If you’re focused on achieving a healthier diet, it can be difficult to choose with so many different fads and advice. But whether you’re considering a vegan diet, paleo, or gluten-free, there is one thing that most experts agree upon: we need to eat less processed foods. So what exactly are processed foods, and what is their impact on our health? Keep reading to learn more and how you can reduce your consumption of processed foods.
What Counts as Processed Food?
Technically speaking, much of the food available at grocery stores falls under the category of “processed” category, which has been altered during preparation to make it more convenient, last longer, or add more flavor. So, for example, a bag of pre-cut salad would technically count as processed; however, it’s minimally processed because its natural state hasn’t been changed. On the flip side, a box of macaroni and cheese would count as ultra-processed because it’s been chemically altered with artificial flavors, additives, and other ingredients. So minimally processed foods such as canned tomatoes or tuna are less of a health concern than heavily and ultra-processed foods such as crackers, chips, cake mixes, and hot dogs.
A good way to determine if a food item is heavily processed is to read the ingredients label. Typically, the longer the ingredient list, the more processed the food is. And, if many of the ingredients are hard-to-pronounce chemicals rather than real food, you’re looking at heavily processed food.
The Impact of Processed Food on Our Health
So what’s so wrong with eating processed food? For starters, we eat too much of it. In the US, over half the calories in the average person’s diet come from ultra-processed foods.
Additionally, there are several downsides to maintaining a diet that is heavy on ultra-processed foods, including:
- A lack of nutritional value. Heavy processing strips many foods of their basic nutrients, which means you’re eating empty calories. This is food that is highly caloric but doesn’t offer your body any of the minerals or vitamins it needs to be healthy.
- Increased cancer risk. A five-year study of more than 100,000 people found a 12 percent higher risk for cancer for every 10 percent increase in the consumption of ultra-processed food. While the study didn’t find that ultra-processed foods cause cancer, it does seem to hint at their potential adverse effects on our bodies.
- Highly caloric and addicting. It’s easy to overindulge in ultra-processed foods because they’re so high in calories. For example, you could indulge in one Oreo cookie for 50 calories or enjoy an entire cup of green beans for only 44 calories. Additionally, research has shown that sugar can give us a short-term “high” by stimulating our brain’s dopamine center, which makes us crave that food more and more.
- High in sugar, fat, and sodium. Ultra-processed foods often include unhealthy amounts of added sodium, fat, and sugar to improve flavor, but too much of these ingredients can lead to serious health issues like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
- Easier to gain weight. Processed foods are easier for our bodies to digest, which means it expends less energy (read: calories) doing so. It’s estimated we burn half as many calories digesting processed foods compared to unprocessed foods. This, combined with the high caloric nature of ultra-processed foods, means it’s easy for us to put on weight when munching on them.
How to Consume Fewer Processed Foods
While eliminating processed foods from our diets would be virtually impossible and cut into fun gatherings at restaurants and other events, there are ways to significantly reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods.
- Cook more meals at home. You have more control over what goes into your meals when you’re the chef, which means you can make healthier choices at home. Consider making large batches of meals to freeze and eat later if you’re short on time and can’t cook every day.
- Read labels. We mentioned earlier that examining the ingredient list of a food product can be a telltale sign of whether it’s ultra-processed or not. Get into the habit of reading food labels rather than relying on marketing, which can often be misleading.
- Start slowly. It’s okay to replace a few highly processed foods at a time with more minimally processed choices if it feels more manageable and sustainable. In fact, going slow, rather than completely changing your diet all at once, may help you stick with those changes long-term.
- Stick to certain aisles at the store. In many grocery stores, the interior aisles are the ones packed with ultra-processed foods, while the exterior ones tend to be where the fresh food, dairy, and produce are. Try to avoid the interior aisles to minimize temptation and discover all the fresher options that are available.
Processed Foods Aren’t Part of a Balanced Diet
When it comes to eating healthy, steering clear of highly processed foods is always a smart choice. From increased health risks to a lack of nutritional value to being highly caloric and addictive, ultra-processed foods can have a negative impact on your health and body. Fortunately, by leveraging strategies such as reading ingredient labels and cooking more meals at home, you can find ways to minimize the consumption of processed food.
If you’d like professional guidance on minimizing processed foods in your diet and pursuing an overall healthier lifestyle, schedule a time to chat with us. Our certified nutrition coaches are ready to create a customized plan to help you achieve your goals.