You've been told to avoid processed foods -- but not every one is awful for you. Organic, unsweetened applesauce, fortified orange juice and 100 percent whole-wheat bread are processed foods, but offer some valuable nutrients when consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Highly processed foods, though, should be avoided as much as possible. These are the ones most likely to contribute to an increased risk of obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
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Refined grains are those that have been stripped of much of their nutrients and fiber. They include white rice, white bread, regular pasta, cereal bars, most breakfast cereals and any baked goods made with enriched or all-purpose flour. (ref 2) To make refined grains, the nutritious outer layers of the whole grain are removed leaving just the starchy, low-nutrient endosperm. Manufacturers may add back in some of the B vitamins and iron to the final product -- but dietitian Joy Bauer notes that these are only a fraction of what was lost during refinement. (ref2) High consumption of refined grains is linked to weight gain in the belly, according to a study published in a 2010 issue of the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition." (ref3) Much of this weight is visceral fat that triggers an inflammatory response in your body and increases your risk of chronic disease. Refined grains aren't as filling as whole-grains, so you're more likely to overeat them. (ref2)
Deli Meat and Dogs
A diet that includes lots of highly processed meat, which includes deli meat, hot dogs and sausage, can increase your risk of heart disease. A meta-analysis, published in "Circulation" in 2010, found a strong association between consumption of these meats and increased incidences of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. (ref1) You may think of them as a quick, inexpensive and convenient source of protein, but processed meats are full of preservatives, sodium and fillers that are anything but healthy.
Soda and Sugary Drinks
Soda is demonized for good reason: it's full of sugar and contains no nutrients. The Harvard School of Public Health notes that people who consume 1 to 2 cans or more of sugary drinks per day have a 26 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than folks who avoid these drinks. (ref 4) Regular consumption of soda and other sugary drinks may also increase your risk of developing heart disease or death by heart attack as well as your risk of gout. Soft drinks are also a major contributor to weight gain and obesity. (ref 5) Fruit punch, energy drinks, sports drinks and lemonade are all included in the soft drink category.
A jar of pasta sauce, cans of soup and microwavable meals seem like a must for a busy household. But, these foods are often full of lots of added sodium, preservatives and sugar. Canned soup and sauce often comes in containers lined with a chemical called BPA, which may also have negative effects on your health. (slides 4 and 5 - ref 6) Microwavable meals may help you control calories, but they're usually short on nutritious items such as vegetables and high in sodium and refined carbohydrates. Rather than resorting to these convenience foods, you're better off with quick options that include blending up a homemade soup with boxed broth, vegetables and lean protein; sauteing onions, garlic, fresh tomatoes and herbs for whole-wheat pasta; or roasting a lean piece of meat to eat alongside a salad.
The Food and Drug Administration moved in 2013 to ban all artificial trans fats from the food supply, with good reason. Trans fats are linked to the development of belly fat, heart disease and increased levels of "bad" cholesterol. (ref 7) The Institute of Medicine argues that there is no safe level for consumption of these fats. Until the ban goes into full effect, watch for this ingredient in commercial baked goods -- namely doughnuts, cookies and snack cakes -- as well as commercially fried foods. The presence of "partially-hydrogenated" oils on an ingredient label is a clue that the processed food contains artificial trans fats.