Avoiding ultra-processed foods is probably the number one most important thing you can do to improve your diet.
The stress of the coronavirus pandemic led many people to rely on processed foods for their convenience and rewarding taste profile. In fact, traditional processed food manufacturers like Kraft-Heinz and Mondelez who engineer products including, frozen meals, mac and cheese, deli meats, pasta sauce, and flavored yogurts have seen their sales skyrocket since the pandemic started.
This has likely contributed to the “COVID 15” fat gain that many people have experienced. Now is a great time to make the switch away from processed foods toward whole foods in their most natural state.
What are processed foods?
To make a food product convenient to use, stable/durable, tasty, and attractive-looking, raw agricultural items are often subjected to various types of modifications, such as washing, cutting, cooking, canning, freezing, dehydrating, packaging. Sometimes, different ingredients are added to increase the flavor and texture of food products (chemically processed).
To maintain a standard quality-control protocol, almost all food products undergo some degree of processing before coming to the supermarket. Thus, it is important to know the difference between various types of processed foods before evaluating their effects on general health.
Types of processed foods
There are four categories of processed food: unprocessed or minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods, and drink products.
Unprocessed foods include edible portions of plants and animals that are naturally available. For example, plant seeds, fruits, stems, roots, animal milk, eggs, etc. Minimally processed foods undergo mild processing steps mainly for preservation purposes. The nutritional content of the food remains mostly unaltered.
Processed culinary ingredients are derived from both unprocessed and minimally processed foods that undergo various processing steps, such as pressing, grinding, refining, drying, milling and so on. The items include butter, oil, sugar, salt, whole grain flour, etc.
Ultra-processed or highly processed foods (soft drinks, chips, cookies, ready-to-use meals, and reconstituted meat items) are mostly formulated industrially from ingredients obtained from foods and additives.
Why are ultra-processed foods so bad?
Processed foods that contain high amounts of poor-quality fat, added sugar and salt, low amount of dietary fibers, and a negligible amount of beneficial nutrients are particularly bad for health, as higher consumption of such foods increases the risk of many diseases, as well as elevates the rate of all-cause mortality.
They are low in nutrients and won’t provide the body with the building blocks needed for optimal health or performance. They are made predominantly of refined wheat, corn, and soy, and contain added sugar that elevates blood sugar and predisposes you to metabolic problems.
They are associated with a variety of poor health outcomes, including diabetes, obesity, and death. They are designed to be irresistible, stimulating food intake and weight gain. The effect is huge: One recent study found that when volunteers ate a diet high in processed foods for 2 weeks, they took in more than 500 extra calories daily than when they ate a macronutrient-matched whole food diet.
This was the first randomized-controlled study to compare processed with whole food diets on eating behavior, metabolic markers, and body composition. Scientists took 20 volunteers and randomized them into a group that ate an ultra-processed diet or a group that ate a whole food diet for two weeks.
An example of the processed diet was a breakfast of Eggs pancakes, turkey sausage, tater tots, and orange juice. For the whole food diet, breakfast consisted of a spinach omelet with sweet potato hash and skim milk. Processed snack options included potato chips, goldfish crackers, and peanut butter sandwich crackers. Whole food snacks were oranges, apples, almonds, walnuts, and raisins.
The available foods were matched for fat, protein, and carbs and subjects were allowed to eat as much or as little as they wanted at each meal. After two weeks, the group traded regimens.
Results showed that participants ate significantly more when their meals were ultra-processed—508 additional calories per day on average—than when they were eating unprocessed meals. About half of those extra calories came from carbohydrates and half from fat. There was no increase in protein.
The extra calories from the ultra-processed diet were front-loaded: The subjects ate the extra calories at breakfast (124 more calories) and lunch (213 extra calories) but not significantly more at dinner. Carbs were also a much greater percentage of calories at these two meals.
The added calories in the processed diet led participants to gain predictable 2 pounds. In contrast, participants lost the same amount when eating the healthier whole foods diet.
Both groups reported that the diets were flavorful enough to enjoy eating. There was no difference in the “pleasantness” of meals, leading researchers to theorize that the reason more calories were eaten on the unhealthy processed diet was not about meal satisfaction. Instead, they suspected that people often ate easier-to-chew processed foods faster, leading to a delay in satiety signals and greater food consumption.
It’s also possible that processed foods negatively affect the gut, which communicates with the brain to regulate food intake. When this communication axis is impaired, the “stop eating” message from the gut is disrupted. Instead, because processed foods are engineered to stimulate parts of the brain that make you feel good, it reinforces the drive to eat, resulting in harmful eating behavior.
It’s completely possible to train your taste buds to enjoy healthy whole foods. Sometimes eating healthy is about changing your habits to reach for nutritious options instead of the same old junk that has come to dominate the average American’s diet.
Swap out the chips for nuts, candy for berries, and chicken wings for vegetable sticks with hummus.