Fresh food is kind on the waistline and hardwires the brain to eat healthier.
Busy lifestyles make it all too tempting to reach for the convenience foods. Whether it’s pizzas, burgers, ready-meals, pastries or sauces, many are low on nutrients and packed with hidden salt, sugar and unsaturated fats.
Worse still, the addictive nature of these foods has us coming back for more. No wonder so many of us struggle with our health and weight.
Most of us realise by now that cooking from fresh is better for us and is the only way to get back control over what we eat. But the latest science suggests that it can also hardwire the brain to eat healthier and wean us off our addiction to junk food.
You may be tired of hearing that you should cook from scratch – particularly if you are pushed for time and money (though remember there is a reason why junk food tends to be so cheap!). The reality is, few of us can manage it all the time if we want any sort of life outside the kitchen.
But if you’re looking for a health boost, the science suggests that reducing your reliance on unhealthy processed foods could work better than the latest diet or health fad.
Here are three reasons why fresh is best:
You can pack more of a nutrient punch
You can boost your health even further with a rainbow on your plate. A daily fix of different coloured fruit and vegetables will help give you pretty much all the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals you need – with the reward of an even healthier you at the end of the rainbow.
It hardwires your brain to eat healthier
Often people who start cooking their own food say they couldn’t go back to convenience meals. And one small study offers a possible reason why.
Researchers at Harvard compared two groups of people – one on a six-month healthy eating and weight-loss programme and the other with no access to the programme.
For people in the healthy eating group, MRI scans after six months showed the brain’s reward centres were stimulated more by images of healthy food – and less by images of unhealthy, high calorie food – compared to the group who hadn’t been on the programme.
So it may be that by replacing the junk with real food, you can re-programme your brain towards desiring healthier treats than ‘hurry curries’ and chocolate eclairs.
You’re less likely to gorge on foods that are bad for you
Studies suggest that eating fresh, healthy food triggers an in-built cue in the brain to eat a varied and balanced diet.
Research on rats showed that when they had overeaten a healthy food, the brain stopped responding to it – protecting them against overeating and encouraging them to try different foods.
But rats fed on processed foods such as pies, cakes, dumplings and cookies, didn’t stop responding to cues for this type of food. They happily continued with their addictive junk-food diet – despite it being higher in calories, lower in nutrients and causing a 10% weight gain.
So replacing unhealthy processed foods, such as pizza and burgers, with healthy meals you prepare yourself could reactivate your body’s natural mechanism to eat better. Plus you’re less likely to gorge yourself on foods that are bad for you and your waistline.
Stick with it
If all this sounds a lot of effort, the good news is that studies suggest it can get easier with time. So stick with it, and before you know it, the thought of your lovely stir-fry or homemade soup could be just the incentive you need to skip the ready meal aisle of the supermarket and opt for buying fresh instead.
And if shortage of time is the issue, don’t forget there is such a thing as real, fast food. Witness the swathe of recipe books by celebrity chefs designed to help us whip up instant meals from fresh ingredients, and still have time to watch the latest episode of War and Peace!
So if you’re looking for lasting improvements to your health and weight, ditch the junk and explore the delights of real, fast food.
Poti, Jennifer M et al. Is the degree of food processing and convenience linked with the nutritional quality of foods purchased by US households? Am J Clin Nutr 2015
Deckersbach T et al. Pilot randomized trial demonstrating reversal of obesity-related abnormalities in reward system responsivity to food cues with a behavioral intervention. Nutrition and Diabetes 2014.
Reichelt A et al. Cafeteria diet impairs expression of sensory-specific satiety and stimulus-outcome learning. Psychol. August 2014.