ICYMI: A new study published by the journal BMJ Open dropped a serious truth-bomb earlier this month: 58 percent of the food Americans eat is considered “ultra-processed” (a.k.a. loaded with sugars, oils, and funky chemicals you can’t pronounce.)
Just because you’re not chowing down on orange-as-hell cheese puffs and candy bars, doesn’t mean you’re off the hook, either. “Technically, any food that’s not straight from the tree or the ground is processed,” says Keri Glassman, R.D. If an ingredient list includes preservatives, artificial ingredients, or added sugar (just to name a few), you better believe it doesn’t qualify as “clean eats.”
That means your average breakfast cereal, the bread in your pantry, and even your afternoon protein bar—all processed. Since we know ditching diet sodamakes your bod super happy, we wondered: Could we all benefit from purging processed foods from our life, too? Here’s what might go down in the first few days…and further down the road.
IN THE FIRST FEW DAYS
“Ingredients in processed food like MSG, nitrates, and nitrites often cause migraines,” says Tanya Zuckerbot, R.D., CEO and author of the F-Factor Diet. Eating something that contains one of these ingredients—like a hot dog or even lunch meat—could trigger misery within 20 minutes.
Your bedtime snack could be seriously messing with your sleep. “Processed carbs like cookies, pretzels, and ice cream spike your blood sugar,” says Zuckerbot. That’s a problem when your blood sugar then crashes in the middle of the night, waking you up, and signaling that you need a midnight snack.
Another sleep-stealer is sodium. Salty foods like chips and snack mixes can dehydrate you enough that you’ll wake up thirsty.
“A diet high in processed foods might cause anything from bloating to gas to diarrhea,” says Glassman. Fun! While sodium makes you retain water and feel puffy AF, artificial ingredients can be hard for our bodies to break down, hence the gas and poo problems.
“When you swap out processed food for whole foods, you’ll take in more fiber,” says Zuckerbot. Fiber not only keeps you fuller longer, but it helps to flush toxins out of your system—gifting you with a more regular bathroom routine
A MONTH IN
Your skin’s two biggest enemies are sugar and inflammation. “Sugar and refined carbs cause your body to produce insulin,” says Zuckerbot. This little bugger of a hormone can lead to excess oil production and with it, breakouts. Swapping packaged snacks for fruits and veggies (yay antioxidants!) fights signs of aging like wrinkles and dark spots, she says.
When your bod gets stuck in a vicious cycle of sugar highs and crashes, fatigue becomes normal. You eat a donut or sugary cereal for breakfast at 9 a.m., and you’re starving and cranky by 10 a.m.
“Swap that donut for Greek yogurt with fruit, and the protein and fiber will satisfy you for longer,” says Zuckerbot. Plus, since your body processes those nutrients more slowly than carbs and sugar, you won’t have that jitters-to-zombie-mode problem.
IN THE LONG RUN
This might seem like a no-brainer, but in case you had doubts: A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine monitored the diets of more than 120,000 Americans over the course of two decades and found that people who consumed chips, sugary drinks, and processed meat on the reg were most likely to gain weight.
“Whole foods have more nutrients and fewer calories,” says Zuckerbot. Plus, when you cut down on processed foods, your daily carb intake will likely go down, too. If your body’s not burning carbs for fuel, it burns fat instead, she says.
Kicking factory-made foods to the curb might help manage creaky joints. “The chemicals in processed foods are linked to inflammation in your cells which can flair up joint pain or arthritis,” says Glassman. When your diet no longer catapults your body into this defensive state, your achy knee should bug you less.
When you replace processed foods with whole foods—especially those containing prebiotics and probiotics, like yogurt and produce—you take in more nutrients and antioxidants that boost your immune system, says Zuckerbot. Adios, annoying colds.