11 reasons to ditch processed foods

Processed foods hide some dirty secrets. Here's how to avoid them.
© Prevention // © Prevention

Your wallet

The facts: Processed foods may seem like a deal in terms of convenience, but when you break down the cost, it's generally cheaper—and way healthier—to make those same foods from scratch. For instance, a popular brand's microwave bowl of chili costs $3.39 and includes harmful bisphenol A, fake food dye, and industrial meat raised using antibiotics, as well as other questionable additives.

Healthy tip: You can whip up a batch of gourmet, 100-percent-organic chili from scratch using fresh ingredients, including omega-3-rich, heart-healthy grass-fed beef, for about $2.86 per serving. Cheaper, tastier, organic, and healthier!

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Cereal crimes?

The facts: Breakfast bombshell: Residues of more than 70 pesticides have been found in individual boxes of cereal. Why? Many pesticides today, particularly the go-to chemical applied to genetically engineered crops, are systemic. That means the chemicals wind up inside of the food you're eating.

Healthy tip: Beware of "natural" cereals. Testing by the Cornucopia Institute found that "natural" cereals are often contaminated with crop pesticides, warehouse fumigation chemicals, and genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). Choose organic if you truly want to avoid toxic chemicals in your food.

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2 of 12 Cereal (Lagerwall/Getty Images)

Shorter lifespan

The facts: Letting your kitchen go dormant in favor of relying on processed foods could shave years off of your life. A 2012 study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that people who cooked at home at least five times a week were 47 more likely to be alive after 10 years than the people who relied more on processed foods.

Healthy tip: To get your feet wet cooking fresh, seasonal ingredients, consider joining a vegetable community-supported agriculture program. Farmers often share recipes, cooking tips, and sometimes even hold cooking demonstrations to teach you the healthiest ways to prep the food they grow. Try a half share if you're afraid you won't have enough time to cook a larger share of the bounty.

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Accelerated aging

The facts: Your face could start resembling crinkle-cut chips if you turn to munching processed foods on a regular basis. Research shows both the phosphates and the genetically engineered ingredients often added to processed foods promote aging.

Healthy tip: Instead of processed foods, choose fare that actually promotes younger-looking skin, including alkaline-forming foods like kale, parsley, almonds, pears, and lemons. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as pastured eggs, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, and walnuts, also help hydrate your skin, reducing wrinkles. Tomatoes help fight damaging sunburns, reduce skin roughness, and boost collagen.

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Hidden kidney killers

The facts: Flavored noodle mixes, processed meats, packaged mac and cheese, soda, frozen dinners, other processed foods, and fast food are notorious for containing questionable levels of phosphate-laden ingredients that could promote kidney deterioration and weaker bones.

Healthy tip: If you're in a pinch and do reach for processed foods, avoid ones with ingredients like "sodium phosphate," "calcium phosphate," and "phosphoric acid," or anything with "phos-" in the word.

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5 of 12 Macaroni and cheese (Heather Winters/Getty Images)

Relentless hunger

The facts: Added sugars, specifically fructose from table sugar and the high-fructose corn syrup found in most processed foods, block the hormonal signal that tells your brain it's time to stop eating, according to obesity research by Robert Lustig, MD, a pediatric neuroendocrinologist at the University of California–San Francisco. The result? Never-ending hunger that leaves you fatter yet feeling unsatisfied.

Healthy tip: According to the American Heart Association, we down about 22 teaspoons of sugar a day; that's about 25 pounds more than people consumed annually just a few decades ago. Watch out for surprising hidden sources of added sugars, such as bread, crackers, bottled tea, frozen dinners, and sauces and marinades.

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6 of 12 Minute-rice (John Rensten/Getty Images)

Low-fat fraud

The facts: Since the low-fat fad began, Americans have become fatter and sicker. One reason? Low-fat dairy products are stripped of conjugated linoleic acid, a healthy fat shown to fight weight gain and cancer. Added sugar often takes the place of fat, making you feel hungry and unsatisfied.

Healthy tip: Know your fats. Industrial fats like partially hydrogenated oils are dangerous, but fat from organic, grass-fed animal products like yogurt actually benefit your heart and brain.

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Colorful lies

The facts: Processed foods—even pickles, cake mixes, and "healthy" juices—often contain food dyes that make food appear fresher than it really is, in essence, tricking you, the consumer. Some berry juices contain 0 percent fruit juice, relying solely on artificial coloring. The problem? Some food dyes are tied to serious health problems like ADHD, asthma, allergies, and cancer.

Healthy tip: Stick with organic foods, since organic standards ban the use of artificial food dyes, so organics are colored with food sources like turmeric and beets. Better yet, try your hand at making your own homemade pickles and other kitchen staples to avoid harmful additives.

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Junky tendencies

The facts: Added sugar is the not-so-sweet trick the makers of processed foods use to get you hooked. In 2005, Princeton researchers found that eating sugar triggers the release of opioids, neurotransmitters that light up your brain's pleasure center. Addictive drugs like morphine and heroin stimulate those same pleasure pathways. Scary fact? After 21 days on a high-sugar diet, you could start showing signs of withdrawal—chattering teeth, anxiety, and depression—when sugar is taken away.

Healthy tip: Don't replace a healthy breakfast like low-sugar organic oatmeal with a sugary coffee drink.

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Airway assault

The facts: Kids who eat fast food two to three times a week face a significantly higher risk of developing asthma, possibly due to the processed foods' ability to create inflammation in the body. The trans fats and sugar common in fast-food menu items trigger inflammation, an unhealthy condition tied to asthma.

Healthy tip: Skip the drive-thru and eat fruits and vegetables at least three times a week, a move that research found was associated with lower rates of asthma.

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10 of 12 A boy eating fast food (Silvestre Machado/Getty Images)