When you go grocery shopping, there are aisles and aisles of ultra-processed foods.
And, while most of you have heard that eating processed foods is bad for you, the reality is that they are easier to have than fresh ingredients.
They last longer and don’t require as much preparation.
Research shows the consumption of processed foods has significantly increased over the past few years, and the consumption of minimally processed and fresh food has significantly decreased.
Here, we’ll go over the health concerns of adding too many processed foods to your diet and how to cut them out of your life without struggling.
What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?
You often hear the term “processed” or “ultra-processed” foods. However, what exactly does it mean?
To understand these concepts, we can use NOVA, a food classification system created by a Brazilian University. It categorizes food according to its processing levels rather than its nutritional value.
- Unprocessed or minimally processed. These include foods that have no processing or are minimally processed. They are natural foods that need some processing to remove unwanted or inedible parts.
- Processed culinary ingredients. These foods have some processing but are used to create other foods. For example, salt, sugar, and oils.
- Processed foods. They are foods that contain only two or three extra ingredients to help preserve their shelf-life. Some examples are canned vegetables or fruits, jams, cheeses, and syrups.
- Ultra-processed food and drinks. These are industrially made ingredients that typically have more than five ingredients. These foods contain additives and preservatives to extend their shelf life and reduce costs.
Another way to understand ultra-processed foods is to think of them as a food you need a lab to create.
If you read the ingredients list and it sounds like a scientific formula instead of a recipe, it is an ultra-processed food.
Why Are Ultra-Processed Foods Bad For You?
Below are four reasons why eating ultra-processed foods is bad for you.
1) They Are High In Saturated Fats, Sodium, And Sugar
One of the biggest drawbacks of ultra-processed foods is that they are high in saturated fats, sodium, and sugar, putting you at risk for chronic illnesses.
Saturated fats are typically found in animal products such as butter, sour cream, and lard. According to the European Society of Cardiology, high consumption of saturated fats (more than 7% of your calories from saturated fats) can increase cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease.
While most people fear the consumption of sodium, the fact is that the body still needs sodium to help regulate hydration, transmit nerve impulses, and help overall cell function. The recommended daily intake of sodium is 2,300 mg.
Nonetheless, according to the CDC, the average person consumes 3,400 mg of sodium daily. This is 1,200 mg more sodium than the recommended daily intake.
The problem is that high sodium consumption can increase the risk of high blood pressure, putting you at risk for heart disease.
Finally, sugar intake has significantly increased due to the high consumption of ultra-processed foods.
While the World Health Organization recommends consuming less than 10% of the calories from sugar, evidence suggests that consuming processed foods is twice as much (19%).
The problem with high sugar consumption is that it can increase the risk of obesity, creating insulin resistance. As a result, it can potentially lead to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
2) They Are High In Calories
Another problem with ultra-processed foods is that they can lead to a higher caloric intake. Since they are higher in fiber, they tend to be less filling than fresh foods. Consequently, you can eat a small portion but still get a high caloric intake.
In fact, a study compared the effects of an ultra-processed diet against an unprocessed diet. At the end of the study, those who consumed mostly ultra-processed foods ate roughly 500 calories more than those on the unprocessed diet. A high caloric intake can increase the risk of weight gain and other chronic illnesses.
3) They Are Low in Nutrients
Since ultra-processed foods are highly-refined, most of their nutrients are lost during the processing.
With that said, high consumption of ultra-processed foods can increase the risk of nutrient deficiencies.
While some processed foods are reinforced with vitamins and minerals, they are not the same as getting them from fresh products.
Fresh products give you different essential nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
4) They Might Disrupt Gut Health
Finally, evidence suggests that certain additives and preservatives might have a negative effect on gut health.
While most studies are animal studies, and more human studies are needed, there might be some negative effects on gut health.
Gut health is the one responsible for managing immune function and digestion. So, a disturbance in gut health can majorly affect overall health.
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How To Cut Down On Ultra-Processed Foods
So, how can you cut down on ultra-processed foods? After all, they are easier to get and cheaper than most fresh ingredients.
Here are some tips and tricks you can put into practice to start decreasing the amount of ultra-processed foods:
When deciding to remove ultra-processed foods from their diet, most people go completely cold turkey.
While this might seem the best option, in my experience, most people follow it for a couple of days, maybe weeks, only to regain their old habits.
The best thing you can do is start slowly.
If you normally have cereal for breakfast, switch to a whole-grain option with a couple of eggs. Once you feel comfortable with the change, you can switch other ingredients, and so on.
In some cases, completely eliminating ultra-processed foods might be challenging. That is why you can follow the 80/20 rule instead.
This means 80% of your foods should come from fresh or minimally processed foods. The remaining 20% can come from processed or ultra-processed foods.
This approach allows you to still have some ultra-processed foods without relying on them completely. Consequently, it allows more flexibility and not feeling too restricted.
Finally, to prevent too much reliance on ultra-processed foods, the best thing you can do is plan your meals and meal prep them.
The beauty of meal prep is that you can adapt it to your needs. If you don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen, you can create all the meals in advance or batch-cook meals and put them in the freezer.
So, you’ll have fully prepared meals ready for you to eat without purchasing frozen meals in the grocery store that are high in additives and preservatives.
21 Ultra-Processed Foods To Avoid
Here is a list of ultra-processed foods that are best to avoid or consume occasionally:
- Breakfast cereal
- Granola bars
- Fruit drinks
- Dairy drinks
- Mass-produced grains (bread, cookies, pastries, cakes, and biscuits)
- Processed meats (bacon, ham, sausages, and deli meat)
- Vegan meats
- Pre-made foods
- Sweet treats (ice cream, candy, or confectionaries)
- Instant soups
- Sugary drinks
- Carbonated drinks
- Energy drinks
Healthier Alternatives To Eat Instead
Checking the nutritional label can help you select the best ingredients and understand what ingredients to replace.
Remember that not all ultra-processed foods are created equally. Some foods enter the ultra-processed food classification (such as whole grain bread) but are not the same as cookies or white bread.
So, what healthier alternatives can you eat than ultra-processed foods? The following table gives some ideas on replacing ultra-processed foods and what to switch them to.
|Whole-grain bread (should have more than 3 grams of fiber)
|Natural yogurt with added jam or fruit
|Home-made whole-grain pita chips
|Carbonated water with fruit juice or slices of fruit
Ultra-processed foods are high in saturated fats, sodium, sugar, and calories, and low in nutrients.
As a result, high consumption of ultra-processed foods can increase the risk of obesity and chronic illnesses.
To start reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods, start slowly to create long-lasting habits, and try to strive for 80% of your foods coming from fresh ingredients and only 20% from ultra-processed foods.
Find out why ultra-processed foods are bad for your health, and learn 21 ultra-processed foods you should avoid and some healthier alternatives to eat instead.