There are plenty of reasons to start cutting ultra-processed foods out of your diet, once and for all.
With new studies emerging left and right linking processed food consumption to cancer, chronic disease, and even death, the impact that these unhealthy ingredients can have on your health is absolutely astounding.
Eliminating your favorite salty snacks, sweets, and comfort foods from your diet sounds may sound pretty intimidating. However, with a few simple swaps, reducing your intake of processed products and adding more healthy whole foods to your meal plan is much simpler than it seems.
Let’s dive in and explore why these ingredients are so harmful to health, look at some common ultra-processed food examples, and discuss some easy strategies to start scaling back.
What are Ultra-Processed Foods?
The term “ultra-processed foods” was first introduced by a team of Brazilian researchers in 2018. They conducted a massive study in which they analyzed the diets of 104,980 adults and found that consuming a high amount of ultra-processed foods was actually linked to a higher risk of cancer (1).
According to the researchers, the definition of ultra-processed foods encompasses “food products made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils, and fats, and other substances not commonly used in culinary preparations such as hydrogenated oils, modified starches, and protein isolates.” According to their ultra-processed foods definition, this also includes products that have undergone “hydrogenation, hydrolysis, extruding, molding, reshaping, and pre-processing by frying” (1).
Food processing companies often add ingredients to alter the taste and texture of their products. They may also use additives to enhance the nutritional value or include preservatives to keep foods fresher for longer.
Types of Processed Foods
Not all processed foods are created equally, and not all processed products should be categorized as “bad processed foods.” In fact, while some foods are processed to the point that they’re barely recognizable, others are only modified to ensure they are edible, clean, and convenient.
Non-processed foods: this includes foods that have not undergone any form of processing. Raw fruits and veggies, for example, are found in their natural state and are considered non-processed ingredients.
Minimally processed foods: these healthy processed foods have only been changed slightly and may be washed, peeled, sliced, or dried. Pasteurized milk, for instance, has undergone a small amount of processing to extend its shelf-life and prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Shelled nuts are another example of a product that has been minimally processed to ensure that it’s edible and easy to consume.
Moderately processed foods: these foods have been modified to a greater degree than minimally processed foods and may have been cooked, mixed, prepared, or packaged prior to consumption. Pasta, nut butter, and canned vegetables are all examples of this type of processed food.
Ultra-processed foods: these products tend to have a long list of ingredients and are pumped full of fillers, preservatives, and additives designed to enhance their flavor, texture, shelf-life, and nutritional profile. Processed meats, convenience foods, salty snacks, and baked goods are all examples of ultra-processed foods to avoid. Not only are the products on the ultra-processed food list typically high in calories, sodium, and sugar, but they’re also full of extra ingredients and chemicals that you’re better off without.
List of processed foods
Take a look in your kitchen pantry and you’re likely to find a whole host of processed foods housed inside. From granola bars high in processed sugar to sodas, sports drinks, and sweet treats, ultra-processed foods are virtually everywhere.
Here are a few common examples of processed foods to avoid:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages: soda, sports drinks, fruit juice, sweet tea, energy drinks
- Processed meats: bacon, salami, beef jerky, cold cuts
- Frozen foods/convenience meals
- Fast food
- Salty snacks: potato chips, pretzels, crackers, microwave popcorn
- Sweets: cookies, cakes, brownies, ice cream, candy
- Granola bars
- Refined grains: white bread, white pasta, instant noodles
Health Effects of Processed Foods
Most ultra-processed foods are loaded with extra calories, sodium, fat, and sugar, but low in the important vitamins and minerals that your body needs. Filling up your diet with these unhealthy, nutrient-poor ingredients can increase the risk of nutritional deficiencies, weight gain, and a whole host of other health problems.
These foods are also usually lacking in fiber, which is an important nutrient that moves through the body undigested. Fiber plays a central role in regulating blood pressure, blood sugar, and digestive health. It’s also involved in weight management, heart health, and regularity (2). Not getting enough fiber in your diet from nutritious, unprocessed foods can have a detrimental effect on all of these aspects of health, and more.
Research on the effects of ultra-processed foods has also turned up some pretty disturbing results. For example, one study analyzed the diets of more than 44,000 adults over a seven-year period and found that consuming higher amounts of ultra-processed foods was linked to a higher risk of death (3). Another study in 2018 showed that a 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption was tied to a 12% higher risk of cancer (1). A large review comprised of over 105,000 participants also found that eating more ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of heart disease (4).
Processed meat is also a huge contributor to chronic disease. In fact, multiple studies have found that loading up your plate with processed meats like bacon, salami, and cold cuts could significantly increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes (5). The World Health Organization also recently classified processed meat as carcinogenic to humans, which means that there is sufficient evidence available to prove that it may cause cancer (6).
Simple Swaps to Improve Your Diet
Cutting back on your consumption of ultra-processed ingredients is easier than it may seem. Here are a few quick tips and tricks that you can use to enhance the overall quality of your diet:
1. Start slowly
Swearing off processed foods don’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach. Start by scaling back on your intake of salty snacks and sugary sodas over a week or two. Next, try reducing the number of times you hit the drive-thru each week by opting for homemade meals instead. These small changes can really add up over time to ensure sustainable, long-term success.
2. Plan ahead
Planning your meals ahead of time is a simple way to ensure you’re fitting plenty of nutritious, unprocessed foods into your diet. Pick out a few recipes to try throughout the week that features fresh, whole food ingredients and prepare a shopping list full of fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy fats, and protein foods. You may also want to consider a meal planning program, which takes the guesswork out of planning a healthy, balanced diet rich in nutritious, non-processed foods.
3. Shop smarter
Making changes to your diet often starts at the supermarket, and making sure you’re well-prepared is an easy strategy to help you stay on track. Make a comprehensive grocery list before you hit the store, and be sure to shop around the perimeter rather than in the middle aisles. Unprocessed foods like fruits and veggies are often found around the edges of the store while convenience meals, salty snacks, and sweets are generally housed in the middle aisles.
4. Make small switches
Believe it or not, you can still enjoy many of your favorite foods while decreasing your consumption of processed foods. For instance, try trading calorie- and carb-laden nachos for healthy sweet potato nachos instead. Chocolate cocoa kale chips also make a great alternative to candy bars to help satisfy your sweet tooth. For family pizza night, try making this cauliflower pizza crust to cut back on calories and squeeze an extra dose of nutrients into your diet.
5. Choose whole grains
One easy strategy to help scale back on your intake of processed foods is to start swapping refined grains for whole grains. Instead of white bread or pasta, select whole grain varieties or give other grains a try. Quinoa, barley, buckwheat, and bulgur are all delicious, versatile, and packed with important nutrients.
6. Add fresh foods to your meals
Adding fresh foods to your meals makes it easy to incorporate more fresh, non-processed foods into your daily diet with little effort required. For a simple way to get started, try enjoying a piece of fruit with your breakfast, a small salad with your lunch or a side of steamed veggies alongside your dinner.
Nixing a few ingredients on the list of ultra-processed foods can have a huge impact on your overall health. From increasing energy levels to combat chronic disease, there are tons of reasons to start incorporating more healthy whole foods into your daily diet.
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