Is all processed food unhealthy?

by | Nov 12, 2023 | gut health and digestion

The extent to which a food is processed is a major determinant in how healthy that food is. The Western diet includes many processed foods and even some ultra-processed foods. Researchers now think that this processing may have a large role in what makes the typical Western diet unhealthy.

Food processing includes food preparation methods such as chopping, mincing and blending. As well as cooking methods such as steaming, poaching, roasting and grilling. Food extrusion is a modern method of food processing used for making products such as breakfast cereals and snack bars. In fact, breakfast cereals are likely one of the most highly processed of food categories.

What’s more, a large proportion of foods included in the typical Western diet are ultra-processed. In fact more than half of the foods eaten by some people may be in this category. Ultra-processed products should not really be called foods. They are formulations of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy, nutrients and additives. They are made to be hyper-palatable, attractive and therefore potentially addictive. They have a long shelf life and are made to be easy to consume anywhere, at any time. Energy dense, and high in unhealthy fats, and refined starches and sugars, they are specifically formulated, presented and marketed to promote over consumption.

Highly processed foods are often low in fibre and high in chemicals called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Both of these factors are detrimental to our health because of their effects on our gut microbiome.

Less fibre in the diet means that our gut bacteria have less food. This lack of dietary fibre can change the composition of our gut microbiome to one that is less healthy, known as dysbiosis, which in turn affects our health.

Most of the AGEs in the foods we eat are not absorbed during digestion. However, the presence of these toxic chemicals can modify our gut microbiome, which also causes dysbiosis.
In turn, gut dysbiosis leads to chronic low grade gut inflammation and increases intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut. What’s more, gut inflammation can alter gut-brain communication. The so called gut-brain axis. Researchers believe gut inflammation may interfere with the body’s signalling processes, that should help to regulate energy intake and satiety. So that instead of feeling appropriately full after a meal, we can develop cravings for sweets and high energy foods. Which in turn leads to obesity and hence obesity related diseases.

The most healthy foods are fresh, whole foods that are minimally processed. If you are buying and cooking your own food, one way to recognise processed foods is to avoid anything in a tin, packet or jar. Then, prepare your foods using gentle preparation and cooking methods. Chopping or mincing rather than blending, pureeing or grinding. Cooking methods that involve liquids and lower temperatures result in less AGEs production. So, use lower temperature cooking methods such as steaming, poaching and stewing rather than hot or dry cooking methods such as grilling, roasting, baking or frying.

Eat real food – your body will thank you for it.

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