It’s no secret that eating processed foods is a health “don’t,” whether it’s about achieving weight loss goals or maintaining optimal physical and mental health. Now, in the latest research published in BMJ Open, experts are also warning against “ultra-processed foods.” Such foods go beyond the usual amounts of excessive and harmful kinds of sugars, salts, oils, and fats that comprise a junk food diet to also include additional substances that aren’t really, well, real food.
Just the word “substances” to describe what we're eating sounds scary, yet it's exactly what people are eating regularly despite the fact that it’s basically void of nutritional value and does nothing to improve health.
According to the published study, “Ultra-processed foods were defined as industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations.” Flavorings and emulsifiers were also included as part of this description; in other words, all of that chemically-laden gunk that holds food together, preserves taste (and grocery store shelf life), and provides consumers with an appealing color is going into people’s bodies – and it’s not doing them any health favors.
Unfortunately, the study also found that these “ultra-processed” foods make up more than half of all calories consumed in the average American diet while also contributing to about 90 percent of all added sugar intake.
Couple this with the known fact that processed foods, in all of their high added-sugar and chemical glory, contribute to a range of health issues from weight gain and diabetes to heart complications and a foggy memory.
Now, I’ll be the first to say that after losing 70 pounds several years ago and trying to do my best to maintain a healthy lifestyle, I do indulge in the occasional couple of slices of pizza, deli meat (nitrates, I know…), and sink my teeth into brownies. However, eating such foods is a rarity for me, as I think it should be for other health-conscious people. Sure, no one should deprive themselves of having some cookies or chocolate lava cake on occasion, but that’s the key phrase – on occasion.
However, if you take a look around, more often than not, there’s a long line of cars at the fast food restaurant drive-through and plenty of folks walking the streets with one hand buried deep in their bag of chips, which reinforces the study’s findings. All in all, American’s are eating much more added sugar and calories than they should be.
The point here is that there’s a difference between having such foods very infrequently and eating them on a daily basis as if they’re going out of style.
While it’s a hard habit to break, it’s essential to try to incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables (yup, mom was right about eating our broccoli!) in your life.
Trust me, I know it’s not an easy task; I used to polish off entire sleeves of cookies at a time, followed by a cheese Danish and chocolate milk – and that was after already having dinner. Getting my health back on track took many years -- with some body image issues and odd eating behaviors thrown in the mix -- and it’s still an ongoing learning process. But today, I absolutely love eating roasted broccoli with hemp seeds, huge salads with almond slices and blueberries, and making homemade peach and tomato salsa.
While I don’t advocate extremely strict dieting (I mean really, it’s rare -- and difficult -- for anyone to only eat the likes of spinach and avocado smoothies for the rest of their life without ever letting a candy bar cross their lips again), it’s important to stick to what’s been proven to lead to weight loss (and maintenance) and improve all around health. That means enjoying more lentils, roasted asparagus, oats (I’m a fan of steel cut oats or making overnight oats), nuts and seeds and less of the stuff that comes in a can, tube or plastic bag near the supermarket bakery or check-out aisle.
Take every step possible to reduce added sugars and calories; even cutting out one fast food meal a week or putting less sugar in your coffee every day can help make a difference. Before you know it, you’ll crave fries and nuggets less and heart healthy, figure-friendly options more.
What steps are you taking towards better health? I’d love to hear what you’re eating that’s put you on a path to weight loss and improved health! Leave a comment or send me an email in the contact section of this site.
Jennifer Lea Reynolds
U.Jennifer Lea Reynolds is a weight loss success story who enjoys living a healthy lifestyle. A fan of the elliptical, roasted asparagus and remembering to put the lid on the blender, she’s appeared in many national and local print publications. She lives in New England where she writes professionally about health and wellness in online publications including U.S. News & World Report, Reader's Digest, Woman's Day, The Huffington Post, and more.