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If you’re looking for that really great reason to quit processed foods, there’s actually quite a few to choose from.

Processed foods are … well … processed … in order to make them last longer on the shelf, taste better, produced cheaper, and sold at lower prices. What does this mean for you, the consumer? The “real food” part of these processed “food” products has generally been drastically minimized and replaced with sugar, sodium, trans fats, and artificial ingredients such as preservatives, artificial coloring, and artificial flavors.

If consumed over a long period of time, these man-made chemically-based ingredients can lead to all sorts of havoc with your body including blood sugar spikes, inflammation, damage to your gut, as well as massive damage to your heart.

Given that “cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the main cause of death worldwide, representing one-third of all deaths globally,” seeking ways to limit heart-damaging habits is a great place to start on a journey to better overall health. When it comes to the relationship between heart health and processed foods, it’s not stipulation but hard facts and science. Studies published by trusted institutions including Harvard, the American Heart Association, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation all warn against consuming processed foods due to the stress it causes to your heart.

Let’s take a deep dive into the relationship between cardiovascular health and processed food!

Processed Food 101

Identifying processed food comes down to understanding how the government actually defines this food product. It’s the best way for us, the consumer, to know what’s in the product!

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines processed food 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 description could mean additional chemical ingredients such as “preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives or substances … such as salt, sugars, and fats,” but it could also refer to those pre-cut broccoli florets or spiralized zucchini noodles.

It’s much easier to pick and choose food items when you understand the different levels of processed food. This begins with safe minimally processed food, — such as “bagged spinach, cut vegetables, and roasted nuts” — and spans to the most heavily processed foods — such as “frozen or pre-made meals, including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners,” foods that have added ingredients to boost flavor and texture such as “jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes,” and ready-to-eat foods, such as “crackers, chips, and deli meat.”

What’s the easy way to figure this out?

Minimally processed foods are usually processed to make your life a little easier in regards to eating healthy, while heavily processed foods are created to last unnaturally long on the shelf and increase your desire for the product.

How Processed Foods Damage Your Heart

These studies don’t prove that eating junk food explains the findings. But ultra-processed foods aren’t just full of fat, sugar, salt, and calories. They’re also low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals that help prevent heart disease. Preservatives and other additives in ultra-processed foods might also contribute to weight gain, prediabetes, and inflammation, all of which are hard on the heart.

1. Sugar

Making the top of the list is sugar. Specifically, refined sugar found in most processed foods.

While there are many sources of natural sugar — such as in “fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and even nuts and seeds” — refined sugar comes from the mind of man. This natural sugar is “extracted to produce the refined sugar currently so abundant in the food supply,” such as table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). While both table sugar and HFCS are found in processed foods, the most commonly used is the most highly processed called HFCS 55, “which contains 55 [percent] fructose and 42 [percent] glucose — another kind of sugar.”

Recent years and lots of studies have unraveled the dangers of consuming too much sugar.

Regular consumption of refined sugar has been linked to “obesity and excess belly fat, a risk factor for conditions like diabetes and heart disease,” as well as “a high risk of type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia, liver disease, and certain types of cancer.” In particular, as mentioned, a variety of studies has associated “diets high in added sugars with increased heart disease risk. ”

Yet, it’s not as easy as simply looking at the label because refined sugar goes by many, many different names including “maltose, brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, honey, and fruit juice concentrate.” With that said, as of July 2018, manufacturers are required to not only indicate how much overall sugar is in a processed product, but also how many grams of said overall sugar is added sugar. These added sugars are the ones you really want to look out for!

2. Trans Fats

One of the vilest and most dangerous ingredients that has historically been found in processed foods are trans-fatty acids or trans fats. Trans fats are “a form of unsaturated fat” that is found in “both natural and artificial forms.”

Naturally occurring trans fats are found in the “meat and dairy from ruminant animals, such as cattle, sheep, and goats” and are formed “when bacteria in these animals’ stomachs digest grass.” While these naturally occurring trans fats have not been found to be harmful, it’s best to keep consumption on the lower end for optimal health.

The same can’t be said for man-made or “artificial” trans fats. These should always be avoided!

