According to major studies, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one concerning aspect of Australians’ eating behaviour is the consumption of junk food and highly processed snacks. Australians get 35 per cent of their average energy intake from these foods, particularly children aged 14 to 18. Other concerning statistics include how little vegetables Australians eat (less than 7 per cent of the daily intake requirements).
So, why are processed foods bad? And are all of them actually bad for us? Common examples of processed foods include the kind served by fast food restaurants and most foods you find supermarkets that come in a bag or a box. However, not all processed foods are bad. It depends on how they’re processed. The assumption lies that the less processed a food is, the more it retains its nutrients. Foods that are minimally processed or not processed at all include vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs, meat and milk. Some culinary ingredients are processed, such as olive oil, salt, honey and dried herbs. Processed foods are those that undergo processing and contain two to three ingredients, examples of which include canned fish, salted nuts and sourdough bread. Lastly, highly processed foods are the result of industrial formulations of five or more (usually cheap) ingredients. Under this category are pre-made meals, like frozen dinners and pizza.
Processed foods are not only appealing to the eyes and to the taste buds, they’re extremely convenient, too. Some people don’t have the time, energy or money to prepare a fresh, balanced meal all the time. Also, sometimes, you just feel like a greasy burger and chips. The key factors are how much and how often you consume highly processed foods. What happens when our bodies break down these foods? The carbs are released as glucose (sugar) into the blood and our blood sugar levels spike. Because of the glucose increase, the pancreas releases insulin, which should regulate the transportation of sugar throughout the body. Seems like a simple, healthy process, right? However, if this occurs too frequently, the body’s insulin response may fail, and this can result in insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and weight gain.
How can you make sure you’re not eating foods that aren’t highly processed? It’s always good to read ingredients when shopping and be mindful of what you order when you’re dining out. Foods can have hidden ingredients in unhealthy amounts. Natural sugars, such as the kind found in fruits, are fine, but added sugars are not. A 355ml can of soft drinks contains 8 teaspoons of sugar alone. There are healthy fats, too, like monounsaturated fats. Meanwhile, trans fat is fat created during food processing and found in frozen pies, pastries, ready-made pizza dough, crackers and cookies. Consuming too much sugar has negative effects on blood sugar and energy levels, while no amount of trans fat is healthy to eat at all. Salt is a versatile ingredient that can make our favourite foods taste even better, but too much of it can lead to water retention, which explains why you feel puffy, bloated and swollen after eating salty foods. Sodium can also elevate blood pressure and stress the heart, which is not great for people experiencing blood pressure conditions.