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Are processed foods really bad?

Let’s start at the beginning.

Time and again, research shows that those who follow a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods live longer and have a lower risk of developing chronic health conditions than people who consume diets high in ultra-processed foods.

Ok, you probably already know that. Chronic diseases include heart-disease, obesity and type II diabetes. Now, I know as you scroll through this article on your phone, you are thinking 'I do not have to worry about this for a long time...' Well, #realtalk, the time to start changing is now!

What are processed foods?

Food Processing is the process of taking food items and turning them into something else. These transitions can happen via several different physical and chemical processes such as mincing, cooking, canning, liquefaction, pickling, macerating and emulsification.

With me so far?

Why do we need food processing?

Food processing was created to help:

  • Boost the shelf life.

  • Prevent food-contamination.

  • Food storage and Transportation.

  • Turn raw food materials into attractive, marketable products.

Which foods are more processed?

Here's how the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics ranks processed foods from minimally to mostly processed:

  • Minimally processed foods, such as fresh blueberries, cut vegetables and roasted nuts, are simply prepped for convenience.

  • Foods processed at their peak to lock in nutritional quality and freshness include canned tomatoes or tuna, and frozen fruit or vegetables.

  • Foods with ingredients added for flavor and texture, such as sweeteners, spices, oils, colors and preservatives, include jarred pasta sauce, salad dressing, yogurt and cake mixes.

  • Ready-to-eat foods, such as crackers, chips and deli meat, are more heavily processed.

  • The most heavily processed foods often are frozen or premade meals, including frozen pizza and microwaveable dinners.

Minimally processed foods have a place in healthy diets. For example, low-fat milk, whole-grain or wheat breads, precut vegetables and fresh-cut greens are considered processed foods. Keep on keeping on!

So today I want you to think about your current nutrient intake and how many of your daily calories consist of heavily/ultra processed foods (the last 2-3 in the list above). Examples might include:

  • sugary beverages

  • sweet or savory packaged snacks such as chips and cookies

  • sweetened breakfast cereals such as Froot Loops, Trix, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and sweetened oatmeals

  • baking mixes such as stuffing, cake, brownie, and cookie mixes

  • reconstituted meat products such as hot dogs and fish sticks

  • frozen meals such as pizza and TV dinners

  • powdered and packaged instant soups

  • candies and other confectionery

  • packaged breads and buns

  • energy and protein bars and shakes

  • meal replacement shakes and powders meant for weight loss

  • boxed pasta products

  • ice cream, sweetened yogurt, and cocoa mixes

  • margarine and other ultra-processed spreads such as sweetened cream cheese

Does that look like your weekly grocery list?

Heavily processed foods can affect you in numerous ways including:

  1. Too much sugar, sodium and fat. Heavily processed foods often include unhealthy levels of added sugar, sodium and fat. These ingredients make the food we eat taste better, but too much of them leads to serious health issues.

  2. Lower nutritional value of the food due to heavy processing. Heavy processing takes away some of the basic nutritional value of foods, which is why you see marketing that advertises 'fortified with fiber! vitamins and minerals!'

  3. Calorie dense and addicting. It’s very easy to overindulge in unhealthy food and consume more calories than we realize. Processed foods like Oreos are designed to stimulate our brain’s “feel-good” dopamine center, making us crave more of them in the future.

  4. Quicker to digest. Processed foods are easier to digest than unprocessed, whole foods. That means our bodies burn less energy (hint: calories) digesting them. It’s estimated we burn half as many calories digesting processed foods compared to unprocessed foods. This fact combined with the calorie density of processed foods in general can make it easy to pack on the pounds

Full of artificial ingredients. There are about 5,000 substances that get added to our food. MOST OF THEM HAVE NEVER BEEN TESTED BY ANYONE OTHER THAN THE COMPANY USING THEM. That includes additives to change color, texture, flavor and odor as well as ingredients like preservatives and sweeteners.

Now you are ready for some action items.

Even if you wanted to, it would be very difficult to remove all heavily processed foods from your diet. That would mean not eating out at most restaurants and skipping that hot dog at the family barbeque. However, there are tons of things you CAN do!

  • Check the label. The longer the ingredient list, the more processed a food is. If most of the ingredients are hard-to-pronounce chemicals instead of actual food, it’s a safe bet that food is heavily processed.

  • Shop the outside aisles at the grocery store. The center aisles of most grocery stores are full of packaged items and ready-made foods that are heavily processed. Aim to buy more foods from the produce and dairy aisles.

  • Opt for minimally processed meats. Choose meats that have been minimally processed (e.g., seafood, chicken breast) while avoiding heavily processed meats (e.g., sausage, cured meats like bacon).

  • Start slowly. It’s okay to slowly replace processed foods in your diet with more fresh foods.

  • Cook more meals at home. You might not always be in control of your diet while traveling, but you are at home. Make your own frozen meals by cooking a larger batch and freezing the leftovers, or whip up your own salad dressing.

See this seasonal example below compliments of @

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