The processed foods myth – are they all bad for your health?

You’ll hear many people saying that the easiest way to lose weight is to cut processed foods. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to consume processed foods, because they’re not all bad for you.

For a healthy lifestyle you just need to read the labels, adjust the dose, and learn more about the processing method. Some processing methods are useful and harmless, and that’s why some processed foods can actually be staples of a healthy diet.

What are processed foods?

First of all, let’s see what processed foods really are.

A simple definition of processed foods would be those foods that, in order to get to their actual nutritional, macronutrient and micronutrient properties, as well as to their actual taste, colour, flavour, texture, and smell, have been through a series of natural or artificial chemical processes.

They are foods that have not been created like they are by nature. Basically, we include here almost anything that comes in a package, jar, or even can.

However, processing can involve pasteurising, baking, canning, freezing, drying, as well as several of these. These are not necessarily unhealthy.

There’s a big difference between a cookie that is loaded with sugar, salt, margarine, preservatives and flavours and a can of beans, although they both are processed foods.

But are all processed foods bad?

Like I always say, there’s no good and bad foods. The dose makes the poison. It’s not just black and white. There’s a lot of grey or even white, but with some shades of colour.

The unhealthy processed foods

Most people cut processed foods from their diet because they contain added sugar. It’s no longer a secret that the food industry is adding sugar even to some foods that don’t taste sweet: bread, salad dressings, canned vegetables and so on.

And cutting sugar by cutting processed foods is a good strategy to reduce your overall sugar intake.

But sugar is not the biggest problem of processed foods. I see two others that make processed foods unhealthy and addictive.

First, there’s all the additives and preservatives, things that we can’t even pronounce and never heard of. They’re added to increase the shelf life and make a croissant wrapped in plastic taste like a rainbow even after a year.

Secondly, our brain is not addicted to sugar alone. Think about it: when you crave sugar do you just go and eat plain table sugar? Not exactly.

What creates that Christmas tree effect, making so many areas in our brains to light up on brain scans, is the combination between sugar, fats, and salt. That is brain dope.

That’s why cravings don’t take the shape of white table sugar, but of moist chocolate cakes with cream on top.

Different types of processed foods

Not all processed foods are equal, because the nature and extent of their processing is different. It’s important to know that before you make decisions to eliminate some foods in your diet.

I find it easy to categorise processed foods in three big types: heavily processed foods, minimally processed foods, and unprocessed foods.

Heavily processed foods

They’re what you expect: most packaged foods, most of them with a pretty big ingredient list.

This means all sorts of packaged sweets, chips and other snacks, processed meats (salami, sausages, liver pate), processed fats (margarine), very processed dairy with extra ingredients (flavoured or fruit yoghurts, milk based sweet drinks such as milkshakes, some cheeses), ketchup, most salad dressings available in supermarkets and so on.

Minimally processed foods

Some foods are processed, but either naturally processed or very lightly. They’re definitely the examples of processed foods that are not bad for your health and can be a part of a very healthy diet.

So don’t be afraid to consume them just because there is some processing involved.

I include here foods such as plain yoghurts, natural cheeses, bread, some protein powders, muesli, dried fruit without added sugar (and dried fruit bars), rice, pasta, and, of course, dark chocolate.

The biggest catch here is to always check the label. That’s because, for example, you can get yoghurt that is made of milk and lactic cultures, but you can also get yoghurt that has 10 ingredients on the list.

Unprocessed foods

At the other end of the spectrum there are those foods that usually don’t come in any kind of packaging and you find them just as nature left them.

These are some totally unprocessed foods that should cover the most of a healthy diet based on whole foods: whole veggies and fruit, meat, eggs, nuts, beans, fish, sea food etc.

As you can see, there are different ways of processing foods, and they influence the quality of those foods.

You shouldn’t be afraid to consume some minimally processed foods or even small quantities of highly processed foods. It’s all about the dose and frequency.

And if you’re looking to lose some fat, eat more nutritious meals, control your cravings, intolerances, and generally feel better, most of your meals should be based on unprocessed and minimally processed foods.

But remember that for fat loss, you just have to eat less calories in a day. The fact that you’re eating whole foods won’t help you lose fat unless you’re in a deficit.

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