Are processed foods making you diabetic?

Author: Laura Vasquez, MSN, APRN, NP-C

Highly processed foods such as chips, crackers, cereal, condiments, lunch meats, frozen and fast foods continue to permeate our lives. They are lurking in your pantry, refrigerator, and school cafeterias. Today processed foods comprise 75% of the grocery store shelves. Processed foods have become part of Americans’ daily diet decisions and Americans are choosing these foods at an alarming rate over natural, whole foods. Most people have become accustomed to eating a diet full of heavily processed foods with very few foods in their natural state. These foods are affordable, convenient, strongly flavored, competitively advertised, and lucrative for large corporations in the food industry.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), processed food is defined as any raw agricultural commodity that has been subject to washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging or other procedures that alter the food from its natural state. This may include the addition of other ingredients to the food, such as preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives or substances approved for use in food products, such as salt, sugars, and fats.

By definition, this would categorize a large majority of consumers’ food choices as falling under the processed food umbrella. It is no secret that with the advent of processed foods, people have consumed more calories, chemicals, and less nutrient-dense foods in the last several decades. The effects of these artificial foods have negatively impacted overall health in multiple ways. The consumption of these foods can be linked to increasing chronic diseases such as obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, dyslipidemia, and diabetes.
The Journal of the American Medical Association published an observational prospective study in 2019 in which 104,707 participants who were an average of 47 years old tracked and recorded their foods for a 10 year period in order to analyze the association between ultra-processed foods and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Ultra-processed foods are foods such as soda, frozen meals, cakes, fast foods, hot dogs, and many others. The conclusion of the study showed that the absolute amount of ultra-processed food consumption (grams per day) was consistently correlated with type two diabetes risks even after adjusting for unprocessed or minimally processed food intake as well.

Why would processed foods make you a metabolic mess?

These foods are often higher on the glycemic index. The glycemic index is a scale that ranks carbohydrates on a scale of 0-100 according to how much your blood sugar will rise after consuming. The higher number on the scale then the larger the blood sugar spike. The human body was not equipped to process large amounts of glucose day after day and processed foods are often devoid of fiber. Fiber helps to slow the blood glucose spike by allowing our body to digest slower as it processes the fiber. Let’s look closer at the relationship between glucose and insulin.

There are many feedback systems in the body in order to maintain homeostasis (a state of balance). The relationship between glucose and insulin is one of these important feedback systems. Glucose is the preferred fuel source for our cells providing our brain, liver, muscles, and all metabolic functions with enough energy to perform minute to massive tasks each day. Once glucose levels begin to rise insulin is released from our pancreatic cells to transport the glucose molecules out of the bloodstream and into cells where they are used for metabolic needs.

However, when glucose levels continue to remain high in our blood stream due to the overconsumption of large meals of elevated amounts of sugars and fats from processed foods; insulin begins to have a hard time keeping up. The pancreas is not able to keep up with the demand for insulin. The supply and demand are skewed which leads to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance results from the inability of the cells to uptake glucose quickly and use it effectively. This excess glucose is turned into stored fat. Excessive insulin also stimulates appetite and weight gain leading to a vicious cycle of eating, storing, burning out, and weight gain. When this delicate balance is disrupted there is marked metabolic dysfunction in the body which can consequently and eventually result in a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is the inability to regulate blood glucose levels. Elevated glucose in the bloodstream causes inflammation and destruction in the body, especially to the vascular endothelium. Diabetes is closely associated with heart disease, hypertension, renal failure, retinopathy, and a host of secondary diseases from uncontrolled glucose levels.

The Centers for Disease Control released the National Diabetes Statistics Report 2020. In 2018, 34.2 million Americans (just over 1 in 10) have a diagnosis of diabetes. Approximately 1 in 3 or 88 million have prediabetes based on hemoglobin A1C (3 month blood glucose average) or fasting glucose levels. Of those people diagnosed with diabetes, 89.0% were overweight or had obesity, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 kg/m2 or higher. As the population continues to consume processed foods at a staggering rate, the incidence of obesity and diabetes continues to rise. There are no coincidences only correlations when you make the connections.

Tips for avoiding processed foods and reducing your risk for Type 2 diabetes

Consume foods in their natural state.

Shop on the perimeter of the grocery store
Avoid the inside aisles.

Read labels!
Choose foods that are minimally processed with only 1-2 added ingredients.

Reduce frequency of eating out
Or choose dishes with whole foods such as salads, broth-based soups and protein with vegetables with the sauce on the side.

Make your own salad dressings
Use spices and herbs for seasoning instead of bottled marinades.

Pack your children’s lunches
Keep it fun with a variety of finger foods such as fruit, sprouted grain bread with avocado spread, nut butters, hard boiled eggs, flaxseed muffin bites, homemade dips with cut up veggies.

Maintain a healthy body weight
Through daily activity and healthy portion sizes consisting primarily of whole foods. The plate should have 50% vegetables combined with a moderate amount of protein and healthy fats.

Limit refined grains.
Choose sprouted grains, sweet potatoes and other complex carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables for your carbohydrate intake each day.

Intermittent fasting
Helps eliminate excess fat, reduce inflammation, and control hormones affecting appetite.

Carve out time to cook and meal prep each week.

Although processed foods have become pervasive in our society, equipping consumers with the knowledge to make informed, nutritional decisions can prevent a wide range of metabolic destruction and prevent many chronic diseases. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented with careful consideration and choosing whole, natural foods instead of processed, packaged, and prepared foods. Simpler is better when it comes to nutrition. Cooking can be fun and enjoyable with family and friends. Nothing is more important than how you fuel your body and in turn prevent disease. Take back your kitchen and take back your health!

References:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020,February, 11th). National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/diabetes-stat-report.html
Srour B, Fezeu LK, Kesse-Guyot E, et al. Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Among Participants of the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort. JAMA Intern Med. 2020;180(2):283–291. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.5942