Market data indicates that ultra-processed food constitutes more than half of the total dietary energy for the average person living in the U.K., the U.S., and Canada . This means that we are more likely to eat or see somebody eating something bad for their health than something good. We’d sooner be caught nibbling on a McMuffin than an apple, gobbling sugary breakfast cereal than healthy overnight oats, or sitting down to a frozen/canned/fast-food meal, rather than a homemade one. This is a dismaying truth, mainly because it shows that we are allowing the markets to decide what we eat, rather than dictating what they should offer us.
When did this happen? Why did we start ingesting so much junk, while ignoring real, whole food? If we’d pay close attention and be mindful of what goes into our bodies, would we really chose an industrial loaf of bread that is valid for a couple of weeks over a baker’s fresh product that lasts for only a natural couple of days? From an evolutionary perspective, this is certainly an interesting topic and, as you’ll later see, this global trend (mostly present in developed countries, mind you) has something to do with our physiology as well.
Allow me to re-contextualise the pandemic of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases our world is currently facing by quoting one of the foremost nutritional scientists of our time, Dr. Carlos Monteiro: “The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing.” 
We’ve Got Weight-Loss Backwards
As a coach and nutrition specialist, I know first-hand that most people have a warped idea about weight loss. The continuing popularity of fad diets is a testament to this. Many people think calories instead of content, quantity instead of quality. That’s why there are so many reported cases of people rigorously adhering to a specific, calorie-restricting diet, and making themselves ill in the process – whether through malnutrition or in other ways. The harshest truth everyone has to learn is that even if you switch to drinking the low calorie alternative of your favourite sugar sweetened beverage, it’s still worse (for both your weight and your health) than having a banana, which is around 90 calories.
Learn More: Calorie Myths: 7 Scientific Facts Why Calorie Counting Is Inaccurate – https://www.dna-lean.co.uk/blog/calorie-mythology/
Why is this the case? Well, it’s no news that our bodies process different substances in different ways. More importantly, if we take the above example, fruit does not contain refined sugar. Unlike with processed carbohydrates, the combination of sugars that exists in fruits (a mix of glucose, fructose, and sucrose) is more difficult to break down and assimilate into our blood stream. What’s more, fruits contain healthy fibre, which we know protects against colon cancer and a host of ailments, including cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, weight problems, and more , and that also slows down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, thereby giving our bodies a chance to better react to it.
Just 1 banana provides you with anywhere from a fifth to a quarter of your daily fibre needs. The discussion itself is immense and the best possible starting point for it is the fact that you need to increase the quality of what you’re eating, rather than decrease the quantity. Calories and carbohydrates in fruits and whole foods are not the same as the ones in processed items, as you’ll see in just a moment. The same holds true with fat and protein, which is why labels are severely misguiding. For at least a decade now, scientists have been calling for a better labelling system, one that is based upon nutritional and health value, rather than energy.
It’s a fact that as you eat more whole foods, fruits, and vegetables, while cutting down on processed items, you’ll start to notice significant health and weight-related changes. So far, this evidence has mostly been observational. But this is no longer the case. You absolutely need to know what’s in your food before eating it. This should be common-sense consumer behaviour, yet many of us lack it.
Processed vs. Unprocessed
The Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) within the NIH showed, in a randomized, controlled experiment, that ultra-processed foods will make you gain weight, while a mostly whole-food diet will make you lose it . Nobody should have to go through the experimental process involved in this study, especially when we already have a large amount of data on the massively harmful impact of processed food on the human body, but these researchers did and they deserve our respect for it. Although we didn’t need another study to be able to say this, it never hurts to be certain.
So why is this the case with processed vs. unprocessed foods? I mean, there are numerous coaches and alleged health experts out there that say you can eat anything you want as long as your calorie in-take is kept in check. This is factually wrong and you shouldn’t rely on anyone who is firmly convinced that this is the case. The IIFYM is one such popular approach. With the same idea in mind, various fad diets call out for fewer calories and calorie deprivation, which ultimately lead to worse health and even greater weight fluctuations. Nearly 90% of all sugar in processed foods are purposefully added. For as long as we continue to obtain most of our daily energy requirements from refined items, our risk and occurrence of coronary heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and dyslipidaemia will also become higher and higher .
As I mentioned before, the NIH’s report is not the first one of its kind. Several noteworthy nutritional investigations have been performed on both developed and developing populations. So far, there’s always been a direct, unequivocal relationship between the percentage of daily food that is processed and the frequency of health-related problems. The reason for this is that processed and ultra-processed foods are incredibly high in refined carbohydrates, as well as saturated fat, to the point of being toxic and addictive. That’s right. The ultra-processed food you eat will ultimately consume you alive by neurologically predisposing you to eating more junk .
The recent NIH study is a good excuse to bring this topic to the fore, once again. If people gained, on average, 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of body weight over 2 weeks of an ultra-processed diet, while losing the same amount on the unprocessed diet with the same amount of calories in both instances, then maybe we’re thinking of weight loss backwards. These patients were confined to metabolic wards for the duration of the investigation and their fat mass, eating rate and satiety levels, glucose tolerance, and insulin effectiveness all point to the same conclusion.
