What’s the Deal with Ultra Processed Foods?
Let’s take a closer look at exactly what are ultra processed foods and why we should be avoiding them as much as possible.
We all know that eating fruits and vegetables is important for our health. But what about frozen dinners or microwaveable meals or “easy to please” snacks? Are they really as bad for us as everyone seems to be saying?
After I started studying nutrition decades ago, I still ate some unhealthy foods for a while, thinking I was balancing my cravings with the nutritious foods I was more routinely eating. Not so much!
So, let’s set some common “misconceptions” aside for a bit, so we can get it straight, and stop compromising our health (or at least not so much)… okay? Even small changes can have a positive effect on your health. Let’s start with some facts:
What are Ultra Processed Foods?
Ultra processed foods are, in a word, convenience food. These include items like pre-packaged snack foods, frozen dinners, and other items that require minimal preparation before eating.
While there is nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying those types of foods, it is important to understand that these products are usually high in sugar, salt, fat, and empty calories—none of which provide any nutrition for our bodies.
Some examples include chips, cookies, crackers, frozen meals, snack bars, sodas, and even some pre-packaged meats like hot dogs and sausages. Basically anything that’s been heavily processed can be considered an ultra processed food.
Why Do We Eat Them?
We eat ultra-processed foods because they are convenient to prepare, and, it’s true, they often taste good. They also tend to be fairly inexpensive compared to fresh produce or unprocessed foods.
Unfortunately, this convenience comes at a cost; ultra-processed foods are generally low in nutrients and can have negative health effects if consumed often or regularly.
Are They All-That-Bad for Us?
The short answer is YES.
The problem with ultra-processed foods is that they lack essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to stay healthy. These nutrient deficient snacks also tend to be high in calories yet offer little in terms of actual nutrition—which can lead to weight gain over time if consumed regularly.
Plus, many of these foods contain artificial ingredients that can have negative long term effects on our health, such as increased risk for chronic diseases like heart disease or diabetes.
Studies have shown that people who consume ultra-processed foods on a regular basis may be more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease than those who don’t consume them.
Additionally, since these products contain few nutrients and are typically high in sugar, salt, and fat (which can lead to inflammation), they can also contribute to digestive issues like bloating or heartburn.
Finally, since many of these products contain preservatives and additives that our bodies may not be able to process properly, they can also lead to skin problems like acne or rashes.
Why are ultra-processed foods made with additives and preservatives? They make them last longer on the shelf.
Ultra-processed foods may be convenient but the long term consequences of consuming too many of them could outweigh any short term benefits.
How Can We Avoid Them?
The best way to avoid eating ultra-processed foods is by reading labels carefully when shopping for groceries. If an item has a long list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce or recognize, it’s probably not something you should be eating!
If you want to improve your health (and save money!) it’s best to focus on eating whole unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts/seeds etc whenever possible. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be complicated.
Eating healthy doesn’t need to be hard! With a few simple tweaks to your diet such as avoiding ultra-processed foods and opting for whole foods instead, you can make sure your body gets all the essential nutrients it needs while avoiding unnecessary additives or preservatives from packaged snacks or meals.
Taking a closer look at what goes into your body will help keep you feeling healthier for longer!
Trying to figure out if a food you’re about to buy or eat is ultra processed?
- Look for the big bright warning signs! Check for ingredients that are totally unfamiliar—like sodium tripolyphosphate and hydrolyzed proteins— these are likely highly processed additives.
- Look out for items with long shelf lives and few major ingredients. For example, does ice cream stay good forever? No! Is it made of just three ingredients: Milk, Sugar, and Cream? If you see a long shelf life for what the food is, you know it’s a heavily processed product.
- Also, keep an eye out for flashy advertising slogans emblazoned across the packaging. The more slick and “hyper-real” they seem, the more likely they’ve gone through an intensive processing cycle.
What are the risks of eating ultra processed foods?
We all know the health risks associated with too much processed food – cut them out and you will reduce your risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer.
What many of us don’t know is that ultra-processed foods can be even more hazardous than their easier-to-identify cousins.
Many of us limit our minds when it comes to health risks from food. However, did you know that ultra-processed foods are in a category of their own?
This form of food may look harmless on the surface and can often be found lining shelves in grocery stores, but they can have devastating effects on your body — even more so than other processed foods like sugary cereals and boxed macaroni and cheese. For example, boxed macaroni and cheese products have a cost to our health that is astronomical.
I understand, it’s hard to resist the nostalgic comfort foods like these, but in reality what we’re getting is anything but comforting.
While some brands may try to dress up these boxed products as healthier options with extra ingredients like peppers and salsa, what lies within the box are ingredients such as processed cheese powder and heavily refined flours. This should cast doubt on their claims.
