What do you think about this meal? Salads are pretty healthy, right? Greens are a source of iron, tomatoes have loads of lycopene (an antioxidant) and that stuff in the middle is tempeh, made from fermented soybeans and high in both protein AND fibre. There's at least two portions of your 5-a-day in there. Throw a whole grain pita into the mix and it's basically every nutritionist's wet dream.
This was something I made for lunch a few weeks ago and something I've started using to make a point with to my clients. Clients who have been well and truly shafted by clean eating and who are now afraid to feed their bodies. Clients who are fearful of foods and no longer eat for pleasure. Clients who are paranoid about gluten and sugar, and whatever the fuck else.
Here's the thing. I think we would all agree that this is a nutrient dense meal, yes? But, less obviously, there are a shit ton of processed ingredients in there. For starts there's vegan mayo and shop bought almond milk in the ranch dressing; there's onion & garlic powder in there too. The buffalo tempeh is marinated in hot sauce with vegetable bouillon and nutritional yeast (dehydrated yeast, looks suspiciously like fish food but tastes good). The tempeh itself is technically processed. Team #eatreal would have a full meltdown if they knew.
Despite the long list of 'fake' ingredients, it isn't inherently a bad meal. Like everything in nutritional sciences, it's about context and nuance. And remember that you don't have to eat a 'perfect' diet to be healthy; there's no such thing.
And that's why I get turbo-pissed about the rhetoric around processed foods. In the aftermath of clean eating we're trying to figure out new ways to categorise, food. None are helpful; most contribute to our culture of fear around food. 'Fake food', 'chemicals', 'junk food' & 'nasties' have become synonymous with bad and unhealthy. And instead of promoting moderation, balance, or variety, the Instagram set has taken the position that these foods must be eliminated from your diet entirely, without acknowledging their own disordered eating. The irony in all of this is that the people who are telling you to avoid processed foods are the same people raking it in from their protein powder endorsements. Spoiler: protein powder doesn't grow on trees, dipshit.
So what do credible nutrition professionals have to say? Well, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the US has the tagline 'All Foods Fit' because, well, all foods fit as part of a healthy balanced diet. And NHS choices have written a great article about how the term processed is pretty fucking vague and includes things like milk, cheese, and tinned vegetables; all things that are part of a balanced diet.
As dietitian Sian Porter put it "Freezing fruit and veg preserves most vitamins, while tinned produce (choose those without added sugar and salt) can mean convenient storage, cooking and choice to eat all year round, with less waste and cost than fresh." Processing food is kind of a no brainer.
Cooking, chopping, blending, and pasteurising are all processes, and as the NHS points out: processed, food is 'any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way, either for safety reasons or convenience.' It does not mean, bad, unhealthy, or avoid altogether; something that self-styled Insta-nutritionists are yet to grasp. Maybe they hate efficiency and not getting infected with pathogens ? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Some might say this is pedantry and semantics. Some will lose their shit because "you just can't say anything these days". But the language we use to describe food matters. It really. fucking. matters. And you have to know your audience. While messages to be mindful of added sugar, salt, and fat are important for public health, these messages don't translate on Instagram #notallprocessedfoods
A recent UCL study estimated that 50%-90% of the healthy eating communities on Instagram have symptoms of orthorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterised by an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy or pure food that has consequences for psychological and physical wellbeing. I've even had clients ask me if it's ok to buy pouches of ready-to-go quinoa and lentils because "they're processed". These are exactly the kinds of people who need to to chill the fuck out about their diets, not become even more paranoid and restrictive.
Dichotomising foods into processed/unprocessed does little to help reduce fear and anxiety around food, but what's the alternative? I talk to my clients about food groups: grains, beans, meat/fish, dairy, fruit & vegetables. From there I can layer on concepts about choosing wholegrains for fibre, or checking labels for added salt and sugar. Wherever possible I talk about what can be added into the diet instead of removed. And if a food doesn't obviously or easily fit into a food group, I use a term that's a lot less loaded, like 'other' foods, or 'fun' foods. Better yet, I let the person decide what the fuck they want to call those foods and encourage them to pick something neutral that doesn't evoke feelings of guilt; you should not feel any sense of guilt or remorse for feeding your body. End of story.