Many of us, whether it’s due to convenience or personal preference, eat a diet that’s far too high in heavily-processed foods. You’ve most likely heard the term before… but what does it mean? Why should we avoid these foods? What are the easiest practices to help you avoid them? That’s exactly what we’re about to get into…
This is the first of a series on living healthier through wise food practices articles coming to you over the next few months
What Exactly Does ‘Processed’ Mean?
Any food that is modified, either through mechanical or chemical means, to be different from its original state, or to be preserved is considered a processed food. These foods typically come in a box or bag, and have more than 1 ingredient in their ingredients list.
Are All Processed Foods Bad?
Of course, not all processed foods are bad. Cheeses, simple breads, many probiotics, and many other foods that can be considered healthy are also considered processed foods. This is one of the reasons why there are actually several categories of processed foods.
These are typically foods such as: vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, unprocessed meats, seafood, eggs, and milk. Unprocessed foods are generally considered healthy to eat, and are mostly unmodified.
Processed foods are things like: simple breads, cheeses, tofu, canned vegetables, preserved meats, etc. Some are healthy, and others aren’t. It’s an in-between group where not all are bad for you, but some certainly are.
These are things that are best to avoid, such as: soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, fast food, and hot dogs.
What’s the big deal with ‘Processed’?
Currently, more than 50% of the calories consumed in western society come from ultra-processed foods . Obviously, this is a major contributor to the obesity and lifestyle-modifiable disease epidemic that’s running rampant, but how exactly is it affecting the situation?
Since the 1960s obesity and rates of overweight individuals in the population have been progressively increasing as the amount of processed food consumption has increased. In fact, a recent study showed that the highest quartile of ultra-processed food consumers have a 95% increase in their own risk of developing obesity or becoming overweight .
This is in addition to the many studies that have shown an association between diets high in processed foods and health problems such as obesity, atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. Not only contributing to premature death BUT a primary contributor to living out a person’s last decade in life “medically disabled,” after losing their independence. This means living out their last years in a nursing home. Totally and easily avoidable by cutting ultra-processed foods out of your diet.
How Do These Processed Foods Cause Problems?
Many metabolic health issues are relative to a level of caloric intake that exceeds the caloric expenditure. Why is this a problem when it comes to ultra-processed foods?
Well, many of these foods are considered to be ‘hyperpalatable’. This means that these foods are loaded with fat, sugar, and salt so as to be considered “irresistible” and can easily be consumed beyond the point of satiety. You’ll know the feeling if you’ve ever eaten to the point of feeling uncomfortably “overfed”. Were you eating food that was unprocessed at that time? Or was it processed food that left you feeling overfed?
Comparison Study 
A recent study from the United Kingdom compared 2 groups for 1 month. The first group was given mostly unprocessed or minimally processed foods to eat. The second group was eating mostly processed and ultra-processed foods. Both groups were given food that was equal in calories, and also in macronutrient distribution for each meal. The twist was that the participants were allowed to eat as much as they liked at each meal.
Who do you think came out better?
The group that ate the mostly unprocessed diet actually lost 1kg over the 2 weeks that they stayed on the diet, and the group that ate the mostly processed diet gained the same amount of weight over the same amount of time.
Why Did This Happen?
Simply, the group that ate processed foods consumed more. When eating this hyperpalatable diet, it’s easy to eat beyond the point of satiety (feeling satisfied). This point of satiety is your body telling you that it’s had enough food, it’s full, and the energy that you’ve put into it is going to be as much as it needs until it tells you that it wants energy again (you get hungry).
If you eat beyond this point, your body is going to store the extra energy that you’ve been enticed to consume in fat. This is why it’s important for us to eat a diet that mostly consists of unprocessed or minimally processed foods where our appetite is satisfied earlier with each meal.
How Can We Avoid Processed Foods?
It’s easiest to avoid unhealthy or processed foods if you prepare your meals at home. This makes eating more affordable, and ensures that it’s easy to keep track of what’s going into your meals.
In truth, processed foods are all around us. But don’t worry, it’s not as daunting as it sounds. While this does make some decisions difficult, it’s also an opportunity to treat yourself every once in a while, as long as it’s not all the time.
It’s up to us all to make an effort towards making the healthy choices in our foods as we also make the same effort towards leading a healthy and active lifestyle. When you take it one step at a time, just like all things, it’s not as tough as it sounds.
Author: Kyle Rawlek
Published: June 17, 2019
1. Cara Rosenbloom, RD. What is ultra-processed food. Heart and stroke foundation. https://www.heartandstroke.ca/articles/what-is-ultra-processed-food Published Unknown. Accessed June 10, 2019.
2. Pimenta AM, et al. Ultraprocessed food consumption and risk of overweight and obesity: the University of Navarra follow-up (SUN) cohort study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2016; 104(5):1433-1440. doi:10.3945/ajcn.116.135004
3. Hall KD, et al. Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: an inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Cell Metabolism. May 16, 2019. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008
4. Nancy Friedman. Hyperpalatable: Definition. Nancy Friedman. https://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2009/07/word-of-the-week-hyperpalatable.html Updated July, 2009. Accessed June 13, 2019.