When you’re looking to tweak your diet to make it healthier, one of the first pieces of advice you’re likely to come across is to cut down on the amount of processed food you eat. Because that usually results in a reduction in fat, sugar and salt consumption, it’s a savvy move – but processed foods cannot all be tarred with the same brush.
We spoke to dietitian Dimple Thakrar of the British Dietetic Association (nutritionwithdimple.com (opens in new tab)) for all the info you need on processed foods.
What is a processed food?
When you think of processing it’s natural for your mind to turn to ready meals or chicken nuggets, but it’s a term that covers a far wider range of foods than you might imagine.
“Any food that has been altered from its natural state, either with other substances like sugar, salt or chemical preservatives or by physical means like freezing, heating, canning or blending is technically processed,” says Thakrar.
That means there’s a lot of food that you might be eating regularly without realising it’s processed, like milk, bread, yogurt, frozen veg and smoothies. You’ll notice that many of those foods are not unhealthy, despite the fact that many believe they should avoid processed foods at all costs.
“Not all processed foods are harmful,” says Thakrar. “Some processes are necessary to make the product safe, like pasteurisation of milk and cheese.”
What should you watch out for in processed foods?
While processed foods shouldn't be dismissed as unhealthy out of hand, it’s still worth opting for food in its natural state if possible, says Thakrar.
“Avoid unnecessary processing or over-processing, so choose fruit in its natural form over fruit smoothies, or grapes over raisins.”
It’s also important to consider exactly what has been added to a food when it’s been processed.
“Check if too much salt or sugar has been added using the traffic light system on food labelling, and opt for the green coloured labels,” says Thakrar.
“Another way of assessing this is by checking the ingredient list. Ingredient lists are written in order of quantity, so if sugar, salt and/or chemical preservatives appear within the top five ingredients then it is likely that food is not going to be the healthiest option.”
Should you avoid processed meats?
Bacon, sausages, ham and a whole host of other delicious things have all been linked to an increased risk of cancer – but as long as you don’t go overboard with the amount of processed meat you eat, they can stay on the menu.
“They [processed meats] are not unhealthy if eaten in moderation and as part of a healthy diet. The issue occurs if you eat too much because this can lead to overconsumption of salt and fats,” says Thakrar.
“The Department of Health recommends that if you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, you should cut down to 70g a day. This is equivalent to two or three rashers of bacon, or a little over two slices of roast lamb, beef or pork, each about the size of half a slice of bread.”
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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