03 Mar

Did you see the headline: ‘Bad diets are responsible for more deaths than smoking’?  Say what?  Really, are we seriously eating so badly that smoking is seen as the lesser of two evils?

The problem

We know diets that are high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and saturated fats are not good for our bodies and bring about the worst health profile.  Studies are now looking at how processed foods are affecting our mortality.  This is good, as in our fast paced lives many of us are relying more and more on processed foods.

Studies have already linked ultra-processed foods to obesity, hypertension and cancer. Emerging studies are showing that as little as a 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed food that we eat leads to a 14% higher mortality risk.  And data from the US and Canada show that more than 50% of the foods consumed on a daily basis are ultra-processed.  This is where the problem lies – we are eating far too much ultra-processed foods in our current diets.


A classification system called NOVA (see reference below for more information on this if you are interested) was developed by an international panel of food scientists and researchers to define the ‘processedness’ of foods.  It divides foods into four categories:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods

This group contains real, whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, meats, seafood, eggs, and milk.

  • Processed culinary ingredients

These ingredients include herbs, spices, balsamic vinegar, garlic, oil.  This are ingredients used in small amounts to make home-cooked meals.

  • Processed foods

Foods that have ingredients added and are packaged result in processed foods.  The foods have been changed, but not in a way that is detrimental to our health.  Examples include bread (with 3-4 ingredients), cheese, canned tuna, canned beans etc.

  • Ultra-processed foods

These foods go through numerous processes and contain many ingredients.  Ultra-processed foods are foods that have been significantly changed from their original state, with salt, sugar, fat, additives, preservatives and artificial colours added.  For example, bread that has 16+ ingredients, foods that used refined grains, sweetened breakfast cereals, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, chips, sweets, cool drinks etc. 


The solution

Start by considering where the food came from – carrots come from the root of a plant, apples grow on trees, a steak comes from a cow etc. etc.  If you don’t know the origin of the food because it has undergone so many processes, think about what nutrition it can offer your body.  And if the only answer you can find is ‘energy’, then it is not good enough to be eaten.  For example an apple gives you energy plus vitamins plus antioxidants plus phytonutrients plus fibre, whereas sweets give you energy and ??? nothing else.  Be careful too of packaged foods that say ‘healthy’, ‘natural’, ‘organic’ etc.  Are they talking about the original ingredients or the end product?  Marketing and advertising can be very deceptive.

Another fantastic way to decrease the amount of ultra-processed foods is to cook more often.  By cooking an extra day in the week you are already increasing your health.  And because we live our fast paced lives and need a certain amount of convenience, processed foods are available to make the cooking process easier.  Using canned beans and ready cut up vegetables will still bring good nutrition to us.

When you eat out try to choose the fresh items on the menu.  Try to eat more vegetables and salads and rather chose foods that are baked, poached, stir-fried or grilled.  Eating out in itself is a healthy habit as we are sitting at a table eating together.  Studies have shown that people who eat together have better eating habits, eat more vegetables, drink fewer cool drinks and eat less deep-fried foods.

Become more mindful about your choices and try to think about how your body will feel and function when you eat your foods. 

  • Eating more ultra-processed foods was associated with being younger, earning less, having a lower level of education, living alone, exercising less and having a higher BMI.
  • Ultra-processed foods do not contain enough of the beneficial nutrients that the body needs.
  • Ultra-processed foods were associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality

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