Eliminate processed foods, embrace whole food plant diet - opinion

What is processed food? Why is the ultra-processed variety so harmful to our health, and what’s keeping us from eating real, whole foods? 

 A flexitarian diet involves eating more plant-based meals (photo credit: UNSPLASH)
A flexitarian diet involves eating more plant-based meals
(photo credit: UNSPLASH)

‘If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t’ (food author Michael Pollin)

"If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t"

Michael Pollin

It’s crunchy, it’s tasty, it’s mouthwatering, it smells great and you always want more. But it can make you sick or even kill you.

A study released only a few weeks ago shows us, once again, the harm of eating ultra-processed foods.

These processed foods have become extremely prominent in the Western diet. As a matter of fact, the estimate in a country like the United States is that it makes up more than 60% of the food consumed on any given day.

What is processed food? Why is the ultra-processed variety so harmful to our health, and what’s keeping us from eating real, whole foods? 

HEAVILY PROCESSED foods are often high in sugar, fat and empty calories. HEAVILY PROCESSED foods are often high in sugar, fat and empty calories.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons)HEAVILY PROCESSED foods are often high in sugar, fat and empty calories. HEAVILY PROCESSED foods are often high in sugar, fat and empty calories. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What foods are we talking about?

Processed food refers to any food that is altered from its natural state. This can include food that was simply cut, washed, heated, pasteurized, canned, cooked, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed, or packaged. It also can include food that has added preservatives, nutrients, flavors, salts, sugars or fats.

But let’s get more specific. A few years ago I attended a webinar hosted by Dr. David Katz of Diet ID and the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center that was founded at Griffin Hospital. The subject of the panel discussion was the effect of processed food on health. One of the panelists was Carlos Monteiro, professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. He was instrumental in creating what is known as the NOVA scale, which rates just how processed a food is, and how damaging its consumption may be.

The NOVA scale works like this:

  • Group 1 – unprocessed or minimally processed foods (fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat, milk, etc.).
  • Group 2 – foods processed in the kitchen with the aim of extending their shelf life, such as fats, aromatic herbs, etc., to be kept in jars or in the refrigerator for later use.
  • Group 3 – processed foods. These are the foods obtained by combining foods of groups 1 and 2 to obtain many food products such as breads, crackers and jams, but they have few ingredients. This would also include canned vegetables, salted nuts, canned fish and fruits in syrup.
  • Group 4 – ultra-processed foods. They are the ones that use many ingredients, including food additives that improve palatability, processed raw materials (hydrogenated fats, modified starches, etc.) and ingredients that are rarely used in home cooking, such as soy protein or mechanically separated meat. These foods are mainly of industrial origin, are extremely palatable (you always want more), and contain a long list of ingredients.

It is this system that is the basis of the Israeli system of red circles indicating high amounts of added sugars, added sodium and added fats.

Although we tend to focus on individual nutrients instead of the “wholeness” of a food, Monteiro and his colleagues found that, since the 1980s, despite consumers buying less sugar and dietary fats, their consumption was increasing strongly, due to the industrial products that contain large quantities of these items.

A study published the first week of November this year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed a substantial increase in premature death in those whose diets include processed foods. Eating ultra-processed foods – or those that contain little or no whole foods in their ingredients – was associated with tens of thousands of premature deaths in 2019, according to results of a new study in Brazil. However researchers noted Brazilians eat far less of these foods than people in high-income countries like the United States, Canada and Australia.

During the study period, 261,061 adults between the ages of 30 and 69 died from preventable, noncommunicable diseases. These deaths were linked with 21.8% of all deaths from preventable, noncommunicable diseases in the country.

Worth the convenience?

One of our innate behaviors is to try to do things the easy way. There is no argument that ready-to-eat meals, jarred sauces, cakes, cookies, candies, most breakfast cereals and pop-in-the-microwave types of food are easier to prepare than cooking whole foods. But we must always ask, at what cost? We know the cost – early mortality, sickness and suffering.

Michael Pollin, whom we quoted at the beginning of this article, doesn’t even refer to the category three and four processed foods as food. He calls them “food-like edible items.” And that is what constitutes almost all of the food in the middle aisles of today’s grocery store.

As I have written and spoken about many times before, you are in charge of your health. Your lifestyle habits, and especially your diet, are the main determinants of how healthy you’re liable to be in the course of your lifetime, and how long you are likely to live. Most important, this is all about quality of life and ability to perform in every area.

Some changes to make

Let’s make this easy: Switch to a whole food, plant-predominant diet. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

  • It’s not hard to cook whole grains, such as pasta, brown rice and quinoa.
  • It’s easy to pick up a fruit and just eat it. Make fresh salads or even peel a carrot, eat a handful of cherry tomatoes and buy prewashed romaine lettuce or other pre-cleaned green leafy vegetables.
  • While you are doing other tasks, bake a sweet potato or plain white potato.
  • Frozen veggies are easy, too, just don’t overcook them.
  • A handful of natural nuts a day is also a good idea.

If you want to get more complicated, that’s fine. One of my longtime clients has become a plant-based chef preparing incredibly savory dishes and desserts. I can’t think of a greater investment in better overall health.

Remember, processed foods are the foods that are addictive and send signals to your brain to eat more and more. The companies that manufacture them know exactly how to make them that way. And because the fiber and other important ingredients have been stripped out, they don’t fill you up.

Whether a potato chip, a cookie, a candy, or a ready-to-eat prepared food, switch it out for a mostly whole food, plant-based way of eating, and this will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”

The writer is a health and wellness coach and personal trainer with 23 years of professional experience. He is director of The Wellness Clinic, and can be reached at [email protected]