5 ways to cut back on processed foods

Ultra-Processed Foods Could Cause Cancer, Researchers Say

When you’re trying to become a healthier version of yourself this year, a good starting place could be your dinner table — or your grocery cart.

Research has underlined the damaging effects of a diet heavy on processed foods, including frozen pizza, salty chips, fast-food sandwiches, and even canned soup.

An October 2021 study from Ohio State University, for example, studied rats for four weeks and found “consumption of a processed diet can produce significant and abrupt memory deficits,” according to senior study author Ruth Barrientos. “In the aging population, rapid memory decline has a greater likelihood of progressing into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

“The fact we’re seeing these effects so quickly is a little bit alarming,” she said.

That’s just the start of health woes caused or encouraged by highly processed foods.

“Ultra-processed foods such as mass-produced packaged bread, sodas, and chicken nuggets can cause health problems,” registered dietitian Lauren Popeck wrote in the Orlando Health blog. “Because many processed foods are high in sugar, salt, fat and carbohydrates, a diet high in processed foods is linked to obesity.”

A 2018 study published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The BMJ also found a link between highly processed food and cancer.

With so many convenience foods and restaurant meals made up of processed foods, they’re tough to avoid. But there are a few simple steps you can take to rein in your processed food consumption. Here are five tips for avoiding processed food from Popek and other nutrition experts.

Eat more fresh foods

Instead of focusing on deprivation, start by eating more foods that are fresh or minimally prepared.

“Try for three to four servings of vegetables per day,” Popeck wrote for Orlando Health. “It’s easier than you think: a cup of blueberries at breakfast, spinach salad at lunch, baby carrots for a snack, and roasted broccoli for dinner.”

Don’t eat soup from a can

A single cup of canned soup can contain more than half of the 1,500 milligrams of sodium recommended as the ideal limit by the American Heart Association, according to the University of Central Florida health blog, which recommended comparing brands and purchasing the one with the least sodium.

Favor fruit popsicles over ice cream

So sad, but that nightly bowl of ice cream — even a small one — is categorized as an ultra-processed food.

“It is so high in both carbs and fat, making it calorie-dense, and will likely be stored as visceral fat when not burned as energy,” registered dietitian Catherine Gervacio told online lifestyle publication She Finds. “Ice cream’s sugar-rich profile affects your blood glucose levels, which would increase the amount of visceral fat in the body. This may lead to insulin resistance which may result in diabetes.”

An optimal alternative is frozen fruit popsicles you make yourself.

“The natural sweetness of fruits and the fiber in them can contribute to lower fat intake,” Gervacio said. “Just blend any favorite fruit, or fruit combo, blend it and freeze. You can make it sweet by adding coconut water or a non-caloric sweetener.”

Make your own mash instead of instant potatoes

Among the many damaging “instant” foods, mashed potatoes are particularly problematic, containing 1,000 mg of sodium per cup.

A better option is blending mock mashed potatoes made from “steamed cauliflower, a little olive oil, pepper, and a pinch of salt,” according to Popek.

Cancel cereal and opt for oatmeal

It may seem like breakfast is such a modest meal that it couldn’t create many health issues, but typical fast-food options are all highly processed.

Pre-packaged cereal is filled with sugar and usually “missing out on fiber,” registered dietitian Lisa Valente wrote in Eating Well. “Sure, you can pick a healthier breakfast cereal (and there are plenty of healthy choices), but oatmeal is a whole food with only one ingredient — oats. If you stick to plain oats-not the type that comes in flavored packets — you’ll get 150 calories and 4 grams of fiber per half-cup serving.”

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