According to studies, 60 percent of ultra-processed foods make up diets today.
Processed foods are a complex subject. Bread, for example, is a processed food, even if it is homemade; You don’t just grind the beans; you process them into a loaf.
Nut butter is also processed when they are whipped into a creamy paste. Any food that hasn’t been pulled directly from the ground and eaten is technically processed, like frozen fruits or canned vegetables.
And then there are the foods you think of when you hear “processed,” like sodas, cereals, cookies, and frozen dinners.
According to a study in the medical journal BMJ Open, these are considered “ultra-processed foods” or “multi-ingredient formulations that, in addition to salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances that are not used in culinary preparations.”
A 2018 study linked these ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of cancer. A Paris-based research team examined the medical records and eating habits of 104,980 healthy adults.
The researchers found that a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed foods in the diet correlated with a 12 percent increase in cancers.
When looking at the link between specific cancers, the team found an 11 percent increase in breast cancer and not a significant increase in colorectal or prostate cancer.
These results have yet to be confirmed by further research, but this study suggests the dangerous effects of eating large amounts of ultra-processed foods, and the amount people ingest is alarming.
What are ultra-processed foods?
And while it may not come as a massive surprise that people eat a lot of these foods, what might surprise you is the extent to which we are consuming them.
A study published in the journal found that 58 percent of people’s average daily energy intake comes from ultra-processed foods like cakes, white bread, and diet sodas. That is an impressive amount.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the study also found that 90 percent of “added sugar intake” comes from ultra-processed foods.
Sugar makes up about 21 percent of the calories in ultra-processed foods; that number drops to about 2.4 percent in processed foods.
The added sugar found in these foods, often disguised as different types of artificial sweeteners, is responsible for various health conditions, from obesity to type 2 diabetes to migraines.
Studies have shown that people who consume more than 21 percent of their daily calories from added sugar double their risk of death from heart disease than those who consume less than 10 percent of their calories.
It is not an exaggeration to say that added sugars are killing us.
Ultra-processed foods need to get out of our kitchens. But how can you replace the foods your family knows and loves with better alternatives for you? I have some suggestions.
The spectrum of processed foods
Take a look at the spectrum below to determine which foods you should start eliminating.
Avoid ultra-processed foods:
- Frozen dinners (yes, they include pizza).
- All sodas (even diet sodas!).
- Store-bought cakes and cookies.
Other processed foods:
- The pasta sauce on the cake.
- Store-bought salad dressings.
- Pan integral.
The latter isn’t terrible in moderation or when you’re short on time, but when possible, it’s best to make them yourself.
Prefer minimally processed foods:
This includes things like extra virgin olive oil, meats (raised naturally), plain yogurt, nut butter (where the only ingredients are nut and salt), frozen vegetables, and fruits that have been processed into their peak to maintain freshness and nutrition.
The best are unprocessed foods:
- Fresh fruits.
- Fish caught in the wild.
- Vegetables are in this category.
They are delicious, just like the nature that made them.
How to Reject Ultra-Processed Foods
- Make gradual changes
While it’s tempting to make drastic changes, you and your family will have a better chance of maintaining healthy habits if you decide on one change at a time and stick with it.
For example, if you usually serve soda or juice with meals, try replacing the glass with water. After a few days, replace another glass. This will help you facilitate mental changes, but it will also help reduce any physical symptoms you may experience.
- Go to the store with a shopping list.
It’s so much easier to make healthy choices and avoid ultra-processed foods when you have a list of the items you’re looking for.
Make a list of the meals you prepare for the week and all the required ingredients. And if you are thinking of going to the store without eating, forget it. Shopping on a full stomach will make it harder to resist the foods you should avoid.
- Buy the perimeter of the store.
You’ve probably heard it before, but there’s a reason it’s recommended that you shop at the edge of the store and skip most of the aisles in between.
Fresh produce, meats, and dairy are almost always around the store’s perimeter, while ultra-processed foods are stacked on the shelves in the center of the store. By limiting the aisles you buy, you will resist the urge to purchase lousy food for yourself.
Similarly, head to the healthiest part of the grocery store first.
- Read the ingredient list.
If there’s something on the ingredient list for a packaged food that you can’t buy to use in your kitchen or whose name you can’t even pronounce, it’s probably highly processed.
Don’t forget that ingredients are listed in the order of prevalence in a food. Be careful what is listed as one of the first five ingredients. Or, better yet, avoid foods that contain more than five ingredients.
- Beware of added sugars.
Food manufacturers have gotten more thoughtful about how sugars are listed by using different terms for the substance in the ingredient list.
A general rule of thumb is that ingredients that end with “ose” are sugars: think sucrose, fructose, and dextrose. Another is to use fancy or “natural” sugars: Cane sugar, beet sugar, cane juice, fruit juice, and maple syrup are still sugars.
Which Ultra-Processed Foods You Should Stop Eating Today and Healthier Alternatives
Ready to eliminate ultra-processed foods but not sure how to replace them in food but not sure what to eat? Try my favorite healthy alternatives.
Say no to artificial color fries with zero nutritional value. Instead, make your chips. You don’t have to stick to the potatoes either.
I’m a massive fan of spicy kale chips, zucchini chips, and even sweet baked apple chips. Keep them handy when you need a TV snack or nibble on while cooking dinner.
For food that requires so little to make, frozen pizzas are loaded with preservatives, additives, and unrecognizable ingredients.
Instead of stashing a stash in the freezer, try loading one of these easy doughs like my Coconut Crust Pizza or Cauliflower Pizza Crust with your favorite toppings. They’re super tasty, they come together quickly, and you can customize them to your family’s tastes.
Sodas and juices
Replace sugary sodas and store-bought juices with homemade drinks that taste good and are suitable for you, too.
This anti-inflammatory green juice will boost your body’s natural defenses; In contrast, my carrot and ginger orange juice is a crowd-pleaser among kids; the only difference you will notice is how much better this juice tastes.
Cakes and frosting
The treats don’t need to be eliminated, but when there are alternatives that taste this good, there’s no need for ultra-processed versions. This chocolate frosting is fantastic on homemade baked goods, maybe even on this gluten-free chocolate cake!
Fast food is fast and cheap for a reason. The vast majority of the time, it is pre-processed and prepared.
According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, about 37 percent of American adults eat fast food on any given day.
The data also showed that fast food decreased with age, increased income, and was more popular with non-Hispanic black men and adults.
You can avoid fast and ultra-processed foods by preparing meals and choosing healthier restaurant options (here are the restaurants I recommend).