Familiar Foods May Still be Unhealthy
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
The foundation of quality nutrition is consuming as many whole foods as possible while avoiding ultra-processed ones as often as possible. An ultra-processed food is one that has a lot of industrial ingredients that are not common (one example is something called isolates, commonly seen as whey or soy protein isolates). For a full definition, click here. Diets high in ultra-processed foods are associated with chronic disease, early death [i], and generally just feeling unwell. Often, when I am talking with patients, a common surprise is that familiar foods (like bagels, cream cheese, sausage, etc.) are considered processed. It seems that eating something as we grew up confuses us into thinking it's a quality choice. If a parent gave this to me, it must be healthy, right? If only that were the case!
There are different levels to processed food and eating those that have been minimally prepared (or changed) isn't a bad thing. Minimally processed would include things like chopped carrots, hummus, whole grain bread. These kinds of foods compliment whole ingredient meals. Minimally processed options are also easy to carry for trips or in a back pack. There's definitely benefits to these but they should play the supporting role.
Recommended Food List Here (to be posted soon)
More Details on Whole vs. Processed
To know how processed something is, consider how far it is from it's natural or original state and then, if needed, investigate the nutrition label. Here's an example: consider an apple and some apple flavored foods (like a breakfast pastry or snack bar). When you are about to eat an apple, does it look similar to how it existed in nature? Typically the answer is yes - it has the same shape, ingredient, taste, and texture as it did sitting on the tree. This is a whole food.
If I cut the apple up, I've barely changed it: it has the same taste, texture, ingredient but the shape is different. This is minimal processing. Even if I take that apple and blend it, changing it's texture and shape, the ingredients and taste remain the same. This is still minimally processed. As I start to add ingredients to the blended version, like sugar, flavoring, even colors or preservatives, the food is now becoming more and more processed. These additional ingredients and the loss of some of the original benefits (like fiber, vitamins, minerals) puts the healthiness of this food in question.
Now to the ultra-processed, apple flavored products. A popular toaster pastry has an apple flavor. These pastries look nothing like anything in nature and the ingredient list is quite industrial. When looking at the packaging, I find that only 2% of this product is actually apple. Not quite the same experience of eating a few apple slices.
Another big difference between the ultra-processed and whole version of foods is how satisfying they are to eat. Eating an apple takes time. It's filling. On the other hand, eating a toaster pastry takes no time at all. It's highly palatable and sweet. Once done, I could eat another right away and definitely a third within the hour. This is how many of us end up overeating, feeling disappointed and hungry soon after.
It's not your fault that you overeat this stuff. It's not self control. It's the food.
The manufacturer has everything to gain by you being able to eat more of their product so they create a product that is supercharged on taste (high fat! high sugar! high salt!) and low on actual beneficial nutrients. Our body craves those intense flavors and they are capitalizing on that.
If a food is processed and you aren't sure of the quality, simply read the ingredients. We want simple things that you recognize and the list to be relatively short (ideally less than 5-7).
It's easy to have an ultra-processed diet. Do these meals sound familiar?
Ultra Processed Diet Example 1
Breakfast: Sausage Egg and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich
Lunch: Chicken Tenders and French Fries with soda (diet or regular)
Snack: Protein Bar
Dinner: Boneless Fried Chicken with Gravy, Instant Mashed Potatoes and Creamed Corn
Ultra Processed Diet Example 2
Breakfast: Protein Mixed Berry Cereal
Lunch: 2 Slices Sausage Pizza with Sweet Tea
Snack: Cheddar Snack Crackers
Dinner: Family-Style Frozen Lasagna
I've provided a whole food version and a whole food, plant-based alternatives below. Eating whole foods with a lot of plants is overall great but eating a whole food, plant-based diet is exponentially better for your health (and is better for the planet!).
Whole Food Version: Breakfast: scrambled egg with avocado on whole wheat English muffin
Whole Food, Plant-Based Version: Tofu scramble with avocado on whole wheat English muffin
Whole Food Version: Grilled chicken breast over baked potato or rice with water
Whole Food, Plant-Based Version: Grilled tempeh strips with baked potato, grilled asparagus and water
Whole Food Version: Almonds and banana
Whole Food, Plant-Based Version: Almonds and banana
Whole Food Version: Grilled salmon with lemon, roasted corn on the cob with broccoli
Whole Food, Plant-Based Version: Portobello "steaks" grilled with paprika and olive oil, roasted corn on the cob with broccoli
If you think there is room to upgrade your diet, I encourage you to get started ASAP. What you do today matters because you matter!
Important Side Note: there is no shame in enjoying highly processed foods, on occasion. If it makes sense for the event, the holiday, the celebration, then please enjoy! Part of being human is enjoying cultural cuisine. We just don't want those foods to be eaten every day because then it's just your diet, not something celebratory. If you consistently nourish yourself with whole foods and lots of plants, you lessen the overall negative impacts of eating the other stuff (save for maybe an upset stomach). See more about what foods to enjoy and how often in our next blog post (to be linked when published).
Ultra Processed Foods Defined: "Industrial formulations typically with 5 or more and usually many ingredients. Besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, ingredients of ultra-processed foods include food substances not commonly used in culinary preparations, such as hydrolyzed protein, modified starches, and hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and additives whose purpose is to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product, such as colorants, flavorings, nonsugar sweeteners, emulsifiers, humectants, sequestrants, and firming, bulking, de-foaming, anticaking, and glazing agents." Read the study here https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6389637/
Eating a highly processed diet (which can be considered >4 servings per day) is associated with a 62% risk of premature death (most commonly cancer). Each serving over that increases the risk by another 18% [i].
[i] Rico-Campà, A., Martínez-González, M. A., Alvarez-Alvarez, I., Mendonça, R. D., de la Fuente-Arrillaga, C., Gómez-Donoso, C., & Bes-Rastrollo, M. (2019). Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 365, l1949. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l1949