The impact of processed food on overall health

By: Osler Health International
Posted on: 23 May 2024

When you are constantly on the go, opting for processed food often seems more convenient than spending time in the kitchen preparing a nutritious meal.

Generally, processed food encompasses any food item modified from its original form, typically for safety purposes or convenience. This category encompasses a wide range of food products, from basic processes like freezing vegetables to retain nutrients and freshness to more complex processes like drying fruits to extend their shelf life and enhance portability.

While certain processed foods can offer essential nutrients and much-needed convenience, a significant portion falls into the category of highly processed items, or ultra-processed foods

How does ultra-processed food differ from regular processed foods?

So just what is considered overly or ultra-processed food, and why are they considered unhealthy?

While some processed foods may undergo preservation techniques to maintain their nutritional value and freshness, ultra-processed foods go through substantial alterations aimed at enhancing flavour, texture, or shelf life. This manufacturing process typically involves using artificial ingredients and industrial techniques far removed from traditional cooking methods.

Furthermore, common additives like emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners are frequently incorporated into ultra-processed foods, which typically contain minimal amounts of whole foods. This heavy reliance on additives, coupled with the high levels of sugar, fat, and salt, not only diminishes the nutritional quality of these products but also poses notable health risks when consumed regularly.

Common examples of highly processed food include ready-to-eat meals, packaged snacks and desserts, and sugary drinks. If it can sit on the shelf for a long time without going off – it’s probably ultra-processed!

What are the long-term risks associated with consuming ultra-processed foods?

Consuming highly processed foods frequently and in large amounts can have profound adverse effects on one’s health over time, including:

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular diseaseStudies found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to an increased risk of being diagnosed with cardiovascular disease. This is because high consumption of highly processed food increases the risk of obesity, inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin resistance and hypertension, which are contributors to cardiovascular diseases.
  • Obesity: Research discovered that people who ate highly processed foods consumed about 500 calories more than they did on a minimally processed diet, which could result in weight gain. This is because the high caloric content in ultra-processed foods combined with low nutritional value can lead to excessive weight gain over time.
  • Type 2 Diabetes: Many highly processed foods have a high glycemic index that could contribute to a spike in blood sugar and insulin levels. Over time, this could cause insulin resistance and eventually Type 2 Diabetes.
  • Cancer: Research suggests that ultra-processed foods can increase the chances of developing cancer, specifically colorectal, breast, and pancreatic cancer. This is because of their increased levels of sugar and sodium, leading to weight gain and obesity. And when obesity is left unmanaged, it could result in cancer.

How does lifestyle medicine facilitate healthier food choices?

Lifestyle medicine in Singapore leverages evidence-based behavioural interventions to address and mitigate diseases like cardiovascular diseases and obesity, among others. This healthcare approach offered by some family clinics supports you and your family members in making healthier food and lifestyle choices, especially in a world dominated by processed foods.

  • Education on nutritional basics: Lifestyle medicine provides education about the fundamentals of nutrition, helping you understand which foods are beneficial and which are detrimental to your health.
  • Personalised dietary plans: It offers tailored dietary recommendations based on your health needs, preferences, and goals. This personalised approach enables you to gradually replace highly processed foods with whole, nutrient-dense foods.
  • Behavioural change support: Lifestyle medicine focuses on changing eating behaviours through strategies such as mindful eating, portion control, and understanding food labels, which are vital skills for making healthier food choices.
  • Integration of physical activity: Encouraging regular physical activity is another key pillar of lifestyle medicine. Exercise can help with weight management and enhance metabolism to reduce cravings for unhealthy processed foods.
  • Stress management techniques: Stress could lead to unhealthy eating habits, such as reaching for comfort foods that are typically highly processed. As such, a lifestyle medicine approach provides tools for managing stress, which can help reduce reliance on processed foods.

By addressing various aspects of health beyond just diet, lifestyle medicine can help guide you in making dietary changes and potentially reduce your intake of processed foods. This holistic approach helps you achieve health and wellness goals.

Learn more about the benefits of lifestyle medicine.

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