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 then 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.

Energy density

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 this…
• 5 pounds of raw veggies will provide 500 calories
• 5 pounds of nuts/seeds provides about 12,500 calories
• 5 pounds of milk chocolate provides about 12,000 calories

Nutrient density

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.

Following a real food diet that is minimally processed could be one of the most important lifestyle factors 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 and unlike supplements, it is very hard to overdose on real food.

2. Processed foods generally contain high amounts of sugar (in various guises) 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. Dietary approaches such as the Mediterranean have been shown to reduce the risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease and a reduced risk of cancer.

3. Triglyceride (fat) levels tend to increase when you eat foods that contain sugar and/or refined carbohydrate. However eating foods that are unprocessed such as fatty fish (salmon, sardines, and mackerel) and nuts have been shown to reduce triglycerides and fight inflammation. In addition, natural fats such as extra virgin olive oil promote heart health and increase HDL cholesterol which mop up excess cholesterol and take it back to the liver where it can be reused. Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides which can provide a source of energy and assist with weight loss.

4. There is a clear link between high intakes of processed food and overeating, this has been attributed to not only the bulk of food as already discussed but these foods also contain sugars and artificial flavourings which can override satiety hormones and drive overeating. By eliminating processed foods, the taste buds adapt and change and real foods start to taste better, especially when a diverse diet is introduced.

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 as this will ensure all your nutrient needs are being met and add variety to prevent boredom. This also benefits your good gut bacteria which supports your immune system, fights inflammation and helps to reduce calories in food, an important aspect of weight control. Many people are often surprised at how good natural food can taste and do not want to eat processed / fast food again.

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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