A few months ago I had the opportunity to support a person with the writing of his thesis, he told me that he wanted to demonstrate the relationship between processed foods and harmful damage to health.
However, I told him that the term "processed foods" is very ambiguous and that we should define it since there are different classifications and levels of processing.
I find it very interesting how generally the term "processed foods" has strong negative connotations and much of this smear is simply not justified. It is true that food processing in certain cases coupled with excessive consumption of highly refined food products displaces whole and less refined foods.
However, processing has also contributed significantly to the improvement of human health, such as inactivation of pathogens, preventing the proliferation of microorganisms, protecting the original properties of food, improving its digestibility, etc.
On the other hand, processing can also damage their quality, which can have unwanted consequences such as loss of certain essential nutrients, formation of unwanted compounds, sensory quality, etc.
So it's not that simple, there are pros and cons to processed foods and there are different LEVELS of processing. These levels can be seen in the following image:
As we can see in the image, as food processing increases, nutrient density decreases. Talking about minimally processed foods (in which processing is useful) is not the same as talking about ultra-processed foods (in which processing is harmful).
Whole and minimally processed foods (such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, eggs, red meat, chicken and fish) contain a wide selection of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (plant nutrients), and zoonutrients (animal nutrients).
Research consistently points to one compelling conclusion:
Humans are healthier when they eat whole, less refined foods. This is likely because the higher the degree of processing, the more likely a food will: Lose nutritional value (such as fiber, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients) and gain additives and preservatives (such as sugar, sodium, trans fats, etc.)
So it makes sense that a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods could reduce rates of heart disease, cancer, depression, and type 2 diabetes, among other health problems.
In addition, whole and minimally processed foods are also rich in fiber and/or protein, two nutrients that help increase satiety. And they tend to have fewer calories per serving than highly processed refined foods. Both traits make it easier for us to control our weight.
In fact, whole and minimally processed foods may be what all successful diet protocols have in common. Recent studies have shown that participants experienced the same amount of weight loss, regardless of carb or fat intake, as long as they minimized their consumption of ultra-processed foods.
So does this mean we should give up all processed foods?
Nope, you shouldn't give them up for several reasons:
1.- SOME PROCESSED FOODS ARE GOOD FOR YOU
For example canned foods that save you time, are practical, a good source of nutrients and taste good (for example tuna or beans), or protein powder that is extremely protein-dense, low cost per serving and easy to consume.
2.- PROCESSED FOODS TASTE DELICIOUS
When processed foods are consumed in moderation, they help us to have moments of connection with our friends and pleasant experiences, remember that food is much more than calories and nutrients.
3.- PROGRESS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN PERFECTION
So instead of separating foods into “whole” and “non-whole” categories, imagine a spectrum. As you can see in the image below, as food becomes more processed and refined, it loses a bit of its nutritional power:
The goal with whole foods is not to make things "perfect." Instead, focus on doing "just a little bit better.”
And remember that what matters is what you do most of the time and not what you do occasionally, and this also applies to highly processed foods, despite the fact that ultra-processed foods are very nutritionally poor, that does not mean that you can never consume them, including them from time to time and knowing how to manage their consumption is a symptom of healthy behavior and a good relationship with food and usually generates greater adherence to frequently consuming whole and minimally processed foods by being able to include less recommended foods in a way sporadic without this having the slightest effect on health.
In addition, remember that other factors such as physical activity, stress management, sufficient and quality rest, social connection, etc. are also of greater importance. If this is not covered, the consumption of processed foods will take a backseat.
Thank you for reading,