Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about processed versus unprocessed foods.
You know, like when people talk about eating “whole” foods that weren’t made in a factory.
(Ironically, the store called “Whole Foods” sells a TON of processed foods, maybe even more than other grocery stores.)
Here’s why I think this matters:
Overall, when we avoid over-processed foods, we avoid most of the harmful things, as in the stuff that makes people fat and sick.
Today I’ll share with you why processed foods are bad for our health, what foods to avoid, and how you can use this knowledge to improve your health and the health of your family.
I’ll also share some recent personal experiences about how eating whole foods makes time-restricted eating (a.k.a. intermittent fasting) easier.
Let’s get started.
What Do I Mean by “Unprocessed” Foods?
Basically, things that are pretty close to their original form, and that your ancestors from 500 years ago could recognize as food.
If it had to be crushed up and mixed together in a factory, it probably doesn’t qualify.
If it comes in a box, that’s a really bad sign.
It’s not always obvious though, and to be honest I’m still sorting out some of the trickier cases.
In case it helps, I’ll share several more examples of both processed and unprocessed foods in the rest of this article.
Examples of Unprocessed Foods
Here are some examples of “whole” foods:
Vegetables, fruits (not juice!), legumes, nuts, seeds, meat, fish, eggs, and whole-fat dairy.
That may sound like a short list, but it encompasses several categories, and many different foods!
(I would also add that cold-pressed coconut oil and extra-virgin olive oil are much healthier and less-refined than other vegetable oils. More on that below.)
Processed Foods: The Worst Offenders
There are two main categories of processed food that I consider the most harmful, because they cause or contribute to nearly every chronic disease.
Do your best to avoid these as often as possible.
Processed Carbs (The Worst)
I believe the MOST harmful thing in our diets, by far, is when we eat refined sugar and other refined carbohydrates.
Here’s what I’m referring to:
Things like white bread, cereal*, pasta*, tortillas*, crackers, potato products (chips, fries, etc), white rice, juice, soda, candy, desserts, and so on.
(*There may be exceptions, but most of the time these products are made from highly refined flour, and in the case of cereal have lots of added sugar.)
This is the single biggest category that makes people fat and sick.
Why Are Refined Carbs Bad?
Every time you eat processed carbs, you get a spike in your blood sugar, followed by a spike of insulin.
Here’s a video showing specific examples of blood sugar spikes after eating processed carbs, which pushed an otherwise healthy woman into the “diabetic range”:
Keep in mind, when her blood sugar went up, so did her insulin.
Insulin promotes fat storage, but that’s not even the worst part. If your insulin goes up often enough, after a while it stays high.
When your insulin becomes persistently high, your body stops responding to it as effectively, and you have something called “insulin resistance”. Recent research points to insulin resistance as a root cause of almost every chronic disease.
That includes not only type 2 diabetes, but also things like heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, kidney failure, liver failure, dementia, cancer, migraines, infertility (e.g. PCOS), and more.
That’s quite a list, and it could go on further!
Juice Deserves a Special Mention
There’s a lot of confusion out there about juice. Allow me to set the record straight:
It’s not good for you.
Fruit by itself can be a healthy choice. It has some sugar in it, but because it’s trapped in a “food matrix” and surrounded by fiber, it doesn’t get absorbed as fast.
In contrast, when you squeeze out the juice, the sugar is now floating free, and gets absorbed very quickly into your bloodstream! Not to mention, it usually takes multiple pieces of fruit to make a cup of juice, so you’re getting a higher total amount of sugar.
The modest amount of nutrients you can get from juice definitely don’t make up for the sugar content!
The bottom line?
Fruit is much better for you whole. Juice is basically just a fancy way to drink sugar.
(Blended fruit isn’t quite as bad as juice, since it retains some of the fiber and other components. But you’re still much better off eating the original fruit than putting it in a smoothie!)
Refined Vegetable and Seed Oils (2nd Worst Offender)
Another really harmful category of processed food is refined vegetable / seed oils.
