Processed Foods: Good or Bad?

Processed foods are found just about everywhere. And it is easy to get confused about which foods are processed and which are not. After all, they are somehow addicting, more flavorful and we want quick—we want fast, whatever it is—these days. But the question is: are processed foods good for us—and your kidney?

What are processed foods?

The National Health Service in the United Kingdom defines the term “processed food” as “any food that has been altered in some way during preparation.” Such ways of being altered could be as basic as freezing, canning, baking, or drying.

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What do we know so far? Processed foods are any food that has been altered in some way during preparation. They could be frozen, canned, baked, or dried.

You must take note that while not every processed foods are unhealthy, majority of these contain high levels of salt, sugar, and fat which are all bad for your kidney. The National Health Service goes on to list the commonly consumed processed foods:

  • breakfast cereals, such as bran flakes, sugar-frosted cornflakes, and granola
  • cheese such as Colby cheese, cheddar cheese, and Swiss cheese
  • tinned or canned vegetables
  • white bread
  • savory snacks, such as crisps, sausage rolls, pies and pasties
  • meat products, such as bacon, sausage, ham, salami and paté
  • “convenience foods”, such as microwave meals or ready meals
  • cakes and biscuits
  • drinks, such as milk or soft drinks
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Dr. Robert H. Lustig, M.S.L. of the Division of Endocrinology of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) wrote, in his book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease (Hudson Street Press):

“Processed food is high in calories, sugar, fat, salt, and caffeine. It is highly processed, energy dense, and specifically designed to be highly palatable. The majority of the fiber and a portion of the vitamins and minerals present in the original food have been extracted in processing. Sugar, salt, and other additives are used to boost flavor. The end product is packaged and sold conveniently to deliver the contents” (2013).

Why are they bad for you?

Bad news: Scientific studies have revealed that processed foods are bad for those who have Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). It is recommended that CKD patients either limit or altogether avoid their consumption of these types of food.

What do we know so far? Processed foods should either be avoided or eaten in moderation by CKD patients, according to recent scientific studies.

Dealing with stress and CKD

The National Kidney Foundation actually lists down the consumption of processed foods as the third most common habits that may harm our kidneys.

Processed foods are significant sources of sodium and phosphorus. Many people who have kidney disease need to limit phosphorus in their diets. Some studies have shown that high phosphorus intake from processed foods in people without kidney disease may be harmful to their kidneys and bones. Try adopting the DASH diet to guide your healthy eating habits.

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As mentioned earlier, processed foods contain high content of salt. And when there is high salt, there is high sodium which can increase blood pressure. We all know this can harm your kidneys. Dietitians recommend flavoring foods with natural and fresh herbs, lemon juice, or other spices as an alternative to salt. Instead of eating high-sodium processed foods such as regular canned vegetables, canned meat or hot dogs, packages noodles or rice, frozen vegetables, or canned soup, try these low-sodium alternatives listed below:

  • Salt-free seasonings

  • Low-sodium canned foods

  • Fresh, cooked meat

  • Plain rice without sauce

  • Plain noodles without sauce

  • Fresh vegetables without sauce

  • Home-made soup with fresh ingredients

  • Reduced-sodium tomato sauce

  • Unsalted pretzels

  • Unsalted popcorn

Dr. Lustig, also an endocrinologist from the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF), further asserts in his book Fat Chance: “Processed foods of many sorts contribute more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day to the average American diet. Salt is one method by which the food industry can preserve foods and increase their shelf life. So salt and calories almost always go together.”

Meaning: more salt, more calories, more risk for your kidneys.

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Sugar found on these types of food, on the other hand, contributes to weight gain which in turn increases the risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes. It really pays to be critical in the nutrition label of the products you buy from the grocery or convenience store.

What do we know so far? Processed foods contain high levels of sugar which contributes to weight gain and increases risk of high blood pressure and diabetes.

Also, much of processed foods are meat. Animal protein produces high amounts of acid in the blood that can be harmful to the kidneys and cause acidosis, an illness in which malfunctioning kidneys cannot eliminate acid from the body fast enough. Although protein may be needed for growth and repair, your kidney-friendly diet moreover should be well balanced with fruits and vegetables.

Eating processed meats, too, has been found to have direct link with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, pulmonary diseases, and yes, even stomach cancer.

What do we know so far? Processed foods, especially canned or preserved meats, increases risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, pulmonary diseases, and stomach cancer.

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Renal dietitians recommend that instead of animal protein from ground beef, shrimp, salmon, tuna, chicken breast, roasted chicken, or their processed versions, plant protein (from beans, nuts, or whole grains) or these lower-protein alternatives may be more preferable:

  • Chili con carne
  • Beef stew
  • Egg substitutes
  • Tofu
  • Imitation crab meat

You can find more CKD-friendly recipes, track your nutrient intake, and other food guides here from the American Kidney Fund. 

Cliché as it sounds, moderation is key. But cutting down or utterly avoiding processed foods just might be one of the healthiest things you can do.


Sources:

Eating Processed Foods │National Health Service – UK: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/what-are-processed-foods/

10 Common Habits That May Harm Your Kidneys │National Kidney Foundation: https://www.kidney.org/content/10-common-habits-that-may-harm-your-kidneys 

Nutrition for Advanced Chronic Kidney Disease in Adults │National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/kidney-disease/chronic-kidney-disease-ckd/eating-nutrition/nutrition-advanced-chronic-kidney-disease-adults 

Sodium and phosphorus-based food additives: persistent but surmountable hurdles in the management of nutrition in chronic kidney disease │US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3582990/  

Red and processed meat consumption and risk of incident coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis │US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20479151   

Processed meat consumption, dietary nitrosamines and stomach cancer risk in a cohort of Swedish women │US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18400725   

Consumption of cured meats and prospective risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in women │US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18400725    

Kidney-friendly diet for CKD │American Kidney Fund: https://www.kidneyfund.org/kidney-disease/chronic-kidney-disease-ckd/kidney-friendly-diet-for-ckd.html#kidney_friendly_diet    

Lustig, R.H. 2013. Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com.ph/