Updated: Jun 26, 2019
Processed food is everywhere, and I don't just mean junk food. There is a hugely profitable industry designed to persuade us that processed and packaged food is a great option if we want to be slim, healthy and save precious time and money that could be spent on more important things. Manufacturers use key words and phrases like ‘natural, organic, wholegrain, low fat and low calorie', leading us to believe that we are making a healthy choice by choosing them. The reality is that by relying on processed foods for ourselves and our families, we lose touch with real food, where it comes from, and the importance of cooking, and our overall health suffers as a result.
So what is processed food?
It comes in many forms, and includes anything that has been changed from its natural state.Processed foods that are widely available and found in many homes include tinned food like baked beans, all types of ready meals including low calorie and low fat options, pizzas, pies, pasta sauces, ready-made salad dressings, instant noodles, processed meats, biscuits, cereal bars, breakfast cereals, bread, crisps and confectionary.
Many of us rely on processed foods every day, partly because we have grown up eating that way, but also because processed foods are often appear to be very cheap, convenient and quick to prepare, which can feel like a godsend when we’re on a budget and busy. Tempting as it may seem, it’s not a good idea to base our diets around them, and here’s why.
Processed food on the whole tends to be low in nutrients and fibre, but high in additives, sugar, refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats, which can leave you hungry soon after, tired, bloated, overweight and feeling under par. Processed food also tends to be stripped of nutrients like B vitamins, zinc, iron and magnesium, which we need for energy production, healthy skin and hair, emotional wellbeing and immune function. Additionally, processed foods are low in the natural plant fibre found in whole foods that helps us feel full and keeps our digestive system healthy. They tend to contain harmful additives including artificial sweeteners, flavourings, emulsifiers and preservatives, which may contribute to chronic ill health including cognitive impairment, behavioural disorders, raised levels of inflammation, allergies and overeating. Processed foods can also contain lots of sugar, making it easy to eat far more than your recommended intake each day without even knowing it, which can contribute to obesity and diabetes. And finally you are likely to find refined, rather than natural, fats and oils in processed foods. This means you may end up eating far more omega 6 fats compared to omega 3, which may in part be to blame for the rise in conditions like cardiovascular disease, skin conditions, asthma and diabetes, to name just a few. In fact it’s no coincidence that rates of diabetes, obesity, cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disease, depression and anxiety have increased dramatically since these processed foods became mainstays of our diet.
We only started eating processed foods very, very recently in our evolutionary history. We have spent millions of years eating foods found in nature, and it wasn’t until the agricultural revolution eleven thousand years ago that cereal grains and dairy products became an ever-increasing part of our diets, followed by the industrial revolution more recently, when processed foods became widely available. The trouble is, our bodies just haven’t caught up yet. While we are adapting very slowly, and in limited ways, to a diet heavier in cereal grains and dairy, we are still entirely mismatched with our reliance on processed food.
I do want to point out here that not all processed foods are bad, and some can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet. Frozen fruits and vegetables, for example, are a great, time-saving way to enjoy the benefits of consuming more plant foods, and in fact the freezing process can lock in more of the nutrients often lost during transit and storage. Tinned fish, tomatoes, coconut milk and pulses are all useful store-cupboard staples that contain beneficial nutrients, and can be found without additives.
Here's how you can easily reduce your intake of processed foods
- Avoid boxed breakfast cereals – go for homemade porridge or soaked oats like Bircher muesli, eggs, plain or coconut yogurt with nuts and berries, or smoothies with added protein powder are a great speedy option
- Avoid fruit yoghurts, including low calorie and low fat that either contain lots of sugar or sweeteners – add fresh or stewed fruit to plain yoghurt instead
- Avoid squash, fruit juice drinks or fizzy drinks - drink more water, herbal teas and try diluting fruit juice 50/50 with fizzy water.
- Avoid cereal or snack bars – swap for fresh fruit and raw nuts and seeds.
- Avoid meat and fish coated in breadcrumbs or batter – choose fresh cuts instead.
- Avoid low fat, low calorie or sugar-free foods – they are higher in additives like unhealthy fats, flavourings, sugar and artificial sweeteners.
- Avoid margarine and refined oils in plastic bottles – swap for coconut oil, butter, ghee, avocado oil, and extra virgin olive oil.
- Use leftovers – if you manage to cook from scratch in the evening, make extra for lunch the next day.
- Batch cook – spend an hour at the weekends making meals for the week ahead, like soup, stew, Bolognese sauce or curry, and freeze portions to use when you’re busy.
- Invest in a slow cooker – five minutes spent prepping in the morning means a hassle-free hot dinner that evening.
- Remember healthy dinners can be quick – a salmon or chicken fillet with quinoa or rice and green vegetables takes 20 minutes to prepare.
- Avoid the inside aisles at the supermarket and spend more time around the edges - it’s there you will find the fresh fruit, vegetables, salads, meat and fish.
- Be suspicious of food with a long shelf life – remember that good food is supposed to go off.