Artificial trans fats — “otherwise known as industrial trans fats or partially hydrogenated fats” — have been highly studied and are found to be “hazardous to your health.” These are created “when vegetable oils are chemically altered to stay solid at room temperature, which gives them a much longer shelf life” via a process called hydrogenation. This process changes the natural chemical makeup of polyunsaturated fats causing them to become unstable. When introduced to heat, these unstable fats actually create trans fats.

Why are trans fats so bad? There’s ample scientific evidence that trans fats harm your heart.

Overall, artificial trans fats “increase your risk of heart disease” by increasing the risk factors associated with the condition. First and foremost, they have the ability to “raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and [lower] your HDL (good) cholesterol.” Consuming trans fats has been found to “significantly [increase] your ratio of total to HDL (good) cholesterol and negatively affects lipoproteins, both of which are important risk factors for heart disease.”

At this point, you may be reaching into the recesses of your memories remembering that trans fats have actually been banned. This both true and untrue.

Manufacturers have been asked to work towards eliminating trans fats from their products, which is very different from a total ban on the ingredient. If a product “has less than 0.5 [grams] of trans fat, manufacturers can still claim it has [zero] grams of trans fats.” This means, even if you read the label of a processed product and it says “no trans fat” it can actually still contain trans fats.

3. Salt

Yes, our bodies need sodium to properly function. This mineral is essential for the “function of our nerves and muscles and in balancing bodily fluids.”

With that said, too much sodium consumption — a health issue associated with a diet high in processed foods — leads to a variety of health conditions. Too much sodium builds up in our bodies, especially our kidneys, and leads to hypertension — or high blood pressure — which is linked to a series of health conditions including “coronary artery disease, an enlarged heart, aneurysms, strokes, dementia or cognitive impairment” and may even lead to heart failure.

The problem comes down to the fact that salt — sodium — is one of the best preservatives next to sugar, meaning processed foods generally like to use a lot of this ingredient. On top of that, Americans also like to add extra salt to their food, increasing our daily sodium intake above recommended standards of 2,300 mg a day.

4. Sodium Nitrate

You’re probably aware that nitrites and nitrates — additives that are “used as colorants and to preserve the shelf life of processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, sausage, and lunchmeat” — are linked to cancer. These preservatives “mix with your stomach acid” and actually “form cancer-causing cells that have been associated with oral, stomach, brain, and bladder cancers.”

With that said, did you know that sodium nitrate is also connected with an increased risk of heart disease?

Studies have found that “sodium nitrate may damage your blood vessels, making your arteries more likely to harden and narrow, leading to heart disease.” It’s also been found that nitrates can “affect the way your body uses sugar, making you more likely to develop diabetes.”

With that said, as is similar to most chemical-based foods, more studies are needed to determine the true detrimental health effects of this ingredient.

5. Refined Grains and Carbohydrates

While whole grains are a great healthy addition to a plant-based diet as they’re linked to “lower weight gain over time,” reduced blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and “may improve blood vessel function and reduce hunger,” refined grains and carbohydrates found in processed foods actually have the opposite effect.

What are refined grains and carbs?

These include some of your favorite processed food staples including “white bread, white rice, low-fiber breakfast cereals, sweets and sugars, and other refined or processed carbohydrates.” There are a few different levels of refined grains and carb unhealthiness that make this ingredient dangerous for your heart.

First off, these foods fall under the “highly processed” category which destroys “the food’s natural structure” and removes all those healthy goodies that your body needs such as “dietary fiber, minerals, phytochemicals, and fatty acids.” On top of that, this ingredient has also been shown to “produce much higher spikes in blood sugar.” Secondly, the whole “processing” part of refined grains and carbs actually adds in those other unhealthy, heart-damaging ingredients that you want to avoid “particularly trans fats, sodium, and sugars.”

Kicking Processed Foods from Your Diet

Processed foods are so integrated into the Standard American Diet that transitioning to a processed food free life is oftentimes drastic and can even cause periods of withdrawal. Instead of going cold turkey, it’s a great idea to find healthy, real-food, plant-based replacements that look, feel, and somewhat taste like those old processed foods you crave. Here are a few swaps that will make your transition to a heart-healthy diet much easier!

1. White Flour Foods

Raw Chocolate Zucchini Bread

Source: Raw Chocolate Zucchini Bread

This may be one of the most difficult of the processed foods to kick, yet it’s also one of the easiest to replace! White flour foods cover a broad range of products including most pasta, bread, white rice, and pastries.