Eating whole foods helps you stay healthy and lose weight, while eating processed items achieves the opposite . This was shown in Brazil, for instance, where there was a noticeable shift in the diet of the population as the country began to develop from an economic standpoint. Median income households started out with minimal or completely unprocessed foods, but moved on to processed and ultra-processed ones as financial development became more widespread . The overall health of the population is now visibly declining
How to Identify (Ultra)Processed Foods
While it is true that a great deal of the weight (and fat) loss is achieved through a decreased energy in-take, this is only a consequence of the fact that the quantity of added sugars we consume is severely limited when we don’t ingest processed items. The calories should never be your aim, but rather the quality of what’s in your plate. As a rule, processed and ultra-processed items include the following: varieties of added sugars (maltodextrin, dextrose, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.), modified oils (such as hydrogenated ones, i.e. palm), and several protein sources (such as casein, whey protein, mechanically separated meat or hydrolysed proteins).
You can also include additives in the list above. They appear on labels as flavour enhancer, flavour, emulsifier, thickener, or agents responsible for gelling, glazing, bulking, or carbonating. Their sole purpose is to mask the natural properties of what you’re eating and make it seem more pleasurable and appealing. Combine this with our natural, biological predisposition for sugar and fat. Indeed, it seems that we can’t help our central nervous system; it craves high-sugar, high-fat foods to the point where it will cause us anxiety when we stop eating them. 
The biggest tell-tale of these substances that are only present in processed and ultra-processed foods is that they are of little to no use in a kitchen. You don’t need or use them to prepare a healthy, hearty meal. We’ve also survived without them quite successfully up until this point. Now, it seems, we can no longer live without them, but we’re shrugging our shoulders thinking our poor health is caused by one wild reason or another.
Out with the Takeaway and in with the Cooking
Proper restaurant food is expensive, which is why most people chose fast-food, ready meals, or processed items that take little to no preparation. While this may be fine once in a while, turning it into a habit will negatively impact your mood, health, and weight. There’s just no way around it. We were biologically meant to eat whole-foods, mostly plants and fruits, as our bodies seem to respond better to them than to animal products. We feel good when we eat sugar and fat likely because these would help us stay alive in an environment where food was scarce, when we had to gather, scramble, and go on hunting expeditions just to stay alive. This is not the case anymore.
Taking the time to cook your food and to properly read labels will pay off in spades. Don’t just stop at carbohydrates, sugars, salt, and fat. Understand if these substances are natural to the product or added, and, in the latter case, what purpose they serve. It’s vital that you recognise what makes up those calories and what the role of those endless lists of chemicals is. Yes, vital, since this competence can help you save years of your life and avoid numerous chronic diseases. Most of these added substances, as I have shown, are used in order to improve texture, palatability, or increase shelf life. Of course they trigger weight gain. Albeit safe, these substances are not nutritious or beneficial to us in any way.
More importantly, this is not proper food, which is perishable. Processed meals are aggregates of compounds put together in order to appease our biology.
It Has to Stop, Now
Let me put it to you this way. Would you entrust your life to someone whose main goal is profit? Are you ready to trade your health for the convenience of low-cost ingredients and substances intended to prolong shelf-life in order to create hyper-palatable brand products? You’re not the one who wins, but the people who make a profit from your purchase, which they most assuredly do. Most of us are doing this without even being aware of what’s going on. As the NIH study has accurately shown, it was a full $50 more expensive per week to eat an unprocessed diet. But you save thousands (or tens of thousands) in healthcare, medication, years of life, not to mention your happiness and balance.
It’s time we put an end to improper eating habits and mindless consumer behaviours. Healthy, whole, minimally processed food is not expensive. It’s just harder to make than a mass-produced breakfast cereal or “digestive” cookie. In most cases, it’s a fair price you’re paying for keeping you strong and in good condition. And, who knows, given adequate market demand, fresh, whole food might become cheaper in the long run, as farmers and other suppliers can grow their business.
List of references:
 Ultra-processed foods: what they are and how to identify them – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/ultraprocessed-foods-what-they-are-and-how-to-identify-them/E6D744D714B1FF09D5BCA3E74D53A185
 Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing – http://www.wphna.org/htdocs/downloadsdec2012/2009_PHN_Monteiro.pdf
 Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Health Implications of Dietary Fiber – https://jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(15)01386-6/fulltext
 Heavily processed foods cause overeating and weight gain, study finds – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190516114550.htm
 Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health – Processing or Nutrient Content? – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5787353/#R66
 The Neurobiology of “Food Addiction” and Its Implications for Obesity Treatment and Policy – https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-nutr-071715-050909
 Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake – https://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/pdf/S1550-4131(19)30248-7.pdf
 Increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods and likely impact on human health: evidence from Brazil – https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ab09/a95f6e04afb4540df22fc4d0d22a76754739.pdf
 Mood, food, and obesity – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4150387/