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Odds are, you’ve consumed some processed foods today. Be it breakfast cereal, lunch meat, cheese and crackers, or a full-on frozen meal, manipulated packaged foods are commonplace in American culture.

“Processed food” refers to a rather wide range of consumable items. Technically, even the pre-cut butternut squash I bought this week qualifies. But I didn’t lose out on the nutritional value just because someone else cut it up for me. The chief offenders of processed foods are those that are chemically, rather than mechanically, processed. They’re made “from refined ingredients and artificial substances” and are not the touchstone of a healthy or balanced diet.

The question then is, what do we lose out on when we reach for foods altered from their natural state? Here are three troubling things that happen to your body when you eat (highly) processed foods.

01. You Eat More Than You Need to

Our bodies crave food high in fats, sugar, and salt, because these “foods contain energy and nutrients that we need for survival.” The urban jungle, however, is not a true wilderness. Food companies know that we crave these things, so they give us what we want. The problem is, food products can trigger a reward response in our brains that means our bodies have a tough time determining when enough is enough. Nutrition researcher Kris Gunnars, founder of Authority Nutrition, writes, “We have complicated mechanisms in our bodies and brains that are supposed to regulate energy balance (how much we eat and how much we burn)—which, until very recently in evolutionary history, worked to keep us at a healthy weight. There is quite a lot of evidence that the reward value of foods can bypass the innate defense mechanism and make us start eating much more than we need, so much that it starts to compromise our health.”

02. You Burn Less Than You Could

A critical element in deciding what you eat is how your body is going to use it. “On average, a person uses about 10 percent of their daily energy expenditure digesting and absorbing food, but this percentage changes depending on the type of food you eat," according to Precision Nutrition. In a study comparing sandwiches made of more or less processed foods, people burned twice as many calories when consuming less processed cheese and bread. Much of the fiber in whole food is eliminated in the steps it takes to turn into something else, so it requires less energy for our bodies to process it. When we rely on highly processed foods, we take in more of the unhealthy stuff and use less of it up, simply by consuming it. In the same study, subjects didn’t even think the more processed food tasted better. So why bother?

03. You Hinder Your Body from Functioning Properly

Good nutrition isn’t about weight or looking a certain way; it’s about giving your body a steady supply of what it needs to function properly. When you take in more prebiotics (undigestible fibers like leafy greens and peas) and probiotics (live bacteria like yogurt and cheese cultures), your immune system works better. When you minimize inflammatory foods such as sugar (which is in everything), you have more energy and healthier skin. Too much salt (also in everything) can dehydrate you to the point that it interrupts your sleep, causing headaches and fatigue.

Avoiding processed foods doesn’t mean you need to start homesteading or even that you’d better learn to emulsify your own mayonnaise. As with anything health- and wellness-related, it’s about moderation, balance, and awareness of what you’re putting into your body. Does buying eggs already hard-boiled and peeled mean you’re going to eat a more nutrient-rich breakfast than you would have otherwise? Is adding pre-rinsed spinach to a smoothie a game changer in your energy levels throughout the day? Keep things like these, canned beans and legumes, and frozen fruit and veggies on your grocery list, but skip the processed goods masquerading as "healthy" food. Your body will thank you.

Photo Credit: Brooke Lark