This includes things like corn oil, canola oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and various others.
Why are these oils a problem?
They’re typically produced at high heat, and the polyunsaturated fats in them easily become oxidized. At that point, they become toxic and extremely harmful to your health, and contribute to all the same diseases mentioned above.
Not only are these types of oils in nearly every processed food, but restaurants almost always use them for deep-frying things like french fries.
The deep-frying heats and reheats the oil, which produces even more harmful byproducts, including various carcinogens.
Refined vegetable oils are simply bad news.
The Junk Food Formula
If you start reading the ingredients on packaged foods, you’ll notice a common formula:
Sugar + refined flour + refined vegetable oil = artificial crap
Anything with all three of those ingredients is the epitome of junk food. Anything with two of those ingredients gets honorable mention.
My 6-Week Experiment With Unprocessed Food
Currently, I’m trying a six-week commitment to not eating any processed foods. As I write this, I’m about two weeks in.
So far, here are some of my observations.
Eating unprocessed “whole” food makes intermittent fasting easier
One thing I’ve already noticed is that when I eat unprocessed “whole” foods, it makes time-restricted eating (a.k.a. Intermittent fasting) quite easy. In other words, they keep me full for a long time, so I don’t get hungry as often.
When you eat something with refined sugar / carbs, it spikes your insulin and blood sugar, and then you come crashing down. Not only does that make you feel sluggish, it also makes you get hungry sooner rather than later–from the blood sugar drop.
(By the way, that’s the main premise of Always Hungry?, one of my top recommended books about nutrition and fasting.)
If you’re experimenting with time-restricted eating, you’ll probably find things go more smoothly when you stick with whole, unprocessed foods.
Steadier Energy, Fewer Cravings, and Less Fat Storage
I think eating whole foods helps me maintain steadier energy levels throughout the day. Probably because I don’t get wild blood sugar swings.
I also don’t get as many cravings, probably because unprocessed foods keep me full and satisfied longer.
As a bonus, my insulin level stays lower than if I were eating refined carbs, which means I won’t store as much body fat.
What Can You Do With This Information?
Okay, so now you know a bit more about processed food. How can you use this information to help yourself, and the people around you?
Evaluate Your Home
Take a look at what’s in your kitchen. How much of it is processed stuff that was made in a factory? How much of it is “real food” that our distant ancestors would recognize?
If you have a lot of processed junk in your home, see if you can gradually start replacing it with legit food.
You may go through some withdrawals when you start switching over. So take it slowly if you need to, one little change at a time. 🙂
Consider Your Family
Overall, it’s relatively easy to make this change as an individual.
With a family, you may need to make smaller changes, a little bit at a time, so the other people in your household don’t get too bent out of shape. Keep in mind, they’ll be going through junk food withdrawals as well.
It’s certainly a huge service to your kids if you can help them learn to enjoy unprocessed foods!
I recently saw a headline about kids who eat “ultra-processed foods” being more likely to be overweight as adults. And it totally makes sense. It hooks them on sugar, makes them want to eat only hyper-palatable foods, and raises their insulin to abnormally high levels (which promotes body fat storage and other health problems).
If you’re thinking about your kids’ well-being, gradually helping them enjoy more “real” foods (and fewer processed foods) may be one of the best things you can do for their future health!
Processed food is becoming more and more common, and as a society we’re becoming more and more addicted to it.
Processed carbs are likely the biggest single contributor to most chronic diseases. Refined vegetable oils are also a major problem.
By eating unprocessed, whole foods, we can get several benefits.
Not only does eating “real food” lower our risk of most chronic illnesses and make us less likely to get fat, it also makes it easier to practice daily intermittent fasting.
Audit your home, and see what kind of food lives there. If needed, start making some changes.
If you have kids, try to make a gradual shift so they don’t “rebel” as much. In the long run, by helping them learn to enjoy unprocessed food, you’ll be doing them a major service!