Diabetes Diet: Why Limiting Processed Foods Is A Healthy Choice
One way to help prevent or manage diabetes is limiting our intake of processed foods.
The phrase “processed foods” generally refers to products that are chemically processed, created with heavily refined ingredients, and contain a plethora of artificial additives.
Three Reasons To Limit Processed Foods
Limiting the intake of processed foods aids those with or at risk for diabetes three ways. It helps lower blood sugar levels and body fat, reduces the ingestion of weight-promoting empty calories, and cuts consumption of heart-unhealthy fats.
1. Sugars and Refined Carbs
Processed foods are generally high in sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup, and we know that eating too much sugar can lead to diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
Refined fructose, usually some form of corn syrup, is found in nearly every processed food product. This is a problem since fructose is primarily metabolized by the liver. Consuming too much fructose can overwork and damage our liver—just as imbibing a lot of alcohol can. Further, the liver metabolizes fructose directly into fat that goes immediately into our fat cells, increasing the likelihood of weight gain and obesity.
The simple carbohydrates found in processed foods (e.g., refined grains) can significantly elevate blood glucose. Refined carbs digest quickly and are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream as sugar. This causes glucose spikes, increased insulin levels, and may trigger insulin resistance.
2. Pleasurable Empty Calories
Many processed foods are full of taste bud tickling flavors that strongly stimulate our brain’s reward centers, making it easier for us to over eat. The stimulation can even override our gray matter’s “you’ve eaten enough” signaling mechanism. Some of these products are so rewarding that a craving for them can morph into an addiction.
Fresh, whole foods contain a stew of carbs, fats, fiber, proteins, and water that help us feel full and satisfied. By contrast, many processed food ingredients stimulate the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, so our sense of pleasure is heightened though the body’s nutritional needs are unmet. We tend to reach for brain-gratifying foods repeatedly because of the amplified pleasure dividend.
These same rewarding processed products also take fewer calories to digest. In one study participants burned twice the calories digesting an unprocessed food meal than one made from processed items.
3. Heart Un-healthy Fats
Not only are many processed foods low in fiber and essential nutrients - both necessary for a heart healthy diet - they tend to contain unhealthy fats. Though the FDA has ordered manufacturers to phase out the use of synthetic trans fats, these inflammation promoting fats are still found in processed foods.
Many refined products also contain high levels of omega-6 fats as processed vegetable oils. These PUFAs, or polyunsaturated fats, are chemically unstable and prone to oxidation. Oxidized fats are associated with inflammation and health issues such as atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Setting Limits: Tip
It's not difficult to limit processed foods if you start small. For instance, you might prepare one more meal per week with fresh, whole foods than you currently do. So, if all your meals are now processed-food based, plan and prepare one unprocessed dinner each week. If you already cook from scratch on Saturday and Sunday, add a third fresh meal creation on a weekday.
(NOTE: Minimally processed products such as plain frozen veggies, and grass-fed meats are generally considered healthy food choices.)