Food processing is a spectrum. Some degree of processing helps improve food availability, convenience, safety, quality, and added nutrients through fortification. However, when processing gets taken too far, foods may lose their nutritional benefits and ultimately contribute to adverse health outcomes.
In my other article What Are Ultra-Processed Foods? How to Be Aware of Your Choices, I took a deep scientific dive into processed foods, ultra-processed foods, Nova categories, and everyday examples of commonly consumed foods.
So, if your goal is to tackle your ultra-processed food consumption, look no further! I’ve broken down a few steps to kickstart your healthy habits. While you may want to hit the ground running and overhaul your entire lifestyle, taking baby steps works best. After all, small yet significant changes lead to big results. Each week, focus on one suggestion below and build from there! What will you start with today?
1. Choose foods closest to nature.
Unleash your inner nature lover and eat closer to Mother Earth! Embrace her creations by eating fiber-filled foods such as beans, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. It helps improve gastrointestinal health, gut motility, and immune function, and lowers the risks of chronic inflammation. The processing of refined grains removes the bran, sperm, and endosperm—all of which offer heart, cancer, and brain-protective nutrients. So, don’t get stuck on ultra-processed foods like white on rice. Instead, swap for a fibrous, wholesome alternative!
2. Boost Omega 3 food sources.
Ultra-processed foods often contain higher levels of omega-6— resulting in a higher omega-6/omega-3 ratio and the potential promotion of low-grade inflammation. While the body needs omega-6, it must be balanced with omega-3s for improved heart health and overall well-being. (1) After all, life is about moderation.
So, find your body’s balance by limiting ultra-processed options and including omega-3-rich foods like salmon, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax meal. Instead of a vending machine snack, pack mixed nuts and enjoy with a small serving of fruit. These healthy options help promote cognitive function, reduce inflammation, and keep your heart pumping strong!
3. Cut down on added sugar and lower saturated fat intake.
Help reduce your household’s added sugar intake by going au naturel. For example, experiment with dates, prunes, or other fruits to sweeten your homemade treats. Sweet potatoes (sweet potato cake) and carrots can be used in cakes and muffins. Avocados are a good replacement for saturated fat sources and can add richness to creamy chocolate desserts. When eating popcorn or whole-grain bread try drizzling with olive oil and herbs instead of butter.
The average American over 20 years old consumes about 17 teaspoons of sugar per day per the CDC. Ultra-processed foods contribute to higher intake of saturated fat and sugar intake. (2)
Also, be sure to read the nutrition labels and ingredients on your favorite packaged items for unnecessary add-ins. Try buying plain options for yogurt, frozen veggies, or tomato sauce to limit your added sugar and saturated fat intake. Then, add your own creative flavor spin! Watch out for hidden sugar in crackers or excess sugar in cereal.
4. Skip the soda or beverage with additives.
Raise a glass to vitality with healthier hydration! Sip your way to better health by limiting sugar-sweetened beverages packed with additives and excess sugar.
- One can of soda has ten teaspoons of sugar. Can you imagine sitting down and eating all that spoon after spoon?
- Many drinks are disguised as healthy with organic or pre or probiotic claims but include excess sugar and synthetic concoctions. Sugar ingredients like organic brown rice sugar solids, agave, organic sugar, etc., can all add up quickly towards your 3-6 teaspoon sugar per day limit.
Reach your hydration goals by making water accessible with a fun and trendy stainless steel bottle. It’s what all the cool kids are doing! But, if pure ol’ water is a total snooze for your tastebuds, make your own healthy soda water with fresh ingredients. Simply flavor seltzer water with frozen or fresh fruits, herbs, or vegetables like cucumber!
A good fo-jitos with seltzer, lemon juice, fresh mint, and crushed berries really hits the spot. I also keep a glass water jar in my car, to minimize the use of one-time plastic and encourage healthy hydration on the go.
