Today, grocery shoppers can choose from a vast array of products. There are so many food choices out there that we may be faced with too much possibility. There's nothing wrong with too much possibility, but we still need to ask ourselves, will this dish taste delicious? Or, will this meal make me feel bad? And no matter what we end up choosing, mindfulness is essential. It's important to think about what we are putting into our bodies. We should also ask ourselves what ingredients are in the products we are buying? More than ever, the saying 'less is more' matters, and at the checkout, you will want to make a quick and informed decision!
What is an easy way to identify the right or wrong purchase when it comes to our health? After all, we don't want to be stuck forever analyzing choice A from B!
An excellent place to start is understanding the difference between processed and unprocessed (whole) foods, what they are defined as, and why we should consider making the right choices that will help us on our journey to health. So, perhaps trade that bag of chips for an apple instead!
What are processed foods?
What immediately comes to mind are foods that come in packages and which contain ingredients we don't recognize (or can't pronounce) like artificial colours, flavours, or other chemical additives.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes processed foods as foods that have changed from their natural state. Some processes include washing, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, sterilizing, mixing, and packaging.
In addition to the natural state being altered, other ingredients may have been added to the food like preservatives, nutrients and other food additives that have been approved for use in food products like salt, sugar, and fats.
Here is a breakdown of 4 types of food processing:
#1 Unprocessed or minimally processed foods include foods containing the natural, edible food parts of plants and animals. Minor processing occurs to either clean or remove inedible/unwanted parts. This way, food can be stored longer and be safer to eat. Many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, meats, and dairy products fall into this category.
#2 Processed culinary ingredients cover food ingredients that are minimally processed by pressing, refining, grinding, or milling. Examples of foods that fall under this category are plants, seeds, nuts, flours, and pasta coming from whole grains.
#3 Processed foods comprise foods coming from either of the two above groups, but that also have added salt, sugar, or fats to it. This would include food like some canned fruits and vegetables, some cheeses, freshly made bread, and canned fish.
#4 Ultra-processed foods include foods that have more than added salt, sweeteners, or fats. They have added artificial agents like colours, flavours, and preservatives to promote longer shelf life, texture, and manipulate the food's taste and palatability. Foods that fall under this category are typically ready-to-eat and don't require any form of preparation. 'Junk food' would fall under this category – chips, cookies, sugary drinks, breakfast cereals, and luncheon meats.
What are whole foods?
Whole foods are minimally processed, so nutrients like vitamins and minerals are kept intact. You get the food in its natural (or very close to it) state. Another way to identify whole foods is that they come directly from our planet. Think of foods that do not come packaged or don't have nutrition labels showing something altered, added or changed. Some examples of whole foods we should eat more of – fresh fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, grains like quinoa and millet, seeds and nuts, wild fish, and beans and legumes.
When we eat whole foods, we aren't taking on various chemicals and preservatives found in conventional processed food. People often associate eating processed foods with convenience. Still, it is convenient to eat and prepare whole foods because the recipes may be less complicated, and preparation doesn't take long.
Here are a few more benefits of how unprocessed foods can be better for your health:
#1 More natural fibre
A lot of existing fibre gets removed when food gets processed so that the product's shape and texture can be altered. We need fibre to promote digestive regularity and to feel full after a meal. Get fibre from vegetables, fruits, oats, legumes, nuts, dark chocolate, avocados, and chia seeds.
#2 Less salt
Many processed products contain extra sodium to extend shelf life. All of these extra preservatives, which almost always include a lot of sodium, can increase blood pressure and make us retain water, leaving us feeling heavy and bloated. To counteract the extra salt you may be ingesting from your diet, drink at least 1.5 litres of water a day, and reduce your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and fizzy or sugary drinks.
#3 No trans-fats
When we process liquid fats to become solids that won't melt at room temperature, we have produced an artificial fat through hydrogenation. These fats do not naturally occur, so you would not find them in unprocessed foods. Avoid processed foods like margarine, coffee creamer, frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, refrigerated dough products and other commercially-produced baked goods.
#4 No simple carbohydrates and sugars
Eating too many simple carbs can lead to insulin resistance issues and weight gain. A lot of whole foods still contain sugars; however, they are naturally occurring. Still, it is always essential to keep your sugar intake down, and by limiting processed foods, you can stay healthier and feel better about what you choose to put into your body!
#5 Connect with natural ingredients
Food traceability is essential. When you eat whole foods, you can trace your diet's journey, often back to the grower or farm. It is nearly impossible to track processed foods' journey, which is slightly ironic since we are usually bombarded with the familiarity of what the food contains, like tomatoes in ketchup.
We all have particular reasons to eat certain foods, so it is best to check with your doctor when making any significant changes. Still, it can't hurt to understand where your food comes from, what is in it, and how it impacts your overall health. Avoid ultra-processed foods and fill your diet with unprocessed foods - real food packed with antioxidants and nutrients that support your health.