In the press last week headlines reported ‘ultra-processed foods linked to cancer’. The stories were the result of a French study of 105,000 people. It suggested that the more of these foods people ate, the greater their risk of cancer.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that a poor diet has a negative impact on health. Whilst in the past we largely blamed genes for whether or not we got diseases like cancer, we’re now understanding that environmental factors, including diet, play a key role. As the saying goes ‘genes load the gun, environment pulls the trigger.’
WHAT ARE ULTRA PROCESSED FOODS?
The list of ultra-processed foods included those we might expect, things like cakes and sweets, crisps, processed meats and ready meals. But it also contained foods we might not necessarily think of as ultra-processed – like most shop bought bread, breakfast cereals and ‘fruit’ yoghurts.
I’ll start by saying this – the vast majority of us eat ultra-processed foods. I eat ultra-processed foods from time to time. If I lived a life never eating cake or chocolate I would most likely be miserable! In the world we live in, processed foods are almost impossible to avoid. In my experience, those who do avoid them completely often have tendency towards obsessive behaviours around food that are not healthy in themselves.
My belief is that education is the key. Whilst most of us know that eating a lot of cakes and crisps won’t benefit our health, there are a lot of foods such as breads and breakfast cereals that we may not consider to be ‘ultra processed’. Understanding what constitutes a healthy diet and making conscious decisions as a result is what’s important.
WHAT SHOULD WE EAT INSTEAD?
When I am discussing what a nutritious, balanced diet consists of, I spend much more time focusing on what we should be eating, rather than what to avoid. Fresh, natural, whole foods. Plenty of vegetables. Good fats. Natural proteins. I often see that when my clients gain a better understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet, the less healthy foods naturally phase out.
HOW DO I FIND OUT IF A FOOD IS ‘ULTRA PROCESSED’?
NOVA is the food classification that categorises foods according to the extent of food processing. If you’re interested to look up how the foods in your diet are categorised based on their levels of processing, here is the guide. I also liked this simple but effective visual guide comparing natural, processed and ultra-processed versions of the same food by my lovely editor at The Sun, Christina.
The occasional bag of crisps or a chocolate bar as a treat can form part of a healthy diet for most people. That, in itself, is highly unlikely to give you cancer. However, relying on a diet based primarily on highly processed foods won’t do your health any favours at all. No great surprise there, really!
Healthy eating can be confusing. It can be difficult to differentiate between truly healthy foods and those that manufacturer’s marketing departments are trying to convince us are healthy. I spend a lot of my time working with clients to help them understand what is a healthy diet for them and making that fit into their every day lifestyle. If you feel you might benefit from some support in this area, please do get in touch.