What’s the big deal about processed food? Is it really that bad?

For clarity, I consider processed food any food that has been modified from the way that it occurs in nature. A carrot is a whole food. A carrot muffin is a processed food. Even if the muffin is “organic,” low fat, low sugar, and/or gluten free, it’s still a processed food.

The average American’s daily diet consists of about 70% processed food. I find that many women struggle to discern what foods make good choices when labels tell an incomplete or downright deceptive story.

Here are a few things you should know about processed foods so you can decide whether the artificially enhanced taste is worth the trade-off. They do indeed bring invisible baggage with them.

It’s not me, it’s you…

Our love of processed food develops like a bad relationship that we allow to go on for waaaay too long. It weaves itself into our routines. It shows up at just the right time – when we need a quick hit to silence hunger, stress, loneliness, or simply to put off doing something unpleasant. Nothing like a chewy bag of Gummy Bears to take up the time you had reserved for vacuuming.

But these habits are not without costs. Let’s look at four ways your taste for processed food is costing you.

Those Chemicals Though

The store bought treats we eat are not just tasty, they are like miniature chemistry projects. What does it take to give a cookie several months of shelf life? Ask the huge companies that produce them. They make tons and tons of goodies, all looking the same, tasting the same, lasting a super long time, and as cheaply as possible. How do they do it? By using ingredients you would never put in your own food. You wouldn’t need to, much less want to. Do you need your home-made cup cakes to last 6 months? Do you need to make enough to share across  the 6 habitable continents? Doubtful. But if you did, you would need chemical flavors, colors, sweeteners, oils, emulsifiers and other additives. Do you really want all that extra stuff in your food?

The Ghosts of Nutrients Past

Processed foods have little or no nutritional value. By the time the manufacturer pulverizes the ingredients and remolds them into a pleasing shape, taste and color, any naturally occurring vitamins have been stripped out. But, to “fortify” the  product, the producer will replace those vitamins with synthetic vitamins, many of which your body won’t recognize or absorb. Again, you’ll get all the calories, extra chemicals, but no nutrients that your body needs to live long and prosper. This is how it’s possible to be clinically obese and nutritionally starving.

Crack, by any other Name

This may be the most compelling reason to break up with processed food: it is indeed addictive. You may have noticed that processed foods are the ones you crave the most. There’s a reason you like them so much. Manufacturers test and tweak products to ensure every bite is literally blissful. Why? Nothing pleases them more than to hear you say their products are addictive. That’s where the money is. Because processed foods stimulate the pleasure center in your brain, like any addictive drug they will always leave you craving more. You will always struggle to avoid eating more of them than you should. Added sugar, salt and/or fat are all it takes to turn a carrot into a crack pipe.

Read More About the Food Industry’s Role in Obesity Epidemic

Hi-Jacked Taste Buds

The more you eat processed foods the more you prefer the enhanced taste of processed food. By comparison, whole food or natural food won’t taste nearly as good. This is an extreme example, but nonetheless: A person who views pornography will have a distorted view of sex and relationships. A person who eats processed food will have a distorted view of what real food should taste like. If you want to lose weight, eating processed food is a bit like digging a hole with your right hand and simultaneously filling that hole with your left hand. It is self-defeating.

Good Reasons Alone Aren’t Good Enough

Here’s the thing. There are many great reasons to steer away from processed food. But that doesn’t make it easy. When something has woven its way into your daily routine, the breakup process will be challenging. There are two ways to go about it; cold turkey, or a little more gently.

Are you ready to shift immediately to a natural whole food diet? Some people can do it. I found it too difficult. I had underestimated how much my enjoyment of processed food was part of my daily coping patterns. I used processed food the same way a smoker uses a smoke break. I knew quitting my habit “cold turkey” would be too hard for me. My past failures taught me I needed to take it slower. Each time I eliminated a processed food, I had a good substitute in place, one I liked almost as much to help the transition.  A snack that helped me transition off of sugar was a banana with peanut butter or almond butter.

Tips to make it easy on yourself: 

People are creatures of habit. Big changes might sound good, but we aren’t wired for that kind of disruption drama. Choose one change at a time, and built on that. Here’s what I did years ago that got me on the right rack:

  • First, I learned to manage my total calories using MyFitnessPal.
  • Then I began eliminating my problem foods and problem habits one at a time. Sugar, baked goods, crunchy snacks, and ultimately Diet Coke. Your list may be different.
  • I learned what healthy whole foods I loved and built my eating routine around those foods.

These are the practical steps to got me to my target weight and have kept me there for many years. It never felt that hard because there were always good choices that I enjoyed. I emphasize the word practical, because real change is more than just outward and practical in nature. The Lord was working on me from the inside and I know His work in my heart made the outward practical steps possible.

I eat a clean diet now, and really enjoy it. It’s not perfect, and perfection is not my aim. Like the Apostle Paul says, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” (I Cor 6:12) By God’s grace, I’m not dominated by sugar addiction, or the desire to be thin, or to eat perfectly. Any one of those could be again be a snare for me at any time. Grace delivered me, grace keeps me, grace picks me up each time I stumble. He will do the same for you.


At Stop Dieting For Life, we teach you how to turn to the power of Christ to fight and win this very real and very difficult battle.

For further reading check out my books, available on Amazon:

I Once Was Fat but Now I’m Found: Part 1 – First Steps to Food Freedom

I Once Was Fat, but Now I’m Found: Part 2 – Move Over Emotions, Make Room for Truth