Healthy eating has been quite the heated debate as of late.

Are clean foods good for the body? Is there really something to them, or is it just a marketing ploy? Who are people to listen to? What are we to believe?

Opinions about clean, healthy foods are many. This includes ideas about organic, natural, ethically-raised, whole, chemical-free, or unprocessed foods—often categorized “clean” foods—and what they really do (or don’t do).

Fortunately, there are fewer facts than opinions out there, and they help cut right through to the heart of the matter. After all, research shows that processed foods are mostly bad—but they’re especially bad if they’re a major part of one’s diet.

And here’s the straight truth about clean foods: people who opt for whole, unprocessed, and chemical-free foods end up avoiding the enormous majority of foods that could be bad for them. It’s as simple as that.

Science undeniably reveals that foods in their purest state tend to be the best for health and wellness, and more nutritious to boot. What more, certain compounds added to foods—but especially sugars of any kind above all else—promote unhealthy effects on the body rather than healthy ones.

Still unconvinced? Let’s walk through the facts of why processed and/or sugary foods are best left on that grocery shelf in favor for the whole, healthy, and ultimately more worthwhile foods.

FIRST OFF: WHAT ARE PROCESSED FOODS?

It’s hard to tell if a food is truly bad if it’s unclear on exactly what it is. Processed foods are no exception.

In fact, it’s easy to think that practically ALL foods could be called “processed foods” because so many of them are processed in some way (except, of course, raw foods).

But in reality, a processed food can be many things, according to the USDA (via the Michigan State University Extension).

Processing includes being blanched, canned, cleaned, cooked, cut, dehydrated, dried, frozen, heated, milled, mixed, pasteurized, and even washed.

ARE ALL PROCESSED FOODS BAD?

This definition of processing applies to lots of foods.

But before people get worried that all processed foods are bad, understand that it’s not processing in and of itself that makes them bad: it’s the type of process they undergo—and how much—that makes foods unhealthy.

Of course, sliced fruits and veggies that are then cooked in the main course are technically considered “processed,” but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.

The truly unhealthy foods (also called “ultra-processed” foods) people talk about are ones that get recreated into totally new foods that are indistinguishable from their original ingredients.

Often, these also mix in new ingredients (usually man-made ones) to enhance flavor, nutrition, or perishability. Breakfast cereal is a good example of a processed food. TV and frozen dinners, deli meats, cakes, microwaveable foods, and anything packaged and deep-fried name just a few more.

The more processed many foods get, the farther away they tend to stray from their natural health benefits, values, and nutrition. Along the way, too, they get a lot of unhealthy stuff added to them: including extra sodium, fat, and sugar, along with tons of chemicals, preservatives, food dyes, and more to promote shelf life and increase flavor.

TOO MUCH SODIUM

One of these common additives to processed foods is sodium. Too much sodium is less than good for health, according to many authorities.

What more: people are most likely to stumble upon loads of sodium in highly processed (but popular) junk foods, including pizza, hot dogs, potato chips, deli meats, and many others.

One reason why sodium compounds are added to these foods is to enhance flavor (after all, sodium is almost always sourced from salt). But a lot of preservatives are sodium-based, too.

Keep in mind that sodium is still a completely necessary dietary nutrient. In fact, our bodies need it to function properly—so beyond dodging it in processed foods, don’t eradicate it completely from whole foods, too.

TOO MUCH SATURATED AND TRANS FAT

Next in line for big processed food no-no’s: fats. The biggest culprits here are saturated and, the worst, trans fats.

While a lot of ultra-processed products contain saturated fats—which are bad in great amounts—it’s really the trans fats that are concerning. Saturated fats in moderation can actually do great things for the body and are found in the healthy amounts needed from a mostly unprocessed food diet.

But when super processed foods are eaten in excess, however, there are TONS more saturated fats than is good for the body. Plus, there are terrible trans fats to deal with on top of that.

Hailed as the “ultimate evil” of all the kinds of fats out there, trans fats are the delicious but sneakily terrible fats found in deep fried foods, margarine, doughnuts, and store-bought cakes, cookies, pastries, and more.

TOO MANY PRESERVATIVES AND CHEMICALS

In the stage of getting processed, foods can have a lot of additives tossed in. Not all these are good for us, studies show.

Among these tossed in preservatives are ones like benzoates, phosphates, and even sodium chloride. Each of these has been shown to increase health risks if eaten excessively—including free radical damage and even kidney damage.

There are also food dyes to contend with, which research has also shown may increase risks of child behavior disorders, learning disabilities, and ADHD development.

