Eating A Healthy Diet and Avoiding Processed Foods
Poor diet is a key risk factor associated with many chronic health conditions. Globally, it’s estimated that up to 11 million deaths a year may be associated with unhealthy eating habits – that’s one fifth of all deaths1.
Put simply: what we eat has the potential to make us sick – but eating healthily also has the potential to make us well.
The British Society of Lifestyle Medicine believes making a switch to healthy eating is an important way of addressing the chronic disease burden. We need to rethink food and a healthy diet – and the lifestyle medicine approach can help us to achieve that changed outlook.
The NHS recommends that people should eat “a wide range of foods to make sure you’re getting a balanced diet and your body is receiving all the nutrients it needs.”
But what is healthy food and drink – and what is unhealthy? Which diets work and which don’t? At BSLM we take an evidence-based approach to diet and nutrition and do not advocate for any single dietary approach.
It’s useful to start with the different types of food available – and a helpful classification is the one developed by Brazilian scientist, and trained doctor, Carlos Monteiro. Monteiro coined the term ‘ultra-processed foods’ a decade ago – foods which subsequent studies have linked to conditions including depression, asthma, heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders.
Monteiro divided food into three categories …
Minimally processed foods (which can be eaten relatively freely). These are foods which have not been subjected to any significant process which substantially alters their nutritional properties and includes fruit, vegetables, nuts, roots, tubers, fresh meat and fish, milk, and grains.
Substances extracted from whole foods including oils, fats, flours, starches and sugars. These are generally not consumed by themselves but are added to group 1 ingredients to create the third food group
Ultra-processed food and drinks (which should be eaten very sparingly – if at all). These are foods which have been processed with the addition of additives and preservatives and are high in salt, fat and sugar.
In the UK, recent studies have demonstrated that on average, just over 50% of the food purchased by households is ultra-processed food. This compares with 14.2% in France and 20.3% in Spain2.
So, if eating healthy “real food” is one of the best ways to improve our health what should we be eating? BSLM advises that, in addition to avoiding ultra-processed foods, we should aim to …
A plant based diet is eating more fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes
If choosing meat or fish, choose unprocessed – and if you can choose food with high welfare credentials with less hormones and antibiotics in the processing the better. these food groups are part of your diet.
Choose wholegrain or wholemeal varieties of starchy foods such as rice, pasta and bread.
BSLM believes that healthy eating patterns may include Mediterranean, plant-based or lower carbohydrate diets. However, it is important that our approach is built on teaching people the knowledge and skills required to follow healthier eating patterns of people’s own choosing.
Therefore, in advocating for a range of dietary approaches which are supported by evidence BSLM also emphasises the importance of individual patient choice and circumstances. As lifestyle medicine practitioners we are committed to a non-judgemental approach to supporting our patients to improving their health. It is therefore important to recognise people’s own unique conditions and circumstances when giving dietary and nutritional advice to patients.
If using lifestyle medicine in the consulting room, it’s important to support people to make better choices when it comes to what they eat.
But rethinking food also requires action beyond the individual. Action is also needed to create a healthy food culture which should include steps to reduce the easy availability of cheap, unhealthy and ultra-processed foods.
Governments, policymakers and the food industry all have a role to play here. All too often our food environment is characterised by easy access to “energy dense” but “nutrient poor” foods. A 2020 UNICEF report also concluded that “low-income groups have good access to ‘bad’ food and bad access to ‘good’ food.
All of these issues lead to under-nutrition in people of all weights. To improve our diet and our health this underlying “food environment” needs to change.