When most people think of processed food, fast food is likely the first thing that comes to mind. However, the truth is almost all foods we eat are altered in some way. According to Dr. Pauline Jose, a family medicine specialist, processed food is any kind of raw material or food that has been changed. Processing is anything that can include cleaning, washing, chopping, cleaning, pasteurizing, fermenting, smoking, salting, and heating. Anytime you do anything to raw material, it’s processed. Jose said that adding nutrients, like putting vitamin D in milk, is “good processed.”

However, ultra-processed foods, which are made by adding chemicals and flavors to foods like frozen pizza and ice cream, should be avoided. She said she would make it a point not to eat anything ultra-processed, and she can’t think of any ultra-processed foods that can be okay versus some processed foods, which can be okay. For example, many breads, like white bread, are processed, but you should look for words like enriched on the label, and you’ll know. Jose said the best approach is to fix food at home and use fresh vegetables, which aren’t processed at all and the healthiest way to eat.

Still, if you must buy packaged foods, Jose said to read the labels and avoid anything that you can’t recognize or pronounce. She also added that some food packaging contains titanium dioxide, which stops bacterial growth in the packaging but may cause lesions in the colon or inflammation in the intestines. Also, don’t be fooled: buying groceries from “healthier” places like Trader Joe’s isn’t much better. Jose said she would get frozen food from Trader Joe’s when her daughter was in high school until her daughter pointed out that the foods were processed. Jose thought they were less processed because they were from Trader Joe’s, but that wasn’t the case.

We shouldn’t demonize food.

Kim Shapira, a nutritional therapist and dietician, takes a different approach to nutrition by avoiding using words like “good” or “bad.” She said when you label foods as healthy, unhealthy, bad, or good, you end up in a shame spiral. She added that she would encourage people to ignore what people are telling them and focus on what health professionals are saying. She would also look at someone’s overall dietary pattern instead of focusing on labeling the food awful for us and turning it toward how well we take care of our bodies in general. This mindset will be a blip and not negatively affect us.

One way to take care of our bodies is to eat the right foods, including ones that naturally fight disease. Our bodies produce nitric oxide, and foods like beets, spinach and bok choy contain high amounts of nitric oxide. Shapira said it creates a gas that makes our cells slippery, so disease can’t stick to it. The foods we eat should improve our health, and if some of our diet includes birthday cake on occasion, that’s normal. Naturally, eating cake regularly can be a bad habit, so Shapira suggested eating veggies, fruits, fermented food, whole grains, and probiotics, which can help keep our bodies intact and prevent chemicals from affecting us.

How people feel when they eat a lot of processed foods.

Jose, who focuses on functional medicine and wellness, has patients who complain of gastrointestinal issues and fatigue. Her mission is to pinpoint the cause, and most of the time, it’s the food they’re not eating or eating. She said they don’t understand what they’re feeling, and they feel dizzy or have headaches. However, it’s an inflammation that’s starting to develop in their bodies because some of the preservatives or additives that are included in processed foods are causing some sensitivities in certain people, and you can’t identify them.

In the long term, overeating processed foods can lead to diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, obesity, brain fog, or other reductions in cognitive abilities. In some ways, they’re better for you and higher in vitamin content, so there are a lot of good ways to get them. According to Shapira, research shows that adding one to two green leafy vegetables every day decreases your cognitive age by 11 years. Exercising also helps. Shapira suggested that we make 10,000 movements, not necessarily steps, a day.

Still, what about low-income people who don’t have access to healthier food? Jose said education is the solution. We can’t do much about these companies who sell processed food. It’s getting bad, but there’s still some that are better than others. For example, canned fish is a good option because it can be found at many convenience and grocery stores. Jose added if we could look at the back of the packaging all the time or stay as simple as possible in cooking, that would be best.

Almost all food is processed in some way, so there's no true way to avoid processed food. However, some processed food is better for us than others, so we should keep that in mind when eating and trying to be healthy. 

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