Ultra-processed foods make up 60% of the average American diet. Are whole foods the solution?

Nearly 60 percent of America’s diet comes from ultra-processed foods, according to a 2020 study published in the medical journal The BMJ.

Ultra-processed foods are different from processed foods. The American Heart Association explained it through examples. Carrots don’t grow like baby carrots but can be made into baby carrots. This is an example of a processed food; every time an agricultural product is sliced, diced, juiced or heated, it becomes a processed food.

Ultra-processed foods are created mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituents with little or no food intact. The AHA has provided rice or pasta bowls as examples that require only water and microwaves. Some studies show that ultra-processed foods can pose a risk to long-term health and well-being.

Here’s a deeper look at what ultra-processed foods are and how they can impact your health.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Some examples of ultra-processed foods, according to Healthline, are soda, fried chicken, sugary cereals and other foods. While the definition of ultra-processed foods is in a state of evolution, it generally refers to foods that have additives and can be high in oils, sugar and salt.

In short, ultra-processed foods are probably what many of us already think of as simply processed foods, those glossy, packaged, unnatural products found in fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. of gas stations, Healthline said. .

Here’s an easy way to think about it. Potatoes grow naturally, but need to be processed before they can be eaten. Making a baked potato is an example of crafting a potato. The further processing and mixing of additives to potato chips makes them an ultra-processed food.

Clinical Centers News said, “Foods were considered ultra-processed if they contained ingredients predominantly found in industrial food production, such as hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, flavoring agents and emulsifiers. They included foods like french fries, sugary drinks, processed meats, and potato chips.

To make fries, you need to dip them in oil (often a couple of times) and add sugar and flavoring.

Here’s another example of the difference between a whole food, a processed food, and an ultra-processed food. A lemon is a whole food. A sliced ​​lemon can be considered a processed food. A piece of candy that has the flavor of a lemon would be considered an ultra-processed food. Essentially, ultra-processed foods go through multiple levels of processing before they are eaten, and various ingredients are added.

How do you know if a food is ultra-processed?

There are some simple tests to see if a food is over-processed. If you take the ingredient list and see ingredients you don’t recognize and can’t pronounce (chemical names, for example), then the food is probably ultra-processed.

You can also use critical thinking skills to determine how much a food has been processed. If you are wondering whether a bag of chips is processed or ultra-processed, you can think of how they had to slice the potato, fry the potato in oil, and add seasonings, flavors, and additives, all of which lead to the preservation of the potato in the form of chips.

Some foods that are considered ultra-processed might come as a surprise. According to The Conversation, foods like packaged breads, dips and plant-based milks can be considered ultra-processed foods. There are some brands that aren’t considered ultra processed, it depends on the ingredients in the food, so it’s not a hard and fast rule.

Can drinks be ultra-processed?

Yes they can. Beverages like soda can be considered ultra-processed. According to health.com, diet soda may be one drink to avoid. In addition to the fact that diet soda has zero nutritional value, it contains artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose.

As with ultra-processed foods, you can tell what an ultra-processed drink is based on the ingredients listed.

Are processed foods better than ultra-processed foods?

Generally, yes they are. The American Medical Association has stated that processed foods don’t contain as many (if any) additives as ultra-processed foods and tend to be higher in nutrients.

Processed food includes things like canned vegetables or canned beans or cheese, according to the Mayo Clinic. These foods are better choices than ultra-processed foods in part because they are closer to whole foods than ultra-processed foods. When vegetables or beans are canned with salt, they still remain vegetables and beans and retain some nutrients. Because ultra-processed foods stray the most from processed foods, they’re not as nutrient-dense.

Are deli meats processed foods?

Yes, but where the meat comes from determines how much it is processed. When you go to the deli counter and watch them slice some meat, that meat tends to be less processed than prepackaged meat. According to the Cleveland Clinic, it’s important to watch out for nitrates in deli meats.

