Natural Foods

Processed Food on Overall Health
Effects of Natural vs. Processed Food on Overall Health

With such a basic human function such as eating, it is important to realize the benefits and disadvantages certain foods and vitamins have on not only the body, but also the mind. With more general food availability comes more processed foods, or foods that aren’t “functional” in aiding the human mind or body. With this in mind it is important to ask, how do different foods, mainly processed vs. natural, affect our physical and mental wellbeing? As the research on the effects of food advances, scientists and nutritionists are better understanding the effects certain compounds have on human’s overall health.

History of Processed Foods

The history of processed foods spans back as long as the discovery of fire, as animal corpses were roasted over fire making it easier to digest meat. It is important to differentiate processed foods of today compared to processed foods of the past because they are very different and have come a long way. Processed foods today generally contain much more processing and additives. In 1880, one of three people lived on a farm and provided their own food compared to now, a very few amount of people provide an overwhelming amount of food for society (Says). Around the 1920’s, convenience foods started to get out of hand with misinformation and propaganda on how certain foods contained health benefits when they didn’t. This leads up to the great depression in the 1930’s when families are forced to eat less meats and produce because of higher prices. 

By 1948 America has an obesity problem and diabetes became a problem as people eat more trans fats and less healthy animal fats. The 1950’s brought the invention of natural and artificial flavoring which leads to a big disconnect with healthy foods. The more these unhealthy foods are eaten the further away the taste buds will fall away from the craving of healthy foods and the more normalized poor diet becomes. In the mid 1950’s frozen dinners become prevalent, encouraging the consumption on ultra-processed foods due to the ease of cooking and cleaning up. Pesticides along with genetically modified foods are introduced into American farms and genetically modified foods double the yield of previous years farming. From the 1990’s to today there has been advocacy to be more natural and go away from factory farming as it is immoral and unhealthy. Health trends are more popular today than they’ve ever been, but so too are fast foods chains and the ease of obtaining heavily processed foods.

When referring to “processed foods” it is important to know that technically cut vegetables could be considered processed, but what is being referred to in this essay is heavier processed foods such as frozen pizza, ice cream, and bacon etc.

Natural food healing properties

The human body is an intricate system and relies on many components to live healthily, of those components is the need to intake a certain amount of proteins, fats, oils, carbohydrates,  and vitamins. Proteins are essential to rebuild damaged muscle, keeping the immune system strong, allowing metabolism, and producing energy. Proteins are commonly found in animal products such as cheese and meat but can also be found in nuts and legumes and should contribute about 10 to 35 percent of the daily caloric intake (Szalay). When a diet lacks proteins, inflammation in the body can increase and muscles can be more prone to injury, athletes often make whey protein shakes that allow the muscles to heal faster and promote muscle mass. 

Hemp and soy are other good sources of essential proteins and come readily available in powder form which makes it easy to intake.

Fats are typically vilified in society, but they play an essential role in cholesterol levels, decreasing inflammation, and stabilizing heart rhythm (Types). The reason fats have a bad reputation is because of saturated fats and trans fats. Saturated fats are generally the lesser of the two evils. Trans fats on the other hand are proven to create inflammation, increase chances of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Trans fats are common in diets today, some examples of foods with trans fats are frozen pizza, cake, pies, popcorn, French fries, and fried chicken to name a few. These foods are highly popular in the western diet, partly because of their availability and partly because of their appealing taste. 

Good fats include monosaturated and polysaturated fats and the effects they have on the body include lowering blood pressure and decreasing cardiovascular risks (Types). Examples of foods that contain good fats are fish, avocados, eggs, nuts, and even cheese.

Carbohydrates are essential in providing the body with energy, like fats though some are better than others. Carbs can be found in cookies but also quinoa, the cookie is an example of a bad carb and the quinoa is an example of a good carb. The good carbs supply essential nutrients while the bad carbs contribute to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease (Types).

With any plant derived food, the consumer will be nourished with carbohydrates, proteins, fats and oils, minerals, vitamins, and organic acids (Adefegha 1). Plants also contain antioxidants that can protect cells from a variety of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and neurogenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, and multiple sclerosis (Adefegha 1).

Processed foods effects on health 

It seems as if with every day that passes, the speed of life cranks up another notch, with this fast-paced lifestyle brings the problem of time allocation. If someone can spend 5 minutes in a drive through and eat for a cheap price it is going to be enticing to save time and eat decent tasting food for a low cost; but the effects of taking that extra time to cook a more nutritious meal can be the difference between life and death over time. With the raise in popularity of processed foods, come more processed foods and the cost of these foods are usually considerably cheaper than their natural counterparts. With anything in the world, usually the more money something is the more value it has, the lower prices of processed foods indicate the lesser quality they have compared to natural foods, though some nutrients are still available in processed foods. 

When foods are processed, they often lose many nutrients that cannot be recovered from their state further away from natural. When the body is hungry, that usually means there is a need for the intake of proteins, fibers, or fat; If a person is to fill themselves up with heavily processed foods and not get those essential nutrients, it can cause the body to still trigger hunger, causing a person to overeat because the key nutrients have yet to be met, in which can contribute to higher chance of obesity.

