Processed foods are a tricky subject. Bread, for example, is a processed food, even if it’s homemade; you don’t just nibble on grains, you process them into a loaf. Nut butters are processed, too, when they’re churned into a creamy spread. In fact, any food that hasn’t been directly pulled out of the ground and eaten is technically processed, like frozen fruits or canned veggies.
And then there are the foods you think about when you hear “processed,” things like soda, cereal, cookies and frozen dinners. According to a study in the medical journal BMJ Open, these are considered “ultra-processed foods,” or “formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations.” (1)
A 2018 study linked these ultra-processed foods to a higher risk of cancer. A research team based in Paris examined the medical records and eating habits of 104,980 healthy adults. Researchers found that a 10 percent increase in ultra-processed foods in the diet correlated to a 12 percent increase in cancers. When analyzing the link between specific cancers, the team found a rise of 11 percent in breast cancer, and no significant increase in colorectal or prostate cancer. (2) These results still need to be confirmed by further research, but this study suggests the dangerous effects of eating large amounts of ultra-processed foods … and the amount Americans eat is alarming.
What Are Ultra-Processed Foods? And We Don’t Eat Them Very Much, Right!?
And while it might not come as a huge shock that Americans eat a lot of these foods, what might surprise you is the extent that we’re binging on them. A study published in the journal found that 58 percent of the average American’s daily energy intake comes from ultra-processed foods like cakes, white breads and diet sodas. That is a stunning figure.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the study also found that 90 percent of Americans’ “added sugar intake” comes from ultra-processed foods. In fact, sugar makes up about 21 percent of the calories in ultra-processed foods; in processed foods, that number dwindles down to about 2.4 percent.
The added sugar found in these foods, often disguised as different types of artificial sweeteners, are responsible for a variety of health conditions, from obesity to type 2 diabetes to migraines. Studies have shown that people who consumed more than 21 percent of their daily calories from added sugar double their risk of death from heart disease as those who consumed less than 10 percent of their calories from added sugars. It’s not an exaggeration to say that added sugars are killing us.
It’s clear that ultra-processed foods need to get out of our kitchens. But how do you go about replacing the foods your family knows and loves with better-for-you alternatives? I have a few suggestions.
The Processed Foods Spectrum
Not all processed foods are created equally – chowing down on Twinkies is certainly not the same as adding frozen spinach to your smoothies, even though they’re technically both processed. Check out the spectrum below to learn what ones you should start kicking to the curb.
Avoid: Ultra-processed foods
Frozen dinners (yes, that includes pizza), all sodas (even diet!), store-bought cakes and cookies (goodbye, Little Debbie), boxed cake mixes – if your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as a food, it probably isn’t.
Not Often: Processed foods
Things like jarred pasta sauce, sausage, store-bought salad dressings and whole-grain bread aren’t terrible in moderation or when you’re short on time but, when possible, it’s best to make your own.
Better: Minimally processed foods
This includes things like extra virgin olive oil, meats (naturally raised), plain yogurt, nut butters (where the only ingredients are the nut and salt), frozen vegetables and fruit that have been processed at their peak to lock in freshness and nutrition.
Best: Unprocessed foods
Fresh fruit, wild-caught fish and veggies fall into this category. They’re delicious just as nature made ‘em.
How to Swear Off Ultra-Processed Foods
1. Make gradual changes
While it’s tempting to make drastic changes, you and your family will have a better chance at sticking to healthy habits if you decide on one change at a time and see it through.
For example, if you usually serve soda or juice with meals, try replacing one glass with water instead. After a few days, replace another glass. Not only will this help ease you into changes mentally, but it’ll also help reduce any physical symptoms you might experience.
2. Shop with a grocery list
It’s a lot 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’re preparing for the week and all the ingredients required. And if you’re thinking of heading to the store without eating, forget about it. Shopping on a full stomach will make it harder to resist those foods you should avoid.
3. Shop the perimeter
You’ve probably heard it before, but there’s a reason it’s advised that you shop the edge of the store and skip most of the middle aisles. Fresh produce, meats and dairy are nearly always around the store perimeter, while ultra-processed foods get stacked on the shelves in the middle of the store. By limiting the aisles you shop, you’ll resist temptation to purchase bad-for-you foods.
Similarly, hit the healthier part of the grocery store first. One of the things I love about certain Whole Foods is that you enter the store in the vegetable and fruit area, so you start loading up on the best foods in the store well before you may start getting tempted by the naughty processed or ultra-processed foods.
4. Read the ingredients list.
If there’s something on the ingredients list of a packaged food that you couldn’t buy to use in your own 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 how prevalent in a food they are. Beware of what’s listed as one of the first five ingredients. Or, better yet, avoid foods that have more than five ingredients in them.
5. Look out for added sugars.
Food manufacturers have gotten cleverer about how sugars are listed by using different terms for the substance in the ingredients list. One rule of thumb is that ingredients ending with “ose” are sugars: think sucrose, fructose and dextrose. Another is to use fancy or “natural” sounding sugars – cane sugar, beet sugar, cane juice, fruit juice and maple syrup are all still sugars.
What Ultra-Processed Foods You Should Stop Eating Today – and Healthier Alternatives
Ready to cut out ultra-processed foods but aren’t sure how to replace them in foods but aren’t sure what to eat instead? Try my favorite healthy alternatives.
Say no to those artificially colored, deep-fried potato chips with zero nutritional value. Instead, make your own chips. You don’t have to stick to potatoes either. I’m a huge fan of spicy kale chips, zucchini chips and even sweet baked apple chips. Keep these on hand when you need a TV time snack or to nibble on while getting dinner ready.
For a food that requires so little to make, frozen pizzas are loaded with preservatives, additives and unrecognizable ingredients. Instead of keeping a stash in the freezer, try loading up one of these easy doughs, like my coconut crust pizza or cauliflower pizza crust with your favorite toppings. These are super tasty, 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 great and are good for you, too. This anti-inflammatory green juice will boost your body’s natural defenses, while my orange carrot ginger juice is a crowd-pleaser amongst kids – the only difference they’ll notice is how much better this juice tastes.
Cakes and frosting:
Sweet treats don’t need to be eliminated entirely, but when there are alternatives that taste this good, there’s no need for ultra-processed versions. This chocolate frosting is fantastic atop homemade baked goods – maybe even on this gluten-free chocolate cake!
Fast food is fast and cheap for a reason … The large majority of the time, it’s processed and pre-prepared. According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, about 37 percent of American adults eat fast food on a given day. Data also showed eating fast food decreased with age, increased with income and was more popular among men and non-Hispanic black adults. (3) You can steer clear of fast food and their ultra-processed foods by meal prepping and choosing healthier restaurant options (here are the restaurants I recommend).
Ultra-processed foods’ ubiquity can be difficult to escape, but it can be done. Eliminating those foods and replacing them with healthier alternatives is one of the best things you can do for your family’s health.
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