These vitamin-stripped fillers often have an abundance of saturated fat and sodium which aren’t serving us any good… unless you’re training for your first ever Marathon Mac ‘n’ Cheese eating contest.
We don’t give them as much attention, but it’s time to recognize that ultra-processed foods should definitely never make an appearance on our plates.
Consuming ultra-processed foods increases our chances of metabolic syndrome and other serious diseases due to their high sodium, sugar and fat content. Not to mention the fact that these tasty treats are often created using artificial flavors and preservatives – not exactly a situation conducive to good health!
What about processed foods that say they are “fortified” on the label?
Many processed foods are labelled as “fortified”, meaning they have had extra nutrients added to them – typically vitamins and minerals – in order to promote the health benefits of eating the food. But, can you really prevent nutrient deficiencies by eating these products?
Unfortunately, “fortified” does not mean that a processed food is as good for you as its wholefood counterpart. Complex interactions between different components of a food (such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals) are eliminated or reduced when foods are heavily processed. This makes most fortified foods highly unlikely to provide all the necessary nutrients we need to lead healthy lives.
The next time you reach for that box of fortified product, know that it won’t provide all the nutrition a wholesome food would!
What are some of the worst ultra processed foods to eat?
Indulging in an ultra-processed food once in a while is not the worst thing in the world, but maybe we should think twice before making it a regular habit!
Often referred to as “empty” calories, these foods provide little or no essential nutrients and instead supply our system with a significant amount of unhealthy fats, refined sugars, sodium, and carbohydrates — something few of us can afford
From “cheese” products full of ingredients like palm oil and gums, to artificially colored yogurts loaded with sugar, some of the worst ultra processed foods to eat are those designed to mimic natural products.
Sugary drinks like sodas, are so unhealthy because they are full of sugar and empty calories. They can result in serious health problems such as obesity and diabetes over time.
It’s worth noting that snacks high in sugar often come paired with artificially modified components such as preservatives and flavorings, making their already poor nutritional value even worse.
To sum it up: when you want to treat yourself to something tasty every once in awhile that’s not too bad for your health, opt for natural snacks such as fruits or nuts instead.
Are there any ultra processed foods that can be considered “okay” for you?
Ultra processed foods have been a controversial topic for many years. While some consider them convenience products that can actually help your health, others view them as unhealthy snacks loaded with preservatives and artificial flavors.
So what’s the verdict? Are there any ultra processed foods that are good or even okay?
The answer is a bit complicated. While it is true that some ultra processed foods may contain beneficial vitamins and minerals, they generally offer less nutritional value than an unprocessed meal made out of fresh ingredients.
Furthermore, studies have revealed a correlation between consuming these types of food and increased risk of weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes.
So, if you’re looking for health benefits from your diet, it’s best to stay away from ultra processed foods as much as possible.
Are foods like canned or frozen fruits and vegetables considered ultra processed?
Most of us have heard that fresh fruits and vegetables are the healthiest to consume, but with today’s busy lifestyles many consumers reach for canned or frozen produce as a convenience item? Have we been duped into thinking these foods are healthy?
The simple answer is: it depends!
While most canned and frozen vegetables still contain nutritional value – especially when compared to ultra-processed foods like candy bars and chips – there are some ingredients that should be taken into consideration.
A savvy shopper might want to check out labels for added salt, sugar, preservatives, and other artificial ingredients that can make their supposedly healthy meal a bit less healthful.
All in all, it’s important to read labels before assuming any food is healthy, regardless whether it’s canned or frozen.
What are some tips for eating healthier and save time in the kitchen?
Eating healthy isn’t always easy, especially when our lives are so busy that we don’t have much time to devote to meal prepping. With the right tips and strategies, you can make sure you’re getting the nutrition your body needs even with a busy schedule.
- Look for foods that provide more nutrition with fewer ingredients.
- Rather than investing in a meal delivery service or complicated cookbook recipes, try searching for dishes comprising items you already have in your pantry.
- Consider buying pre-chopped veggies and fruit from the grocery store as this will save time during preparation.
- Take stock of what meals you have time to cook each week, and then build up a meal plan that incorporates nutritious meals that fit into your schedule.
- Don’t forget about leftovers – it’s one of the easiest ways to get a jump start on dinner for the next day.
- A well-stocked pantry is key: having healthy options like nuts or nut butters available when you don’t need to take out something from the freezer will save you time and effort in the long run.
For those looking to eat well on-the-go, there are a number of nutritious convenience foods that don’t come in cans or jars.
Wraps, such as whole wheat tortillas with hummus or turkey slices and vegetables, can provide a filling meal with very little hassle.
Ready-made salads can have many different ingredients depending on what you find at the store – dark leafy greens, beans, roasted vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, tuna – all make for tasty options.
With these simple tricks in place, eating healthier can become part of your routine – no extra hours required!