We all know what highly processed foods are. Just look at the ingredient label on most snacks and prepared foods. The list of ingredients is long and confusing. That’s a hint right there. The more ingredients, the worse for you it is. The ingredients, whether naturally derived from food (like modified starch) or synthesized in laboratories, make these foods very palatable. We know they are not healthy for us, but scientists are discovering it’s not just the high sodium and fat. These are the least of the problems. The processing makes them calorie dense while also removing many of the nutrients, fiber, and vitamins.
The findings suggest that these foods disturb our gut microbiome and in turn may heighten the risk of over-eating and chronic disease. Your gut microbiome consists of trillions of diverse bacteria that live in your intestines and colon. Most of the bacteria in our gut are good for us, they aid in digestion and help regulate our immune system. Studies on mice fed different diets indicate that mice fed a low fiber, high fat diet have a less diverse and much lower count microbiome than mice eating a high fiber, high fat diet. The good bacteria are getting lost with high processed food diets.
Emulsifiers like polysorbate 80 make many processed foods stay together and have a long shelf life. They keep ice cream from crystallizing and salad dressing from separating. The studies indicate that emulsifiers can cause inflammation and inflammatory disease like colitis in genetically predisposed mice. The microbiome sees the emulsifiers as toxic. Even in mice not predisposed to disease, they develop low grade inflammation and obesity. Refined sugar and carbohydrates feed the bad bacteria in our guts and cause it to bloom, pushing out the good bacteria.
Processed foods are harmful to us for what they lack, but also for what is added to them. Most of these foods contain little or no fiber. Soluble, as well as some insoluble, fibers are processed by our gut bacteria which produces short chain fatty acids that feed the good bacteria. They also help with insulin production and manage Type 2 diabetes. Bacteria lacking in fiber will eat away the mucous layer in the intestinal tract, opening a path for pathogens to enter the intestine and cause infection. There is also indication that starving the microbiome by removing fiber and adding sugar and emulsifiers prevents you from feeling full, which leads to overeating.
So let’s try to eat more fiber and less processed foods. Of course, we all eat these foods but let’s make that occasionally instead of regularly. Check labels and try for foods with 5 or fewer ingredients. Reach for nuts instead of chips. Have a salad but make your own dressing!
KATHLEEN WEAVER-ZECH & DEAN’S TEAM CHICAGO