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11 Ways Processed Food Is Different from Real Food
What exactly makes processed food unhealthy?
In a new editorial, published today (Jan. 23) in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatrician and longtime childhood-obesity researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, outlined 11 ways in which processed foods differ nutritionally from unprocessed foods.
Moreover, Lustig argued in the editorial, processed foods have harmed Americans in four areas: The foods have increased refined carbohydrate intake, increased rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, harmed the environment, and driven Americans to spend more on health care, Lustig wrote. [10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits]
Processed foods are defined in terms of the food engineering that goes into making the products, Lustig wrote. A processed food meets the seven following criteria, the editorial said: The food is mass-produced, is consistent from batch to batch, is consistent from country to country, uses specialized ingredients, consists of prefrozen macronutrients, stays emulsified (meaning that its fat-based and water-based components stay mixed together, rather than separating), and has a long shelf or freezer life.
But defining processed foods by these engineered properties doesn't reflect the vast nutritional differences between processed and unprocessed foods, Lustig wrote. Read on to learn about what makes processed food different.
Not enough fiberSlide 2 of 23
Not enough fiber
Compared with unprocessed food, processed food has too little fiber, Lustig wrote.
Fiber is important to health because it plays a key role in how food is absorbed in the gut. In the intestines, fiber forms a gelatinous barrier that coats the intestinal walls, according to the editorial.
This barrier slows the absorption of glucose and fructose into the blood, which helps prevent blood sugar levels from spiking. The slow absorption of food gives gut bacteria more time to feed on it, the editorial said. When gut bacteria break down food, the compounds they produce can benefit the body.Slide 3 of 23
Not enough omega-3 fatty acidsSlide 4 of 23
Not enough omega-3 fatty acidsSlide 5 of 23
Too many omega-6 fatty acidsSlide 6 of 23
Too many omega-6 fatty acids
Conversely, processed foods contain too many omega-6 fatty acids, Lustig wrote.
These fatty acids, though similar to omega-3s, are converted in the body to a proinflammatory compound called arachidonic acid.
Lustig noted in the editorial that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet should ideally be one to one; however, the typical U.S. diet has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 25 to one, which favors a proinflammatory state. This inflammation can cause oxidative stress and damage to cells in the body, he wrote.Slide 7 of 23
Not enough micronutrientsSlide 8 of 23