This blog is written by Hanna Asheber, a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Western Ontario.
We live in a society where convenience is key. The quicker and less effort it takes to get something we want, the better it is; and that includes our food choices. The fast-food and delivery industries have been on an upward trend and don’t look like they’ll be going down anytime soon. But can we say the same about our health?
What counts as processed?
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, ultra-processed foods make up almost half (48.3%) of our daily calories as Canadians.
'Ultra-processed' is a term that was developed by researchers all over the world and is just 1 of 4 categories used by the Pan American Health Organization to classify foods and drinks. It encompasses foods like pizza, baked goods, burgers and most fast foods which have been manipulated with additives and chemicals to enhance their taste and longevity. Ultimately, these are the foods we gravitate towards because of their convenience and taste but this can leave us with long-term implications.
Are processed foods “bad” for us?
While associating the word bad with food has become a bit of a taboo subject, it’s important to remember that our bodies don’t necessarily get the fuel they need to function optimally from processed foods. And even though life is all about balance, it’s actually quite alarming how prevalent processed foods have become in our diet.
With that being said, here are just some of the negative health risks associated with processed foods:
1. Increases your risk of chronic diseases
A large study drew links between the additives and contaminants found in processed foods with cardiovascular, coronary heart and cerebrovascular diseases and even some cancers.
2. They’re packed with excessive sodium, fat and sugar
This may be no surprise to most of us, but the quantity of these ingredients is quite frightening. Companies use large amounts of sodium, fat and sugar to make processed foods taste better and one look at the nutrition label might be enough to deter you from habitually reaching for these foods. If continually consumed, health issues such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are sure to follow.
3. Processed foods are designed to keep you hooked
We’ve all (accidentally) experienced over-eating like finishing a whole family-sized bag of chips while watching your favourite movie. So in addition to the excessive amount of sugar and salt, these foods excite our brain’s reward system and release dopamine - the happy hormone. In excess, our bodies slowly become hooked on the feeling and keep us reaching for those comfort foods. Unfortunately, these products are intentionally designed to make us addicted which can really take a toll on our bodies and mental health over time.
4. Processed foods are low in nutrients and fibre
When foods are being tampered with and manipulated to become perfectly packaged and ready to sell in stores, the process depletes them from a lot of their nutrients. More commonly, fibre is lost during the process which is integral to the body’s digestive process. And to compensate, refined carbs or synthetic nutrients are added which contributes to spikes in our blood sugar that leave us just as hungry a couple of hours later.
5. Happy gut = Happy brain
Just like a luxury car needs high-quality fuel, your brain also needs high-quality nutrients to function optimally. With terms like hangry explaining this link, it comes as no surprise that the foods we eat affect the way we feel. A study concerning mental health concluded that anti-inflammatory diets are exceptionally effective at promoting our mental health. With this being said, processed foods high in salt and sugar are known for their inflammatory properties which not only put stress on our bodies but also on our minds.
Reducing your consumption of processed foods
So at this point, you might be asking yourself how you could possibly rid your diet of processed foods since they seem to be everywhere! And while it’s possible to completely cut them out, a good place to start is trying to strike a balance between whole foods and processed ones. Small steps like shopping on the perimeter of grocery stores where most whole foods are located can help stop your habit of “browsing” the snack aisle. Also, try searching up recipes on youtube or through Pinterest to make cooking seem less like a chore and a fun way to destress and look after your body! Speaking of Pinterest, try making a board of healthy aesthetic recipes. The visual appeal of your pins could entice you to actually make them! Lastly, cooking meals at home can help you understand exactly what goes into your meals and might actually save you some money if you have a habit of getting take-out all the time (I know I’ve been guilty of that).
All in all, life is too short not to enjoy the foods you want! But it’s also too short to treat your mind, body and soul less than what you deserve. So aim for balance and try to make changes towards a better lifestyle instead of for short-term gain.