Want a Healthier Diet? Cut Back on Processed Foods

They’re cheap. They’re easy. They could be hazardous to your health. Here’s how to scale down.

Want a Healthier Diet? Cut Back on Processed Foods

Snack cakes, chips and ready-to-heat meals are convenient, cheap—and often pretty tasty, too. But if ultra-processed foods are part of your regular diet, you could be setting the table for serious health issues. 

Foods that are highly processed are often overloaded with salt (sodium) and sugar, major culprits in the development of conditions like heart disease, says Chi-Gang Yen, MD, an interventional cardiologist at St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

In fact, about 70 percent of the sodium Americans eat comes from processed and restaurant foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Ultra-processed foods also account for almost 60 percent of calories and 90 percent of added sugars in U.S. diets, according to a study published in BMJ Open in 2016. These are sugars that don’t occur naturally but are added to foods during manufacturing.

What are ultra-processed foods?
To some extent, most food is processed. Minimally processed foods aren’t significantly altered from their natural states. They include items like chopped fresh tomatoes or frozen berries.

Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, often have a long list of tongue-twisting ingredients you’d never find in a home kitchen. These include dyes, artificial flavors, preservatives and ingredients to improve texture. Salt and sugar are also commonly added for taste or preservation. Ultra-processed foods are generally inexpensive, ready-to-eat or easy to prepare, and are typically designed to keep for a long time on pantry shelves or in the fridge or freezer. 

Popular ultra-processed foods include: 

  • Sugary soft drinks
  • Frozen meals 
  • Chicken nuggets or fish sticks 
  • Frozen pizza
  • Powdered noodle soups 
  • Candies, cookies and packaged snack cakes 
  • Packaged bread and rolls

These foods are frequently low in fiber and high in saturated fat, too. The good news is that food companies are now banned from adding artery-clogging artificial trans fats to food. The ban went into effect in June 2018, though products made before then can be distributed until January 2020, and in some cases 2021.

It’s important to note, however, that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows foods with less than 0.5 grams (g) of trans fats per serving to display 0g on labels, meaning your favorite snacks may not be entirely free of the substance. To avoid trans fats until the phase-out is complete, look for “partially hydrogenated oil” in food ingredient lists.

Ultra-processed foods and your health
A steady diet of ultra-processed foods can raise your risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, Dr. Yen says. Some foods may also increase your chances of certain cancers. 

For instance, people who regularly eat processed meats like bacon and hot dogs have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. In 2015, the World Health Organization estimated that each 50g of processed meat eaten daily would raise the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. That’s equal to four strips of bacon or one hot dog each day. 

That’s not all. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2019 suggested that ultra-processed foods are linked to a higher risk of dying from any cause. Researchers in France followed more than 44,000 adults over a seven-year period. They calculated that each 10 percent increase in the amount of ultra-processed foods eaten was linked to a 14 percent increase in all-cause mortality risk. Social gaps seemed to influence people’s diet choices; those who tended to live alone and had lower incomes and education levels ate the most ultra-processed food. 

Your food choices can also affect your mental health and emotions. “Our brains, our moods and our bodies tell us when we’re not eating right and we don’t feel good,” explains Yen. He points out that, among other issues, constant energy highs and subsequent crashes from sugary foods could change brain chemistry and lead to more low moods and depression. 

How to eat less processed food
Start with preparing meals in your own kitchen. Control sugar, salt and fat in your diet by cooking at home using fruit, vegetables, legumes, lean proteins and whole grains. It may take more time, but it’s worth the extra effort. Try these tips:

  • Plan your meals. Use your days off to map out a menu for the week. Make a list of all the healthy ingredients you’ll need. 
  • Shop smart. Try to stick to the outer aisles of the grocery store. That’s where the fresh produce, dairy, meats and seafood are typically located. If a fresh veggie or fruit isn’t available, frozen is a good option. Pick items without sauce or added ingredients. 
  • Pick a day to cook. If weeknights are hectic, use a weekend to “make ahead.” Whip up healthy stews, soups and chilis and freeze family-sized or individual portions. Ask school-aged kids to help with prep. This will get healthy eating habits established early. 
  • Pack healthy snacks. Bring bananas, apple slices, nuts or other good-for-you items to work. This can help you avoid those diet-sabotaging 3pm snack machine visits. 

Be a food label sleuth, too. Eating processed foods occasionally is fine, says Yen, but moderation is key. Read labels and choose items with the fewest ingredients. Also check for added sugars. There are more than 60 different types, and they might appear as: 

  • Maltose, sucrose, fructose or dextrose 
  • High-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup or rice syrup 
  • Fruit juice concentrate 
  • Raw sugar or brown sugar 
  • Agave 
  • Molasses 

The government’s 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises we limit added sugar calories to 10 percent of our daily diet. For someone who eats 2,000 calories, that’s about 200 calories, 12 teaspoons or 1/4 cup per day. One effective way to cut that sugar is to avoid sugary sodas and other drinks. For instance, orange soda and cranberry juice cocktail each have more than 10 teaspoons of sugar in a 12-ounce serving. 

Keep an eye out for sodium, too. Most Americans consume 3,400 milligrams (mg) or more each day—without realizing it. We should get 2,300mg or less, according to the Dietary Guidelines. Your doctor may suggest cutting back even more if you have health problems like high blood pressure. 

To reduce your intake, check labels for the amount of sodium per serving. For instance, if there’s 680mg in a cup of chicken noodle soup, you’re getting almost 30 percent of your daily allowance right there. Look for items labeled “sodium-free,” “very low sodium” or “low sodium” to scale down your salt intake overall. 

Ultimately, says Yen, you make an investment in yourself when you change your diet for the better. There’s no better time to start than now. 

Medically reviewed in October 2019.

CDC: “Get the Facts: Sodium’s Role in Processed Food.”
Martínez Steele E, Baraldi LG, Louzada MLDC, et al. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study BMJ Open 2016;6:e009892.
World Public Health Nutrition Association. “The Food System. Food classification. Public health.”
UC Berkeley Wellness: “Trans Fats: Going, Going ... Gone.”
American Cancer Society: “World Health Organization Says Processed Meat Causes Cancer.”
Schnabel L, Kesse-Guyot E, Allès B, et al. Association Between Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Mortality Among Middle-aged Adults in France. JAMA Intern Med. Published online February 11, 2019 179(4):490–498.
Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton KZ, et al. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. The Lancet Oncology. October 26, 2015.
Mayo Clinic Health System: “Grocery store tour: Shopping the perimeter.”
University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension: “Save Money and Time by Preparing Foods in Advance.”
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Teaching Kids to Cook.”
American Heart Association: “How much sodium should I eat per day?” “Healthy Snacking.”
UC San Francisco/Sugar Science: “How Much Is Too Much?”
Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health: “How Sweet Is It?”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Finding the Hidden Sugar in the Foods You Eat."

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