We all know that processed foods are not good for us. However, still, many of us choose to consume them regularly. That's because either we are not completely aware of the health problems associated with it, or we don't have access to better and natural alternatives, or both. Read this post to know why are they bad for you and how can you eliminate them from your life.
They are convenient, readily available, and are backed by a brand name that you have grown up with. Especially, when you have a busy lifestyle and a family to raise, it’s easier to feed hungry tummies, with something readily available – than preparing everything from scratch in your kitchen. Yes, we are talking about “processed foods”.
Here, in today’s guide, we shine a spotlight on the adverse effects of processed foods, and why your body needs wholesome natural foods and handy tips to include more healthy foods in your diet.
First things first, What are Processed Foods?
Any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way during preparation counts as processed food. The term "processed food" technically refers to chemically treated foods that have artificial substances, refined ingredients, and added chemicals such as preservatives, aromas, colours, emulsifiers and flavour enhancers.
However, there is more to it than meets the eye. For instance, what about foods that are infused with “natural ingredients” either to fortify them or make them last longer or enhance the taste. For this, we will have to take a look at various types of processed foods
Types of Processed Foods
The table below should give us an idea about the different kinds of processed foods. While it may not be easy to sum it all up (since they are just too many), for this study, we have divided processed foods into 4 different categories based on the level of processing.
Level of Processing
Type of Food
Mechanically Processed Food – These are foods that are as natural as possible, with minimal additives or no additives
Washed and packaged pre-cut fruits and vegetables, nuts, and spices, aata
Foods processed to extend their shelf life
Frozen vegetables and fruits, pureed baby foods, natural store bought fruit juices
Foods that include added ingredients like spices, oils, sugar, salt, to enhance taste, and increase shelf life
All foods that are available in a package such as pickles, chikki, baked biscuits, un branded / local vendor chips, , etc.
Ultra-processed foods that include additives such as preservatives, emulsifiers, flavour enhancers, colours, and other such chemicals to enhance their appearance, taste and increase shelf life.
These include food items such as biscuits, most mass bakery items, bread, ice-cream, mayonnaise, sports drinks, chocolates, jams, fruit juices and more.
Devoid of Enzymes: Enzymes are present in all living organisms including vegetables and fruits. These help in easier digestion of the food. However, most processed foods involve heating them at high-temperatures, subjected to mechanical processing, deoxygenation etc before packaging them. And enzymes cannot survive such conditions making your body work harder to digest, thereby increasing toxicity level in your body.
Disbalances your Body pH level: Additives are mostly acidic in nature making them toxic and difficult to be flushed out of the body. When you eat processed foods more often, there is a toxic buildup in your body which can harm you in more ways than one. Read here to know more about toxins and their ill-effects on your body.
Contains high amounts of Additives: We all know the effects of consuming high amounts of sugar, salt, chemical and transfats. And most types of processed foods are loaded with such substance. Exposing your body to such elements leads to myriad other health problems like – obesity, insulin resistance, heart disease, increased cholesterol and more.
The Problem of Empty Calories: While these foods are high in calories, they are stripped of natural fibres, phytonutrients and antioxidants. Thus, what you are getting is "empty calories". These foods artificially stimulate the body but therafter also leads to sudden crashes as your body is still craving for the nutrients which makes you want to eat more. This leads to a vicious cycle of overeating and a huge set of health problems associated with it.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG): If you think only Chinese food contained MSG, you will be surprised to know that the majority of processed food contains this dangerous additive. A flavour enhancer, it leads to health problems such as Alzheimers, Obesity, Psychological Disorders and more. There are also a myriad different names for MSG like artificial flavours, flavour enhancers etc which are difficult to keep track of.
Even the Added Natural Ingredients are Not Safe: Not just chemicals but adding "natural" ingredients can cause health problems too. For instance, even the most basic form of processed foods such as canned vegetables contain a high amount of salt or sodium mainly to prevent microbial growth and/or enhance the taste. Eating such foods can easily cause your sodium intake to spike, causing high blood pressure. Read our blog on salt to know more.
Oxygenation of Food: And if you thought, it's safe to buy and consume pre-cut vegetables as they don't contain any additives, you are mistaken. Many Vitamins including Vitamin C are antioxidants and react to oxygen. Prolonged exposure to air after being cut makes them react with air causing a loss of such vital nutrients.
