Processed foods, the great invention of the 20th century, have been a lifesaver for many busy families  – except they might be putting your (and your family’s) health at risk.

Most people simply don’t have the time to cook from scratch every day, especially families where both parents work long hours. But even these families need to eat, right? For many, processed foods save the day (and dinner times).  They can be extremely convenient – but are they really worth it?

You might have seen the BBC article that unveils the link researchers have established between ultra-processed foods and cancer. But what exactly counts as ultra-processed food? Here is a list:

  • Mass-produced packaged breads and buns
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Sweet or savoury packaged snacks including crisps
  • Chocolate bars and sweets
  • Sodas and sweetened drinks
  • Meatballs, poultry and fish nuggets
  • Instant noodles, soups, and sauces
  • Frozen or shelf-life ready meals
  • Microwaveable frozen meals

These foods are cheap, convenient, quick, and easy to prepare (which is why I used to eat them all the time in my teens and twenties) – but they also wreak havoc on our health (and yes, I too ended up with insulin resistance, polycystic ovary syndrome, and on the threshold of type 2 diabetes). But let’s see why exactly these foods are bad for you:

Lots of calories, little (or no) nutrients

Let’s take the example of a typical fast food meal: a burger, chips on the side, and a can of sweetened drink. This meal can easily add up to an entire day’s worth of required calories, while leaving your body starving for vitamins, minerals, nutrients and healthy fats. This means you keep eating but your body is still starving for nutrients, and so your brain is sending you signals to eat more… which is a sure road towards obesity.

Health problems

A diet high in processed foods, consumed daily for months or years will inevitably jeopardise your health, argues Dr Mercola in this article. Apart from the high levels of sugar, salt, and fat, processed foods also contain ingredients such as artificial additives, colouring agents, preservatives; stuff that didn’t exist a few decades ago, and that you’re really better off without. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, chronic disease, cancer… these can all be linked to food and diet. In essence, the more processed foods you eat, and the less whole foods you consume, the greater your risk of chronic disease and death.

Processed foods are highly addictive

Did you know that sugar is more addictive than cocaine? Yes, that’s true – and it explains why it’s so hard to say no to all those sweets! But it’s not just sugar: salt and fat is also addictive, and the processed foods industry makes sure that you crave their stuff… which ensures repeat sales. Clever, cunning – and scary. This is not great news, because even if you do decide you want to quit eating these foods, it’s actually quite hard to do it.

How to cut down 

Processed foods are hugely popular and widely consumed; and I can see why they appeal to so many people. I used to eat them all the time for years. I only turned my back on them when I got pregnant, which forced me to ditch my bad eating habits and learn to cook (that’s right, I didn’t really cook until I was 32). And at the time I also happened to be studying for a Food and Wellbeing masters, which was quite eye-opening to the practices in the food industry.

So what can you do to cut down on processed foods? Here are some tips from someone who’s been there and done it:

  • aim for a gradual transition out of bad eating habits, because it’s impossible to do it overnight
  • focus on raw, fresh foods, and avoid as many processed foods as possible (if it comes in a can, bottle or package, and has a list of ingredients you can hardly pronounce, it’s processed)
  • try to cook your meals from scratch as often as you can
  • cook larger portions than you need for just one meal, and freeze the rest (you can make soups, sauces, and curries in batch, they freeze well)
  • create a meal plan for the week and do your shopping in advance
  • plan ahead for busy days when you know you won’t have time to cook (that’s when you take out that Bolognese sauce from the freezer)
  • don’t be too hard on yourself

Practice makes perfect. You’ll learn things as you go so don’t give up after the first difficulties (there will be difficulties). It’s worth persisting, and your health is worth looking after. If you want a long and happy life, you need to look after your body and give it what it needs to function at its best – so it can serve you well in return.