Make a Smart Switch: Food-Made-in-a-Plant to Plant-Based Food

By Rebecca Shrum

Empowering Health & Wellness

No doubt about it. We’re all seduced by foods processed in a plant. Crunchy, salty, sugary snacks. Ready-to-eat meals. Grocery store shelves stacked with taste-tempters in jars and cans. Unfortunately, all that delicious taste and convenience is keeping us from eating real, whole foods that support health, rather than sabotaging it.

Like most things in life, making better food choices starts with education. Exactly what is a processed food? Basically, it’s any food that is altered from its natural state. That includes being cut, washed, heated, pasteurized, canned, cooked, frozen, dried, dehydrated, mixed or packaged. It can also include food that has added preservatives, nutrients, flavors, salts, sugars and fats. Whew! You may be asking yourself, what’s left? Fortunately, there are recognized levels of food processing that can give you guidance as you decide what to eat.

The NOVA Scale

Estimates indicate that in a country like the U.S., processed foods make up more than 60 percent of food consumed on a given day. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Thanks to Carlos Monteiro, professor of nutrition and public health at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, we have a roadmap to guide our journey to better eating. Monteiro was instrumental in creating what is known as the NOVA Scale, which rates just how processed a food is, and gives clues to how damaging its consumption may be.

The NOVA Scale classifies food into four groups:

    • Group 1 – unprocessed or minimally processed foods (fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat, milk, etc.).
    • Group 2 – foods processed in the kitchen with the aim of extending their shelf life –examples include fats, aromatic herbs, etc. kept in jars or in the refrigerator for later use.
    • Group 3 – processed foods. These are the foods obtained by combining foods of groups 1 and 2 to obtain many food products such as breads, crackers and jams, but they have few ingredients. They also include canned vegetables, salted nuts, canned fish and fruits in syrup.
    • Group 4 – ultra-processed foods. Sometimes described not as food, but “edible food-like substances,” ultra-processed foods use many ingredients — food additives that improve palatability, processed raw materials (hydrogenated fats, modified starches, etc.) and ingredients that are rarely used in home cooking, such as soy protein or mechanically separated meat. These foods are extremely palatable (you always want more), and contain a long list of ingredients.

The ultra-processed foods in Group 4 are particularly problematic. A 2019 study from Brazil from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that eating ultra-processed foods – or those that contain little or no whole foods in their ingredients – was associated with tens of thousands of premature deaths.

Simple Ways to Uncomplicate Your Eating Evolution

As you’ve heard me say before, your lifestyle and what you eat make a big impact on your health and your ability to perform at work, at play and in life. The good news is that switching to a whole food, plant-predominant diet doesn’t have to be complicated.

    • It’s not hard to cook whole grains, such as pasta, brown rice and quinoa, and buy whole grain bread
    • It’s easy to pick up a piece of fruit and just eat it. Make fresh salads or even peel a carrot, eat a handful of cherry tomatoes and buy prewashed romaine lettuce or other pre-cleaned green leafy vegetables.
    • While you are doing other tasks, bake a sweet potato.
    • Frozen veggies are easy, too, just don’t overcook them.
    • A handful of natural nuts a day is also a good idea.
    • When you shop, choose more items from the outside aisles of the store, and fewer from the middle.

The big takeaway? Remember that processed foods are the ones that are addictive and send signals to your brain to eat more and more. Food scientists know exactly how to make them that way. And because the fiber and other important ingredients have been stripped out, they don’t fill you up. Here’s to striking a better balance in 2023, feeling fuller and fitter!

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