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Nutrition

5 easy ways to eat healthier every day

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Understanding what ‘processed food’ even means, and what experts know about them.

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It’s hardly breaking news that processed foods aren’t good for you, but it’s often unclear why.  Before we get to the science, first we need to understand what exactly is a processed food. When a food has been processed, it just means it’s undergone some kind of preparation. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, processed food falls under a spectrum, from minimally processed, such as chopped vegetables, to heavily processed, like premade meals that need a quick trip in the microwave. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with eating a cut-up apple—it’s where a food falls on that spectrum of “processed” that matters.

Two recent studies looked into the effects of ultra-processed foods (pre-packaged meals and snacks with added sugar, preservatives, and other additives) on people’s health. The first study tracked nearly 20,000 participants between the ages of 20 and 91 for up to 10 years. The researchers checked in every two years to see what participants said they were eating and drinking, categorizing the foods as:

  • Unprocessed/minimally processed: either fresh foods or foods that have undergone processes like refrigeration, freezing, drying, or grinding, which rarely contain additives (think: eggs, yogurt, fruits and veggies, etc.).
  • Processed culinary ingredients: items used for cooking, like salt, oils, and butter, which may contain something to help preserve them.
  • Processed: foods that have substances added or have been through some sort of preservation method (think: cured bacon, smoked cheese, or a loaf of white bread).
  • Ultra-processed: prepackaged frozen or shelf-stable foods that are basically ready to eat and are made mostly or entirely from industrial substances, rather than whole foods (think: instant soups, pastries, fries, or fruit-flavored yogurts).

The study found that people who ate more than four servings of ultra-processed food a day had a 62 percent higher risk of mortality. And with each additional serving, that risk increased by 18 percent. (Reminder: It still counts if you’re eating ultra-processed foods as snacks between meals.)

In the second study, researchers studied the eating habits of 100,000 adults over a 10-year timespan, paying attention to how often they said they ate ultra-processed foods. Researchers found that eating more ultra-processed foods was associated with higher risks of cardiovascular, coronary heart, and cerebrovascular (affecting blood flow to the brain) diseases. While the researchers didn’t know for sure what caused the association, they suspected it could be because ultra-processed foods are less nutritious and contain more sodium, saturated fats, and added sugars, all of which could lead to obesity. Not to mention, those who ate a lot of ultra-processed foods typically ate less heart-healthy fruits and vegetables.

Now that you know what kinds of processed foods are bad for you and why, what can you do about it? First, incorporate more whole foods into your diet (we’ll get into easy ways to do that in a second). To help you get all the nutrients you need, you can also try taking a vitamin made with a whole food blend like Centrum Whole Food Blend Multivitamin. You should also work to substitute the ultra-processed foods in your diet. Researchers from the second study found the worst culprits of ultra-processed foods to be sugary foods, instant powdered soups and broths, sodas and flavored drinks, breakfast cereals, and processed meat and fish. With this in mind, there are small steps you can take to improve your diet.

If you like sweets, swap them for whole fruit: Buy fruit in season for maximum sweetness. In colder months when less is in season, buy frozen fruit, which is often minimally processed. Berries and grapes are especially good frozen, while frozen blended bananas make for an excellent ice cream substitute with no added sugars.

If you don’t have time to cook during the week, meal prep on Sundays: Ready-made foods like instant and canned soups are convenient, but they’re loaded with extra sodium. Use weekends to make big batches of easy one-pot soups like chili, sheet pan meals like chicken fajitas, and more. Here are some recipes to get you started.

If you like flavored drinks, infuse your water: You probably already know you should drink a lot of water, but maybe you find the taste boring. Infuse water with fruit, herbs, and vegetables for a refreshing and flavorful drink without any added sugar or artificial sweeteners.

If you need a fast breakfast, make your own quickie meal: Skip the cereal and the granola bars, and opt for filling overnight oats or even a healthy smoothie bowl for a quick option in the morning. Load up your bowl with fresh fruits and minimally processed foods like unsweetened dried fruit and toasted nuts for a healthy on-the-go breakfast option.

If you love sandwiches, swap cold cuts for whole foods: If processed deli meats are your go-to, try switching out your usual turkey slices for a grilled chicken breast instead. Or skip the meat altogether and have a wrap packed with hummus and veggies. And let’s be honest: you’re never too old for a good old peanut butter sandwich (just check the label on your nut butter to make sure it doesn’t have added sugars or salt).