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Ultra-processed foods are taking over our health. Here’s what to do about it

Updated: Jan 15

Ultra-processed foods make up 60% of the American diet. These foods are usually easier to access, more affordable, and last longer than whole foods. In today’s fast-paced world, we often value today’s inconveniences more than tomorrow’s health.

But with the continued prevalence of ultra-processed foods, society is now paying for the food conveniences we’ve relied on for years, and our health hasn’t escaped unscathed.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are foods that undergo multiple industrial processes, resulting in a product that is far removed from its original natural state. They usually contain manufactured ingredients that have been extracted from foods, then processed and reassembled into a tasty food that is high in added sugars, saturated fat, salt, artificial flavors and colors, and preservatives, while being low in essential nutrients.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Sugary cereal

  • Packaged snacks

  • Frozen pizza

  • Soda

  • Pre-packaged meals

  • Fast food

  • Deli meat

Not all processed foods are equally bad for you, however. Some breads, sauces, and plant-based milks are technically considered ultra-processed because of the layers of processing they go through before they’re ready to eat, but still have some nutritional value.

Furthermore, processed foods like canned vegetables or beans are still worth keeping around because they retain some nutrients. We’ll discuss how to recognize which ultra-processed foods to stay away from later in this article.

Health risks of ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are often stripped of their natural nutrients and replaced with artificial additives. This leads to a diet lacking essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, with an overabundance of salt, saturated fat, and added sugars.

A diet high in ultra-processed foods is hard on the body, and can eventually increase a person’s risk for a variety of chronic diseases, from type 2 diabetes to cardiovascular conditions.

And it’s not just our physical health that suffers. Studies have shown that there is a potential link between a diet high in ultra-processed foods and poor mental health as well, whereas a diet rich in whole foods has been associated with better mental well-being.

How to tell if a food is ultra-processed (and which ones to avoid)

It would be nice if our food choices were conveniently labeled for us so we would know right away if it was good for us. But this is usually not the case, although many foods have misleading packaging copy to make us think we’re making a good choice.

The best way to determine a product’s nutritional value is to flip to the back and study the nutrition label. In general, avoid products with these ingredients listed:

  • Hydrogenated oils

  • Preservatives such as sodium nitrate

  • Sweeteners like corn syrup and cane juice

  • Artificial flavors

  • Flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate (MSG)

However, processed foods that contain at least 3 g fiber or more than 10% of the daily value of several vitamins and minerals will provide some nutrient value and are a better option than the products that contain no fiber or nutrients at all.

Tips to avoid ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods are all around us, but so are a variety of good alternatives. If you’re looking to reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods you consume, keep the following tips in mind.

1. Embrace whole foods. Make fruits, vegetables, and whole grains your go-tos when preparing meals or snacks. These foods are not only naturally nutrient-dense, they also promote satiety, meaning you won’t be as tempted to snack or overindulge as often.

2. Cook at home more. One mistake people often make is switching one processed food for another without realizing it. Preparing our meals at home gives us more control over the ingredients we use and helps us avoid hidden additives in processed foods.

3. Plan ahead. Yes, ultra-processed foods are convenient. But we can make healthy alternatives more convenient by planning ahead of time. Prep healthy meals in advance and keep healthy snacks on hand so that when you’re crunched for time, your grab-and-go options will support your health, not hinder it.

4. Study food labels. Whenever you buy pre-packaged foods, ignore the marketing copy on the front and go straight to the ingredient list on the back. If the ingredient list is full of words you’re not familiar with and the supplemental facts panel lacks nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and nutrients, put it back on the shelf.

While the convenience of ultra-processed foods may be tempting, their long-term impact on health can’t be ignored. Remember these tips as you shop, plan meals, and eat out; not only will it benefit your health now, but it’ll help set you up for a healthier future.

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