This is what happens to your body when you eat instant ramen

When you ponder the health content of ramen noodles, buzz words like "sodium" and "refined carbohydrates" probably come to mind. But do you know how those things actually affect your body?

It’s no secret that a package of instant ramen noodles is a guilty-pleasure meal for many. Whether it’s an absolute last-resort option when there’s nothing else in your pantry, or you find yourself cooking it up every time you need a quick meal, you’ve probably succumbed to the salty, slurpy goodness on more than one occasion. And while you know it’s far from a health food, do you know what it actually does to your body?

There are a couple different things that make ramen an unhealthy choice. There’s not much to these provision packets besides salt and carbohydrates. While those certainly get thrown around quite a bit as “bad-for-you” buzzwords, you may not know how they actually harm your body. Firstly, there’s the fact that most instant ramen servings contain over 1100 milligrams of sodium—that’s approaching half of the maximum you should eat per day. When you ingest that much sodium in a single sitting, your body overcompensates by retaining more water. This can cause temporary water weight gain, leaving you feeling bloated and lethargic.

RELATED: Low-sodium substitutes to consider 

10 Low-Sodium Substitutes
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10 Low-Sodium Substitutes

Soy and Teriyaki Sauce and Miso Paste Substitute

When a dish calls for soy, fish, oyster, or any other Asian-inspired sauce, look no further than your friend molasses. When combined with unseasoned rice-wine vinegar and other seasonings, the molasses mixture provides a satisfying replacement for marinades, mixes, and even teriyaki sauce.

Credit: Sodium Girl

Bread Substitute

According to the CDC, bread is one of the top sodium culprits, clocking around 80 milligrams to 230 milligrams of sodium per slice. Although no-salt-added bread does exist, use this as an excuse to think outside of the breadbox. Wrap your next sandwich in corn tortillas, strong leafy greens, or large cabbage leaves.

Credit: Sodium Girl

Milk Substitute

Most milk products — hemp and soy included — can contain upward of 100 milligrams of sodium per cup.That may fit within most people’s dietary limits, but it can also add up throughout the day. If you’re looking for a lower-sodium switch, coconut milk (now in cartons!) works well for cereal, curries, and even your morning cup of joe.

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Mayonnaise Substitute

Mayonnaise contains more than 100 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon. Try these substitutions; Soy-based yogurt, sodium-free silken tofu and hemp seed oil-based mayonnaise. Blend with spices to pack some extra flavor.

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Canned Broth & Stock Substitute

When a recipe calls for this high-sodium ingredient, put down the can and whip up some quick mushroom broth. After only 30 minutes of boiling these fungi, dried or fresh, you’ll end up with an earthy broth that’s full of natural umami flavor (not salt).

Credit: Sodium Girl

Olive Substitute

When your next pasta, Greek salad, or cheese plate calls for the tang of olives, look no further than baked grapes or pickled cherries to take their place. Sure, they’re not salty and they aren’t olives, but they’ll add a fun and unexpected twist to traditional olive-rich dishes.

Credit: Sodium Girl

Parmesan Substitute

Take a page from vegan friends and get your hands on nutritional yeast, often sold in flake or powder form. Sprinkle it on popcorn, mix it into this year’s Thanksgiving mash, or knead it right into homemade pizza dough for a familiar zesty kick.

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Tomato Sauce Substitute

There’s good news and great news. The good news: no-salt-added tomato sauce exists and there are many brands to choose from, including cans of puréed pumpkin or sweet potato that add flavor to homemade pasta and pizza sauces. The even better news? It’s very easy to give these sauces some spice with your own herbs and seasonings.

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White Sauce Substitute

When you’re looking for a cheese sauce without all the butter, cream, and sodium, try puréed cauliflower instead. It pairs well with macaroni, pizza, and spoons.

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Want to take a look at some of our top recommended low-sodium recipes? Click through and select your favorite to test out.

Seared Scallops with Crispy Leeks

Herb-crusted scallops served with crispy baked leeks make an easy yet impressive dish to serve to friends. You may have seen “frizzled” or fried leeks on a restaurant menu before, but you might not guess how easy they are to make at home. Here we toss thinly sliced leeks with paprika- and garlic-seasoned flour and bake them until crispy.

Get the Recipe: Seared Scallops with Crispy Leeks

Vegetarian Taco Salad

Nobody will miss the meat in this colorful, zesty vegetarian taco salad. The rice and bean mixture can be made ahead and the salad quickly assembled at mealtime.

Get the Recipe: Vegetarian Taco Salad

Slow-Cooked Provencal Beef Stew

The flavors in a slow-cooked beef stew improve as it sits for a day or two, so it is a perfect make-ahead for a dinner party. Buy nicely marbled meat, such as chuck, for this recipe.

