Many diets claim to lead to better health, weight loss, and muscle gain. While some may border on the extreme, most dieticians and nutritionists will recommend eating whole or minimally processed foods. There are countless studies on the benefits of eating food in its more natural state from weight loss, to reduced cardiovascular disease, to reduced cancer risks.
And while we may aim to eat healthy, some realities can derail or make access to fresh, healthy food nearly impossible. Athletes may be on the road, traveling, or crunched for time when it comes to meals. And unless you are a professional athlete making millions, there likely is not a personal chef preparing your meals and keeping you fueled. Some athletes may live and go to school in urban areas, which are food deserts.
A food desert means there are limited options for food within a neighborhood. In many urban areas, neighborhoods are not served by grocery stores such as Whole Foods. People in these communities are often living in poverty, do not have access to reliable transportation, and rely on neighborhood convenience stores for food. And there is a certain part of the population who were raised on processed foods, and let’s face it, the idea of going from the convenience of take-out and frozen food to cooking and eating veggies is just not going to happen.
So, what is one to do if they cannot easily access fresh food or just don’t have the palate to switch their approach to eating? Giles Yeo, an obesity expert, recently made headlines when he suggested that if individuals struggle to cut out processed foods, selecting processed food with protein and/or fiber may be a healthier option. Yeo, a researcher at Columbia University, recently published a book, “Why Calories Don’t Count.”
Avoiding processed foods is very difficult. Many food items in a grocery store or neighborhood convenience store are processed. Picture your local grocery store. Along the perimeter of the store is typically the minimally processed food – produce, meat, and dairy. All the aisles filling up the space are full of brightly packaged processed food. Processing food allows the item to last longer and is often lower priced than fresh food.
“I think the term ultra-processed is too broad. I think we’re far better if we can talk about the nutritional content of the food,” Yeo told Insider.
While we could all stand to eat fewer ultra-processed foods generally, steering clear of added sugar, salt, and fat in favor of options with more protein and fiber could help you manage your weight and improve your health, Yeo said.
So what are some tips and suggestions when trying to find healthier, processed food options?
- Avoid adding extra salt, sugar, and fat. Be mindful of extra dressing, dips, and sauces.
- Add in whole food options. Ordering a sub with deli meat and cheese? Consider adding on extra fresh veggies with a variety of colors, such as spinach, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and cucumbers. The same can go for a pizza. Include more veggies as topping options.
- Choose whole-grain versions of frozen pizzas or pasta.
- Be mindful of portion sizes. Opt for small versus supersize. Consider dividing up your meal and saving part for lunch the next day.
- Balance is key. On the road often for games? Often, roadside gas stations are the only option for a warm meal. Many also have some fruit, trail mix, or nuts available. Consider these side dish options to the sandwich or fried chicken you grabbed.
- Choose baked over fried.
- Consider wraps or salads over a typical bun or bread-focused sandwiches.
Often food labeled as “diet food” is not necessarily a better option. Marketing and advertising are powerful tools in the world of grocery shopping and dining out. Just because something is labeled as healthy does not always mean it is a superior option. They often promote low calorie or low fat as a healthier option, but often the food can be made with additional chemical additives, which may be more dangerous to our health in the long term.
Yeo suggests we focus more on food choices versus calorie counting. It is not worrying about what we should cut out or avoid but what we can add in. Yeo suggests focusing on food options with fiber and protein. Both fiber and protein can make you feel full for longer and take more time and energy to digest compared to sugar or fat. This can help reduce hunger and the urge to overeat, ultimately reducing calorie intake and helping reduce weight gain.
And given the recent inflation in the United States, the cost of living is going up. Processed foods will remain the cheaper option and likely, the only affordable option for many. A key part of understanding how to live healthier is for the public to be educated on making smarter choice selections. Again, this can mean small but smart decisions to opt for the smaller size, selecting water as a drink option, baked over fried, and incorporating as many plants as you can into each meal.
“I don’t think making pre-packaged foods better for you needs to come at a premium,” Yeo said. “We need to be asking how we can use the health information we have to make food more equitable.”
Processed foods are not the healthiest option, but the reality is they make up a great portion of the food that is available. Being mindful of what you order is a major step. Focusing on higher fiber and protein options will keep you satiated for longer and provide the body with additional micronutrients, which can help with overall performance and health.
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