How can someone avoid artificial food coloring altogether? By glossing over processed foods and eating more clean foods, of course.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST: TOO MUCH ADDED SUGAR

There are lots of reasons why processed foods are created. Part of it is to make foods that last longer and look better.

Another reason they get processed is so they taste better. In a nutshell, processed foods (think lunch meats, donuts, prepackaged foods, cereals, and more) tend to be made with very cheap ingredients designed to store long-term on a grocery store shelf, eventually making a profit.

The missing piece of the puzzle is to make them taste good, too. And on top of adding sodium and preservatives, putting in sugar additives is a really easy way to guarantee that food will taste good, no matter how cheap or processed it actually is.

SUGAR: IS IT ALL BAD?

Sugar is probably the most underhanded yet overlooked food risk to peoples health.

Studies upon studies vouch that it is downright bad for us, and it’s only remotely healthy place in our lives is to be eaten in very small amounts and in incredible moderation—the occasional dessert or treat, as it were.

And yet, we love to taste it, and it’s found in increasingly more and more foods, processed ones especially.

But is all sugar bad? Some may argue that it’s just refined sugars that are harmful, and more natural forms of sugar—such as raw cane sugar, raw honey, and organic maple syrup, for example—will be better for the body and not the same.

Sadly, this is not true. While processed foods tend to be havens for famously harmful sugar additives like high fructose corn syrup, it’s just as detrimental to health if people try replacing all that high fructose with raw sugar.

The body gets the same spikes in blood sugar, the same rise in blood pressure, and the same increased risk of various health problems. Eating a ton of sugar no matter what—even if it’s unrefined and naturally sourced—is just plain bad.

To protect health in the very best possible way, don’t just slash processed foods off that list, but also those sugary foods, too—because of all of it can have some nasty effects on the body and health.

PROCESSED FOODS AND SUGAR INCREASE RISK OF HEART DISEASE

Practically all the above dangers to processed foods discussed above lead to higher blood pressure, which increases heart disease risk. Sugar, sodium, saturated fats, food additives, and trans fats all make the list.

Sugar in unreasonable amounts and on a daily basis is a top culprit. Trans fats are not too far behind, while saturated fats—though good in moderation—can also be overdone in this regard.

Sodium has also been shown to elevate blood pressure moderately. It’s definitely not good for those already on track towards high blood pressure or heart disease, while those who are moderately healthy don’t have to worry about is nearly as much—though that’s not an invitation to gorge on high-sodium processed foods and not have to worry!

If the body has high blood pressure, however, it’s smart to try steering clear of sodium a little more and to watch sodium intake.

PROCESSED FOODS AND SUGAR INCREASE RISK OF OBESITY

Want to be fit and keep slim? Then eat clean and avoid processed foods, because they can surely pave the way to obesity.

Studies on sugar additives—especially in processed sugary beverages—show a clear correlation between weight gain and too much sugar. The less sugar consumed, the less likely subjects were to gain weight.

Trans fats and excessive saturated fat consumption have also been linked to weight gain. Evidence staunchly favors the fact that, if especially highly fatty and sugary foods are eaten, the body doesn’t know how to properly digest and process them—so they turn into unhealthy fat, which in turn opens up risks for other health problems.

PROCESSED FOODS AND SUGAR INCREASE RISK OF DIABETES

Add sugar and trans fats in processed foods to the list of foods that will increase diabetes risk—type 2 diabetes, that is.

Diabetes is a chronic illness that occurs when the body loses its sensitivity to high blood sugar, making the sugar in the blood stream itself bring great harm to the body. This includes loss of nerve endings and even fingers and feet, along with increased risk of coma and even death.

The human body is simply not equipped to handle all that saccharine sweetness and delicious fat we may enjoy from those favorite pastries, donuts, deep-fried foods, and sugary cereals. This often also opens up the doorway to the other health problems also associated with processed foods like high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity, which also occur frequently alongside diabetes.

PROCESSED FOODS AND SUGAR: JUST PLAIN UNHEALTHY

It’s plain and simple. Eating too much processed food and sugar is just not worth it, and it’s a much greater benefit to one’s health to focus on chemical-free, whole, unprocessed nutrient dense foods instead.

Not only do processed foods increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, they can also all-around boost the likelihood of health problems like stroke and even one of the deadliest illnesses of all time: cancer.

Still not sure if processed food and sugar is really a problem?

Try embracing a clean eating lifestyle: one that passes on those tempting foods and instead favors whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, and clean proteins or dairy.

Don’t believe the science? Try a clean diet and then feel the difference of living healthier, happier, and with more energy and a zest for life than ever before.

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