson, states: “Diet can serve as a protective function…when our bodies are best nourished, we’re able to heal quicker if we do cut our finger and maybe even prevent chronic inflammation”.

Sandquist continues on to say, “there are foods that exaggerate inflammation because they themselves are irritants”.

Ouch, that’s like double the pain!

According to Arthritis.org, irritating foods that contribute to a chronic state of pain are:

  1. Sugar
  2. Saturated fats
  3. Trans fats
  4. Refined carbohydrates
  5. MSG
  6. Gluten and casein

With the exception of #6, almost all of those ingredients can be found in highly processed, pre-packaged foods.

Another common problem I see in my clients who eat significant amounts of processed foods is digestive upsets.

5. Upsets Digestion

digestive systemAs I mentioned earlier, by eating processed foods, you’re essentially killing off the good bacteria in your gut. This simple mistake ends up setting off a chain reaction in your digestive tract.

Here’s how it works, as explained by Dr. Mercola:

“When your body consumes processed foods, you may be triggering the release of powerful antibodies meant to fight off foreign invaders, which can actually cause collateral damage to your body’s cells. In fact, eating a diet rich in processed foods and junk foods can cause an ongoing mistaken internal attack on very necessary components of your digestive system”.

And how does this epic, internal battle affect your digestion?

Check out this video from researcher Stefani Bardin who explores the effects of eating processed foods versus eating healthy, homemade foods.

In the video, one participant was given a meal of Ramen noodles, blue Gatorade, and gummy bears. The other participant enjoyed a homemade, healthy version of Gatorade, chicken noodle soup with homemade noodles, and pomegranate/cherry gummy bears, which were also homemade.

A tiny, pill-sized camera was swallowed in an attempt to record the entire digestion process of both meals.

The preliminary findings were not only fascinating, but also pretty disgusting.

According to Bardin, the artificial coloring found in the Gatorade actually tinted the GI tract of the participant. I’m not surprised, and according to Bardin manufacturers don’t have to disclose what exactly the blue dye is made of.

Another shocking finding was that 2.5 hours after eating the Ramen, the noodles remained almost intact and undigested in the participant. Meaning that our bodies cannot even breakdown these unidentifiable processed foods.

Where does that leave you?

Backed up, constipated, gassy, and suffering from symptoms of heartburn, among other issues.

As if that wasn’t enough, food additives found in processed foods can also lead to an increase in asthma and allergy symptoms, which can be especially harmful in children.

6. Increase in Asthma and Allergy Symptoms

woman sneezingA study published in the journal Thorax examined the effects of processed fast food on 400,000 children spanning 51 countries.

Since our bodies see the chemicals in processed food as foreign invaders (rightfully so), they tend to go on the attack and send out an increase of antibodies. Sometimes this manifests as an increase in allergy and asthma symptoms.

Here’s what happened in the study: children between the ages of 13-14 were asked to complete symptom prevalence and food consumption questionnaires that covered 12 months in time. Parents of 6-7 year old children were asked to complete the surveys for the children. As a way to compare results, scores were then given once the surveys were completed.

According to Medical News Today, by comparing the diets, researchers concluded that the children who ate fast food three or more times per week were much more likely to have severe allergic reactions, asthma, and eczema. And these associations were consistent among gender and geographical differences.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation points out that the following additives can give you and your kids unwanted allergic reactions:

  • Sulfites
  • Aspartame
  • Parabens
  • Tartrazine
  • MSG
  • Nitrates & nitrites
  • Butylated hydroxytoluene, or BHT

Do any of those ingredients look familiar? Yeah, I thought so too.

Finally, another shared complaint amongst children and adults eating processed foods is that it becomes very difficult to remember things.

7. Makes Remembering Anything Almost Impossible

memory issuesI hope that you’re starting to realize that the food we eat serves as the fuel our bodies need to function properly. Unfortunately, processed foods are the exact opposite of providing your body with quality fuel.

Let’s imagine what would happen if you decided to use canola oil in your car that normally takes gasoline. As you might expect, your car probably won’t run properly, if it ran at all. Well, the same goes for food.

When your body lives on processed foods that are devoid of nutrients, you’re essentially sabotaging its proper function.

In particular, foods high in sugar have the following effects on your body, according to David DiSalvo of Forbes:

  • Decreased production of BDNF (a brain chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor) that helps us form new memories and helps us learn and remember things
  • Increased chance for developing depression and dementia (or a decline in memory)

Now that you know the effects of harmful processed foods, I want to leave you with a list of foods to avoid.

Processed Foods To Avoid

fast foodAccording to an article in SFGate, you can distinguish between a processed food option and a regular food item by looking at the ingredient label. “The longer the label, the more processed a food is likely to be”.

As I mentioned in this healthy eating guide, it’s also a good idea to stick to the perimeter of your grocery store when shopping and avoid the processed foods found in the middle aisles as much as possible.

When in doubt, you can always refer to this 100 Days of Real Food article that lists foods to avoid:

  • Foods containing vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, canola, safflower, or cottonseed
  • Fat-free foods as these can contain unnecessary chemical additives
  • Table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners
  • Artificial ingredients such as preservatives, flavors, and dyes
  • Refined grains
  • Factory farmed meat and seafood
  • Fast food

I know it may seem like a lot to remember, but it’s much easier than you think. To help you out, you can also check out my guide to eating healthy when you don’t have time.

The main takeaway here is that processed foods are doing more harm to your health than just adding extra pounds to your waistline. Therefore, it’s a good idea to steer clear of these foods at all costs and enjoy more whole, unprocessed foods instead.

Which one of these negative health effects surprised you the most?