They are cheap, attractive, convenient, and people eat them every single day. Ultra-processed foods are easy to come by and people find them delicious. Frozen meals, cereal, cookies, soda, and chips are just a few of the foods that can destroy your health. It’s not news that these foods are harmful to overall health, so there’s no use in telling people to avoid them. It is more feasible, however, for people to make healthier swaps for ultra-processed foods.
According to a 2021 JAMA study, ultra-processed foods account for about 67% of calories in the average American child or teenager’s diet. Additionally, a different study concluded that 58% of an average American’s energy intake comes from white breads, cakes, diet sodas, and other unhealthy foods. Unfortunately, regularl consumption of processed and ultra-processed foods can lead to numerous health problems. More consumption of unhealthy ingredients increases the risk of depression, obesity, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, and heart disease.
The Difference Between Processed And Ultra-Processed Foods
By definition, processed foods are foods that have been altered from their original forms. Processing is a deliberate change to a food that occurs before you consume it. Canning, pasteurizing, heating, and drying are all forms of processing. Processing typically involves the addition of oil, sugar, salt, or other substances. Fruits in syrup, canned fish or vegetables, or pre-made breads contain several processed ingredients. Some processing is necessary and doesn’t mean that every food you eat is unhealthy, for example, frozen fruit or vegetables.
Ultra-processed foods have many added ingredients, including artificial colors and flavors, stabilizers, preservatives, salt, fat, and sugar. The problem with these foods is that they contain no nutritional value. Manufacturers make ultra-processed foods from substances extracted from other foods, for example, starches, fats, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. Frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs, processed meats, packaged cookies, cakes, fast food, and salty snacks are ultra-processed.
The Spectrum Of Processed Foods
A bag of mixed frozen fruit that you add to a smoothie is not the same thing as eating Doritos. While both of those foods undergo processing, they are not the same thing. You can check out the following spectrum to gauge which foods to avoid and which ones to limit:
Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods
As mentioned earlier, frozen foods, soft drinks, store bought cakes and cookies, cake mixes, and more contain added fats, starches, sugars, hydrogenated oils, and artificial ingredients. These are foods to avoid.
Limit Processed Foods
It’s best to limit or rarely eat processed foods. These foods include store bought salad dressings, sausages, jarred pasta sauce, and whole-grain bread. Moderation is key with these foods, but you can also make your own versions.
Minimally Processed Foods Are Better
Nut butters, plain yogurt, extra virgin olive oil, grass-fed/free-range meats, and frozen vegetables and fruits fall into this category. You should still watch out for the ingredients on these foods, but they are better than the previous two categories.
Unprocessed Foods Are Best
Fresh fruit, vegetables, and wild-caught fish belong to this category. They are full of nutrients and don’t go through processing.
In order to avoid ultra-processed foods, there are dietary changes you have to make. Ultra-processed foods cannot be the primary source of your calories. One study monitored 20 healthy overweight adults at a medical facility. Each participant consumed an ultra-processed diet for two weeks, and then followed that with an unprocessed diet for two weeks. For both diets, subjects consumed three meals per day, eating as much or as little as they wanted.
During the ultra-processed diet period, roughly 83.5% of calories came from ultra-processed foods. During the unprocessed diet period, about 83.3% of calories came from unprocessed foods. The subjects consumed an average of 500 additional calories per day while following the ultra-processed diet. Finally, the ultra-processed diet increased the intake of carbohydrates and fat, and the participants lost an average of two pounds during the unprocessed phase. The conclusion of the study was that limiting ultra-processed foods could help decrease the risk or even prevent obesity.