In recent times, processed foods have received a bad name, especially since the explosion of available convenience products, for being the culprit behind our country's disease epidemic. The truth is that not all processed foods are created equal so we cannot throw them all in the same boat (or basket, in this case). Processed foods can be placed on a continuum. In the wide range of available processed foods, some foods innocently lie on the minimally processed end while others cunningly creep into the highly processed end.
We want to take a moment and give minimally processed foods some credit. Healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts, can be found in minimally processed forms. For example, roasted nuts, sliced apples, frozen spinach, whole grain bread, or dried apricots are, in principle, processed foods. However, because their nutritional properties are retained and aren't far from their natural, raw state, they can be considered minimally processed.
On the other end of the spectrum lie highly processed foods, which make up a large part of the Western diet. From crackers and deli meat to frozen dinners and microwavable meals, these foods are processed at high temperatures and are often loaded with chemicals called oral advanced glycation endproducts (AGE's).
Current diabetes research has found that AGE's are linked to insulin resistance and diabetes. It appears that these chemicals deplete the body's antioxidant defenses, some of which fight against insulin resistance.
Two groups of mice were fed the same amount of calories and fat. One group received a diet rich in AGE's. Another group was not fed any AGE's. Mice that were fed AGE's developed insulin resistance and gained extra body fat. The other group did not develop any of the conditions found in the AGE-fed group.
AGE's are known to increase appetite, which can lead to overeating and obesity. Excessive eating exposes the body to more oxidants and inflammation. As the body experiences more pressure and stress from this oxidation, cells that are supposed to produce or respond to insulin are weakened or injured.
In order to steer clear of toxic AGE's, select whole, natural foods or foods with natural ingredients. Reduce intake of foods with artificial ingredients. Use healthy cooking methods such as steaming, stewing, and boiling instead of buying ready-to-eat frozen meals that are packed with artificial chemicals.
Cai W, Ramdas M, Zhu L, Chen X, Striker GE, Vlassara H. Oral advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs) promote insulin resistance and diabetes by depleting the antioxidant defenses AGE receptor-1 and sirtuin 1. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Aug 20.
J Am Diet Assoc. 2010 June; 110(6): 911–16.e12. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2010.03.018