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A new year provides the opportunity to consider changes we might want to make from the previous year. At the top of the list for many is the desire to eat healthier. Whether for weight management, improved wellness or to create better habits, making changes in diet is a great way to take responsibility for health.
Consider this change. The impact of processed foods on the body is profound. When it comes to creating healthier habits that improve health and longevity, reducing the amount of processed foods in the diet is a key one.
What is Processed Food?
Processed foods are typically packaged food products that contain unrecognizable ingredients, have a long shelf life and don’t fuel the body with high nutrition.
Processed foods are altered primarily for convenience or for more flavor. Some foods are more processed than others. A bag of cut up veggies, sold packaged in the store, is minimally processed. The basic nature of the food has not changed. Canned and frozen veggies and fruits are not heavily processed either. They are processed to lock in freshness and nutrients.
A bag of chips or a box of sugary treats or that package of mac and cheese represent ultra processed foods. These are chemically altered with artificial flavors, additives, preservatives and other unrecognizable ingredients.
The typical American diet is full of ultra processed foods. Dieticians estimate half of our calories come from processed foods.
These processed foods have a detrimental impact on the body.
List of Processed Foods
All foods purchased at the grocery store have some level of processing. This simple guide breaks processing into categories:
Unprocessed foods – fruits and veggies
Minimally processed – bagged lettuce and veggies, cut veggies, packaged nuts
Processed for freshness – canned fruits and veggies, frozen fruits and veggies
Heavily processed – ingredients added for flavor and texture – sweeteners, sugar, spices, oils, fats, salt, colors, chemicals and preservatives – jarred pasta sauces, salad dressings, yogurt, cake, cookies, crackers, granola bars, deli meat, boxed meals, chips, cookies, donuts, cheese, cured meats
Ultra processed foods – pre-made meals such as microwaveable dinners, frozen pizza and frozen dinners and those with added ingredients such as anti-caking products, fillers and emulsifiers
The longer the list of ingredients on the box or package, the more processed the food is. Look for unrecognizable ingredients as well.
The Impact of Processed Foods on the Body
Studies show that eating highly processed foods impact the body in negative ways. Of great concern is more rapid aging and a shortened life span due to processed foods affecting cells in the body.
Other ways that highly and ultra processed foods affect the body:
- create inflammation
- cause hormonal irregularities
- increase digestive disorders
- cause allergic reactions, hives, rashes
- alter brain function
- increase the risk of cancer
- contribute to poor circulation
- increase the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome and diabetes
- contribute to depression
- cause weight gain
- create cravings for more processed foods
Ways to Make Healthier Choices
Everyone eats processed foods. I occasionally eat processed foods. It’s a diet high in processed foods that leads to health problems.
Make these easy choices and swaps.
- check labels…the more ingredients and unrecognizable ingredients on the list, the higher the processing. Look for organic alternatives. And look for natural ingredients.
- buy fresh fruits and veggies
- shop at farmer’s markets and co-ops
- eat fruit for dessert rather than packaged sweets
- shop at health conscious grocery stores such as Sprouts and Natural Grocers
- save processed foods for occasional treats, rather than the usual snack or meal
- grow your own veggies and fruits
- swap out sugary cereals for oats with fresh fruits or chia pudding (more healthy breakfast ideas HERE)
- don’t keep heavily and ultra processed foods in the house
- be aware of eating for comfort rather than for hunger
- prepare meals at home most of the time. You know what the ingredients are when you cook at home.
- meal prep and batch cook to make cooking at home easier
Convenience VS Health
The primary reason we turn to processed foods is for convenience. And I get that. After a long and busy day, the last thing I want to do is prepare a meal from scratch. I know the consequence though of eating too much processed food. My body warns me with rashes, indigestion, aches and pains.
So, I pull up music to cook by, on my Echo Dot, create a fun experience, make a game out of it or shift my mood with positive self talk.
For the difference in the way I feel, it is worth cutting back on and eliminating processed foods.
How about you? Are you aware of how much processed food you eat? And more importantly, are you aware of the impact on your body and health?
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I am not a medical practitioner. I study health and wellness related topics and share experiences from my own personal healing journey.