While freshly sliced ​​delicatessen has some natural nitrates, nitrates and high amounts of salt can be used in the preservation process of prepackaged delicatessen. A nutrition letter from Tufts states that even when natural sources of nitrate are used, meat may pose the same health risks.

Processed meat, defined by the World Health Organization as meat that has been processed by salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve shelf life, is considered a group 1 carcinogen.

The Cancer Council said: “The World Health Organization has classified processed meats including ham, bacon, salami and frankfurters as a group 1 carcinogen (known to cause cancer), which means there is strong evidence that the Processed meats cause cancer. Eating processed meat increases the risk of bowel and stomach cancer. Red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork, has been classified as a Group 2A carcinogen, meaning it likely causes cancer. The Cancer Council advises people to avoid processed meat altogether or eat it minimally.

An alternative to the delicatessen when you want a sandwich with meat on it is to make your own meat for sandwiches. Buying fresh chicken or turkey and then roasting it will give you meat you can put on a sandwich for a week without the process of enhancing flavor and preserving.

The bottom line is that there are questions about the effects of delicatessen, as well as some evidence showing that the processing and storage of delicatessen can have a negative impact on health even if the delicatessen does not add nitrates (using celery root powder instead or a similar product). ingredient).

Are all processed foods unhealthy?

No. As Harvard Health Publishing said, once you start cooking something, it gets processed. Foods like baked potatoes and baby carrots are technically processed and can be safely eaten provided you don’t have an allergy or intolerance.

Other foods like frozen broccoli florets are considered processed. According to UCLA Health, that doesn’t mean you should give up your frozen broccoli. It depends on the ingredients and how the food was processed.

UCLA Health said: Some common additives on ingredient labels that you may want to avoid include hydrogenated vegetable oils and tropical oils such as palm oil, preservatives such as nitrite or sodium nitrate, flavor enhancers such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), and sweeteners. added as corn syrup, cane juice, or artificial sweeteners, among others.

In practice, this means picking frozen chicken or fish with frozen vegetables or fruit is still a way to eat healthy, while it might be best to avoid high-sodium foods and long ingredient lists.

Beware of the health halo

Is health an aesthetic? Can be. Brands use packaging and marketing as a way to communicate to health-conscious customers, but that doesn’t mean the product in question is necessarily healthy.

The health halo is a term for how consumers might view a product and think it is healthy because of its presentation, and then overconsume the product as a result, according to The Guardian. Sometimes a smaller portion can make a food seem low in calories when it’s actually a small portion of a calorie dense food, there are many situations where it can be easy to think a food is healthy when it might not be the choice improve.

Avoiding the health halo can involve looking at ingredient lists, portion sizes, and considering how far a food is from whole foods.

Are processed foods addictive?

There is some evidence that highly processed foods may be addictive. The University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation has released a report describing the effects of some highly processed foods. One of the main reasons highly processed foods can be addictive is because they can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward system at levels comparable to nicotine and alcohol.

There is some evidence from University of Michigan researchers to suggest that highly processed foods may qualify as addictive substances. This is especially a problem due to the health risks of highly processed foods.

What are the health risks of highly processed foods?

A 2023 study published in the Lancet Journal found that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods led to an overall increased risk of cancer and an increased risk of mortality from such physical health conditions.

Other research has shown that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to obesity, increased blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, and may even increase the risk of mortality. While more research is needed to determine the precise links and other connections consuming ultra-processed foods might have, according to The BMJ, initial research suggests that highly processed foods pose some health risks.

What to eat instead of ultra-processed foods?

Conventional wisdom says to avoid eating ultra-processed foods. It’s a good idea to buy the perimeters of the grocery store. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, along with some natural sources of protein, such as meat or beans, is a good way to avoid over-processed foods.

Instead of eating pasta sauce out of a jar, you can peel some tomatoes and make your own sauce. If you want to eat macaroni and cheese, instead of getting the box, you can make your own pasta from scratch and use lightly processed cheeses to make a homemade version.

It may take longer to create alternatives, but if you wish to avoid ultra-processed foods, the best course of action is to eat a diet rich in whole foods.

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