The Truth About Processed Foods

Limiting these unhealthy processed foods will help keep blood sugar levels in check.

Whether your goal is to simply eat healthier or if you’re actively trying to better manage your diabetes (or both), odds are you’ve been told to limit “processed foods.” But what is processed food? What foods are OK to eat and what aren’t? Here, we’ll explain what you need to know about processed foods and how they impact blood sugar and your health.   

What is processed food, and why is it unhealthy?

Understanding processed foods is important if you’re trying to manage diabetes or simply want to better control your blood sugar levels. Processed foods high in sugar will cause your blood sugar levels to spike, making it more difficult to keep your levels in check. Even if you don’t have diabetes, a high-sugar diet can put you on the path toward developing it. And ”ultraprocessed foods” have an even worse nutritional profile, as they are pumped not only with added sugars, but often also contain extra salt, fat, additives, preservatives, and artificial coloring. 

By limiting the amount of food you eat that fall into these categories, you may be able to make a serious dent in your sugar intake, which in turn lowers your risk of developing insulin resistance and diabetes.

Worst processed foods to avoid

Examples of processed foods: Skip most if you can

You can probably rattle off some clearly processed foods: examples of processed foods include candy bars, cookies, anything on a drive-thru menu. But frozen carrots, whole wheat bread, and canned beans—all things we’d file in the “healthy” category—are also highly processed. The only foods that are truly unprocessed are those eaten straight from the ground, with little to no manipulation by the time it ends up on your plate.

Any food that’s cooked, canned, frozen, or packaged is technically considered processed. That said, the level of processing matters. Minimally processed foods, like a bag of spinach or frozen blueberries, should still be part of a healthy diet because they aren’t loaded with sugar, salt, or fat.  

Examples of ultraprocessed foods: Avoid at all costs

When foods are pumped with salt, sugars, fats, additives, preservatives, and artificial coloring, they move to the heavily processed or ultraprocessed category. Disturbingly, more than half of what we eat is ultraprocessed, according to one study. Even still, there’s more discerning to do. Whole wheat bread has added sugar and salt (and coloring to make it brown!), for instance, but it’s still a way better option than white bread, which is loaded up with even more sugar and salt.

Examples of ultraprocessed foods include:

  • White bread
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages (like Coke)
  • Sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals
  • Hot dogs
  • Potato chips
  • Packaged cookies

The scientific evidence: Ultraprocessed foods increase risk of diabetes

2020 JAMA Internal Medicine study examined more than 100,000 diabetes-free participants and found that those who had a diet high in heavily processed foods — in which these foods accounted for more than 22% of their overall intake — were more likely to develop diabetes compared to those who ate the least amount of processed foods (roughly 11% of their diet). What’s more, they found a 5% increase in type 2 diabetes risk for every 100 grams of ultraprocessed food consumed.

Shockingly, ultraprocessed foods account for 90% of the added sugars we consume, according to a separate study. 

How can you start limiting your processed foods consumption?

If you want to limit the amount of highly processed foods in your diet, it’s going to take some work. Here are some strategies to make it easier:

  • Cook more at home: When you make your own meals, you control how much sugar, fat and salt gets added to a dish. By starting with mostly healthy ingredients, like fresh veggies and minimally processed grains, your meal will most likely be healthier than if you ate out. Restaurant meals are often much larger than a normal serving and are often loaded with sugar, salt, and fat. When you do eat out, you’ll never fully know how much has been added to a meal, but aim to have more veggies on your plate and foods that are baked, not fried.
  • Watch out for gimmicks: Many foods labeled “healthy” or “natural” might in fact be heavily processed. Why? The FDA doesn’t strictly police how brands can use these words on their packaging, so you could be thinking you’re making a smart choice when, in fact, it’s not as healthy as you think.
  • Learn to read labels: You can get around gimmicky packaging by understanding how to read food labels. You can start by looking at how much sodium and added sugar a food has. That’s often your first clue that a food is more processed. Most adults should limit sodium to less than 2,300 mg per day. For sugar, aim for less than 100 calories (or 24 grams) per day for women and less than 150 calories (36 grams) for men. For those with diabetes, you should always check with your healthcare professional to make sure you have the right targets for you.
  • Look at the ingredient list: Beyond just reading labels, look at the ingredients in packaged foods. Anything ending in -ose is a dead giveaway for sugars like fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose, etc. Those are all sneaky names for added sugar.  

Key takeaways

Many foods are processed these days, but you can aim to consume more minimally processed foods (focus on fruits and veggies, fresh or frozen) instead of ultraprocessed foods high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. By adjusting your diet in this way, you will be in a better position to lower your blood sugar levels, important if you have diabetes and better for the rest of us aiming to reduce the risk of developing insulin resistance and diabetes. 

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