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Should You Ditch Processed Foods? Debunking the Hype and Finding a Balance

If you've seen the buzz online about processed foods, most of this coming from food and fitness influencers, you may find yourself at a crossroads…


Should we cut out processed food entirely and ditch the convenient kitchen staples we know and love, or should we stick to the diet that so many people embrace as 'the new normal'?


Before jumping on the anti-processed food bandwagon, let's delve deeper into the science, understand the nuances, and find an approach that balances both the benefits and your budget. 


What are 'processed foods'?

Not all processed foods are created equal. 'Processing' refers to any alteration from its natural state, encompassing everything from washing and freezing to pasteurisation and fermentation. 


Freezing berries for later smoothies? Processed. 


Boiling pasta? Processed. 


Making cheese from milk? Definitely processed. 


'Processing' can help to preserve nutrients, increase shelf life, and enhance flavours, making food more accessible and enjoyable.


It is the level of processing that you should pay attention to. 


Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) go beyond basic modifications. This involves extensive industrial manipulations, adding excessive sugar, unhealthy fats, artificial colours, and flavourings. 


These are the culprits linked to health concerns like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. 

Think sugary cereals, frozen pizzas, instant noodles, and packaged treats.


Mind Matters: Processed Foods and Brain Health


Studies suggest that UPFs might negatively impact cognitive function. 


High sugar intake from these foods can impair memory and learning, while additives like artificial sweeteners have been linked to decreased cognition and increased cravings. 


UPFs are often low in fibre and essential nutrients crucial for optimal brain health. They also contain a higher concentration of fats, sugars, and salts, which tricks our brains into thinking we need more of these foods. 


This is because of the speed at which carbohydrates and fats reach our guts, and the more quickly our brain is affected by these foods, the more addicted we become. 


Dr. Chris van Tulleken, a British Doctor and virologist, conducted a study on UPFs using his own body as the research vessel. He found that as he increased his intake of UPFs, he began to crave these foods more, and he felt that more processed foods could cure the minor effects on his mental health caused by his poor diet. 


When the effects on his body were later studied, experts found that if Dr. van Tulleken had continued to eat like this for a year, he was on track to double his body weight.


The Body Tells the Tale: Physiological Effects


Excessive consumption of UPFs can disrupt our delicate hormonal balance. 


Added sugars spike insulin levels, leading to 'sugar crashes' and increased hunger. Imagine a toddler after being fed sweets and cake - a big sugar high, followed by a massive crash. This can have adverse effects on our mental health and again convince our brain that these foods are directly linked to a positive mood and that we need to eat UPFs to feel happy.


Refined grains and unhealthy fats in UPFs can contribute to inflammation, linked to various chronic diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other gastric conditions, which are often improved by changes in diet.


Additionally, the lack of fibre in these foods disrupts gut microbiome health, impacting digestion and overall well-being. When conducting his experiment, Dr. van Tulleken noted that he suffered extreme constipation during his processed food diet and did not pass bowel movements for days at a time.


Finding Balance: Cutting it Out or Aiming for Less?


So, should we say goodbye to all processed foods? 


While eliminating UPFs entirely is possible, it's often impractical and potentially restrictive for some. Restricting food in any way, especially for individuals with body image issues, can lead to eating disorders such as orthorexia, anorexia, or bulimia. In this regard, it is important to consult your doctor before making any major changes to your diet and to seek help if you feel like your diet is having a negative effect on your life. 


A more realistic and sustainable approach is to minimise UPF intake and prioritise minimally processed or whole foods.


For me, this involves making almost all food from scratch and bulking out meals with fresh fruits and vegetables. I am a volume eater, which means that I need to eat a large volume of low-calorie food to feel full and satisfied, rather than a small amount of calorie-dense food, and I find that this helps me to snack less between meals.


Tips for a Balanced Plate:


  • Embrace the bakery: 

Opt for fresh bread from local bakeries. These often contain fewer additives and a higher fibre content. Additionally, this allows you to support local bakers in your area, which is always a bonus! 

  • Go natural: 

Opt for fruits and vegetables in their natural state whenever possible. Frozen options are still preferable to sugary juices or canned varieties, and a whole apple will always be more nutritious than dried apple slices.

  • Embrace simple cooking: 

Learn basic cooking skills to prepare meals using whole ingredients at home. This empowers you to control what goes into your food, and I enjoy homemade meals so much more.

  • Read labels:

Identify and avoid products with excessive sugar, unhealthy fats, and artificial ingredients. A standard diet culture tip is to avoid eating foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce. This is poor advice and can lead to disordered eating behaviours. Instead, use your common sense, stick to foods with minimal ingredients, made chiefly from whole ingredients, and avoid unnecessarily consuming artificial sweeteners and dyes.

  • Embrace mindful eating: 

Savour your food and make informed choices. Don't mindlessly reach for processed snacks when hunger pangs strike—research food science and how to balance your snacks. For example, instead of having a sleeve of cookies for a snack, have a few cookies and add some Greek yoghurt with chia seeds for protein, fats, and fibre, or pair them with a glass of full-fat milk for protein and fat, both of which help you to feel full and satisfied.


Beyond Personal Choice: Addressing Barriers


It's important to acknowledge that reducing our processed food intake can be challenging. 

Dietary restrictions such as celiac disease or high cholesterol may force people to rely on processed options. 


Similarly, budget constraints can limit access to fresh, whole foods.

In these cases, prioritising minimally processed choices within budget constraints remains key. 


Additionally, advocating for affordable access to healthy food options is crucial for creating a truly accessible food system and reducing diet-related illnesses in less fortunate people. For this reason, it's also important not to criticise the food choices of others without offering accessible and affordable alternatives and to recognise the privilege required to make major changes to your diet without careful consideration of your finances.


Embracing Balance, Not Extremes


Ditching all processed foods might sound appealing, and it's easy to jump onto the latest diet trend, but it's rarely achievable and may have unexpected effects on your mental health and social life. Imagine how hard it will be to eliminate processed foods in a restaurant environment or when being hosted by friends and family!


Instead, let's embrace a balanced approach – minimising UPFs while enjoying minimally processed foods and celebrating the joy of cooking with whole ingredients. 

Understanding food science and making informed choices can nourish our bodies and minds without succumbing to fear-mongering or unrealistic restrictions. 


Progress, not perfection, is the key to creating a healthy and sustainable relationship with food.

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