Dave Shaw 's Opinion

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: Un-processing processed food

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Can some foods still be healthy even if they're processed? Photo / Thinkstock
Can some foods still be healthy even if they're processed? Photo / Thinkstock

The other day one of my friends called me up to settle a nutrition-related debate between him and his girlfriend.

The topic: is Weetbix a healthy option for breakfast?

Here am I thinking that these are two healthy and successful individuals, both with university level degrees yet, when it comes to figuring out what to eat, a PhD level qualification from a leading academic institution seems to be a prerequisite.

I assure you, this is not the case.

Coincidentally, earlier in the day I had read two brilliant opinion pieces. One by preventative medical expert, David Katz and the other I found on The Conversation that underlined the highs and lows of processed food.

This is, in part, where our confusion about nutrition begins. Are processed foods healthy or unhealthy? Or should we even be using these finite terms to categorise food?

Technically, every food we eat can be harmful if we eat too much of it. Obviously, some foods are better - or worse - for us than others and some people need to be more aware of what to eat more - or less - of.

But what comes under the umbrella of processed food is almost impossible to define in one or two sentences. In a recent paper in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition, the authors attempt to do so, but actually highlight the difficulty of such a challenge.

In a walk through my local supermarket, I noticed thousands of foods that had some level of processing before reaching the shelf: anything dried, frozen, fermented, minced, cooked and packaged are all forms of processed food. Yet none would warrant me to turn a blind eye to them.

For many New Zealanders, a significant proportion of nutrients - including vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein - come from processed foods. They are arguably not entirely bad for us.

What's important is how many layers of refinement a particular food has undergone to reach its final state. We must consider the nature, extent and purpose of processing, and what happens to the food as a result of processing. Most nutrition and health experts agree that there is no such thing as a healthy ultra-processed food. These foods have been taken from nature, stripped of their nutrients and reformed into a sensually appealing and convenient product that will last for years.

In these cases, I like to advise, "If you can't picture what a food looks like in nature, then there's likely to be a healthier alternative."

In opposition are many food manufacturers who are manipulating their products by injecting them with essential nutrients and whacking a tag of functional food on the package in big bold letters.

As David Katz describes, it's the same as "slapping lipstick on a pig". These foods shouldn't be allowed it to climb the hierarchy of healthfulness.

Yet, it happens and marketers prey on the public's fear of eating unhealthily to steal their attention like a moth to a flame. We are seduced to buy products that are more expensive and less nutritious nearly every day. My advice: beware of the product that claims to be better than the one next to it.

For the general population, the best nutrition can be found in wholefoods. Though, it's unrealistic to believe we will all switch to buy everything we eat from around the perimeter of supermarkets, produce stores, butchers and our local farmers markets.

Most of us have to do with what we've got. Money, time and knowledge all influence what foods we load our trolley with. But small and effective change towards a healthier diet and lifestyle doesn't have to be difficult, it can actually be very simple. Processed food can have a place in your diet, you just have to stay clear of products that glow in the dark or market themselves with false advertising.

Now, back to the original question, "Is Weetbix a healthy option for breakfast?"

My answer, "For the general population, of course. Though, having a smaller serving and loading your bowl with berries, fruit, natural yoghurt, nuts and seeds will supercharge your breakfast."

It seems to label a food as healthy or unhealthy is more of a disservice, than help. A food isn't eaten in isolation. No one lives off bread alone. We consume a diet that includes uncountable foods eaten in various combinations.

Most foods tend to only be healthier - or unhealthier - than others. For many of us, processed foods are an important part of our diet. But it's about balance. We just have to overcome our inherent desire to self-destruct, leaving what we know to be bad for us on the shelf and instead, empower ourselves to create a healthier diet for ourselves and family.

Dave Shaw

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave works in public health and alongside some of New Zealand’s top athletes. Whether it's for vitality, performance, identity or spirituality, Dave loves the way food brings people together. He believes that no one diet is the cure for our growing rates of chronic disease, but a diet based on wholefoods is the perfect start. Always keeping up-to-date with current evidence and food trends, Dave is a relentless researcher for how we should eat and likes to challenge what we may think about nutrition.

Read more by Dave Shaw

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