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This series intention is to normalize foods or a category of foods that diet culture tells us is unhealthy or unacceptable. It can be difficult to decipher fact from fiction. Many of the foods that are avoided or restricted could be part of your fueling toolbox to improve your performance, and your long term health. This is the third post in this series, check out our previous topics on dairy and juice.

Our next food to normalize: PROCESSED FOODS

What the Research says about Processed Foods for our Health

You may be thinking; “Ha! Processed foods for our health? Aren’t you a Dietitian?

That’s a great question. However, the problem with diet culture in today’s society is the misinformation and misunderstanding surrounding processed foods. Many people’s minds may instantly jump to foods such as; Poptarts, Twinkies, or Cheetos. In order to clarify any misconceptions, let’s start with the basic definition of processed food.

The USDA defines processed food as “one that has undergone any changes to its natural state”.

For example, a processed food could include anything from simply cutting, blanching to dehydrating and packaging. As you can see, this includes a wide range of different foods that you may not have even considered being processed. While it does include items like Cheetos, it also includes items like pre-sliced fruit, vitamin fortified juices, and even brown rice.

Processed foods are separated into 3 categories based on type, intensity and purpose of processing.

  1. Minimally Processed Foods: rice, pre-sliced fruit, legumes.

  2. Substances Extracted from Whole Foods: oils, flours - typically those foods used for cooking.

  3. Ultra-Processed Foods: Cheetos, soft drinks.

As you can see, minimally processed foods and those extracted from whole/minimally processed foods are

  • Nutritious

  • Necessary

  • Part of every person’s diet.

Let’s review some of these foods. Fresh meat, oils, beans, grains, milk, nuts, fruits and vegetables - these all can be included in minimally processed foods. It’s no surprise that these are all included in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans - meaning daily consumption is recommended!

Let's talk ultra-processed foods. I’m not going to say that regular or increased intake of these foods are health promoting - but, they can have a place in our diets in the general population AND as athletes (more on that below!). Ultra-processed foods are items like chips, soda, some frozen foods, sports gummies/gels, etc. These foods can be

  • Easy and efficient

  • Tasty!

  • Emotional/comforting.

Remember that food provides energy and nutrients, but food is also emotional, celebratory and cultural. Also remember that health encompasses more than our diets, it includes aspects such as; mental, emotional, physical, spiritual health.

How Might it Impact Your Athletic Performance?

Processed foods (in all three categories) play a significant role for the athlete. Most athletes are busy - between practices/training sessions, school/career, friends and family, it can be near impossible to cook all meals and snacks from scratch. Foods such as; gels, sports drinks and gummies are efficient sources of necessary energy in long, intense training sessions. Canned and frozen foods and entrees can have dinner on the table in minutes.

So how do some of these ultra-processed foods play a role in the athlete’s diet?

The most important and foundational aspect of an athlete’s diet is meeting overall calorie needs. This can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible in the absence of processed foods. Whole fruits and vegetables are important and necessary, however, these are not going to contribute largely to meeting our energy needs. Processed and ultra-processed foods can assist an athlete in meeting their high energy needs, and provide fueling when and where they need it (at the gym, right after a practice, on the road, at work, etc.).

Sports drinks, gels, gummies, even poptarts, cookies and other treats can be used for pre- and during training. Do these have to be the options you choose before every single training session? No! There are times where dried fruit, a meal, or a whole food snack will be the preferred method of choice. Then there will be times when commercially made, ultra-processed fueling options may be chosen.

Remember - food and fueling choices are not black and white, there is room for nuance and gray areas.

Is there a limit on how much of these ultra-processed food choices I should be aware of?

The easy answer? No.

The long answer? It depends.

We are all unique. We participate in different sports, are different sizes, have different genetics, lifestyles, digestive tracts, and more. One of the main things I do as a Registered Dietitian is see how to fit whole, and minimally processed foods into my client’s diet. These foods will boost my client’s athletic performance and long-term health in multiple ways. However, ultra-processed foods still play an important role, too. The type and amount will look different, and it will not make up their entire diet. The amount they use will change in different stages of life (FYI this is OK!). For example, if I have an athlete who is recovering their period (due to HA) ultra-processed foods may take up a larger portion of the diet for a season. And that’s OK, too.

Cheers to eating a wide variety of foods and the nuances of eating!

Written by Maddi Osburn RDN LD



Public Health Nutrition, Volume 12, Issue 5, May 2009, pp. 729 - 731

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