For many people, store-bought cakes and pastries, donuts, muffins, cookies, and sugary drinks are their go-to choices when they're looking for a snack. These foods are generally easy to access, and they're convenient in that they don't require any preparation. They taste good, and they provide an energy boost, albeit short-lived.
However, these foods are also highly processed, and when they start to make up a large or regular part of your diet, they detract from your overall health and well-being.
What are highly processed foods?
Highly processed foods are significantly altered from their original state, with extra ingredients added in. Example: if you check the ingredients list on a bag of potato chips, you'll see that you're getting a lot more than just potatoes. Other highly processed foods include sweetened breakfast cereals, chicken nuggets, packaged soups, frozen meals, and most fast food.
In contrast, whole foods and minimally processed foods largely resemble the same state in which they're found in nature. For instance, when you eat an apple or a carrot, you're clear on what you're eating; you can pick an apple directly from a tree or pull a carrot directly from the ground. Other foods, like peas and beans, may undergo some processing when they're packaged, but you're still getting the actual item that was harvested.
Exceptionally high levels of sugar, sodium, and fat make highly processed foods taste really good, to the point of being addictive. Think about how easy it is to devour an entire bag of cookies or potato chips in one sitting. When these high-calorie foods make up a large part of your diet, you're more vulnerable to a wide range of health issues, such as skin issues, low energy, weight gain, and an increased risk of diabetes.
Their appealing taste isn't an accident
The appealing taste and addictive qualities of highly processed foods isn't an accident. The food industry invests an enormous amount of money and research to make these foods taste as appealing as possible. Along with their high sugar, salt, and fat content, these foods are also likely to contain flavour enhancers such as MSG (monosodium glutamate) and artificial sweeteners. Once you become accustomed to these artificial, intense, chemically imbued flavours, the natural flavours of whole foods can seem less appealing. As a result, you're more likely to increase your intake of the processed foods, while reducing your intake of whole foods.
Along with flavour enhancers, highly processed foods often contain artificial colouring, thickeners, emulsifiers (to stop fats from clotting together), and preservatives. Depending on an individual's unique make-up and biochemistry, these additives can exacerbate conditions like eczema and psoriasis, trigger migraine headaches, and even have neurological effects, e.g.: behaviour and mood changes.
Even if you don't experience any of the aforementioned health issues, you're still not doing yourself any favours by making highly processed foods a large part of your diet. These foods are almost always nutritionally lacking—that is, they fail to provide the full range of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that your body needs for optimal health. They also lack fibre, which supports healthy digestion by helping to move food through your digestive tract. By focusing more on whole foods and fibre-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, you'll be providing your body with the nutritional fuel that it needs, you'll have better digestion, and you won't be taxing your system with all those extra chemical additives.
Start with gradual changes
The vast majority of people aren't prepared to eliminate highly processed foods from their diet entirely. If the prospect of cutting out these foods seems daunting, start with gradual changes:
Small changes add up, and you'll quickly begin to feel the difference as you make the shift towards healthier food choices.
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