I’m guilty. As a Registered Dietitian (a board-certified EXPERT of nutrition!), I’ve used the phrase “limit processed foods” time and time again. Heck, if we were to rummage through my 7+ years of (insanely organized) Clinical Nutrition coursework, then you will see these 3 words written, typed, and highlighted over and over again.
I’ve previously unraveled the harms of clean eating in an article that you’ll need to read and bookmark ASAP. I’ve even given you three reasons why the idea of “empty calories” is a total sham. But what about processed foods? Should we really be avoiding them?
Advice to “Limit Processed Foods” is Unhelpful
Before we break down what it means when a food is processed, I want to first dissect the rhetoric surrounding these foods. Whether it’s “limiting” or “avoiding” processed foods, or, emphasizing that we choose a diet “high in minimally processed foods,” these not-so-subtle nudges of caution categorize food as “good” or “bad.” This language around food is also riddled with guilt, shame, and anxiety- a recipe for disordered eating.
In my 10+ years of experience educating dancers about food, body image, and nutrition, along with my personal history with disordered eating, I can confidently say that this mindset ignites the flames of an unhealthy relationship with food. If you struggle with all-or-nothing thinking and perfectionism, then this advice can lead you into a tunnel of restrictive eating habits.
Food processing is the mechanical or chemical transformation of agricultural food products from their original state into another form. Food processing improves palatability, increases accessibility, enhances shelf-life, and even reduces the potential for dangerous contamination. Pasteurization is one type of processing that kills harmful bacteria in dairy products and juices. Food fortification and enrichment allows for the addition of micronutrients (like iron, folate, B12, iodine, vitamin C, calcium, and vitamin D) to commonly-consumed products. Thid has greatly reduced the incidence of micronutrient deficiences within impoverished communities and those vulnerable to inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals, such as children, the elderly, and those who are pregnent.
There is a spectrum of how we categorize processed foods (content warning: diet language). from unprocessed or minimally processed to highly processed or ultraprocessed. Cooked veggies are an example of a “minimally processed” food while a packaged protein bar or frozen dinner is an example of a highly-processed or “ultra-processed” food. In general, the more processed a food is, the longer the shelf life. This is largely due to the addition of added sugar, sodium, and fat… three very scary words in our culture!
But Rachel… Too Much Added Sugar Is Unhealthy!
Yes, there is some research associating an increased consumption of added sugar with an increased prevalence of cardiovascular disease (CVD). But if you dive deeper into that research, you’ll realize that those study participants, specifically those with the lowest risk of CVD, still consume at least the recommended threshold of added sugar (10% of one’s total calories) daily. While I hesitate to give calorie targets to anyone, most research is based upon a 2000-calorie-per-day diet. That means that within the popualtion studied, those with the lowst risk of disease are still consuming up to 5o grams of added sugar each day.
Now, 2000 calories isn’t nearly enough for most of the dancers I work with (you can learn more about calories for dancers here). Without getting too specific about calories, we can translate this research to mean that an active dancer can easily consume over 50 grams of added sugar each day AND STILL BE “HEALTHY.” And FYI… there’s conflicting research about the impacts of added sugar intake on Type 2 Diabetes risk. A recent 2020 study even associated an increase in intake with a decrease in disease risk.
I’m not saying that you should intentionally aim to consume this amount of added sugar each day, but realize that the amounts of added sugar you are consuming from a couple of convenient snacks and even a daily dessert is most likely fine. Here’s an article that dives deeper into sugar and my thoughts on the topic!
Well… What About Added Fat and Sodium?
I’ve previously unpacked that myths surrounding fat. And since 2018, the FDA has banned the use of partially hydrogenated oils (the main source of trans fats in our food supply) in packaged foods.
In regards to sodium, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults limit their sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day. Since sodium is often added to pre-made foods, frozen foods, and fast food options, a quick consideration would be to aim for 600mg or less per meal and 100-250 mg or less per snack. A few pro tips: drain and rinse canned veggies and add extra frozen veggies to your fast food, takeout, or frozen meals. This will not only help to reduce the sodium load but will also add some extra potassium to your plate.
And remember, these numbers can balance themselves out. If you’re incorporating a variety of foods and including some whole grains and produce throughout your day or week, then you can balance out the higher levels of sodium from a more processed meal or snack.
Long Ingredient Lists? Ingredients That Look Like a Chemistry Exam?
“Artificial” vs. “Natural”
Here is a great rundown of the differences between these ingredients. But realize that “natural” colorings or flavors are not always “healthier” or safer than their artificial counterparts. According to the article, “Although natural colors may seem to carry no risk… they have not been tested as thoroughly as artificial colorings.”
Research has been aimed to address concerns that Americans are consuming unsafe levels of food coloring, but the findings do not support these concerns since “exposure to food-color additives in the United States by average and high-intake consumers is well below the acceptable daily intake of each color additive.” (here’s a great article for reference). According to similar results found in 2016 by the FDA, even consumers with the highest levels of intake of food colorings are not at risk for adverse health effects.
In 2007, a study showed that artificial colors and/or the preservative sodium benzoate increased hyperactivity in children. As a result, the European Union began requiring food labels to identify the use of such additives in food. In 2011, the FDA concluded that there was not sufficient evidence proving that artificial colorings caused hyperactivity in the general population and therefore decided a “label warning on food packages was unnecessary. A recent meta-analysis shows that the data is inconclusive. While some children may respond well to limited food additives to reduce symptoms of ADHD, it’s best to talk with your medical doctor and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist before eliminating any foods from one’s diet.
I’ve learned a lot about food additives from Food Science Bade, and highly encourage you to follow and support her ASAP! Food Science Babe is an incredible resource when it comes to debunking fears over ingredients like BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene and high fructose corn syrup. Here are two additional articles from Food Science Babe that I encourage you to read:
The Bottom Line
When it comes to processed foods, there is no need to avoid them! In fact, processed foods offer energy when the luxuries of time and money are not so accessible. This is especially true during the touring season when quick options are a necessity!
I’m not saying that you need to eat a diet composed of 100% highly processed foods 24/7 (though, no shame if that’s your reality!). If and when you’re ready, you can apply nutrition knowledge in a non-obsessive way (read more about this here) to build a balanced, nourishing, and sustainable fuel plan that incorporates lesser processed options as well. Either way, strip away the fear, shame, and anxiety around processed foods. Giving yourself permission to enjoy those options will help to make space for a naturally balanced diet.