The health risks of ultra-processed foods
Have you heard that it’s healthier to shop the outer aisles of the grocery store? That’s because they include more whole or “real” foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean meat and fish. The inner aisles are where you typically find more processed and ultra-processed foods. But what do “processed” and “ultra-processed” mean, how are they different, and are these foods really that bad for your health?
Diabetes educator Jana Pilkington, RN, explained what ultra-processed foods are and why it’s important to limit them.
What are ultra-processed foods?
“The term ‘processed food’ can cause some confusion because many foods are processed in some way,” Pilkington said. “A mechanical process – such as grinding beef, heating vegetables, or pasteurizing milk – does not impact how healthy the food is. Ultra-processed food, however, contains preservatives and other ingredients.”
There are two types of ingredients that classify a food as processed: one is an industrial food substance and the other is a cosmetic additive.
Some examples of ultra-processed foods are:
- Flavored crackers
- Potato chips
- Frozen meals
- Processed cheese products
- Breakfast cereals
- Candy and ice cream
- Instant noodles and soup
- Reconstituted meats like sausage, nuggets, fish sticks and processed ham
How do ultra-processed foods affect your body?
Processed foods are typically higher in trans fats and have either no or very, very little fiber.
“They’re quick calories, leading to a likelihood of taking in more calories than the same amount of fresh food,” Pilkington explained. “Because they’re so processed, they go through the body faster, which makes you hungrier quicker.”
Eating this type of food can cause weight gain, predisposing you to type 2 diabetes and leading to cardiovascular disease.
How do you limit ultra-processed food?
Read nutrition labels.
“When reading a food ingredient label, if you can’t find an ingredient in your kitchen, or better yet, if you don’t even know where to buy this ingredient or what it is, then it’s probably ultra-processed and you should not buy it,” Pilkington said. “Paying attention to food ingredient labels can help you determine if the food is ultra-processed so that you can eat healthier.”
She recommended limiting foods with hydrogenated oils in the ingredient label, especially if you’re at risk for heart disease, as it can lead to an increase in your cholesterol level.
“Any type of hydrogenated oil, such as hydrogenated vegetable oil or hydrogenated coconut oil, needs to be avoided,” she said. “These hydrogenated oils can be found in potato chips, cookies and crackers, but they also can be found in some peanut butters and salad dressings.”
Some other ingredients to avoid include:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Sodium nitrate
- Artificial food coloring
- Guar gum
- Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose and saccharin
- Sodium benzoate
- Xanthan gum
- Artificial flavoring
To improve your health, try eating more less-processed food such as fruits and vegetables. Pilkington offered some ways to increase your fruit and veggie intake:
- Eat fresh fruits and vegetables as often as possible by having a prep time each week.
- Experiment with food by trying new vegetables and adding fresh or dried herbs to kick up the flavor.
- Add vegetables to sauces, eggs, smoothies and guacamole to increase your vegetable intake.
- Try eating raw vegetables for snacks instead of potato chips.
Completely cutting out ultra-processed food is probably unrealistic, but making small changes over time can lead to big changes in your health.
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