Between the paleo diet, the keto craze and the debate over whether low-carb or low-fat diets are better for your health, deciding what to eat can seem more complicated than ever. One issue that health experts seem to agree on is that we should all be eating fewer processed foods. What exactly are processed foods, why are they so bad for our health and how can we replace them in our diet?
What Is Processed Food?
Processed food is any food that’s altered during preparation to make it more convenient, shelf-stable or flavorful. Some foods are much more processed than others. A bagged salad or pre-cut green beans technically count as processed, but it’s only minimally processed because its natural state hasn’t changed. In other words, it looks pretty much the same as you’d find it in nature. A box of macaroni and cheese or a microwavable dinner, on the other hand, are considered heavily processed (also called ultra processed) because they’ve been chemically altered with artificial flavors, additives and other ingredients.
Most foods we eat have been processed in some way by the time they reach our plates. However, the concern about processed food isn’t over items like canned tomatoes or canned tuna, which are processed to lock in freshness and nutrients. The concern is over more heavily processed foods like crackers, jarred pasta sauces and cake mixes. And we eat a lot of these foods – it’s estimated that more than half the calories in the average American diet come from ultra processed foods. In Canada, the percentage is slightly lower, at 48 percent.
Health Risks of Heavily Processed Foods
There are many potential health effects of ultra processed foods, including:
- Increased cancer risk. A five-year study of over 100,000 people found that every 10 percent increase in consumption of ultra processed food was associated with a 12 percent higher risk for cancer.
- 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 like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
- Lacking in nutritional value. Heavy processing strips many foods of their basic nutrients, which is why many foods today are fortified with fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Calorie dense and addicting. It’s very easy to overindulge in unhealthy food and consume more calories than we realize. For example, an Oreo cookie contains about 50 calories, while an entire cup of green beans is only 44 calories. Processed foods like these are also designed to stimulate our brain’s “feel-good” dopamine center, making us crave more of them in the future.
- 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.
Reducing Processed Foods in Your Diet
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 many things you can do to reduce the amount of processed food you consume:
- 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. In fact, it may make you more likely to stick to these changes long-term.
- 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.
While many aspects of our health can be complicated, eating less processed food doesn’t have to be. When in doubt, just start with real food.