It is not coincidence that the leading cause of death worldwide is cardiovascular disease, as processed foods gain popularity so too will the uptrend of Cardiovascular disease. The U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey estimated that ultra-processed foods made up about 60% of the total calories in the United States, a startling number when the health risks are taken into account (Types). Processed foods are directly linked to increase in chance of death from cardiovascular and heart disease. A study posted in the “International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity” had a study of the effects of ultra-processed foods for an average of 13.5 years, the results showed a correlation with higher intake of processed food and cardiovascular and heart disease (Zhong 6).

To make ultra-processed foods look more enticing to the consumer, artificial ingredients are often added to extend shelf life, make the food look fresher, to make the food taste a certain way, or give it a certain color. These unnatural compounds may make the product look and taste better, but they carry no nutritional value and can decrease efficacy of the immune system. Added sugars and refined carbohydrates cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels which lead to low energy and more craving for the refined carbs, causing a cycle of overeating. Once the taste buds become acclimated to the taste of processed foods it can lead to the craving for more processed foods which are likely to have little nutritional value and lead to obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

Mental Health

Mental health problems have only been addressed for a relatively short time but the amount of people who will suffer some sort of mental health issue is extremely high. studies have shown that diet quality is linked to common mental disorders, if eating with a purpose could bring a better mental state, doesn’t that seem worth it? Many processed foods trigger dopamine in the brain and make the consumer feel rewarded for eating something with negative health consequences, hints the name “comfort foods” in which ice creams, cakes, and cookies often are referred to as. But more intake of these processed foods encourages systemic inflammation in the brain, in which is linked to depression and anxiety. I can attest to this situation, I felt very stressed and felt like I needed something to reward myself with, so I got a pint of ice cream and told myself I’d only eat half. After half, it only made sense to eat the entire pint, because it tasted so good, and I deserved it, right? The next morning, I wake up and have an upset stomach, more inflammation, and a higher craving for highly processed foods which causes my mental health to diminish even more and reinforces the false belief that I “deserve” to eat the unhealthy foods.

While natural foods high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibers reduce the inflammation and encourage healthy brain function. A study conducted by Setiawan found that people suffering from depression had 30% more inflammation than people who weren’t depressed (Dimov 66). Studies have shown patterns between poor diet and negative impacts on the developing brains of adolescence. A study done by the “Taylor and Francis Group” showed pre-adolescent children had mental health symptoms that are congruent with poor diet (Dimov 66). These poor diets in children not only have temporary negative health consequences, but also reinforce poor diet choices for the duration of their life, which will increase their chance of health problems.  

To avoid the mental ailments that can come with an ultra-processed food diet it is important to eat complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and fatty acids. The complex carbohydrates can give the consumer more energy for a longer time than its sugar dense counterparts. Complex carbs can be found in beans, whole grains, and vegetables, in which are cheap in price and easy to cook. Lean proteins are often found in animal products such as chicken, fish, eggs, but also nuts and seeds. Lean proteins not only provide energy for the body but also promote mental clarity. Fatty acids are also found in fish, eggs, and nuts and aide in the function of the nervous system and brain function.

Micro biome

Within the human body there is an un-countably vast number of bacteria, fungi, and microbes, the makeup of all of these is known as the microbiome. The micro biome attains energy from undigested food, which means the food the microbiome draws on for energy must include key nutrients or the biome will not be able to thrive. The greater diversity in diet that comes along with eating non processed foods encourages diversity in the micro-biome, in turn giving the biome more adaptability and resistance to free radicals (Heiman). Processed foods lack diversity because they often contain the same preservatives such as high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, or food coloring.  Adults are more likely to have a less diverse microbiome because of lack of diversity in diet, adults have more ridged schedules than children which encourages the same type of diet choices over time which can weaken the microbiome.

Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and Inflammatory Bowel Disease are all associated with reduction in microbiome biodiversity (Heiman). Ways to improve gut health can include eating less processed food that contains sugars and sweeteners, reducing stress, taking probiotic vitamins, drinking fermented drinks such as kombucha or eating fermented foods such as yogurt, tempeh, or sauerkraut. Probiotics can aide in the promotion of microbiota health as well.

Red meat

Though there is nutritional benefit to red meats such as iron, vitamin B12, and protein, there is a downside as more data comes out that links high consumption of red meats (especially processed) with increased risk of many chronic diseases including cancer (Wolk 113). Higher risk of stroke is present when high levels of red meat are consumed along with increased risk of colorectal cancer (Wolk 113). While it is mainly important to be eating the right food, one must also be conscious of overeating the same food, referring back to the microbiome a more diverse diet allows for greater health in the micro biome in turn allowing the body and mind to operate more efficiently.

It is apparent that diets high in ultra processed foods put people at much greater risks for overall health issues such as cancer, depression, and death; While natural foods are rich in antioxidants, promote brain clarity, and include many key nutrients.

Though there is little to no benefit from eating highly processed foods, they remain popular because they are cheaper and readily available, families with kids can feed their family much quicker going through a fast-food restaurant rather than going to the grocery and cooking a meal but either way there is a cost involved. The cheap financial cost for the processed food comes at the price of compromised mental and physical health, while healthy food may take more effort but has a positive benefit on overall health. There are numerous recipes that provide high nutritional value and come at an affordable price, to accommodate for time constraints “meal prepping” can make eating healthier, easier, and more accessible to busier people. Meal prepping is when someone cooks about a week’s worth of food and prepares it in containers and likely puts the containers in the refrigerator to have readily available for the week, encouraging the avoidance of the impulse fast-food bail out.

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