Unknown sources:When you prepare food at home, you have a control on the source of the ingredients and also the freshness. However since processed foods are mass produced, you no longer know where the ingredients were procured from, what were the growing conditions, how old the ingredients were and if the sources themselves were preserved with pesticides, fumigants and other modes of treatment.
So, How do you Make Better Choices?
While it may not be possible to eliminate packaged foods from your life completely, some small steps in the right direction can lead to enormous positive results. Here is a 4-step method to help you make a healthy choice.
Step #1: Say No to Ultra-processed Foods
Step #2: Reduce the Intake of Medium processed foods to minimal or Replace it with healthier alternatives. They should be a very occasional indulgence while you transition from processed to un-processed foods. However, if you are healing from an illness, stay away from it altogether.
Step#3: Replace Low processed foods with home-made alternatives
Step #4: Buy Very Low level processed foods only when you can’t find wholesome alternatives and buy carefully.
Nowadays there are also many home cooks and small scale establishments who provide snacks made in a healthier way. You can even visit them to see how they are made or request them to customize your purchase as per your requirements. While this cannot be a replacement for home cooked food, it is still a better option (especially for busy moms or those who don’t have access to a kitchen) than buying something from the shelf which you know nothing about.
Listed below are some more steps to make healthier choices.
Stock your Pantry and Kitchen with Fresh, Natural Foods
You are less likely to reach for a packet of chips or biscuits if you have other healthier alternatives at hand. Stock your kitchen shelves and refrigerator with fresh vegetables, seasonal fruits, homemade snacks, millets, and other healthy nutrient-dense foods. You can use the replacement chart here as a guide.
Pack Healthy Snacks when You are on the Go
Keeping healthy snacks and meals at hand avoids you from reaching out for processed foods at cafes and restaurants. Some natural and healthy options include – fruit, nuts, seeds, dates, nut butter with homemade bread, roasted flaxseeds, sprouts, salads, and more. Having these snacks at hand helps you munch healthily when hunger strikes. Read here for some interesting, healthy snacking ideas posted by one of our experts.
Prepare a Weekly Menu and Cook at Home
Use your Sundays to plan your meals for the week ahead. Purchase the required ingredients, do the prep and get it all sorted. This way, you can easily cook up homemade meals, even when your schedule gets hectic. Also make it a point to cook and store some healthy snacks during the weekend.
Invest in the Right Cookware and Learn Healthy Cooking Techniques
By investing in the right cookware – vegetable choppers, blenders, steamers – you can significantly reduce the time you spend in the kitchen while serving healthy meals at the table. Experiment with healthy recipes to find what works for you, and what doesn’t. Running out of recipe ideas? Go through our recipe section and get started.
Always Check Labels
Before you pick a food item at the supermarket make sure to read its labels carefully. This is crucial because, even if a food item is advertised as “Natural,” it doesn’t mean it's wholesome and healthy. It may contain natural flavouring and other additives, that are equally bad. The nutrition information tells you how much added sugar, fats, salt, preservatives, and other chemicals are in it. Also, check for the date of packaging.
Even if you are buying pre-cut fruits and vegetables in case you do not have the option of buying fresh produce, buy as close to packaging date as possible, maximum within 2-3 days.. Pre-cut fruits and vegetables oxidize and lose nutrition quickly.
Do not shop when you are tired or hungry
Studies show that if you head out for your weekly shopping without first doing some ‘peth pooja’ or are tired, you are more likely to buy unhealthy stuff which was not originally on your shopping list. Hence, be an aware consumer and only purchase what you want and which help meet your health goals.
Eliminate Processed Foods from Your Diet, One Package at a Time
In today's fast consumerist world, it's not easy to eliminate all packaged foods from your plate. But, if you set your mind on it, you can achieve progress slowly but steadily. While it is not going to be easy, the benefits of switching to natural foods will surely outweigh the challenges that you might face. From weight loss to a reduction in toxins level in your body, the benefits of natural living are too.
Disclaimer: The health journeys, blogs, videos and all other content on Wellcure is for educational purposes only and is not to be considered a ‘medical advice’ ‘prescription’ or a ‘cure’ for diseases. Any specific changes by users, in medication, food & lifestyle, must be done under the guidance of licensed health practitioners. The views expressed by the users are their personal views and Wellcure claims no responsibility for them.