A recent study published in the Public Health Nutrition Journal at Cambridge University examined 19 European countries and the foods purchased by consumers in those nations. In researching data from countries like the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and others, the study concluded that, shockingly, UK residents aren’t just consuming the most unhealthy ‘ultra-processed’ foods, but that these foods comprise more than half of their food purchases.1
Foods that have been produced in a factory, with a host of artificial ingredients, and little nutritional value, are classified as ultra-processed foods. These foods, like candy, cereal, pre-packaged meals, desserts, and soda, aren’t just incredibly unhealthy, they also contribute to a growing rise in obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses, like heart disease.
The UK’s love for ultra-processed foods promotes the idea that many have diets that are loaded with sugar, salt, and empty calories.
A Diet without Nutrition
In addition to ultra-processed foods making up 50.7% of grocery purchases in the UK, a whole 4.5% more than second place Germany, only 28.6% of UK grocery purchases were whole foods, minimally processed ingredients. The remaining purchases were made up of processed cooking ingredients, like cooking oils, and moderately processed foods, like cheeses and cured meats.
Though ultra-processed foods make our brains light up with delight due to their high salt or high sugar content and are relatively inexpensive because they’re cheap to produce, the consumption of ultra-processed foods leaves our bodies starving for nutrients. In comparison to a whole foods diet, consuming ultra-processed foods may be satisfying for immediate cravings, but are not sustainable for our overall health in the long run.
Some of the most popular ultra-processed foods purchased by those in the UK include cakes, cookies, crackers, chips, soft drinks, and pre-made convenience meals, like instant noodles and cereal. All of these foods are made from ingredients that are unrecognizable from their whole food alternatives, like refined flours, protein isolates, oils, starches, and additives.
Breaking the Trend
With over half of purchased foods in the UK falling into the ultra-processed category, what can be done to transition to a mentality of health over gratification and convenience? A growing trend in diet, for many countries, is to maintain a healthier balance of whole foods over convenience foods. The ketogenic diet, for example, practically forces dieters to consume whole foods over ultra-processed foods. With a conscious choice to abstain from carbohydrates and sugar, nearly all ultra-processed foods become off limits and a shift toward better health is possible.
More moderately speaking, a conservative approach to a healthy diet may also be practical for many people. Sure, convenience foods and treats are easy to turn to – but if we can view them as the treats that they are, and focus on eating a healthy, whole foods based diet more often than not, an improvement in health and an avoidance of obesity is possible.
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