Processed foods – why are they so bad for you?

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
Ask Emma


06 August 2019

Why shouldn’t we eat processed foods?

Throughout today's blog I run through just some of the reasons why you might want to give processed foods a miss:

  1. High in salt
  2. Loaded with sugar
  3. High fat options
  4. All the additives
  5. Low fibre content
  6. Lacking in nutrients
  7. They are making us fat
  8. They are only adding to ill-health

I explore these themes in more detail and offer some tips to help wean yourself off processed items, and include more healthy, fresh foods options instead.

1. High in salt

Whilst salt has long been blamed for a number health issues, we've come to believe that salt added to processed foods in the form of sodium chloride, rather than naturally-occurring sodium which is found to a much lesser degree in fresh foods, may be the problem.

Some research in the field has added to this idea and has suggested that in the UK, up to 95% of our salt intake comes from our consumption of processed foods.1 As this intake appears to be so excessive, it's no surprise that there seems to be some health risks to go with it; including the threat of high blood pressure.2

Salt is often added to processed foods in order to act as a preservative, make foods more shelf stable, but also to make them more palatable. The fear is that, as we eat more and more processed foods, we'll really crave that salty taste, something that many fresh foods just don't provide and so they therefore risk not being so satisfying! When cooking from fresh instead, we can use healthier salt alternatives such as Herbamare and actively manage how much salt we use.

2. Loaded with sugar

Increasing sugar intake is arguably the most worrying and harmful modern eating habit of all. Again, much like salt, sugar is added to processed foods to act as a preservative, but it's also carefully placed in order to tickle our taste buds, and over time, many of us find that we then crave that sweet taste on a more regular basis.

Sugar is a simple form of carbohydrate which means it is absorbed quickly in our bodies and has a more direct effect on our blood sugar levels. In turn, this can cause dips and spikes in our blood sugar levels, our insulin responses and, as a result, this can also influence our appetite and even our mood, on a day to day basis. Over time, this may have some other more worrying and widespread metabolic effects, from high cholesterol levels to the threat of type II diabetes.

When it comes to processed foods, sugar is generally pretty hard to avoid. It comes in many different forms and disguises (100s of names can be assigned to one form of sugar or another!) and worryingly, it's hidden in a whole array of savoury foods too, as well as the more obvious sweet options.

3. High fat options

Processed foods are also often high fat options. Unfortunately they aren't often rich in the types of fats we want to be eating more of, including monounsaturated (MUFAs) or polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), but instead poor quality saturated or trans fats, plus these unhealthy fats tend to up the overall calorie count making these foods more energy-dense too.

The fat content of these foods makes them more energy dense - this means we can acquire more calories, even if we're eating less of them (although with the larger portion sizes of many of these foods, this often isn't an option!). So, these may be just some of the reasons why an excessive consumption of processed foods has links with obesity.2

Not only is the fat content of many of these foods troublesome, but worryingly still, fat and sugar together is thought to be even worse. This combination is thought to make these foods more addictive and may be why such foods are linked to food cravings, which can be a vicious cycle to try and break.

4. All the additives

As well as all the excess salt, sugar, and fat that are added to processed foods, we also often have some additional additives to contend with.

The more processed food is, the further away from a natural food-state it becomes. Also, in some cases, companies may want to trick consumers into thinking that their foods are healthier, and may add in more artificial alternatives in place sugars or fats (so the figures on the pack look more appealing, at a glance) – but ironically, this could be making them even worse for us. Read more on the health issues associated with artificial sweeteners, for one, in my blog on this topic.
Unsurprisingly, all of these different processes taking place can affect the look and taste of the foods, so yet further processing has to take place as colourings, flavourings, textures and preservatives are all added back in, in a bid to make the food appealing once more. The end result is often quite a long ingredients list and something some of our ancestors may even struggle to associate as food – yuck!

5. Low fibre content

Our recommended intake of fibre has gradually crept up in recent years, as a result of the health benefits of fibre, for our gut and beyond, becoming more apparent. However, ironically, by also upping our intake of processed foods, we may be sabotaging our best efforts to get enough fibre in!

As foods are processed, many of the beneficial constituents are stripped out, including dietary fibre. This lack of fibre influences how these foods affect us almost immediately (fibre is very protective of our initial blood sugar responses, for example) but in the longer term, a lack of fibre could also be contributing to other common health complaints including constipation, other digestive issues such as IBS, and even high cholesterol levels.

6. Lacking in nutrients

With the fibre being readily stripped from many foods as they are processed, unfortunately, the naturally occurring nutrients including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are also very much at risk.

Any heat processes or those affecting the structure of foods, i.e. chopping or grinding, can mean that nutrients, especially water soluble vitamins including B vitamins and vitamin C, are at risk of being lost. However, research suggests that it doesn't stop there as processed foods are also lacking in vitamin D, potassium and magnesium, when compared to their non-processed counterparts.3

In some cases certain nutrients may be added back in, probably in a last ditch attempt to make these foods appear 'healthier', but we then run the risk of contending with synthetic forms of nutrients, which may not be so well received and absorbed in our bodies. Nutrients in their food-state, or ones that are sourced from natural ingredients such as in our Balance Mineral Drink, are always preferable.

