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Healthy and unhealthy food

How does ultra-processed food affect our health? Or, why is it better to cook by yourself and eat with family and friends?

It is believed that weight gain causes diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Heart disease and cancer account for almost 40 percent of deaths.


Most studies associate weight gain with excessive consumption of highly processed foods.


What are ultra-processed foods?

Food products with a high degree of processing are defined as products of industrial production produced from food substances.

In other words, they are significantly modified foods that contain ingredients that are not added when cooking at home, including colorings, preservatives, emulsifiers, fillers, flavor enhancers, etc. Highly processed foods also contain more salt, fat, and sugar.

Typical examples of products with a high degree of processing are fish fingers, chicken nuggets, chips, carbonated drinks, bakery products, and meat products of industrial production (cookies, pizza, hamburgers, sausages, buns, etc.), ready meals (for example, canned soups), instant noodles, most of the dairy products of industrial production (yogurts of various flavors, chocolate milk, various cocktails...), packaged juices with sugar, chocolate...

That is a lot of popular products that we eat every day. Products that make up the majority of almost every person's diet.

The term "ultra-processed" is increasingly used in nutrition research, and eating habits high in these foods are associated with early death, obesity, cancer, and poor health in general.

But there is also good news - not all industrially processed food products are harmful. An international group of food scientists and researchers has developed a classification that divides foods into four categories:


1 Raw and minimally processed foods

These are all raw products that are obtained directly from plants or animals and do not change after removal from nature.

For example – fresh vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, fresh meat, seafood, herbs and spices, eggs, milk


2 Processed culinary ingredients

Products in this group are made from raw food products using processing methods such as pressing, refining, grinding, and drying.

For example - butter, butter, fats, sugar, dried spices... These foods are not intended to be eaten separately but are used to improve the taste of raw foods and to create a variety of delicious dishes, including stews, broths, soups, salads, pies, etc.


3 Processed foods

Processed foods are usually prepared by adding butter, sugar, fat, and salt to raw foods. Examples include canned vegetables, fruit compotes, salted and smoked meat, and fish, canned fish, etc.

Many processed foods can increase your risk of certain diseases, but not all processed foods are bad for your health.

For example, processed red meat (ham, sausages, meat rolls...) is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. But kimchi, pickled vegetables, and other processed foods that contain probiotics are healthy because they improve gut microflora.


4 Ultra-processed foods

They are industrially produced products that are entirely or mainly made from substances that have been extracted from food products (for example - oils, fats, sugar, starch, proteins ...), are obtained from food ingredients (for example - hydrogenated fats and modified starches) or synthesized in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (for example, flavor enhancers, dyes, flavors and other food additives used to make foods irresistibly tasty).

Ultra-processed foods contain little or no raw foods. In addition, they contain a lot of calories (in the form of fat and sugar) and salt, but little or no other nutrients.

Food products such as packaged sweet and salty snacks, cookies and crackers (all bakery products prepared using hydrogenated vegetable fats, emulsifiers, etc.), ice cream and frozen desserts, hot dogs, sausages, fish and chicken nuggets, breakfast cereals and bars, sweetened juices, margarine, cream, alcoholic beverages drinks...

In addition, the name of the product does not always indicate the degree of its processing, for example - homemade bread consisting of water, flour, yeast, and salt is classified as a processed food product, but if it is produced industrially with the addition of preservatives and/or other additives, it is classified as an ultra-processed food product.

Many manufacturers of ultra-processed foods are trying to enrich their products with vitamins, minerals and fiber for marketing purposes. However, these supplements do not reduce the main problem - these products still contain a lot of calories, sugar, salt and various more or less synthetic food additives.


How does highly processed food affect our health?

Several large-scale studies have found a link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the risk of early death and circulatory disease.

The studies measured participants' consumption of ultra-processed foods and tracked their health over several years.

For instance.

One study followed the dietary habits of more than 100,000 adults for an average of 5.2 years. The lowest consumption of highly processed foods was 7.5 percent of total daily calories, and the highest was 30.8 percent.

As a result, it was found that higher consumption of highly processed foods is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular, coronary, and cerebrovascular diseases. In addition, a 10 percent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet increased the risk of heart disease by 12 percent.

Another study, which followed 19,899 Spanish graduate students for an average of 10 years, found that eating more than four servings of ultra-processed foods per day increased a participant's relative risk of all-cause mortality by 62 percent. Each additional serving of ultra-processed food increased the risk of death by 18 percent.

In addition, both studies also took into account diet quality, smoking, genetics, and BMI, suggesting that highly processed foods are a risk factor independent of these variables.


Ultra-processed foods and obesity

Obesity rates have increased with the increased availability and distribution of highly processed foods. Therefore, there is reason to believe that there is a connection between these products and obesity.

It is also claimed that ultra-processed foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, combined with their strong taste and carefully thought-out texture, encourage people to eat more.

And we all know that, for example, eating only half a packet of chips or eating only one piece of chocolate is difficult.

There is a lot of research on how ultra-processed foods can affect calorie intake and weight gain.

In almost all studies, participants who ate ultra-processed foods consumed more calories and gained more weight compared to the control group.

Even more convincingly, blood tests of the participants showed that those who ate ultra-processed foods had increased levels of hunger hormones, which explains why the participants ate up to 500 extra calories a day!

In other words, very tasty ultra-processed foods can lead to overeating and long-term health problems such as obesity and accompanying emotional and self-esteem issues.


How to determine the degree of product processing?

Recognizing ultra-processed foods is not always easy. All the more because "marketing does not sleep" and manufacturers are constantly trying to convince us of the healthiness and other advantages of their products.

Here is a list of signs that indicate a product has been ultra-processed:

  • Ultra-processed foods usually contain chemicals to extend their shelf life and improve taste and texture. Pay attention to the food additives listed in the composition, such as preservatives - sodium benzoate, nitrate, and sulfite;
  • Other additives that identify highly processed foods include high fructose corn syrup, modified starches and hydrogenated or transesterified oils;
  • Products that contain more than five ingredients are likely to have been ultra-processed;
  • Usually, highly processed foods are high in salt, sugar, and fat, so pay attention to the amount of these ingredients;
  • Ultra-processed foods have attractive packaging, and sales are often stimulated by aggressive marketing/advertising campaigns. Breakfast cereals and chips are good examples. Have you ever seen a loud advertising campaign for apples, pears, and carrots? 😊
  • Highly processed foods are often developed using cheap ingredients (for maximum profit). Therefore, the cheaper alternatives are likely to be more processed. This also applies to special offers such as two for one price, etc.;
  • Most of the dishes that are quick and easy to prepare, such as pates, burgers, and noodles, which can be easily cooked in the microwave in a few minutes or just pour hot water.

Key takeaways

If you want to improve your health and/or lose weight, try to eliminate or at least reduce the proportion of highly processed foods in your diet. Cook more by yourself and eat with family and friends – research shows that people who dine together have healthier eating habits.

Follow a balanced and nutrient-rich diet.

A good example is the Mediterranean diet, in which the dish is prepared from minimally processed foods, raw fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.

Do not trust the names of "healthy" products, such as "Bio", "Eco", "High protein", etc. It's just words. Even if the product has an ingredient corresponding to the words "Bio" or "Eco", or a little more protein, it will not become healthier if it still contains a lot of sugar, fat, and preservatives.…

Here everything is the same in a slightly different and more emotional performance by Jamie Oliver .

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