You may have heard that processed foods are the best way to maintain an unhealthy diet. While they’re not so bad for you in small amounts, it turns out we’re eating much more processed food than we realized.
According to a recent study, over half of Americans’ energy intake, is “ultra-processed.” This means over half of the calories we consume in our diets come from foods with added ingredients to enhance sensual appeal: to make them look, feel and taste more appetizing.
While this isn’t surprising, it’s still bad news. You can reduce your processed food intake by learning more about which foods are most heavily processed, which are safer for regular consumption and how to find a healthy balance.
What are processed foods?
When you think of processed foods, you probably think of frozen meals, boxed macaroni and cheese and canned soups. While these are all technically processed, so are foods like frozen fruits and vegetables, canned tuna and roasted nuts.
Before you boycott frozen peas and pre-washed spinach, know that there are different “levels” of processing that all non-organic foods go through. This ranges from minimally processed foods like packages of pre-cut fruit to what we can refer to as “ultra-processed,” such as frozen pizzas.
Lower amounts of processing are much less harmful because they are intended to enhance nutrition and maintain freshness. The more processing a food item goes through, however, the less healthy it becomes.
Why are processed foods unhealthy?
Foods that are more heavily processed contain a lot of added sugars and sodium, fats and artificial sweeteners, flavors, and colorings. New dietary guidelines recommend that a person limits their added sugar, saturated fat and sodium intake, all commonly present in ultra-processed foods.
Eating too much added sugar, fat and sodium can cause problems with blood sugar, heart and kidney function and more. It’s best to, as much as possible, limit the amount of these nutrients consumed to those that occur more naturally, such as the sugars present in fruits and vegetables.
How to reduce your intake of processed foods
In reality, it’s neither easy nor reasonable to go from a diet high in processed foods to a more organic lifestyle. You can gradually begin to reduce your intake of processed foods by finding foods to replace ultra-processed meals. For example, you could try buying boxed pasta and jars of pasta sauce instead of frozen pasta meals to start, and go from there.
The point is to try and purchase foods that don’t contain so many added ingredients. Eventually, you might get to a point where you have much more “whole” foods, fruits and vegetables, for example than you have boxed and packaged foods. In general, if you can store it in a cabinet for months at a time without having to worry about spoilage, it’s probably not the best for you.
Sure, you might love potato chips and frozen pizza and canned soup. Reducing processed food intake doesn’t mean you have to stop eating those foods. Challenge yourself to make your versions of your favorite foods with fresher, healthier ingredients to reduce your risk of blood sugar, weight, and heart problems.
Can we reduce the number of calories we eat that come from processed foods? Of course we can. One meal at a time, household by household. Start with one ultra-processed food you love, find an alternative, and see how far you can go.