When it comes to getting lean, not all calories are created equal. There is growing evidence that the more processed foods you eat, the more likely you are to be obese1. Processed foods are ones which have been prepared and packaged by a company. This includes common foods like bread and bacon. Unprocessed foods are ones which are pretty much as harvested – things like apples, eggs, and whole oats. Generally speaking, processed foods have a long list of ingredients, while unprocessed foods only have one ingredient. In other words, unprocessed foods don’t have ingredients, they are ingredients!
A recent study2 showed that people eat, on average, 500 Kcal a day more when given processed foods than when given unprocessed foods. That’s a lot! Part of the problem is food companies know what we like: Lots of fat, salt and sugar. Processed foods often contain far more fat, salt, and sugar than you would ever add if you made the dish yourself. It makes no difference whether it’s something simple like frozen French fries or a complex multi-course Indian ready meal. Processed foods are usually far less healthy for you.
In addition to what’s added, many ultra-processed foods (like cola, pizza pockets, chocolate bars, crisps, etc.) contain very few nutrients. They may be high in fat and simple carbohydrates (such as sugar and white flour), but most are low in protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. Many vitamins (such as vitamin C) are destroyed by heat and the way companies make these foods vastly reduces the vitamins and minerals in them. Home-cooked foods made from unprocessed ingredients tend to be higher in nutrients and more satiating (keeps you feeling full).
As well, processed foods often contain colourings, preservatives, artificial sweeteners or other additives. While these have all been tested and found safe for human consumption, we know very little about the long term consequences of eating them.
Fundamentally, most of us eat foods that our ancestors would not recognise. We would all do better if we ate things as nature intended. There is solid research showing a diet high in vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds, fish and lean meats reduces the risk of many diseases, including obesity.
In practice, avoiding processed foods means ditching junk foods like chocolate bars, crisps, biscuits and so on. It also means doing more of your own cooking from scratch, rather than relying on ready meals, sauces in jars or seasoning mixes. When you cook from scratch you can control how much, and what types, of fat and sugar you add. Consider the simple example of switching from a breakfast cereal to porridge you make yourself (not the instant oats with sugar and flavourings added!). Porridge oats are higher in protein and fibre than your typical cereal, plus you can add flavour in the form of fresh, dried or frozen fruit (one of your five a day!). Even if you add honey or maple syrup to sweeten your porridge, odds are you will add far less than the amount of sugar most companies add to cereal.
Cooking from scratch may be more difficult and time consuming, but when it comes to losing the fat, processed foods are not your friend!
For some great unprocessed food recipes, from breakfast to dinner to snacks, click here!
Monteiro CA, Moubarac JC, Levy RB, Canella DS, Louzada MLDC, Cannon G. Public Health Nutr. 2018 Jan;21(1):18-26. doi: 10.1017/S1368980017001379. Epub 2017 Jul 17.
Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, Cai H, Cassimatis T, Chen KY, Chung ST, Costa E, Courville A, Darcey V, Fletcher LA, Forde CG, Gharib AM, Guo J, Howard R, Joseph PV, McGehee S, Ouwerkerk R, Raisinger K, Rozga I, Stagliano M, Walter M, Walter PJ, Yang S, Zhou M.Cell Metab. 2019 Jul 2;30(1):67-77.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008. Epub 2019 May 16. Erratum in: Cell Metab. 2019 Jul 2;30(1):226.