The World Health Organisation has confirmed that eating processed meat increases our risk of cancer (group 1 carcinogen to humans like tobacco, alcohol and benzenes). The mechanism is unclear but the link is well established and undeniable.
Processing carbohydrates tends to remove valuable fibre, flushes out minerals and makes the sugar they contain more available. The net effect is calorie dense, nutrient low food.
Processing fats produces trans fats which increase our risk of heart attacks and strokes. They are banned in the USA.
Unprocessed foods on the other hand tend to contain healthier fats, retain their vitamins and minerals, and are a vital source of fibre. Their sugars are harder to get at and leave us feeling fuller for longer. Prepared properly they ae delicious - top restaurants use fresh whole foods not ready meals.
UK families buy more ultra-processed food than any others in Europe, amounting to 50.7% of the diet
So why do we eat processed food?
Food is processed partly to make it easier to store and prepare. Heating a microwave meal can be far quicker and easier than cooking from scratch. Our hectic lives encourage us not to take time to source and prepare fresh ingredients.
It's often claimed that processed food is cheaper than healthier alternatives. Supermarkets tend to discount and promote 'reward foods' more than whole food . Its hard to argue that you could cook a lasagne for one for £1 from scratch.
Food companies want you to buy their product and they are really, really good at persuading you! They invest millions of pounds because they know it works. Companies producing the top 18 UK brands spent more than £143m on advertising their products in 2017.
Of course processed food is designed to taste good. Manufacturers can smuggle in salt, sugar and all kinds of artificial flavourings. Trans fats created by food processing have an unfortunately appealing taste.
We are programmed to associate junk food with happiness and reward
Why do you think McDonalds use phrases like 'Happy Meals' and "I'm loving it"
Many patients have told me that they don't want to give up their Friday night takeaway and wine because it helps them relax after a stressful week.
Branding works. People like knowing exactly what to expect. .
Think about being in a strange town and fancying a coffee - you might choose a Costa because its familiar and you know exactly what to expect.
Consuming processed food is 'normal' in our society. However much of a maverick you like to think you are, it's likely that you are susceptible to following the crowd.
When we perceive that change is hard, we tend to work hard to justify not changing.
Common reasons not to make a change:
"I'll start when I've got some time off ... after my birthday ...when my partner is ready"
"There's nothing wrong with a good old fry up."
"It's not for what I eat doctor"
"I've tried but there's no point, I just can't do it"
Lifestyle medicine helps you change and enjoy achieving it
The truth is processed food is less healthy than unprocessed food. It increases our risk of cancer and chronic disease. Of course risks are relative and we need to judge for ourselves how much risk we want to take with our food. Some people are prepared to accept the risk of shortening their lives because they calculate that the joy they get from eating processed food is worth it. In my experience however, most people however would love to be able to eat more healthily and reap the benefits of doing so.
Telling someone to eat more healthily is not enough
Lifestyle Medicine recognises that its not enough just to tell someone to eat better. It uses a host of evidence based, effective techniques, invests time to drill down into the reasons preventing a healthier diet, and works with the patient to create a personalised plan with the best chance of sustained success. It works but does require commitment from all parties.
If you are ready to get the most from your food then Lifestyle Medicine is for you.