So, what exactly is processed food? Essentially, if you can either take it out of the wrapper and nosh on it or warm it up and scarf it, then it’s probably processed. The same generally holds true if the ingredients are essentially unpronounceable. If you can pick it from a plant, harvest it from an animal, and it requires more than a defrost setting on a stove or microwave, then it’s much less likely to be highly processed. Typically, less processed foods have a shorter shelf life as well due to the lack of preservatives.
Well, what’s the problem with easy? Regrettably, there are a number of issues with processed foods. Processed foods tend to be higher in salt, which can both increase blood pressure as well as retention of water (which in turn can increase weight and swelling/bloating). Sugar is often a major ingredient, which may have negative effects on both insulin resistance as well as decreasing satiety (sensation of fullness). Also, prepackaged foods tend to have larger portions, and this increased portion size can encourage overeating. Lastly, this doesn’t even begin to touch on ultra-processed drinks. Studies suggest that sugary drinks provide an increase in calorie intake without providing nearly the level of satiety that similar calorie intake from food can provide. Most are aware that soda isn’t great for health, but even fruit juice without added sugar can provide a similar carb/calorie profile. While fruit is great for health, it loses the added fullness benefits of fiber and the bulk of the fruit itself when ingested as a juice.
Are there better options? Actually, there are a number of good choices available. Exchanges like water and fruits for sodas and juice and snacks of nuts rather than chips are a simple place to start. Using fresh ingredients to prepare you meals on the weekend for the week ahead allow you much more control over both your salt and sugar intake, and the effort required to prepare you meals can reduce impulse eating that happens “just because (insert your favorite junk food) was there in the house.”
Ultimately big changes begin with simple steps. Starting with the steps that are easiest for you and then working toward the more involved processes can allow for maintainable improvements in your health as opposed to very drastic but untenable phases. While sudden and huge lifestyle modifications can show quick results, these changes often ultimately result in frustration due to the return of previous habits and in turn, previous health status. Good luck with your fitness goals, and here’s to a healthy summer!