Real versus Processed Food
Author Paul Hollinrake, Researcher & Trainer in Public Health/17 January 2019
A diet that is energy dense and heavily processed is very easy to overconsume. Therefore if you are trying to manage your weight or lose body fat this is an area that needs to be addressed. On the other hand, a dietary approach that emphasises whole or real food provides a lot of nutrition with calories that our body can process efficiently.
The amount of energy (calories) per unit of food is termed energy density. In a typical fast food meal there could be as much as 1300 calories, equivalent to about 20 small apples. I’m pretty sure that most people could easily eat a burger, fries and a soft drink which compared to 20 apples is a much tougher call. Therefore we have to consider more than just calories.
Research has suggested that most humans consume approximately 3-5 lbs of food in a day. At this point we feel full and satisfied. The point here is that this could be 5lb of vegetables or 5lb of chocolate bars. But it is not the calories or the actual food, but the volume of food/lbs of food that matters here.
Examples of 5 pounds of different foods…
raw veggies will provide 500 calories.
nuts/seeds provides about 12,500 calories.
milk chocolate provides about 12,000 calories.
Whole foods contain an abundance of naturally occurring cofactors that work in synergy amongst nutrients to enhance absorption, bioavailability and health. Even though these may only be available in small amounts, they play a crucial role in metabolic processes and nutrient delivery pathways. Whole or real food in its natural state or mostly unprocessed has had very little added or taken away. It is, in essence, the type of food that has been eaten for hundreds if not thousands of years. However, since convenient processed food became popular in the 20th century it seems we have become less healthy.
Reasons to follow real food
Following a real food diet that is minimally processed could be the most important lifestyle factor in maintaining health and quality of life. These are five reasons why.
1. Animal and plant-based foods in their natural state contain all the nutrients needed for optimal health e.g. vitamins, minerals, polyphenols. Very often processed foods have nutrients taken out or synthetic nutrients added back into them. Unlike supplements, it is very hard to overdose on real food.
2. Processed foods generally contain high amounts of sugar which can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver and obesity. Although real food does contain natural sugars, these are less concentrated than foods such as ready meals and drinks.
3. Triglyceride (fat) levels tend to increase when you eat foods that contain sugar and/or refined carbohydrate. However eating foods that are unprocessed have been shown to reduce triglycerides and fight inflammation.
4. There is a clear link between high intakes of processed food and overeating. This is because these foods contain sugars and artificial flavourings. These can override satiety hormones and drive overeating. By eliminating processed foods, the taste buds adapt and change and real foods start to taste better.
5. We tend to be creatures of habit and end up eating the same food week in week out. By choosing real, unprocessed food you are open to a wider and more colourful array of meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts beans, peas, lentils and whole grains. You should make it a regular goal to try one or two different meals each week. This will ensure all your nutrient needs are being met and add variety. This also benefits your good gut bacteria which supports your immune system, fights inflammation and helps to reduce calories in food.
Take home message
Whichever dietary approach you take, making whole/real food a priority will leave very little space left in your stomach to fill with energy dense processed food and your health will benefit too.
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