5. Choose lean proteins.
Go lean to run like a machine! Reduce your household’s red meat, butter, coconut, or palm oil intake to limit unwanted saturated fats. When choosing red meat, choose lean cuts, and if possible, buy grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free. Prioritize plant-based protein sources, like beans, lentils, edamame, tofu and tempeh. When choosing fish, pick those that are conservation-friendly and low in mercury. For poultry, limit dark meat and if able, choose organic-free-range or pasture-raised.
To go the extra mile, opt for proteins that have not been pre-marinated or seasoned. But don’t settle for flavorless foods! Infuse your creations with herbs and spices for a boost of flavor-packed antioxidants. Tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, spicy mustards, soy sauce, and sesame oil combinations with herbs can transform humble ingredients into a culinary delight! These 20 Top Healthy Sandwich Spreads also make a good marinade.
6. Reduce or avoid additives or manufactured ingredients.
Does it feel like you need a chemistry degree to understand what’s in your food items? Brominated vegetable oil (bvo). Polysorbate 60, 65, and 80. Butylated hydroxyanisole (bha). Is anyone else confused? Whether from dyes, artificial flavors, or excess additives, these are ingredients to limit when striving for better health. Instead of trying to decode the cryptic language of ultra-processed food ingredients, choose foods that have a short yet recognizable list of ingredients. Remember, less is more when it comes to identifiable ingredients!
7. Read the nutrition label and the ingredient list.
Looks can sometimes be misleading! While the packaging may contain wholesome images of mountains, farms, and happy creatures, the ingredient list and food label may provide a different impression.
The nutrition facts may appear healthy with low saturated fat and no added sugar, but this is why you want to read the ingredient list too. Next, compare similar products from different brands to find the one that works best for your health goals. Let the ingredients be your compass, guiding you toward wholesome health-promoting choices away from the siren song of ultra-processing. Feel good about your food choices by prioritizing a less processed food over an ultra-processed option!
8. Replace one processed or ultra-processed snack with a homemade snack.
Homemade always slays! So, skip the store-bought chips and experiment with at-home kale, potato, or veggie chips, or fries. For kale chips, all it takes is a drizzle of olive oil, spices of choice, and a watchful eye on the oven. This small yet impactful change is a significant first step in reducing the consumption of foods that may negatively impact your health.
Does your brand of peanut butter, yogurt, or bread contain lots of added sugar, sodium, or other additives? Swap it for one of the healthier alternatives from the suggestions in the article, What Are Ultra-Processed Foods? How to Be Aware of Your Choices.
Want to cook more at home? Set some realistic goals and begin with one recipe a week. Check out my cookbooks for kids and adults.
9. Choose the right processed food to build up your dish.
Processed food gets a bad rap! But many healthy choices are go-to options that save time and fit into a nutritious lifestyle. For instance, certain brands of tofu, yogurt, beans, and frozen fruits and vegetables may be processed but not ultra-processed.
They also provide added convenience, facilitate meal prep, enable healthy food choices, can be stored in your pantry, and help reduce food waste. Talk about a win-win-win-win! For the optimal choice, prioritize foods with fewer additives while limiting options with unidentifiable (and unpronounceable) ingredients.
- For example, I chose these refried beans over brands with ingredients like modified food starch, or natural flavors. This processed food is NOT ultra-processed and provides me with a quick and healthy meal. I serve refried beans in crunchy taco shells with salsa, low-fat cheese, cilantro, and shredded cabbage. Sometimes I add roasted cashews for the extra crunch and flavor.
10. Work with a registered dietitian nutritionist.
It’s okay to need an extra helping hand! Embark on a collaborative journey with a registered dietitian nutritionist to make your health goals a reality instead of disappearing intentions. With expert support, every step becomes a stride toward a healthier, happier you! Book an appointment with me. Remember, it takes teamwork to make the dream work!
- Tristan Asensi, Marta, et al. “Low-Grade Inflammation and Ultra-Processed Foods Consumption: A Review.” Nutrients, vol. 15, no. 6, Jan. 2023, p. 1546, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15061546.
- CDC. “Know Your Limit for Added Sugars.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Nov. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/added-sugars.html.
- Hall, Kevin D., et al. “Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake.” Cell Metabolism, vol. 30, no. 1, July 2019, pp. 67-77.e3, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008.