We hear it constantly: don’t eat processed food. We’re told to eat raw, unprocessed, unrefined or organic ingredients. From people advocating raw vegan menus, to those who “eat like our ancestors” on the Paleo diet, you might be wondering what exactly is processed food, and is it as bad as people say?
What is processed food:
This is a concept that most people, including me, struggle with. What makes it processed? Most of our food has been processed in some way, I mean milk doesn’t end up in the grocery store like that. And I’m definitely not eating a bowl of uncooked rice in the hopes of consuming unprocessed grains. Basically, there are two types of processing: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical means it’s been cut, chopped, ground… you get the picture. Chemical means that something has been added, either in the form of sugar, salt and flavouring, or as something artificial that extends the shelf life or changes the composition of the food.
What makes it so “bad” for us?
Are you getting your vitamins A to Z?
Not likely if you’re eating a lot of junk food. When compared to whole foods (or unprocessed foods, if you’d like), junk food has a stunning lack of nutrients that we need to get everyday. Things like synthetic vitamins and minerals may sometimes be added to foods to help with the “healthy” image of the brand, but it’s not a great replacement for the real thing.
Not only is processed food low in essential nutrients, but in most cases also fiber. Fiber is a difficult-to-digest component of carbohydrates, and has been found to increase the level of satiety after eating. That means you’ll often feel fuller with less calories, because the fiber helps to “bulk up” the meal. I can’t be the only one who’s felt hungrier after snacking on chips, and it may be because a lot of the fiber in junk food is lost during processing.
Not everyone is aware of the fact that sugar is added to almost everything on the shelves these days. Cereals, basting sauces, mayonnaise, even seemingly healthy breads have some source of the sweet stuff. Unfortunately, as much as we love it, sugar has been proven to contribute to a whole host of conditions like insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes and metabolic dysfunction. This means that even if you’re not putting sugar in your morning coffee, you’re probably getting a lot of it from the food you eat anyway.
Polydextrose, Butylated Hydroxyanisole, Potassium Benzoate… No, you don’t have to remember the name. The point is that a lot of artificial ingredients are added to processed foods to make them tastier or last longer. These can be difficult for your body to break down, may cause allergies in certain individuals, and have been found to be carcinogenic in some cases. Personally, not a fan.
Just one more cookie…
Sure, we could probably stick to the suggested serving size, but there’s something just so more-ish about a slab of chocolate that makes it so difficult to resist. That might be because junk food has been designed to be over consumed. With so many different brands on the market, it’s actually no wonder that producers are creating their food to be more desirable than their competitors’. So, it tastes great, and what’s the harm of reaching for another couple doritos? As humans we have a “reward” centre in the brain, which weighs up the risk and reward of any choice. This processed food causes the reward centre to light up, negating any negative consequences we could come up with to fight the urge. And yes, you can definitely get addicted.
But carbs aren’t bad, right?
I totally believe that whole grain carbohydrates has a place in a healthy diet. Refined carbohydrates, though, different story. Foods like donuts and fries are made up of simple carbohydrates that are easily broken down by your body, which causes a blood sugar and corresponding insulin spike. Ever felt that crash after consuming too much soda? This rollercoaster of sugar spikes and crashes are not healthy for you body, and honestly, who enjoys it?
Okay, but what about fats?
Same thing, in moderate amounts, fats can work really well in any lifestyle. Not the case with trans fats. Trans fats usually originate from sources like soybean oil that have had hydrogen added to them in order to make them more solid. Trans fats have been linked to increased inflammation in the body, along with increased heart disease and increase cholesterol levels. So if you’re not keen on cutting fats out completely, try to get them from healthy sources like avocados and olive oil.
There you have it, junk food is called junk for a reason. And while we’re not saying all processed food falls into the “junk” food category, at least read the label to see what you’re getting yourself into.