Yet, these also fall under the empty calorie, high sugar category as well.

Basically, you’re ingesting food that satiates for a short period of time, causing your blood sugar to spike, leaving you feeling both tired and still hungry. These foods are also generally stripped of the natural nutrients that our bodies need from food including “dietary fiber, minerals, phytochemicals, and fatty acids.” This leads to overeating and higher risks of a variety of health issues including damage to your poor overworked heart.

Finding complementary substitutes for your favorite white flour foods is actually quite easy!

Let’s start with white rice. Simply sub out that white rice with brown rice! Brown rice is actually filled with nutrients including fiber, protein, vitamin B3, B6, and B5, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, manganese, and is one of the few natural sources of selenium. This nutritious sub has been linked to lower weights and has been found as a hugely beneficial food to decrease the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Plus, if you’re not a fan of plain old rice — which you can spice up such as in this Coconut Brown Rice Bowl With Avocado Cream Dressing — you can find brown rice substitutes for your favorite pasta — such as in this Brown Rice Noodles and Bolognese recipe — pizza crust — such as in this Brown Rice Pizza Crust recipe — sweet treats — such as in this Matcha Crispy Rice Treats recipe — or even your favorite burger — such as in this Spicy Lentil Rice Burgers recipe.

And this is just one of the great swap out ingredients!

Other heart-healthy, plant-based swaps including buckwheat groats, — Fermented Buckwheat Bread — steel-cut oats, — Mushroom Steel Cut Oatmeal Risotto — millet, — Oil-Free Breakfast Casserole With Hash Brown Crust — quinoa, — Raw Chocolate Zucchini Bread — and whole-grain, sprouted grain bread, or nut and seed bread — Food for Life Ezekiel 4:9 Organic Original Sprouted Bread or this No-Knead Nut and Seed Bread. When it comes to baking, it’s as simple as swapping out white flour for one that you prefer that also meets the density requirements of the recipe, such as buckwheat and almond for dense bread and coconut flour for lighter pastry or cookie recipes.

If you’re really looking to ditch grains altogether, you’re still in luck!

Try using veggies as swaps for some of your favorite flour-based recipes including spiralized squash — such as this Beet Noodles with Cauliflower Sauce, this Zucchini Noodle Japchae, or this Sweet Potato Noodles with Kale and Walnut Sage Sauce.

2. Soda

Fresh Apple Cinnamon Juice

Source: Fresh Apple Cinnamon Juice

Sugar, sugar, sugar!

If you’re looking to make an immediate change in your health, simply cut out all of your soda consumption. A single 12-ounce can of big brand sodas contain close to your daily intake of sugar which is around 50 grams — as recommended by the Food and Drug Administration. For example, Sprite contains 38 grams of sugar, Dr. Pepper contains 41 grams of sugar, and Mountain Dew contains 46 grams of sugar. As we talked about refined sugar consumption has been linked to many health issues including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, just to mention a few.

When it comes to finding replacements, the plant-based world has your back!

Looking for a soda replacement? Try relying solely on that natural sweetness of fresh fruit such as in this Fresh Apple Cinnamon Juice, this Raw Turmeric Ginger Smoothie, this Saffron Pear Ice Tea, or this Pineapple Strawberry Agua Fresca.

How about other sugar in your diet? If you cut out soda, then you’ll be craving sugar elsewhere. Be prepared with some great low sugar swap options.

You can choose to go as natural as you want and simply supplement sugary treat with your choice of fruit. While fruit does have a higher sugar content, it’s packaged alongside dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals, all of which slow the digestion of sugar, which helps you avoid that nasty blood sugar spike that leads to increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Try a few of these fruit-based, low-sugar treats to hold you over: Rainbow Gelato Cakes, Baked Plantain Chips, or these Kiwi Spinach Popsicles.

With that said, you can also turn to plant-based sweeteners such as monk fruit, stevia, and maple syrup. Monk fruit and stevia have both been shown to have minimal to zero effect on your blood sugar. While maple syrup definitely has an effect on your blood sugar, it’s also packed with other vitamins and minerals that act similarly to raw fruit.

Here are a few sweetener-based recipes for inspiration: Pineapple Ice Lollies, Berry Cocktail, 3-Ingredient Berry Cereal, or this Probiotic Berry Smoothie.

