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Can processed foods be a part of a healthy diet?

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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18 responses to “Can processed foods be a part of a healthy diet?”

  1. I have recently gone to just fresh foods, no processed, broke my plateau. Lost six pounds in one week doing this change. Great points Scott!

    1. Great job and congratulations! Thanks for sharing with us.

  2. […] However, it wasn’t until the past 50 years that science caught up to this belief. This paralleled the rise of industrial food production in which more advanced ways developed to produce and preserve food. These practices benefited society as foods became more accessible and cheaper. At the same time, however, it gave rise to ultra-processed foods which have questionable nutritional value. […]

  3. […] the less healthy it is for you. As opposed to fruits and vegetables, which are rarely packaged, processed food always comes in packaging. Commonly in two or more layers (the outside box and the inside plastic […]

  4. […] We also must recognize that our health is much broader than just how much we weigh. And where the protein comes may be of importance to overall health risk. Regardless of the source, there is widespread agreement that processed protein, animal or plant-based, should be limited. […]

  5. […] SL: A lot of people have been stocking up on food and I noticed empty shelves of frozen and prepared food, which are unhealthy choices. These types of foods are highly processed and can increase your chances of getting heart disease and cancer. […]

  6. […] diet group. In the end it may mean that what you eat is still important. If your diet is high in highly processed and sugary foods, your chances for disease are high regardless of when you […]

  7. […] mainly because the studies haven’t been done. However, there is enough knowledge about the bad health effects of processed foods in general to warrant […]

  8. […] infection. While for most of us, malnutrition isn’t a concern, a diet comprising of mostly highly processed foods can lead to certain nutrient deficiencies weakening […]

  9. […] The desire for sugar, or sweetness, is another taste we crave. It’s not clear why we have evolved that way. Infants and children crave sweetness to a greater extent than adults, and this may be to meet the higher energy needs during periods of growth. Beyond that, many theories have been proposed, with the most common one being the need to eat high-energy foods. However, the sweetest foods aren’t always the most energy or nutrient dense. Unfortunately, the food industry has taken advantage of these cravings to sell their processed foods. […]

  10. […] the answer to: What is the ideal diet? There are too many factors to consider. From how foods are produced and processed, to combinations of various foods eaten together (do foods act differently in certain […]

  11. […] spice cabinet. However, nearly 90% of salt intake comes from foods. And almost all of that is from processed foods. For example, a cucumber has less than 3 mg of sodium, while a pickle can have over 1200 mg. Very […]

  12. […] it doesn’t mean drinking a pop is the way to better brain health. And like the effects sugary and processed foods has on physical health, a diet high in these foods can also be bad for your mental […]

  13. […] most sugar comes from processed foods, reducing these foods can be a step in the right direction. Reading nutrition labels can be a guide […]

  14. […] messes your body’s appetite regulation is having too much refined sugars and processed foods. And whether it’s a plant-based, Mediterranean-type or meat-based diet, all of them stay away […]

  15. […] is not what they have, but what they don’t have. None of these diets include the consumption of high and ultra-high processed foods. Making a switch from processed foods to less processed foods, is always a healthier choice. And […]

  16. […] consumption of diet sodas may be helpful. But keep in mind that artificial sweeteners are used in processed foods which themselves may be of questionable nutritional value. In the long term, turning to natural, […]

  17. […] with heart disease and early death in some but not all studies. Saturated fat is common in many ultra-processed foods, and health concerns may be related to what else is in those foods as opposed to the fat itself. […]

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