Get the Recipe: Slow-Cooked Provencal Beef Stew

Salmon with Pepita-Lime Butter

Lime juice, chili powder and pepitas give this salmon Mexican flair. Serve with wild rice and steamed vegetables.

Get the Recipe: Salmon with Pepita-Lime Butter

Quick Chicken Cordon Bleu

To make traditional cordon bleu, you layer prosciutto (or other ham) and cheese in between thin slices of chicken or veal, then bread and sauté the whole stack. This quick, easy version keeps the flavors the same, but skips the fussy layering and breading steps.

Get the Recipe: Quick Chicken Cordon Bleu


But while you may feel bloated, chances are you won’t feel full. Since the ramen contains lots of refined carbohydrates with virtually no protein or fiber, it’s essentially the very definition of empty calories. And you’ve probably heard the song-and-dance about refined carbs; eating too much can lead your blood sugar to spike and then dip, leaving you hungry and ready to eat again—which leads to weight gain. Find out what happens to your body right after drinking soda, too.

And, perhaps most disconcerting of all, this quick-and-easy meal may stay with you much longer than you realize. Massachusetts General Hospital’s Dr. Braden Kuo captured visual evidence of this in 2012 when he used a pill-sized camera to record the digestive tracts of volunteers who ate processed ramen noodles as well as fresh ones. He published his results in a literally stomach-churning video. Dr. Kuo was able to show that, after two hours when the fresh noodles were long gone, the ramen noodles were still almost entirely intact in the intestines. While it’s not clear what, if any, downside there is to the findings, the results are startling.

RELATED: Nutritious swaps to give a go 

Nutritious swaps to try in the kitchen
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Nutritious swaps to try in the kitchen
1) Swap squash or zucchini for noodles

"Do you ever make smart swaps? You know, instead of whole milk you use almond milk or in baking, you sometimes substitute granulated sugar for applesauce? Well, lately I've been on the smart swap kick myself. Lately, I've been making a lot of noodles made from zucchini, or squash!" - Dana, This Silly Girl's Kitchen

"I am sharing a recipe for one of my favorite zucchini noodle dishes, Zucchini Noodle Primavera! I thought since Primavera was already a dish loaded with veggies, why not just take it to the next level! And you know what, it's even better than the original if I do say so myself! I was inspired to start trying out some smart swaps after I saw these SmartMade meals in the freezer section at various grocery stores." - Dana, This Silly Girl's Kitchen

2) Prepare cauliflower rice
"I do best with smart eating when I take small steps like no pasta during the week...I make pasta and rice for the kiddos but I always have zucchini noodles or cauliflower rice in the fridge for myself.That step alone makes a huge difference for me and it’s not hard to do." - Karen, Seasonal Cravings
"I don't always have time to make meals like this during the week since I am often playing chauffeur to my kids.  On those nights, I look to SmartMade to make eating smart easy. SmartMade is a new line of frozen meals that uses smart swaps like this one to create delicious, balanced dinners that can be ready in minutes. I love having meals like this in the freezer that I can cook quickly on busy weeknights. These are meals made like I cook." - Karen, Seasonal Cravings
3) Make a weekly dinner menu with healthy swaps

"There are two ways I know of to combat the surprise need to order take-out mid-week: 1) make a weekly dinner menu and stick with it, or 2) have a few fast, easy, and nutritious meals up your sleeve for those crazy-busy nights that inevitably come up. And it’s a total bonus if those meals simulate your favorite take-out!" - Faith, An Edible Mosaic

