Food is crucial to sustaining life, and humans have enjoyed a complex relationship with food throughout history. Over time, our dietary needs have changed, and an ever-increasing global population means that the topic of food security is more important than ever. Although food technology has advanced almost as far as our nutritional knowledge base, the unfortunate reality is that many people consume an unhealthy diet, and ultra-processed foods are at the crux of the issue.
It’s important to note that processed foods aren’t inherently bad: The canning process involves minimal processing, for example, to keep foods fresh and nutrient-rich. But processing can easily be taken too far when it comes to the foods you consume regularly. Ultra-processed foods contain numerous added ingredients, such as artificial colors, preservatives, and stabilizers, that likely originated in a laboratory setting rather than a kitchen.
Although convenient, ultra-processed foods are inherently bad for your health. Across global populations, highly processed foods can cause various health problems ranging from diabetes to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and beyond. What’s more, regularly consuming highly addictive ultra-processed foods can even lower your quality of life.
The good news is that there’s plenty of scientific data supporting the idea that a simple shift in your dietary habits may just change your life for the better. By eschewing ultra-processed foods in favor of fresh, locally sourced options, you may see a vast improvement in your overall health, mood, and energy levels. Here’s what you need to know.
Processed Foods Across History
While modern humans have a deeper understanding of the myriad negative effects of ultra-processed foods, they were once considered revolutionary. So much so that highly processed foods effectively “liberated” American housewives in the 1950s, according to the National Women’s History Museum. At the time, families were flocking to the suburbs, moving en masse into homes outfitted with electric appliances that helped streamline the food prep and cooking processes. “Convenience” became a national ideal, kicking off the decline in food nutrition and overall health that continues to this day.
Despite the inherent nature of food as a life-sustaining source, our modern dietary habits are actually serving to make us less healthy, reports indicate. Global obesity rates are on the rise, and poor dietary habits can serve to exacerbate existing health conditions like acid reflux disease. GERD, a common form of acid reflux, is often triggered by certain foods and drinks. Fried, fatty, and ultra-processed foods can make GERD symptoms worse. Thus, for relief of GERD symptoms, nutritional experts believe that simple lifestyle modifications related to your diet can go a long way.
Changing Your Diet and Your Life
It’s not only your physical health that’s at stake, however; your dietary habits also correlate with your mental health. Consuming ultra-processed foods often feels like a reward at the time, but those emotions can quickly spiral downward, leading to anxiety and depression. Conversely, eating fresh and healthful food has been found to boost your mood and memory.
If you’re looking to make better choices in regards to your dietary habits, start by identifying the foods that make you feel bad, inside and out. Further, be wary of fad diets that claim to improve your health with minimal effort but that have little to no data to back up their claims. Dietary fads are all the rage in contemporary society, yet their actual health benefits are questionable at best.
Popular fad diets in recent years include the apple cider vinegar diet and the macrobiotic diet. For its part, the macrobiotic dietary model calls for the elimination of processed foods and refined sugars, but it’s also prohibitively restrictive for those making less than minimum wage or who live in food deserts.
Staying Healthy Over the Long-Term
The issue is a dire one. As of 2016, diet and nutrition are considered the biggest risk factors in terms of global public health, beating out alcohol and tobacco use. But how did we get into such an unhealthy situation? There’s no single answer, but geographic location and income are two major factors when it comes to the ubiquitous nature of ultra-processed foods in contemporary society.
No matter where you live, there’s a good chance that you can conveniently purchase junk food, at an affordable cost. Fresh food choices are harder to come by in urban centers and rural communities around the world. But as a forward-thinking global citizen, you can take matters into your own hands.
Planting a garden, for example, increases your access to fresh food choices. At harvest time, you can even share extra fruits and veggies with members of your community, encouraging others to embrace a healthier lifestyle. To reduce back strain while gardening, consider building raised beds, which have additional benefits for your plants as well. DIY raised beds made from untreated, rot-resistant wood also serve to aerate the soil and ensure proper drainage.
Yet you don’t need a green thumb to change your life for the better. By simply eliminating ultra-processed foods from your diet, you’re likely to see vast improvements in your mood and overall physical health. So what are you waiting for?
Katie Brenneman is a passionate writer specializing in lifestyle, mental health, and fitness-related content. When she isn’t writing, you can find her with her nose buried in a book or hiking with her dog, Charlie. To connect with Katie, you can follow her on Twitter.
Just 1 in 10 adults meet the federal fruit or vegetable recommendations, according to a study published in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). This report highlights that very few Americans eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day, putting them at risk for chronic diseases. Studies have shown that supplementation with extracts from fruits and vegetables may improve age-related changes.