3 Questions To Ask Yourself If You Want To Cut Down On Ultra-Processed Foods, According To A Dietitian

Business Insider May 1, 2024


3 Questions To Ask Yourself If You Want To Cut Down On Ultra-Processed Foods, According To A Dietitian

Ultra-processed foods have become a buzzy topic as people worry how products that they rely on daily might be affecting their health.

Around 73% of the US food supply is ultra-processed, according to a 2024 research paper by Northeastern University's Network Science Institute, which hasn't been peer-reviewed. And more than 60% of calories in the average American's diet come from UPFs, according to one 2019 study.

Ultra-processed foods tend to be made from ingredients you wouldn't find in a regular kitchen and are manufactured using industrial techniques. Classic examples include candy, chicken nuggets, and soda. But packaged whole wheat bread and fruit yogurt can also fall into this category.

The pervasiveness of UPFs can make cutting down feel overwhelming.

To help, Linia Patel, a registered dietitian, British Dietetic Association spokesperson, and public health researcher based at the University of Milan, shared three questions to ask yourself if you want to cut down on UPFs, including how many you're eating.

As growing research suggests that eating a diet high in UPFs can lead to potential health problems such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer, experts recommend people try to minimize their intake without fixating on eliminating them entirely.

"I think we're getting too bogged down with the term ultra-processed food, we just need to make it a bit simpler," Patel told Business Insider.

Think about overall dietary patterns rather than the one-off treats we all indulge in, she said, adding: "70, 80% I'm eating whole food, but 20% I honestly do not care what I eat, and I grab whatever I want and fast."

1) How much of your diet is ultra-processed?

Official bodies like the FDA provide basic nutritional guidelines, and seeing how your diet compares is a good place to start, Patel said.

For example, we should be eating at least 28 grams of fiber and no more than 50g of added sugar daily.

Many UPFs are low in fiber and high in sugar, fat, and salt because they're ultra-palatable, meaning they contain the perfect combination of ingredients to make them irresistible and moreish.

It's also very important to look at food labels, Patel said, so that you actually know what you're eating.

UPFs come in all shapes and sizes, and some are certainly more nutrient-dense than others, she said. Even the same product made by a different manufacturer could contain more additives than another.

Burger with American cheese

2) Are you snacking smart?

If you are a big snacker, it's worth taking a closer look at what you tend to eat, as items such as potato chips and cookies tend to be ultra-processed.

"What we are really bad at doing in the UK and in the USA is eating on the go, and that means that those eating-on-the-go moments are where we reach out for ultra-processed food," Patel said.

But she sees this as an opportunity to reduce UPF consumption by "snacking smarter." "It could be an apple with a handful of nuts. That's something easy and portable that is going to be nutritious and balanced," she said.

If you really need your chocolate fix, you could eat a piece of fruit and then have some chocolate, which will probably mean you eat less of the processed snack overall, she said.

3) How well do you know yourself?

There's also a behavior change involved here, the same as any new habit, Patel said. So it's helpful to understand what works for you.

Some people like to dive into the deep end and might find going cold turkey a great approach. But for others, making small, incremental changes might be better, she said.

"Start with something that you feel is doable and manageable, and then you build on that," she said. You might identify that most of your UPFs are coming from snacks, so you start there. Then with time, you target breakfast, and later lunch.

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