We all know cutting out processed foods makes our diet healthier and our bodies happier. Beyond the basics, two recently published studies have added to the conversation about processed and ultra-processed food, why it’s unhealthy, and the link between these foods and heart disease, and – even better – stated that you can avoid heart disease with frozen vegetables!
What is Processed Food?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s just discuss the basics. What exactly does it mean for food to be processed?
Well, there are many methods of “processing” food. Some of these include washing, cutting, pickling, pasteurizing, freezing, seasoning and more. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with washing or cutting your veggies or even adding a little bit of spice and seasoning. So we’re never going to tell you that “processed foods” by the technical definition are something you want to avoid. In fact, whether you’re processing them yourself or buying a healthy convenience food like Tommy’s, prepped veggies are a very good thing.
What is Ultra-Processed Food?
Ultra-processed food usually refers to food that’s been pre-made and is “ready to eat” or “heat and eat.” This could be something like a frozen meal, packaged deli meat, or bread. This also applies to the trendy “hidden veggie” foods like cauliflower pizza crust or “spinach” spaghetti. These are foods that have been loaded with fat, sugar, salt, and additives or have been so far removed from their whole vegetable form that they’re completely unrecognizable.
Is All Processed Food Bad For You?
Of course, eating the occasional processed food isn’t going to completely wreck your diet. What really matters is the level of processing the food has gone through. As we’ve previously discussed, eating healthy frozen food (like vegetables!) can actually help you eat more plant-based and whole foods and can be a more sustainable, better for the planet way to eat.
What Do the Studies Say?
CBS News recently discussed two newly published studies that took a more in-depth look at the connection between heart disease and ultra-processed foods.
One of the studies, which took place in France, followed 100,000 participants for approximately 5 years. Over the 5 years, researchers found that the participants who ate more processed food were 23% more likely to have some kind of cardiovascular problem when compared with participants who ate less processed food. In fact, more than 1,400 of the 100,000 men and women involved in the study either suffered from a heart attack, stroke or clogged arteries.
The second study, which took place in Spain, followed about 20,000 participants. This study found a link between ultra-processed foods and a shortened lifespan. Over two decades, they found that participants with the highest intake of processed foods were 62% more likely to die than participants with the lowest intake.
It’s important to note that these results weren’t because of the participants’ weight, exercise, or other unhealthy habits. Researchers found that, despite a participants’ lifestyle and habits, ultra-processed food does more than just load someone with extra fat, salt, and sugar. Additives that are formed during food processing can have negative effects on metabolism and the cardiovascular system. It’s the actual processing that forms additives and other compounds and creates these negative health effects.
How Can I Eat Less Ultra-Processed Food?
It seems that the message of the study is clear: eat less highly processed foods. If you want to cut down the amount of processed food you’re eating, we’ve got some tips to help you get started.
1. Start Small
We know that reading articles like this can make us feel like we need to throw out everything in the pantry, but don’t panic! When it comes to changing your diet and eating habits, you can always start small. Instead of having a soda or some other sugary drink, focus on drinking more water. If you want something sweet, try having some fresh fruit instead of your typical dessert. Next time you’re looking for an easy side-dish, grab a bag of Tommy’s rather than an alternative topped with cheese sauce or high in sodium. From there, you can make bigger changes in your diet and create a healthy eating habit.
2. Focus on Whole Foods
Whole foods are things that have been minimally processed. Washing, chopping and lightly seasoning your vegetables is great – “hiding “them in crackers or other unexpected places…not so much. Eat more whole foods because they’re high in fiber and healthy fats, which not only help prevent disease but also fill you up and cut down on your cravings. If you want to learn more about whole foods, check out our post on the Mediterranean Diet!
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Eat Frozen
While it’s true that some frozen food could be considered ultra-processed, that doesn’t mean that you have to stay away from the freezer aisle! In fact, Dr. Andrew Freeman, a cardiologist pointed to flash-frozen vegetables as a source of convenient plant-based options. Plus, freezing has been a form of preserving food for thousands of years- so don’t be too worried about picking up some frozen veggies the next time you’re at the grocery store. That being said, make sure you’re still reading the labels of your food before buying! This is the easiest way to make sure you’re not missing hidden fats, salts, sugars, and additives.
Ready to Give it a Try?
If you’re ready to start eating more plant-based whole foods, we’ll be here to cheer you on and provide you with plenty of resources to keep you motivated. You can take a look at our recipe archive, our blog posts on healthy eating, and don’t forget to pick up a bag (or 2 or 3) next time you’re at the grocery store.
How do you avoid processed food? Leave us a comment and let us know!