What do breakfast cereals, soft drinks, fast food, packaged cupcakes, and frozen dinners have in common? Aside from the fact that most of us find these foods delicious, they’re all considered ultra-processed foods.
Now, you’ve heard of processed foods, those foods that have somehow been altered from their original state, such as grain to bread or peanuts to peanut butter. But not all processed foods are unhealthy–think whole-grain bread, frozen veggies, and milk, all of which are processed in some way before they find their way onto the grocery store shelves. Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, can literally kill you.
Ultra-processed foods, according to a study published in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism Research, are those that contain, in addition to sugar, salt, oils, and fats, “food substances not used in culinary preparations.” These include artificial colors and flavors, chemical preservatives, and additives that create pleasant textures. Ultra-processed foods are the ones you really need to watch out for, and here’s why.
They cause cancer.
A study published in BMJ looked at the dietary intakes of more than 100,000 participants and found a strong association between breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers and the consumption of ultra-processed foods. The study found that a 10 percent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods was associated with a significantly increased risk of these cancers.
They increase your risk of diabetes.
Ultra-processed foods contain largely empty calories and a whole lot of sugar. Around 90 percent of all “added sugar” intake by Americans comes from ultra-processed foods, with around 21 percent of the calories in ultra-processed foods coming from sugar. This high sugar intake increases your risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, among other health problems.
They can double your risk of death from heart disease.
People who consume more than 21 percent of their daily caloric intake from added sugar are at double the risk of dying from heart disease, compared to those who consume less than 10 percent of their calories from added sugars, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. A diet high in ultra-processed, high-sugar foods can lead to other diseases as well, including liver disease.
They throw your microbiome off kilter.
The gut microbiome has been getting a lot of attention lately, and for good reason: existing and emerging research connects this all-important collection of good gut bacteria to everything from hormone regulation to cognitive function. Ultra-processed foods can do a number on healthy gut bacteria colonies, leading to digestive woes and worsening symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and other diseases.
How to Swear Off Ultra-Processed Foods
A large body of research shows that a diet that’s mostly plant based offers the best protection against disease. But quitting your Coca-Cola habit or giving up your morning fast food sandwich or your nightly munchies can be challenging. Here are some tips to help you reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods.
Plan ahead. If you often find yourself short on time and stopping for fast food or putting a frozen pizza in the oven, you can plan ahead for a busy night by having ingredients on-hand to make a simple, but healthy, dinner–or cook something healthy the night before and have leftovers.
Make gradual changes. Quitting everything all at once doesn’t usually produce permanent results. Instead, cut out one or two unhealthy foods at a time, replacing them with other, healthier foods. When you become comfortable with those changes, make a couple more. It won’t take long before you notice a difference in the way you eat, look, and feel.
Shop from a list. Plan your meals ahead of time and make a list of what you need. When you shop, stick with what’s on the list.
Shop the perimeter. The healthiest foods at the grocery store are typically found along the perimeter, while the interior shelves house the ultra-processed foods. When you shop, stick mostly to the perimeter, and load up on produce, lean meats, low-fat and no sugar added dairy, and whole grains.
Take a daily probiotic. A daily probiotic helps you establish and maintain a healthy gut microbiome, which can become disrupted with changes in your diet. Thrive Naturals Advanced Probiotic Complex provides you with 50 billion units and 16 strains of good gut bacteria to keep your gut flora healthy and reduce gas, bloating, and indigestion.
Reducing your ultra-processed food intake can add years to your life and improve your overall health and quality of life. Each day try to eat healthier food than you did the day before, and soon, you’ll find that changes for the better come naturally.