Processed foods tend to have a long shelf life, thanks to the added sugar, salt, and preservatives within. If that wasn't bad enough, they're often stripped or void of nutrients. As a result of their less-than-stellar nutritional status, they steal away an opportunity where you could be nourishing your body with whole foods–and may do some damage in its place. "Processed foods can be so dangerous because you end up getting a lot of excess sugar, salt, and added ingredients that most people are not aware of," says Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition.
From weight loss to migraine relief, you can reap the health benefits if you ditch the boxes. Find out how your life will improve, below, and then be sure to avoid these 150 Worst Packaged Foods in America.
"There are a lot of extra calories in processed foods that are just wasteful," says Smith. Every time you break for a snack or sit down to a meal, it's an opportunity to fuel and nourish your body. Processed foods are often lacking in fiber and nutrients that help fill you up, which can lead to overeating later. Opt for whole foods as often as possible to fuel yourself more efficiently.
The key to a dewy complexion lies not in that expensive cream you bought at Sephora, but rather in food choices like your afternoon snack. "Better skin is one of the major benefits of forgoing processed foods. This is especially true for women because our skin is so affected by hormones. A lot of the preservatives and ingredients found in processed foods can often get in the way of clear, healthy skin," says Smith. They're also one of the 20 Foods That Age You 20 Years!
Brighter, Healthier Eyes
Believe or not, but what you put in your mouth can affect whether or not your eyes sparkle. According to the National Eye Institute, the most important foods for supporting eye health are those that are rich in antioxidants like beta carotene and lutein. These peeper-friendly nutrients can be found in whole foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, and spinach.
A nutrient-rich diet not only strengthens your muscles and immunity but also helps fortify your nails. Regularly eating processed foods in place of whole foods can leave your nails feeling and looking brittle. For strong nails, reach for foods high in protein and rich in the vitamin biotin; eggs and almonds are great sources of both. We love these 25 Best Egg Recipes for Weight Loss and think you will, too!
Eating too many processed foods will have you dragging your feet all day. "The body spends a lot of time trying to figure out what's what and then breaking down all these foreign, which can zap your energy. Since our body is not able to do what it should be doing, there is a lot of energy wasted," says Smith.
When you consistently opt for processed snacks, you rob your body of nutrient-rich alternatives. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for healthy hair and rarely found in packaged, processed products. Instead, scout out some walnuts! The healthy fats found in nuts help promote hair strength and sheen, which is why they're marked a "best" in this exclusive list of Best & Worst Foods for Healthy Hair.
If you've been a little extra crabby lately, take a closer look at your diet. "Mood can be affected as a result of eating less processed snacks. All those processed chemicals can affect mood mostly because the foods are not providing your body with adequate nutrition," says Smith. When we eat a balanced diet, our body is given the nutrients it needs to function properly, and we feel more balanced and happy as a result.
Heightened Physical Activity
In case we have to really spell it out for you: When you eat a lot "bad" foods, you just feel sluggish and tired, and the last thing you feel like doing is going for a run. Sugary cereals, cheese-dusted crackers, and instant noodles don't offer your body much fuel to run on thanks to the lack of nutrients. When choosing a snack, go for one higher in fiber, healthy fats and protein, and one that doesn't have a shelf life that's several months long. After your snack, employ The Only Ab Exercise You'll Ever Need to work on flattening your stomach!
Sugar-heavy, trans fat-filled packaged foods not only hinder your weight loss efforts, but they also can also disrupt sleep. The added sugar in many products can keep you wired by spiking blood sugar and making it difficult to wind down for the night. Also, research presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior found that fatty foods may disrupt the normal functioning of neuro-chemicals in your brain responsible for encouraging regular sleep.
Diminished Cellulite Appearance
Although genes play a huge role, you can reduce the appearance of cellulite by keeping your body more toned and lower in fat overall fat. And eating more whole foods and less processed ones can help you do just that! Include as many fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables in your diet as possible, and resist buying grains that are in a boxed mixture (which usually have a lot of added salt and added flavoring). And try to lay off processed meats like deli meat, or at least try to find a more natural version of it. "You want foods that aren't designed to sit on shelves for years and years," says Smith.
Improved Muscle Tone
Ever heard the phrase, "Abs are made in the kitchen?" Well, there's some truth to that. Eating a clean diet that's rich in whole foods and void of processed foods can help you lose weight and reveal those strong muscles you've been sculpting tirelessly at the gym. Furthermore, your body needs protein and healthy fats to help repair and strengthen your muscles in the first place! Not sure what it means to eat clean? Then check out 50 Quick Tips for Eating Clean.
Packaged foods that are high in sugar can lead to spikes and dips in blood sugar. Translation: your cravings are all over the place. If you're able to balance your diet and ditch the junk, you'll be able to better stabilize your blood sugar and keep your wacky cravings under control.
Better Hormonal Balance
While saturated and trans fats should be avoided, regular inclusion of healthy monounsaturated fats can help balance hormones—specifically the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin. According to research published in the British Journal of Nutrition, consuming too many calories from fat and simple sugars can disrupt the proper functioning of the hormones leptin and ghrelin, which can get in the way of your body's ability to regulate weight and metabolism. Eating junk is just one of the 25 Things You're Doing to Slow Your Metabolism!
Healthier Food Cravings
As a result of conquering your junk-food cravings, you'll start to yearn for healthier fare. Yes, really! Once you get into a rhythm of healthy, clean eating, you'll feel so good you won't want those stale chips dangling in the office vending machine. According to a study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, you can alter how your brain reacts to high-calorie and low-calories foods simply by changing your eating habits for the better.
"Eating too many processed foods can also hurt our ability to fight colds and little bugs because you're not getting enough nutrition to fuel the immune system," says Smith. Most fruits and vegetables are chock-full of immune-boosting vitamins and probiotics, which your body requires to build up its defense system. If you're already sick, then find out the 7 Foods That Can Relieve Your Cold Symptoms.
While you may blame your chatty office or rowdy home for your headaches, poor eating habits may be the real culprits. "Some people who have terrible migraines might be able to improve their migraine severity and frequency by eating less boxed goods," says Smith. "A lot of the processed foods are actually triggers for migraines." Yikes!
More Stabilized Blood Sugar
"Someone with elevated blood sugar might notice that their blood sugar is better when eating fewer processed foods that have lots of sneaky sugars in them," says Smith. Balancing your blood sugar can not only help you lose weight but also keep it off!
According to Smith, another benefit you'll likely enjoy from ditching processed food is better digestion. "You can experience things like improved digestion and bowel regularity because typically you'll start eating more fiber [when you include more whole foods in your diet]," says Smith.
When it comes down to it, it's really hard to know exactly what we're putting in our bodies when we're eating out bags and boxes. Often, it's almost impossible to even pronounce the names of some ingredients running down the nutrition label! By cutting out processed foods, you'll develop a better understanding of what exactly (and how much of it) is going into your body.
Improved Brain Health
"From a nutrition perspective, eating more whole foods that are less processed can help to provide more brain healthy nutrients like B vitamins and healthy fats," says Smith. The superstars in the brain food world are rich in healthy fats; think walnuts, wild salmon, and avocados. Try these 10 Foods That Get Your Creative Juices Flowing, too!