It’s in the news weekly: ‘processed foods are bad for you’, ‘processed are the cause of obesity and heart disease’. But what’s the evidence? And, what is the definition of processed food anyway? We consulted Dr Sally Norton – an NHS weight loss consultant and surgeon and founder of www.vavistalife.com
She told us: “I have found previous studies that show how highly processed junk foods can increase addictive-type behaviour… and now further research has shown again that processed foods may not be helping our health or waistline.” We wanted to find out more…
So, what are processed foods?
“Processed foods” are defined as any foods other than raw agricultural commodities and can be categorised by the extent of change in the food as a result of processing. And the fact is that they are making up more and more of our daily intake – a recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that the majority of calories consumed by U.S. households may come from processed foods.
The researchers looked at purchases of packaged goods in almost 160,000 households and classified over 1.2 million products by the extent of processing. They found that more than 3/4 of the calories in purchases by U.S. households were found in moderately and highly processed foods and drinks. What’s more, the majority of these processed foods had more than 10% of their calories from saturated fat, 15% from sugar, and were high in salt. In comparison, only around 6% of less-processed foods, (those requiring cooking or other preparation) fell into this category.
It was also apparent that these highly processed foods were usually convenience / ready –to-eat purchases – a reflection of our increasingly busy lifestyles or have we simply forgotten how to cook from scratch?
It seems that we are relying more and more on convenience, processed foods – yet these tend to be worse for us with high saturated fat, salt and sugar content. Just by getting back into the habit of buying fresh food and cooking from scratch we can easily make our diet healthier.
How does this research apply to weight loss? Surely if you want to lose weight and improve your health, you just have to cut the calories you eat, right?
Wrong! Two foods can have the same number of calories and yet be oh-so-different in how they affect us. There are more and more studies showing that better health and weight-loss is achieved by a diet low in processed foods, refined carbs and sugar, following the ‘Mediterranean diet’ principles. Those of you lucky enough to have spent some time in the Med this summer will have seen the fruit and veg markets, butchers, fish stalls and cheese shops with customers carefully choosing fresh, real food to cook at home… it is much more the norm than it is in the UK, despite the welcome increase in farmers’ markets that we are now seeing.
The only way to be sure is to focus on eating real food that is as close to its natural state as possible. If there is any preparation to be done to turn it into a culinary masterpiece, midweek dinner or on-the-go snack, give it a go yourself wherever possible, to avoid all of the unpronounceable extras that feature on the ingredients list of a shop-bought version!
But realistically, we do have to rely on prepared food on many occasions. What should we do?
My advice? A good starting point is to consider that if there are a long list of ingredients that you don’t recognise on the label of the food you are buying then don’t buy it! A general rule of thumb – the less ingredients the better.