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The question is complicated, firstly because processed foods are al over the place and even some of our ‘wholesome’ options are in fact processed via various processes that help preserve or prevent bacteria growth such as pasteurization, irradiation, vacuum sealing, fortification, or freezing.

A better question is perhaps: how to keep healthy even when it’s hard to avoid processed foods.

Truth is, if you want to avoid processed foods at all costs, you might find yourself with very limited options since even the low-sugar jam you would buy at the farmer’s market is in fact processed. The danger lies in having a too many ultraprocessed foods (yes, there is a higher level of processing and that is how we refer to it.) Think pizza pops, sweetened yogurt, and hot dogs or corn dogs for example.

Remember how doctors and dieticians will advise people to eat wholesome and as much farm-to-table diets as possible for a lower risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes and ultimately to avoid premature death? It’s true. There is no direct causality (yet!) but a myriad association have already been made by various scientists and medical professionals, hence the recommendations to eat mostly unadulterated, wholesome foods for best health.

A recent study coming from Brazil showed that people who consumed more ultraprocessed foods generally ate 500 calories more per day than people who ate healthier, unprocessed diets. Over the course of two weeks, the participants who ate ultraprocessed foods gained one kilogram, while those on an unprocessed diet lost one kilogram. Most people would likely choose to avoid weight gain if possible but the puzzling part is that…well, processed foods are tasty and appealing and they are an easy fix for dinner when you are short on time and the world seems to be closing on you. It’s almost impossible to fully avoid them (though some people do, so here’s a challenge.)

So what is the ultraprocessed diet that makes people gain weight and eat more? The researchers had a few suppositions: a lower content of protein, which makes people eat more for a proper amount; easiness of chewing and swallowing which makes people eat faster, therefore they eat more; ultraprocessed foods tend to be more concentrated (more calories per gram,) for a lower volume, which makes people eat more for a satisfying volume of food.

Sounds like a mouthful of information, right? Worry not, there are things you can do to keep healthy but not drastically reduce your food enjoyment if you are among those who occasionally like to indulge in a treat, or if you find yourself (like everyone else,) compelled to rely on processed foods for a fast family meal.

Here are a few tips:

  • If you decide on a quick to the table pasta meal, add a big salad (include lettuce, kale, carrots, apples) and have fruit for dessert
  • If sweetened yogurt is a must-have occasionally, throw some unsweetened granola (here’s a recipe), fresh or frozen berries and sprinkle some cinnamon
  • For a family picnic where kids ask for hot dogs, switch to better versions of no-nitrate sausages and have a yummy coleslaw ready among the add-ons and a fruit salad for dessert
  • Make healthy ice cream at home from frozen bananas and berries (or any other fruit you like); here are a few recipes

Bottom line: it is becoming increasingly hard to avoid running into processed foods, but it is possible. Shop in the fresh produce department and visit the farmer’s market on the weekends; opt for simpler foods (a quick sandwich or a wrap with lots of veggies and dinner leftovers, salads, soups) and avoid the high-calorie treats that appeal to a hungry stomach; skip a rich desert and stay away from sweet beverages such as soft drinks, ice tea (unless you make your own) or fruit juice (go for the whole fruit if you crave something sweet.)

(While you are at it, do know that the ‘organic’ versions of processed foods are still processed. Perhaps cleaner, but you will likely suffer the same consequences if you indulge.)

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