You've probably heard the phrase "you are what you eat" before, but have you ever really stopped to think about what the saying means? The food that you eat serves as fuel for your body. Like your car, your body needs good energy to power every function. Bad fuel can interfere with essential functions, just as it can ruin a car's engine. What you eat determines whether you're putting chemicals and empty calories or beneficial vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients into your body every day. Understanding the differences between whole foods and processed foods can help you make better decisions regarding your diet.
What Is Processed Food?
Processed foods have undergone some processes to enhance their flavor, help them last longer, change their color or accomplish another goal. There are four main categories of processed foods:
- Minimally processed foods are only subjected to processes that have roughly the same nutritional value as unprocessed foods. Shelf stabilizing, roasting, and pasteurizing are types of minimal processing.
- Processed culinary ingredients are foods made directly from natural sources or minimally processed foods used for food preparation.
- Processed foods are made by combining natural and minimally processed foods.
- Ultra-processed foods contain more man-made ingredients and processed ingredients than natural and minimally processed foods. Sometimes, these are referred to as highly processed foods.
Examples of Processed Foods
Knowing some examples of different processed foods will help you recognize the categories more easily when you're at the grocery store. Here are some examples:
- Minimally processed foods include dried beans, eggs sold in a carton, bagged salads, sliced fruits, and vegetables.
- Processed culinary ingredients include salt, olive oil, and maple syrup.
- Processed foods include canned foods, frozen foods, pasta sauces, yogurt, salad dressings, fresh bread, and cheese.
- Ultra-processed foods include crackers, deli meats, granola, frozen dinners, carbonated soft drinks, potato chips, sugary breakfast cereals, baking mixes, powdered soups, packaged bread, ice cream, and margarine.
Why Are Processed Foods Bad?
Being processed doesn't make food terrible. Minimally processed and processed culinary ingredients generally aren't bad for you. The processing that the foods undergo makes them easier to consume, safer to eat or last a little longer in the grocery store. Foods that fall under the processed category may contain oils and sugar that you need to consume in moderation to maintain a healthy diet. However, they're not completely bad for you.
Ultra-processed foods are the type that people point to when they say that processed foods are bad. Some reasons why ultra-processed foods are less healthy than other options include:
- Calories. Ultra-processed foods are often high in calories but are short on nutrients. As a result, a diet high in ultra-processed foods can lead to weight gain and make you short on nutrients. Highly processed foods low in fat and calories often have chemicals added to enhance the taste, making them not any more nutritious than their fattening counterparts.
- Sugar. Refined sugars have been shown to have harmful effects on the body, and ultra-processed foods are full of them. Artificial sweeteners may take their place, but they pose their own set of health risks. Some studies have found that they contribute to obesity, and there is evidence to suggest that certain artificial sweeteners may increase your risk of developing health problems like cancer.
- Salt. Although salt is naturally derived, too much of it in your diet can increase your blood pressure and lead to other health problems. Highly processed foods typically contain large amounts of salt for flavor.
- Fewer nutrients. In general, ultra-processed foods contain less fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals than other foods. Eating the foods may make you full, but they don't nourish your body.
What Goes Into Ultra Processed Foods?
Ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients that you don't keep in your home kitchen, such as:
- Artificial flavorings
- Artificial colorants and dyes
- Artificial sweeteners
- Bulking agents
- Chemical preservatives
- Hydrolyzed proteins
- Hydrogenated oils
- Modified starches
What Are Whole Foods?
Whole foods are foods that aren't processed at all or that are only minimally processed. The term whole refers to the fact that the nutrients found in the foods are intact. Some whole foods include:
- Fruits and vegetables that are fresh, frozen or unsweetened and dried
- Meat, poultry, and fish
- Root vegetables
- Milk and plain yogurt
- Pure 100% fruit juice
- Herbs and spices
- Nuts and seeds
- Tea and coffee
Why Are More People Shifting to Natural Foods?
A whole food diet can have many benefits for your health. When you eat more natural foods, you can avoid chemicals, reduce your intake of salt and refined sugar and increase the number of beneficial nutrients you consume. As awareness grows about the problems with processed foods, more people are turning to whole food diets. While you don't need to avoid all processed and ultra-processed foods, making them only occasional treats can promote health and well-being.