Ten men and women, participants in a 2019 National Institutes of Health study, went on a managed meal plan for two weeks. A second group of 10 received another managed meal plan — equally matched in terms of calories, carbs, sugars, proteins and fat. They were offered three meals a day plus snacks and water. No portion restrictions. At the end of two weeks, one group had gained an average of two pounds. The second group had lost an average of two pounds. What made the difference? The group that lost weight ate minimally processed food. The group that gained weight ate ultra-processed food —and had eaten, on average, 508 more calories per day.
Take a walk through the grocery store, and you’ll spot an abundance of ultra-processed food. Frozen dinners, soda, packaged cookies and chips are all examples of food made with extracts and additives like added sugars, starches, hydrogenated fats, artificial color and stabilizers to make them shelf stable. If you find yourself eating a lot of ultra-processed food, you aren’t alone. Ultra-processed foods are often formulated to be convenient and addictive, and can even trigger hunger hormones.
At the end of two weeks, one group had gained an average of two pounds. The second group had lost an average of two pounds. What made the difference? The group that lost weight ate minimally processed food. The group that gained weight ate ultra-processed food — and had eaten, on average, 508 more calories per day.
Food like this is easy to choose when you’re short on time, energy, money or all of the above, but ultra-processed foods have been linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes if eaten regularly in large amounts. Ultra-processed food isn’t just junk food, though. A lot of things we consider “healthy” like packaged granola bars with added sugars and stabilizers, as well as cereals and margarine, technically fall under the ultra-processed food banner. (Nearly 60 percent of calories consumed by adults in the United States come from these foods.)
While ultra-processed food isn’t great for our overall wellness, it can be very difficult to shift to healthier alternatives, and that’s by design. “There are a lot of reasons that people eat food like that. It’s highly available and delicious,” says Alyssa Thomas, a Denver-based registered dietitian. “A lot of money and resources go into making sure they taste very good.”
Ultra-processed foods are often formulated to be convenient and addictive, and can even trigger hunger hormones.
Other external pressures, including lack of time, lack of ability or lack of energy can make it hard not to choose an alternative. “A lot of times, ultra-processed food is cheaper and more convenient. If someone is low on sleep, high on stress and low on time or energy, they grab something that is already made and they just pop it in the microwave,” says Thomas. “A lot of times, off-the-shelf things are just easier for people.” If you’re looking to change up your eating habits, here are six things to try.
Plan your meals. Before you go to the grocery store, outline your upcoming meals. Choose recipes that share ingredients to save money and prevent food waste. To avoid snagging ultra-processed food on a whim, write up a grocery list and try to stick to it as much as possible.
Pay attention. Read food labels carefully when you are grocery shopping. Look for foods with short ingredient lists that contain mostly whole unprocessed ingredients.
Add variety. A more positive and productive approach to eating is to add variety to your diet instead of trying to restrict, which can lead to unhealthy eating cycles. “Different foods have different nutrients, and by eating different types of foods, we can get a broad array of the nutrients that our bodies need to function optimally,” says Thomas. One simple way to add variety is simply to pick up something new the next time you’re at the store.
Cook in advance. Sometimes you aren’t in the mood to make food from scratch, especially when you have the option to pick something up and start snacking. To counter that, take advantage of times when you do feel like cooking, and make a bunch of things in advance to store for easy eating later.
Start with easy swaps. Some easy swaps to make are replacing soda with fresh or carbonated water and fruit slices, fried chicken with roast chicken, energy drinks with black coffee, and packaged granola bars with homemade granola.
Get some help. If you’re having a hard time adding new things to your menu, consider making an appointment with a dietitian or a nutritionist who can help you on your food journey.
A lot of things we consider “healthy” like packaged granola bars with added sugars and stabilizers, as well as cereals and margarine, technically fall under the ultra-processed food banner. Nearly 60 percent of calories consumed by adults in the United States come from these foods.
Instead of leaning into restrictive diet culture, which can be toxic, or feeling guilt or shame related to food, give yourself grace as you add new unprocessed or less processed food to your meals. Most importantly, remember to have fun and enjoy the experience. Experiment and discover new food and recipes, and know that you’re doing your body a favor at the same time.