Convenience Foods and a Low-Glycemic Diet

By Meri Reffetto

Convenience foods have a place in your day-to-day life as an easy substitute to a home-cooked meal on extra-busy days. The original idea behind frozen foods, TV dinners, and other convenience foods was to have them “once in a while.” Now convenience foods have become so common that it’s easy to get dependent on them, and cooking a home-made meal begins to feels too time consuming or difficult.

The problem with this shift in balance to eating more convenience foods is the health implications. Even though some are better than others, the bottom line is most of the time convenience foods are highly processed with less nutrients and more sodium, sugar, fat, and calories.

It’s worth repeating. Convenience foods have their place in your diet; but if you’re completely dependent on them, chances are you’re consuming a higher-glycemic load and missing out on important nutrients to keep yourself healthy. As you start to make changes toward a low-glycemic lifestyle, it’s a good idea to get back to the kitchen and treat convenience foods as a once-in-awhile helpful option.

While there are some great convenience foods out there, most are processed. And the more processed a food becomes, the less nutrients it has. Convenience foods also lead to an increase in the following:

  • Sugar is used as a preservative and as a sweetener. American palates have become more adapted to sweets, forcing some food manufacturers to add sugar. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans consumed 39 percent more sugar in the year 2000 compared to the 1950s. The higher sugar content can directly impact glycemic load.

  • Refined grains from breads, cereals, crackers, and pastas have been on the rise since the 1970s. Refined grains have been stripped of many nutrients and left with less fiber than their whole-grain counterparts, leaving them with a higher-glycemic load. Not to mention with the ease of buying these foods, Americans’ intake of refined processed grain products like cereals, bakery items, and breads is significantly higher than the recommended amount.

  • Sodium is also used as a preservative and, again, for taste enhancement. Processed foods use very little spices and herbs, and of course you won’t find any fresh herbs being used. This means manufacturers pump up the sodium to help palatability. Higher sodium levels can cause water retention and interfere negatively with those who have high blood pressure or congestive heart failure.

  • Saturated and polyunsaturated fats are primarily used for taste. The type of fat used is usually dependent on what is cheapest for the manufacturer. This has led to a boom in higher saturated and polyunsaturated fat diets.

    Both kinds of fats are needed in the diet, but the shift to such a high amount being consumed has disrupted the ratio of essential fats leading to higher inflammation in your body. Inflammation is associated with chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

  • Calories are typically higher in store-bought convenience foods simply because of the increased use of fats and sugar that add up the caloric content. This can make it difficult to manage your weight because you end up eating a smaller amount of food for a higher calorie level.

Store-bought items tend to use more sugar, fat, and sodium than you might at home for enhanced taste and a longer shelf life. To show a quick comparison, take a look at the following table that shows a store-bought blueberry muffin compared to a homemade blueberry muffin.

Keep in mind muffins are one of those items that will almost always be higher glycemic because of the flour and sugar being used. However, this makes a great comparison simply because it shows the significant difference in fat, sugar, carbohydrate, and calories with the same size muffin.

Store-Bought Blueberry Muffin Homemade Blueberry Muffin
Calories 440 166
Total fat 24 grams 6 grams
Saturated fat 5 grams 4 grams
Sodium 320 grams 129 grams
Carbohydrates 53 grams 26 grams
Fiber 1 gram 1 gram
Sugar 30 grams 14 grams
Protein 5 grams 3 grams

Unfortunately, the glycemic index hasn’t been tested on both examples, but an educated guess suggests that with the balance of protein and fat-per-calorie level being similar, you’ll find a lower-glycemic load with the significant reduction in sugar and carbohydrates in the homemade version.