"Ultra-processed foods linked to cancer"...
...This is the latest headline in a series related to cancer; its prevention and development. The headline perhaps doesn’t seem that groundbreaking or surprising because we have heard similar stories before.
Reading an article like this can be terrifying for some whilst others will choose to ignore, baffled by the seemingly ever changing advice about diet and cancer. Some will swing between these two reactions, but most will just feel a degree of helplessness because despite these articles containing important information, very rarely is there any sensible practical advice given on how to interpret the findings and most importantly how to implement them into your day to day life.
I received several panicked emails following this article, more emails than usual, hence deciding to write a blog post on how to sensibly approach this one.
First off, this is an article based on one single research study, and this needs to be taken into consideration. Lets not completely demonise all processed food based on one study. However, the study does throw up some interesting points and perhaps the most helpful points that we can take from studies like this are based around making simpler and better choices when it comes to buying and cooking food.
Articles like this can seem scary because people often can’t see a way out of using processed food. Time is scarce and very few of us feel like we have the time to prepare and cook meals from scratch every night of the week as well as preparing healthy lunches and nutritious breakfasts and "ready to grab" homemade snacks. This feeds into the cycle of feeling helpless, people can’t see a practical way out of their food situation and so just forget about the article and about making any changes.
The reality is that this is not an all or nothing game. Lets talk about tweaks!
Making small changes to one area of your diet is potentially not only positive in terms of health benefits, but sticking to a small sustainable change is empowering. This will inevitably then (often) lead to further changes.
Here are some simple but great tweaks that are realistic and sustainable:
- Change snacks to fruit
Simple yes but this can have a massive benefit. Studies have shown health benefits when people even eat 2/3 portions of fruit a day over zero or one... so an apple mid morning and a banana mid afternoon has already upped your fruit and vegetable intake by two portions a day. Fruit is portable and if you remain flexible and stick to varieties that are on offer in the supermarkets, then it is affordable too.
- Fill up your freezer with frozen vegetables and use them
This is a brilliant way of getting more veg into your diet with minimal wastage (it is less likely to go off in the freezer!) and at minimal cost.
- If you are doing pesto pasta then chuck a mug full of frozen peas in near the end
This adds colour and texture not to mention health benefits.
- Stir frozen spinach into stews / casseroles whether they are shop bought or homemade
Embrace the "enhancing" trick. Also great for stirring into soups/stews/casseroles/hotpots is frozen sweetcorn and frozen green beans.
-Buying a ready made pizza? Then smother it with extra chopped veggies and once cooked, a load of rocket or spinach
- Boost breakfast by stirring in a handful of frozen berries/mango/pineapple to a pan of porridge
Far cheaper than fresh fruit and tastes just as brilliant.
-Making jelly for the kids? Then add in a can of tinned fruit – it looks prettier and will boost their fibre and antioxidant intake
- Cooking a ready meal in the oven? Then why not pop a tray of veggies in alongside to roast
You don’t need to do much if you opt for minimal fuss; just throw in cherry tomatoes, trim green beans, break up some cauliflower, trim mushroom stalks, halve a pepper and take out the seeds and that is pretty much it! Toss with a little oil and seasoning/spices and this will take about 20 minutes, just in time to go with your ready meal (save any leftovers for tomorrow!).
- Buy some soup for lunch
Chances are you will end up consuming more vegetables this way than you would do through a sandwich.
Want to ditch the ready meal but have no time? Don’t forget these simple and speedy options:
- Omelette stuffed with cheese, spinach, mushrooms and served with a baked potato/sweet potato (10 mins in the microwave)
- Beans on toast (either canned beans or if you have 10 mins then make your own)
- Eggy bread with chopped cherry tomatoes and a big handful of leaves
- Frozen veggie burger/burger/breaded fish fillet served inside a semi-mushroom bap (lower half bread and top half a big portobello mushroom (grilled alongside your burger), stuffed with salad, tomato slices, avocado and gherkins
In short, don’t feel like your diet needs to be perfect. None of us have perfect diets but we can be empowered with the knowledge that each little positive change will help your health. Without wanting to coin a hugely over used phrase... every little really does help. Start small, pick one of the above tweaks to do just once a week and see where you go from there!
Lets channel any confusion and fear into some small positive steps towards a longer and healthier future for us all.