3. Processed Meats

vegan haute dogs

Source: Meat-Free Haute Dogs

We’ve all heard about the downsides of consuming meat, but what is it about processed meat that makes it particularly bad?

Turns out … a lot.

First off, processed meat is “meat that has been preserved by curing, salting, smoking, drying, or canning,” which includes some Standard American diet staples such as sausages, hot dogs, salami, ham, cured bacon, corned beef, smoked meat, dried meat, beef jerky, and canned meat.

There have been many studies performed on processed meat that “consistently find strong links between processed meat consumption and various chronic diseases.” In particular, the consumption of processed meat has been linked to chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bowel cancer, stomach cancer, and heart disease.

The relationship between chronic disease and processed meats is two-fold.

First, it’s been found that those who consume more processed meats generally have unhealthy lifestyle habits. There are studies that have shown that “people who eat processed meat are more likely to get these diseases, but they can not prove that the processed meat caused them.” Secondly, “processed meat contains harmful chemical compounds that may increase the risk of chronic disease.”

Luckily, there are quite a few yummy plant-based alternatives if you’re trying to kick processed meats such as this Vegan Breakfast Sausage Patties, Meat-Free Haute Dogs, Homemade Italian Spicy Sausage, Baked Smoky Carrot Bacon, Tofu Bacon, Portobello Bacon, or this Rice Paper Ham Deli Slices.

4. Margarine

Garlicky Chive Blossom Butter

Source: Garlicky Chive Blossom Butter

If you didn’t grow up with a form of margarine in your fridge, then you’re one of the lucky kids out there! While margarine was definitely tasty, it turns out that this butter substitute is one of the worst things to consume in regards to heart health.

Margarine is a “processed food that is designed to taste and look similar to butter … made from vegetable oils, which contain polyunsaturated fats.” Unfortunately, to make margarine solid — like butter — it is processed using hydrogenation, which destabilizes those polyunsaturated fats, making them unhealthy for consumption. How so? Turns out that “hydrogenation increases the oil’s saturated fat content, but unhealthy trans fats are formed as a side product.” On top of that, margarine may also “contain several food additives, including emulsifiers and colorants.”

To avoid margarine, yet find that perfect substitute, try making your own butter such as this Homemade Butter, this Coconut Butter, this Palm-Oil Free, Soy-Free Butter, this Garlicky Chive Blossom Butter, or you can even go sweet with this tasty Homemade Cocoa-Coconut Butter or Pumpkin Butter.

5. Condiments 

Homemade Smoky Tomato Ketchup

Source: Homemade Smoky Tomato Ketchup

Condiments may be one of the most surprisingly processed foods for many people. You may think that ketchup is simply tomatoes with a bit of sugar, so it can’t be that bad for you. Well, since sugar “can be disguised under many names such as high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, dextrose, fructose, honey, maltose, and glucose,” that bit of sugar in your ketchup adds up pretty fast!  One tablespoon of Heinze Ketchup has a whopping 4 grams of sugar. This goes for almost all of your favorite processed condiments including French’s Honey Mustard, — one teaspoon has more than one gram of sugar — Mission Medium Chunky Salsa — two tablespoons has two grams of sugar — and Bull’s Eye Original BBQ Sauce — two tablespoons has an incredible 12 grams of sugar.

Instead of choosing premade condiments from the shelf, simply pick up a few ingredients and make your own at home! This gives you total control over sugar content, flavor, texture, and creativity. For instance, in lieu of sugar-rich Sriracha try this Whiskey Hot Sauce or this Raw Hot Sauce. Kick that raw egg-based Mayonaise for this healthy vegan variety Macadamia Mayonaise or this Cashew Mayonaise. If you’re craving some good old fashioned ketchup and mustard, try this How to Make Healthy, Organic, Homemade Ketchup, this Homemade Smoky Tomato Ketchup, or this Spicy Honey Mustard.

We also highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App  — with over 15,000 delicious recipes it is the largest meatless, vegan, plant-based and allergy-friendly recipe resource to help you get healthy! And, don’t forget to check out our Popular Trends Archives!

For those of you interested in eating more plant-based, we highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App — with over 15,000 delicious recipes. It is the largest plant-based recipe resource to help reduce your environmental footprint, save animals and get healthy! And, while you are at it, we encourage you to also learn about the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.

Here are some great resources to get you started:

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