There’s simply no denying that a healthy and balanced diet free from processed foods is one of the best preventative steps you can take in preventing chronic disease. There are countless studies linking the benefits of a healthy diet, and one particular study has found that ultra-processed food intake is associated with an increased risk of death and heart disease.
A study published in the British Medical Journal studied the link between participants intake of ultra-processed foods and their risk of disease. This study focused primarily on the connection between ultra-processed foods and cardiovascular, coronary heart, as well as cerebrovascular diseases.
Researchers found a clear connection between cardiovascular and chronic disease in those who consumed ultra-processed foods.
So, what are ultra-processed foods? According to a food classification system called NOVA, ultra-processed foods include pretty much any food product that contains a very long list of ingredients you may not even be able to pronounce, or foods that you wouldn’t cook with. Some of these ingredients including additives, artificial colors, anti-caking agents, emulsifiers, glutamates. In addition to their cardiovascular disease risk, these ingredients have also been linked to cardiometabolic effects.
Here are some foods that are considered to be ultra-processed and happen to contain many of these harmful ingredients:
In addition to the fact that these foods contain additives and inflammatory ingredient, the research also points out that there are other health risks that come along with consuming ultra-processed foods. With any processed food, you run the risk of exposing yourself to things like BPA (bisphenol A) found in plastic packaging which has been linked to endocrine disruption.
Unfortunately, the consumption of these processed foods has increased, and one survey found that ultra-processed foods are what many people are consuming on a daily basis. The survey found that roughly 25-60% of total food intake came from ultra-processed foods, which is a recipe for inflammation and chronic disease.
Consuming ultra-processed foods doesn’t only pose a risk for cardiovascular disease, but ultra-processed food intake may also increase your risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and even cancer according to the NOVA classification system.
What we take away from this study is that eating a whole and balanced diet is going to be an excellent preventative step in preventing chronic disease. So, how do you add more whole foods to your diet?
Here are some steps you can implement into your lifestyle to reduce your ultra-processed food intake and enjoy more health-promoting foods.
#1 Consume More Foods Without a Food Label: One of the best ways to really cut back on how many processed foods you are consuming is to focus on eating more foods without a food label. By doing so, you will be focusing on consuming more whole and nutrient-dense foods, and less of the foods that contain the artificial and inflammatory ingredients. Focus on getting more fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and organic poultry in your diet.
#2 Read Food Labels: When you do consume a packaged food, be sure to take the time to read the food label. You will want to avoid anything with added refined sugar, anything with trans or hydrogenated fats, and steer clear of foods that contain anything artificial. This includes artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners.
#3 Cook at Home: If you can cook more of your food at home, you can avoid adding unnecessary amounts of sodium and artificial ingredients to your diet. When you cook at home, you are in charge of what you are adding to your recipes. So, you can reduce the amount of sugar and salt you add, and stick to whole foods as much as possible.
#4 Avoid the Freezer Meals: Frozen ready-to-eat freezer meals are loaded with sodium, preservatives, and artificial ingredients. Steer clear of this premade meals, and if you rely on these as easy grab and go meals, prep meals yourself and then freeze them in individual serving sizes.
#5 Be Careful With Coffee Creamers: If you generally add a flavored coffee creamer to your morning cup of joe, be sure to read the nutrition label. Many creamers contain artificial flavors, trans, and hydrogenated fats, and many contain sugar or artificial sweeteners. Replace these creamers with full-fat unsweetened coconut or almond milk and a teaspoon of raw honey or a little bit of stevia instead.
#6 Ditch the Processed Snacks: Snack foods are some of the worst offenders when it comes to processed food ingredients. They tend to contain artificial ingredients, inflammatory oils, and lots of sugar. Instead of buying a packaged snack, try snacking on some nuts and seeds and a piece of fruit. If you get your snacks packaged ahead of time, they will be easy to grab and go when you get hungry in between meals.
#7 Optimize Your Meals: If snacks are your weakness when it comes to your ultra-processed food intake, then really focus on optimizing your meals with lots of healthy fats, clean proteins, and complex carbs. By eating filling and nutrient-dense meals, you will be less likely to feel the need to snack, which can help you avoid any unnecessary processed food intake.
The takeaway of this study is that we need to pay attention to the foods we are adding to our diet. With cardiovascular disease being the main cause of death worldwide, taking the preventative steps is key. This study clearly shows just how large of a role diet plays when it comes to heart health, and that consuming ultra-processed foods only increases the risk of death related to cardiovascular disease.
The study also indicated that consuming a balanced diet, including fruits, vegetables, fish, as well as whole grains, can also be a great way to prevent cardiovascular disease. It’s also important to reduce your intake of sodium, saturated fat, as well as refined and simple carbs such as white rice, pasta, and bread. Regular exercise can also play a role in preventing not only heart disease but other chronic diseases as well.
So, the bottom line is to focus on a whole foods diet, stay away from as many processed foods as possible, and focus on healthy lifestyle habits like exercise and stress reduction. Finding a balance is such an important part of preventing disease and feeling your best every single day.
Rebecca Jacobs N.C is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant, specializing in digestive and women’s health. She doesn’t believe in dieting but rather making lifestyle changes, and believes that healthy eating must be delicious. Rebecca is also a recipe developer and creates healthier alternatives to traditionally unhealthy foods.