Most of us are aware that processed foods can be problematic for our health.
If you look at almost any “healthy” diet, you will find that all of them try to reduce or even eliminate the presence of processed foods. Now, new emerging research shows us that the picture is even more dire than we originally thought. Each piece of processed food could be taking minutes off of your life. In this article, we will walk through everything you need to know about processed foods and how they may be reducing your lifespan.
What are processed foods?
Processed foods are foods that have been altered in some way during preparation. Whole foods are foods that have not been altered. For example, an apple is a whole food. However, an apple-flavored slushie is an example of processed food. A piece of bread made with all-purpose flour is a processed food, while brown rice is a whole food.
However, eating exclusively whole foods can be quite difficult, especially when even canned, frozen, or baked foods are considered “processed” foods. These food preservation and preparation techniques are essential to our survival. It is not feasible to eat a diet of completely unprocessed foods, and some studies believe it may be detrimental to our health to do so. For example, the raw vegan diet is the ultimate unprocessed diet and has been tied to various severe health effects. However, this may vary from person to person, and certainly doesn’t mean processed food gets the green light.
What most people think of when they are talking about the ill health effects of processed food is ultra-processed food. Ultra-processed foods are made from substances extracted from food, like fats, starches, and added sugar. Going back to our example, an apple would be a whole food, apple juice can be considered a processed food, but apple soda would be considered an ultra-processed food.
Why are processed foods bad for your health?
Processing can remove essential nutrients and also increase your consumption of additives like fat, sugar, and salt to make food more palatable. These additives can increase the risk of developing a multitude of health problems.
Going back to our apple example, if you eat an apple, you are getting many essential nutrients, like vitamins and fiber. If you process the apple into apple juice, though, you are removing the fiber, leaving mostly sugar and water behind. If you are drinking an apple-flavored soda, you get no nutritional benefits, vitamins, or minerals – just an extremely high sugar intake. Not getting a sufficient amount of fiber is less filling (which can lead to overeating) and can also cause health problems like constipation. Ultra-processed foods present even more of a problem because they are overloading your body with fats and sugars.
How much do processed foods reduce your lifespan?
Eating too much processed and ultra-processed food can take minutes off of your lifespan.
For example, a study was put out analyzing the health effects of certain types of food. The study found that eating a single hot dog costs you 36 minutes of your healthy life. By comparison, eating nuts and seeds—whole foods—can increase your healthy lifespan by 25 minutes.
The study makes the case for how limited diet changes can result in big positive effects.
For example, changing just 10% of your diet to whole foods can add 48 minutes of healthy life per day. Not only that, but these healthy food choices can also have a significant positive impact on the environment.
How do I cut processed foods out of my diet?
It’s easy to feel like it’s “too late” to make changes to our diet and bodies; however, the truth is that it is never too late! The best way to make positive changes in your health is to do so gradually, in a manner that is sustainable.
Instead of focusing on cutting processed foods out, think about how you can integrate whole foods that you love. Every day, create a salad made out of your favorite ingredients, or stock up on your favorite fruit to have as a snack each day. Remember, even changing just 10% of your diet can make a huge difference in the long run.
After you have added more healthy foods to your diet, pay attention to the processed foods that are least satisfying for you and work to cut them out of your diet.
For example, do you get hungry on the way home from work and find yourself swinging through the drive-thru just out of convenience? Keep a delicious whole-food snack on stock in your car so that you aren’t forced to choose between hunger and eating processed foods. If you do eat ultra-processed foods, make sure you do so in moderation and savor the experience so that you will be fully satisfied afterward and won’t need to indulge too often.