There are so many reasons why we should eat well. The primary one is to live longer lives in good health. There’s also improved energy, stamina and immune health, good skin, mood and mental wellbeing – the list goes on. But it’s easy to get confused about what constitutes a healthy diet. Our lives are busier than ever and we’re time poor, so pre-prepared and processed foods can seem like a godsend. Packaging, however, can be misleading and nutritional information and labelling is not easy to decipher.
Excess consumption of salt, sugar and saturated fat calories have been linked with an increase in common but often preventable cardiometabolic conditions which include heart attack, stroke, diabetes, insulin resistance and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Now researchers have found a link between the non-nutrient components of food and inflammation, which is a driver of chronic diseases including cancers, cardiometabolic conditions and mental disorders. Ultra-processed foods also contain less dietary fibre and fewer vitamins and minerals, making the overall nutritional quality of our diet poorer.
Current research indicates that whole foods, with a little processing as possible, are significantly healthier in many ways. The more processed (ultra-processed) foods we eat, the greater the risks of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and an early death. research is ongoing, but opting for fresh, minimally processed foods is linked with reduced abdominal obesity, as the body can break down the foods more effectively.
Foods can be divided into four categories based on how much they have been processed during their production: unprocessed or minimally processed; processed culinary ingredients, processed foods; and ultra-processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods typically have five or more ingredients and contain industrial substances such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours, texturizing agents, smell and taste enhancers. They are commonly inexpensive, virtually imperishable, easily consumed, and highly palatable.
The examples listed below may help with making better choices:
Unprocessed foods: fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat, fish and grains
Processed culinary ingredients: butter, lard, oils, salt, sugar and vinegar
Processed foods: Unpackaged freshly made bread, tinned fruit and vegetables, bacon, cheese, salted and roasted nuts, canned fish and cheese.
Ultra-processed: ice-cream, ham, sausages, crisps, mass-produced bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, carbonated drinks, fruit-flavoured yoghurts, instant soups and some alcoholic drinks, including whiskey, gin and rum.
Processed foods have a place as part of a healthy diet and even small changes can add up and make a difference in improving health.
- Try swapping simple, refined grains/carbohydrates such as white pasta, rice, and bread for wholegrain alternatives, such as brown rice, wholewheat pasta and wholegrain bread. They are higher in fibre and protect against heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
- Read food labels and compare similar products for ingredients, salt, sugar, saturated fat and additives. Make informed choices.
- start with a few simple food swaps, such as sugary, processed cereal for oats/porridge with fresh fruit.
- make your own vinaigrette with olive oil and vinegar to drizzle over salads instead of processed dressings and mayonnaise.
- Eat less processed meat such as sausages, bacon and packs of sliced sandwich meats. Opt for fresh chicken, turkey, fish and eggs.
- Eat more plant-based proteins, such as lentils and beans.