Whether on the news, in magazine articles or around the office, advice that processed foods are to be avoided is certainly making the rounds.
Parents may be concerned about the food and snacks their children eat during the day, and adults face the same dilemma regarding just how healthy their food choices really are. Younger generations have likely grown up with heavily processed foods making frequent appearances from breakfast through dessert, but are they worse off for it?
How much processed food is too much? Should processed food be avoided entirely?
Most doctors recommend that patients take a very deliberate, balanced approach to their diet. It’s okay to indulge every now and then, but generally you should strive to eat nutritious foods in smaller amounts than those portions found in the average American restaurant. However, even foods that we think are nutritious can actually be so heavily processed that the nutrients we need are lessened or maybe even no longer present.
So what are processed foods exactly? The definition can vary, and it’s important to remember that just because something is processed does not inherently mean it is bad for you – take milk, for example. Milk is a processed food because it is pasteurized in order to kill harmful bacteria and to keep fats from separating, but milk is still a healthy beverage option, especially when low or non-fat. Food can be processed for a variety of reasons, but can be considered unhealthy or as containing less than its normal nutritional value when it:
- Contains added sugar, salt or fat
- Has been laced with preservatives to make it last longer
- Is made with trans- or saturated fats
- Is low in vitamins and minerals
An easy way to tell if a food item is processed is to read the label carefully. You may not always know what the average amount of sodium is in a food product, so it’s important to compare with other brands and varieties, noting if one product has a substantially higher amount of sodium versus another. Boxed, canned or frozen foods (for example, canned fruits and vegetables, boxed meals, frozen dinners, cereal, and certain meats) are frequently over-processed.
It isn’t necessary for most people to avoid processed foods entirely. In fact, unless you are highly vigilant of everything you digest, it is likely that you will consume processed food from time to time, and without any negative health effects. Again, a balanced diet will always be your doctor’s top recommendation, but it is also advisable to pay close attention to the labels of your favorite foods and learn if there are healthier alternatives with less sugar, sodium and fat.