Many people do not fully understand the differences between processed and unprocessed foods, and they are not as simple and "black and white" as we would like them to be. Especially when we talk about the vague name "processed"… What does this mean?


The confusion comes mainly from the fact that we often use the term 'processed' food to talk about non-food, harmful packaged foods on the market and in fast food restaurants. This in turn leads to the conclusion that once a food is processed, it is automatically harmful. But it's not like that!


Technically, if a food is altered in any way from its original form, it is considered processed - ie. the roasted meat is processed because it is no longer raw. Boiled potatoes are also processed, etc.…


Although many processed foods can be and are harmful, not all are. And just because something has been reworked doesn't necessarily mean it's bad.


So, in order to differentiate things better, we will divide processed foods into minimally processed (cooked, for example) and fully processed (which we will mainly talk about here). We will also look in more detail at the differences between processed and unprocessed foods, the reason they exist and what their advantages and disadvantages are.


Processed food provides additional security


One of the most significant advantages of processed food is that it is easier to store. It provides security in times of crisis because it is cheap to produce, buy and can be stored for a long time. Not only that - food processing does not always mean a deterioration in its quality. On the contrary - sometimes the opposite is true. Processing can improve the quality, availability, sustainability, availability of a food, and at the same time can improve its nutritional properties.


This is a great advantage, especially in poorer parts of the world, where access to food is limited, financial opportunities are minimal and one of the main problems of the population there is malnutrition. Many countries in Africa are a typical example of this.

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Processed foods and their effect on health


Of course, I, like most readers of the blog, live in far more developed or well-developed economic countries, where malnutrition is not a problem. Then, for people like us, is there any benefit at all from eating processed foods as part of our diet, or can it only worsen our health and figure?


Believe it or not, even people in more advanced, developed countries can take advantage of processed foods on their menu without worrying about their health.


In fact, processed foods alone are not harmful to you if you don't overdo it. The problem is that this type of food usually happens exactly this - for a number of reasons, and because of the peculiarities of its nutritional composition and qualities, it is more difficult to saturate with it and overeat more easily. And this leads to negative changes in body composition and deterioration of health in the long run.


However, when a moderate amount of processed food is included in an otherwise wholesome, healthy diet diet and most importantly - an appropriate common caloric intake for the day, its consumption will not adversely affect the body.


This is because the caloric balance in the body determines its composition, and the composition of the body greatly affects health.


So if the total number accepted calories for the day is under control (in balance, in maintenance or in an appropriate deficit or surplus, respectively in weight loss or increase in muscle mass), the desired healthy, shapely body can be achieved, even if we eat processed food in our diet from time to time.

However, eating whole processed foods or large amounts of them is not a good idea. That's why:

Differences in the composition of micronutrients in processed and unprocessed foods.


Yes, processed foods can be processed to better contain or retain their nutrients, but this is not the case with most foods on the market.


In fact, according to studies, most processed packaged foods on the market are degraded in micronutrients (vitamins и minerals). The more processed a food is, the less micronutrients and fiber it contains.


So, while the intake of processed foods, in an otherwise controlled mode, is not a problem for the overall composition and health of the body, then betting entirely on it can lead to a number of deficient conditions due to reduced intake of micronutrients.


Differences in the saturation potential of processed and unprocessed food


If we take as an example a study on food satiety, which compares a large number and a wide range of foods, we will see that the best satiety is achieved with unprocessed whole grains, and the most difficult to saturate with fully processed foods.


From a satiety point of view, however, not all processed foods are insatiable. A good example of a highly processed food, which, however, satisfies well and generally has a good nutritional composition, is wholemeal pasta (spaghetti, pasta, etc.), which in the above study performs much better than a number of unprocessed foods. I also include one in my clients' regimes.


Another interesting contender is the corn popcorn, which also, to everyone's surprise, performed quite well in the satiety scale.


According to another study, white bread turned out as filling as wholemeal bread, although the general perception is different. In fact, here the advantage of wholemeal bread is again in the composition of micronutrients, which we talked about in the previous point. That's why it's still the better choice.


In other words, white bread will not saturate you harder, but it will provide you with fewer vitamins, minerals and fiber than if you bet on whole grains.


Differences in the thermal effect of processed and unprocessed foods


According the thermal effect of food I wrote in detail in a separate article, which you can review if you want to get acquainted with it and find out what it is.


The thermal effect is as follows: Even when different foods have the same ratio of calories and macronutrients in their composition, they can still have a different thermal effect, which means that our body burns different amounts of calories to absorb them.


The higher the thermal effect of a food - the more calories the body expends to process it. And this is directly related to the composition of fiber in it.


Here we will take two separate studies to compare this effect in processed and unprocessed foods.


In a study comparing unprocessed whole grains with refined (processed) foods, the group of subjects consuming whole grains showed about 92 calories higher daily energy expenditure than the group with refined foods.


In another similar 6-week study, the intake of refined cereals had no effect on cell-controlled immunity, systemic inflammation, or intestinal inflammation. In other words - did not show harmful effects on health.


Comparing the results of the two studies, we can conclude that although processed foods are not harmful to health, their thermal effect is weaker than that of unprocessed. This can be an obstacle or at least slow down the shaping process, especially when talking about weight loss.


So, if you are striving for gradual weight loss, choosing a minimally processed food will be useful, but it will not be detrimental to include and processed in your menu, as long as the total caloric intake is under control.


On the other hand, if you are striving for more aggressive, faster weight loss, for example in preparation for a competition or physical test, the energy benefits of processed foods can become much more important for maximum results.


General guidelines for intake of processed foods


In general, although the quality of processed foods must be judged on a case-by-case basis (product), it is still safe to say that they are generally higher in calories while maintaining a certain ratio of macronutrients in the regime more difficult.


The fact that processed foods saturate more slowly and are easy to eat in large quantities makes them a better choice in the diet of people who have problems with food intake and / or need to gain weight. At the same time, it makes them a suboptimal choice in diets for weight loss, where you work with a limited number of calories and satiety should be done with as little food as possible. And yet - it is possible to be present in them, albeit in a more limited form.


In conclusion…


We know that unprocessed foods are obviously good for us, but that doesn't mean that processed foods are necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary!


Processed foods can provide additional convenience and easier adherence to a diet, as well as help people on a budget to eat enough and affordable, making their lives more enjoyable without significant health consequences.


The key is to learn how to use the power of processed foods as an advantage and for our convenience, but at the same time to be reasonable and measured to get our total calories for the day, corresponding to our specific goal.

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