Is Processed Food Driving Us Crazy?

By Isabella Brady

Processed foods comprise approximately 70% of the average American’s diet—that’s an average intake of 1750 to 2520 calories per day. However, several ongoing studies have indicated that a mere 400 (or 20% of) calories of processed food each day is harmful, linked to severe and early onset cognitive decline. 

Composed primarily of saturated fats, carbohydrates, and sugars, processed foods often require little time to be fully broken down by the enzymes present in the gastrointestinal tract. Without complex proteins and nutrients which require extended time to be processed, people often feel a rapid (and short-lived) spike of energy shortly after eating. This reflects what processed foods are reduced to: sugar. In response to the sugar present, the human body automatically produces insulin and stress hormones in order to maintain homeostasis (a sense of equilibrium or healthy balance within the body). Therefore, with the release of such chemicals, spiked blood sugar creates inflammation throughout the body. Over time, the frequency and repetition of inflammation can cause permanent damage.

400 calories isn’t a lot—to put it into perspective, that’s approximately 20 potato chips, or, for Starbucks lovers, one pumpkin spice latte (380 calories). But what is considered ‘processed’? While many scientists hold varying definitions for processed foods, it is commonly something that can’t be made at home or a food which undergoes two or more industrial processes to reach its final form. Such foods often contain sugars, starch, fats, oils, preservatives and artificial flavors, colorings or emulsifiers to satisfy a longer shelf life and desired taste. Often, a quick glance over the ingredients list will give you your answer. In general, it is best to avoid frozen foods and sweetened beverages, cereals or snacks. 

Processed foods are already linked to diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. The new correlation to dementia, established through multiple decade-long human trials exacerbates the risk. Ways to mitigate the risk are to eat super foods (cacao, spinach, pumpkin seeds etc.) and berries, leafy greens and fish, which fight memory loss. While processed foods may be delicious, they can also be deadly—make sure to keep track of processed calories and indulge in whole foods to enable a healthy lifestyle that can last a lifetime.