Last week, the relationship between processed foods and weight gain/obesity was discussed. Processed and ultra-processed foods are those that are either altered versions of unprocessed or minimally processed foods through the process of adding processed culinary ingredients, such as oil, sugar or salt, or are industrial creations made by combining multiple ingredients. Although very few studies have stated that processed and ultra-processed foods cause weight gain, some studies have shown a relationship resulting in weight gain and other adverse health outcomes. The extent of research is compelling enough to suggest that diets with reduced processed foods may lead to a healthier lifestyle.

The allure to processed foods is not only in their taste but also that they are relatively inexpensive, often have a longer shelf-life, are easy to prepare, and are readily available. Gas stations, drug stores, and grocery stores often have them stocked to promote a “grab-and-go” lifestyle that sacrifices nutritional value for convenience. Should you choose to reduce or eliminate processed foods, here are some tips on where to start:

  1. Look for whole or minimally processed foods.

Whole foods are those in the same form they are found in nature. Minimally processed foods are those that have undergone some processing, often to increase shelf life or to make them more usable or safer for ingestion (e.g., pasteurization). Shop for more of these types of products (Henderson, 2019):

  • Fresh, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables
  • Dried, canned, or frozen beans and legumes
  • Whole grains, such as oats, brown rice, barley, and quinoa
  • Fresh or frozen meat
  • Low-fat dairy and plain yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds
  1. Read the ingredients label.

There is the nutrition facts label that tells how much of each nutrient is in a product and there is the ingredients label that tells what ingredients are used to make the product. The ingredients label is a good indicator of how processed the product is. Some warning signs for an ultra-processed food are if there are 5 or more ingredients, if there are multiple ingredients that are unfamiliar or difficult to pronounce, and if sugar, fructose, or glucose are one of the first 3 ingredients listed (Velanci, 2020).

  1. Check the nutrition facts label for added sugar.

Not all sugar is processed equally in the body. Natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables are digested more slowly, while added sugars are absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream, leading to a spike in blood sugar, a “sugar crash”, and a greater chance of storage as fat or glycogen for energy. Look for the ‘added sugar’ row within the nutrition facts label. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) of added sugar per day for men and no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) of added sugar per day for women (American Heart Association, n.d.).

  1. Choose whole grains.

Do not trust the front of the box. Check the ingredients label to see if it is made of 100% whole grains. Some whole-grain products are actually mixed with refined grains or white flour, which are void of nutrients and high in calories. An even better option is making your own bread or choosing fresh bread from the bakery (Leake, 2019).

  1. Cook food yourself.

By cooking at home, you can choose whole foods and control the ingredients and their quantities. Even making “junk food” at home is better than purchasing it, because there is the limiting factor of having to take the time to make it yourself (Leake, 2019).

As processed foods are reduced and cut out of the diet, it might take a little time for the body to adjust to the decreased sugar, salt, and other processed ingredients before feeling the benefits, suggesting that perhaps a slow, methodical reduction may be a desirable plan. Depending on how much sugar is typically consumed and how much processed foods are within a diet, a person might feel anxious, bloated, experience headaches, or have cravings as processed foods are eliminated. After time, the reduction and elimination of processed foods could lead to improved mood, improved concentration, decreased bloating due to less added sodium, improved sleep, improved digestion, weight loss, improved acne and decreased skin inflammation, and lowered risk for some chronic and inflammatory conditions (DiNuzzo, 2019).

Where is a good place to start? It seems logical to start with whatever works for you and something you will stick to eliminating. A rule of thumb in our house is that if we do not buy it, we do not eat it, meaning, for example, if we do not buy packaged cookies, we do not have any packaged cookies to tempt us to snack. Eventually, we stopped craving the cookies and as time passed, when we did occasionally indulge, we did not even enjoy the taste anymore, strengthening our resolve to eliminate them from our diet. Of course, it is always wise to consult with a nutritionist or registered dietitian with questions. Your UFit personal trainer is available for guidance or to help refer you to the proper licensed professional for questions beyond our scope of practice.