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7. They are making us fat

Unfortunately with an increased consumption of processed foods, also comes the trend of us getting bigger as a nation. Whilst there are likely to be a number of contributing factors at play with regards to our expanding waistlines, (we are working on identifying causality), it does seem likely, as backed by research, that at increased consumption of processed foods may have at least some part to play.2 Some recent research found that in the US, in a large scale study, 71% of food products were classed as ultraprocessed.4 This figure is quite honestly terrifying, and the risk is that us in the UK aren't too far behind!

One study investigating this more closely looked at calorie consumption and weight gain in one group of individuals offered processed foods, versus another offered fresh varieties of food. The meals contained equivalent amounts of calories, fats, protein, carbohydrates, fibre, sugar, and salt; the only difference being the levels of processing that had went into them. The subjects were given free rein to consume as much of their given food as they wanted throughout the duration of the trial, which lasted for two weeks in total.

Worryingly, the group eating the processed foods consumed, on average, a whopping 508 extra calories each day and, as a result, gained 2 pounds more in weight than the other group. In such a short space of time, these results were really quite significant!5

8. They are only adding to ill-health

As a result of all the alterations to most processed foods as we've already discussed, it's of no surprise, that they may not be doing our health much good.

Research suggests that processed foods may be contributing to an increased risk of obesity, but also a number of other risk factors including increases in fasting glucose levels (a risk for diabetes), high cholesterol, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome2; a number of conditions that are already on the rise, and generally making us sicker. If this isn't reason to manage our intake, I don't know what is!

How can I stop eating processed foods?

After some careful consideration, you might have finally decided that the time has come to reduce your intake of processed foods. However, with busy lives and supermarkets tempting us at every turn, you might not know where to start to achieve this. Not to worry though, as I'm here to outline some of my top tips for you:

1. Be clear on what counts as processed foods

With many fresh foods even being found in packets nowadays, understandably you might struggle to know for sure which foods are considered processed and which aren't. Processed foods are technically any food that has been changed, in any way, during its preparation. However, from a more practical point of view, there are different degrees or processing and we may ask ourselves: 'Are all processed foods unhealthy?'

Some vegetables may have been simply chopped or washed before we're able to purchase it, other food items may have been gently pasteurised or left to ferment in their natural form (some processes which therefore may even be considered beneficial), whilst for others, they may have been totally altered chemically and structurally with key components and ingredients being added or removed.

Generally, some processed foods still considered to be fairly healthy are as follows:

  • Pre-washed veg
  • Canned or frozen vegetables or fruit so long as they aren't sweetened
  • Full-fat yoghurts (unsweetened, such as Greek yoghurt)
  • 100% nut butters
  • Wholegrains such as beans or complex carbohydrates such as brown rice which are still in their more natural food-state
  • Roasted nuts (so long as there are minimal extra ingredients)

In contrast, some of the processed foods considered to be most unhealthy include:

  • Processed meat products
  • Fizzy or sweetened juices
  • Ready meals – frozen or fresh
  • Baked or fried foods such as cakes, biscuits or crisps

2. Read food labels

Firstly, let's just keep in mind that the act of reading food labels means that you're most likely already considering buying processed food. However, it is the case that some are safer options, as mentioned above, so this doesn't always mean it's a no-go.

However, some key things to look out for when you are scouring over labels are as follows:

  • The traffic light system can be a clue at a first glance that certain foods are particularly high in fat, sugar or salt, for example. However, we do often need to delve a little deeper to really understand if this item is good or bad for our health. Healthy fats should be part of a healthy, balanced diet, for example, so these shouldn't be shunned and the same applies for other elements such as complex carbohydrates, fibre or naturally occurring sugars.
  • The length of the ingredients list can be a good indicator as to how much the food has changed from its original food state and how many preservatives, colourants or additives have really been added?
  • Your ability to understand the names within the ingredients list is another one to consider. If there are names there you don't recognise, the chances are these are synthetic and not-so-natural options that you might be better steering clear of.
  • The order of ingredients. The ingredients of any food are listed in the order of the quantity in which they exist. Therefore, this can help give you some idea about the proportions of the different components; if sugar is listed first, this should be a no-go!

3. Add more of the good stuff

If you plan your meals and shopping trips around fresh ingredients, chances are you'll have less room and less of a need for more processed items. My advice is always to start small, make some realistic changes to your eating habits and, with any luck, over time processed foods won't be so much of a staple in your diet.

With any positive changes you make, your taste buds will change too. Once you start to become more accustomed to fresh flavours, processed foods will most likely taste overly salty and downright cheap, nasty and artificial!

4. Cook more

Making the effort to get into the kitchen and cook means you'll hopefully become less reliant on convenient meals or ingredients, and instead get in the habit of making your meals up from scratch.

Nowadays, the internet has a plethora of fresh food recipes to help give you inspiration, and the Eat Healthy section within our website, for one, is a great place to start. Get inspired!

5. Be wary of snacks too

Whilst people might be more in the way of cooking family dinners, sometimes snacks can be our downfall and it's then that we find ourselves reaching for the packaged goods.

Get in the habit of combining more foods which might previously have been overlooked including fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds or eggs.

 

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20430135
2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5787353/
3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27825941
4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31344845
5. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190516114550.htm

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