The problem with ultra-processed food
Chermaine Kwant is a registered dietician who had PH before undergoing a lung transplant. Here, she lifts the lid on ultra-processed food…
Avoiding ultra-processed foods is my biggest piece of advice for anyone trying to eat for better health.
Ultra-processed foods are products which have been altered from their original state through the addition of lots of different ingredients, many of which are artificial.
Examples of common ultra-processed foods are ice cream, breakfast cereals, biscuits, flavoured yogurt, instant noodles, ham, and sausages.
A telltale sign of ultra-processed food is a long list of ingredients. I always tell my patients that if you look on the label, and there are ingredients you can’t pronounce or you have never heard of, it’s better to put it back on the shelf.
There are a lot of artificial elements in these products. We still don’t know what the long-term effects of these are on our health, but there are some recent research papers that describe the negative impact of ultra-processed food on cardiovascular disease.
Preservatives are one of the problems with ultra-processed foods. If something stays fresh in its packet for five years, what does it do to your body?
Eating this type of food once or twice a week isn’t a problem, but it is if you eat it every day, throughout the day.
A lot of products labelled ‘low fat’ are often ultra-processed, and this is because the fat has been taken out, so other things have to be put in to ensure they still tastes good.
A good example of this is low fat peanut butter. The fat may be lowered, but the amount of sugar will be tripled or even quadrupled to make up for it, making it more equivalent to chocolate spread.
People often think ‘light’ or ‘low fat’ versions of foods they love are better – but they are often more processed than the original product.
When I see patients in my work as a dietitian, I always start by advising them to reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods they eat.
The easiest way of doing this is to prepare your meals yourself. You can see exactly what goes into them, and that’s the biggest win there is. The biggest gift you can give to yourself is investing in the time to prepare your meals.
Having had pulmonary hypertension myself, I understand that fatigue can be a barrier to this. Making ‘one-pan meals’, where everything is prepared in one pot, can help and you can find out more about this in a video I made with the PHA UK at www.bit.ly/one-pan-meals.
Batch-cooking on your good days is a great idea too as you can have nutritious meals ready in the freezer for your bad days. And although there may not be scientific evidence for this, my own experience shows that when you stop eating ultra-processed foods, you are likely to gain more energy – which will help when it comes to cooking.
When I was ill, cutting out ultra-processed foods made a huge difference to how I felt and that’s why it’s such an important piece of advice.
Defining processed and ultra-processed food
The information below comes from The British Heart Foundation
Using a food classification system, food is placed into four categories based on how much they have been processed during their production:
1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
This includes produce such as fruit, vegetables, milk, fish, pulses, eggs, nuts and seeds that have no added ingredients and have been little altered from their natural state.
2. Processed ingredients
This includes foods that are added to other foods rather than eaten by themselves, such as salt, sugar and oils.
3. Processed foods
These are foods that are made by combining foods from groups 1 and 2, which are altered in a way that home cooks could do themselves. They include foods such as jam, pickles, tinned fruit and vegetables, homemade breads and cheeses.
4. Ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods typically have five or more ingredients. They tend to include many additives and ingredients that are not typically used in home cooking, such as preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, and artificial colours and flavours. These foods generally have a long shelf life.