It’s Monday morning. The alarm goes off but you hit the snooze button and end up getting up late. Hardly any time for a decent breakfast, let alone make your lunch. If you’re like me, you grab something simple such as cereal for breakfast, and either pack a quick lunch or buy it at work. In the end, you’re eating processed foods.

In order to maintain some sort of healthy diet, I usually pack yoghurt, almonds, an orange and a banana. But I know this isn’t enough to sustain me through the day. If I’m running late, I’ll throw in a frozen burrito instead of making a sandwich or salad (my other, healthier, go-to choices).

I know. The burrito, processed in some far off factory with an ingredients list that stretch around the plastic wrap, many of which I can’t even pronounce, probably isn’t a key part of a healthy diet. But it’s convenient. And it does taste good.

Whether it’s packing lunch, or scrambling to make dinner before having to run out the house again, we can’t help but have convenient processed foods in our diet. As our lives have gotten busier, it becomes harder to resist the Siren call of processed foods.

From ready-made burritos to luncheon meats to cereals to soda pop, not to mention what restaurants use in their menus, processed foods are in most people’s diets and can account for more than half of a person’s daily calories.

Foods are processed to extend shelf-life (prevent them from going bad), make food production easier and cheaper, and make it more convenient to transport. With their high salt and sugar content, these foods are also made to appeal to your tastes. And they make food convenient. With this one-two punch of taste and convenience, no wonder we eat so much.

It’s pretty easy to recognize processed foods. They’re pre-packaged and most don’t have an expiry date. A rule of thumb I go by is the more layers of packaging a food has, the more processed it is. In general, processed foods are found in the aisles of grocery stores. Foods that are fresh tend to be around the perimeter as it’s easier to re-stock them. However, that isn’t always the case. You’ll commonly find processed meats such as sausages and luncheon meats in the cold section near the butcher.

Lacking in nutrition, these foods may be doing us more harm than we think.

Processed foods have been linked to increased chances of getting cancer and heart disease, as well as early death. And this isn’t just in older adults either. Eating four servings of processed food a day was associated with a 62% greater chance of death in young adults compared to eating less than two per day. The chances of death within 10 years went up by 18% for each serving of processed food.

food- healthy & junk

It’s not quite clear how these foods are affecting us. One possibility is that eating processed foods actually replaces otherwise healthy foods. You might not think to eat any fruits and vegetables if they come on the frozen pizza you had for dinner. But it’s also likely more than this. Processed foods may actually alter our metabolism.

Processed foods are designed to be addictive and keep us eating more. When people were given free access to  processed foods they ate more and gained more weight compared to when they were given unprocessed foods. Within two weeks of processed foods, hormones involved in hunger increased suggesting these foods may make it harder to feel full.

In the long term, regular consumption of processed foods can lead to obesity which is also a risk factor for heart disease, some cancers and early death. It may not be a coincidence that the rates of obesity have increased at the same time the consumption of processed foods has increased.

The additives in processed foods may also be bad for the bacteria in your gut (our microbiome). Bacteria in your gut have recently been linked to your health. Eating more processed foods is associated with less types of bacteria in the gut. This may be due to the high levels of sugar and lack of fibre in processed foods, which can lead to more of the bad types of bacteria and less of the good types.

It’s also possible some of the additives in processed foods are carcinogenic. As are some of the materials used in packaging, which can also be absorbed by the food. While in small amounts these additives are believed to be safe, the long-term effects of eating processed foods with these additives in is unknown.

Given all the possible health impacts of processed foods, it’s probably no coincidence that one of the common things about the longest living populations in the world is they avoid them.

While it may be hard to totally avoid processed foods in your diet, minimizing how much you do eat is a good step to healthy eating and healthy living.

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