"I made a few smart swaps that help make this meal as nutritious as it is delicious. Here I used quinoa instead of rice because even though they have about the same calories per serving, quinoa has more protein and fiber, as well as more vitamins and minerals like B vitamins and iron than rice. I think quinoa tastes just as good as rice, so that was an easy swap for me to make." - Faith, An Edible Mosaic
4) Substitute quinoa in fried rice
"Part of being dietitians means we are always looking for creative swaps for our favorite foods that may not be quite as nutritious.  So when our friends at SmartMade contacted us about creating our own healthy recipe using a "smart swap," we jumped at the chance to turn a traditional fried (white) rice into a yummy vegetable quinoa delight." - Wendy, Food Heaven Made Easy
"You'll be happy to know that this vegetable quinoa fried rice is even more flavorful than its traditional counterpart. Top that off with the fact that this dish actually nutritious -- really nutritious -- and you would be missing out big time if you do not to give this goodie a chance." - Wendy, Food Heaven Made Easy
5) Reach for the spaghetti squash
"Chicken parm is usually served on/with pasta but I've swapped that for some yummy, healthy spaghetti squash. How cool is this vegetable?! So crazy that its fibers are in long strands like spaghetti!...If you're trying to eat a low-carb diet or consume less calories then make this swap in your next spaghetti recipe." - Melanie, Garnish & Glaze
"Maybe your life is super busy and hectic and you need a healthy meal fast. SmartMade is a new line of frozen meals that would be a great choice. It's your favorite dishes but made with better ingredients to offer a balanced and delicious meal. They are meals that are inspired by the same healthy cooking techniques you already use like grilling chicken and roasting vegetables." - Melanie, Garnish & Glaze
6) Create custom bowls with healthy ingredients
"This magical bulgogi is far from authentic, but I love how the ground chicken absorbs the flavor of the soy-based sauce, which is equal parts sweet, savory and tangy. Combined with the coconut cauliflower rice, crunchy fresh veggies, and a dollop of gochujang or sambal oelek for heat, these bowls are a satisfying, nutrient-packed feast that you’ll want to keep in regular rotation." - Serena, Domesticate Me
"I know this bowl seems to have a lot going on, but it’s actually pretty easy to pull off. I’m talking 30 minutes from start to finish if you’re committed. As always, feel free to customize your bowls based on what you have on hand. Ground chicken could just as easily be 93% lean ground turkey, pork, lean beef, or firm tofu. Sub shredded or grated coconut for flaked. Throw in whatever fresh veggies happen to be hanging out in your fridge." - Serena, Domesticate Me
7) Go Greek
"I love the way SmartMade meals swap things out for more nutritious alternatives. So I SWAPPED out the heavy cream for a cup and a half of Greek yogurt in this recipe! While the swap made a change to the overall texture of the dish, I am happy to report it maintained its full flavor." - Jennifer, Tatertots & Jello
"Recently we found SmartMade meals at the store. They're fun frozen meals that feature smart ingredients. For instance, white pasta is swapped out for whole wheat and white bean puree is used instead of heavy cream." - Jennifer, Tatertots & Jello
8) Turn to cashew milk for heaps of flavor
"When we were asked by SmartMade to come up with a Smart Swap (i.e. an idea to replace a common ingredient with a more nutritious one,), we decided to create this Quick Cashew Chickpea Curry recipe, which is DELICIOUS, but also completely vegan. This recipe has no butter or ghee, and uses cashew milk rather than the normal heavy cream or yogurt for its distinctive flavor and creamy texture." - Sarah, The Woks of Life
"This Quick Cashew Chickpea Curry is everything. It’s spicy, filling, and has a hint of coconut. Thick, ever so slightly sweet cashew milk gives the dish that distinctive creaminess that you’re looking for in a great curry, without the dairy. Oh, and the leftovers are awesome, making for great weeknight dinners or daytime lunches." - Sarah, The Woks of Life
9) Forget about meat when you have mushrooms

"You can make this mushroom Bolognese recipe for a casual weeknight meal, or for when you’re watching your wallet or your waistline, without having to compromise any flavor." - Phoebe, Feed Me Phoebe

"This mirepoix technique is great for meat sauces. But it’s even more essential for a flavorful vegetarian Bolognese, which cooks up in a fifth of the time... You can easily use this smart swap for topping gluten-free pasta. But I love it ladled over a creamy bowl of polenta, which is made rich and buttery by using only full fat coconut milk." - Phoebe, Feed Me Phoebe 

10) Mash cauliflower as a hearty potato replacement
"One of my favorite things to do lately has been to swap cauliflower mash for mashed potatoes whenever possible. Don't get me wrong, I love potatoes but cauliflower has significantly less calories than potatoes. So naturally, a cauliflower mash will definitely give you more bang for your buck if you’re looking to cut down on your calorie intake."
- Amanda, The Skinny Fork
"I love that this recipe (like a lot of my others) is made with real ingredients that anyone can pronounce. That's always how I like to eat! Clean and lean. If you're like me and you enjoy smart swap style meals, then you'll love SmartMade too!" - Amanda, The Skinny Fork

Doctors do know that years of eating the instant packets are linked to poor health. Another study, this one by the Harvard School of Public Health, assessed the long-term consequences of ramen consumption in South Korea, where it’s a major meal staple. They found that subjects, women in particular, who ate instant noodles at least twice a week had a 68 percent higher risk of metabolic syndrome—a combination of symptoms that raise the risk of diabetes and heart disease—than subjects who ate a more consistently natural diet.

In short, eating ramen once in a while won’t wreck your health—as is true with most processed foods. But it’s not something you should make a habit of—for your stomach and heart’s sake. Next, find out the 50 foods nutritionists never, ever eat.

RELATED: Hearty stews to give a try 

Hearty winter soups and stews
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Hearty winter soups and stews

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