A new study reveals just how many of our calories come from highly processed foods — and it’s not pretty. (Photo: Getty Images)
Between sitting through health class as a kid, reading the news, and watching episodes of The Biggest Loser, we’re all aware that highly processed foods aren’t great for our bodies. But being aware that processed foods are bad and actually avoiding them are two different things, as new research points out.
According to a multi-year analysis of U.S. grocery store purchases, highly processed foods make up 60 percent of the calories in the foods that we buy. Not only that, researchers found, on average, those processed foods are higher in fat, sugar, and salt than other foods we purchase.
These findings are evidence that highly processed, unhealthy foods are a “dominant, stable part of U.S. purchasing patterns,” study researcher Jennifer M. Poti, PhD, research assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says in a statement.
For the study, “highly processed” foods were defined as those containing multi-ingredient, industrially prepared mixtures, such as soda, cookies, chips, white bread, candy, and prepared meals. Foods such as fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, milk, eggs, dried beans, and fresh meat were considered “unprocessed” or minimally processed.
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Researchers asked more than 150,000 households from 2000 to 2012 to use barcode scanners to record all of the food and beverages they bought from grocery stores for at least a year. While investigators acknowledge that some produce without barcodes may not have been scanned, many were scanned via UPC codes on stickers on loose fruits and vegetables, as well as the pints and bags that the produce was packaged in. Most households were part of the study for four years and, altogether, bought about 1.2 million products.
While processed foods aren’t always bad, highly processed foods can be problematic, says Karen Ansel, RDN and co-author of The Calendar Diet: A Month By Month Guide to Losing Weight While Living Your Life. The main issue: They’re usually stripped of important vitamins, minerals, and fiber during processing. Fiber slows down digestion and helps you feel fuller longer, but highly processed foods, which are often lacking in fiber, are digested quickly so you don’t feel full for as long as you would if you ate whole or minimally processed foods. “Over time, eating too many processed foods can lead to weight gain and rob you of important nutrients that you need,” Ansel tells Yahoo Health.
According to the study, frozen meals and ready-to-heat foods were some of the biggest calorie culprits, making up more than 15 percent of the overall calories purchased at the grocery store — a potentially “dangerous” statistic, according to Samuel Accardi, lead dietitian for nutrition intelligence company Mind+Matter. While some low-calorie, low-sodium frozen meals can help someone stay on track nutritionally when they’re pressed for time, others, like a personal-sized chicken pot pie, can contain 900 calories and more than 50 percent of a person’s sodium intake for the day.
Most people are probably going to eat some processed foods, acknowledges Accardi, but he says it’s still best to aim to buy as many foods as possible in their natural state and prepare them yourself, like buying a raw chicken breast and cooking it instead of purchasing pre-sliced and pre-cooked chicken meat. Lunch meat in particular should be avoided due to its high sodium content, Accardi says, as well as any foods that contain hydrogenated oils. “These are the ‘trans fats’ that people are so afraid of because of their adverse health effects,” he tells Yahoo Health.
Have a thing for chips, ice cream, and soda? Ansel says it’s possible to wean yourself off of them by adding in more of the good stuff. “The more often you eat whole or minimally processed foods, the faster you’ll lose your taste for highly processed foods,” she says. “After a while, you won’t even want to eat them.”
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