Find yourself reaching for a bag of chips after a long stressful day? It can be hard to resist junk food with its salty flavor, bright colors, and addictive ingredients but think twice before reaching for those Doritos. A 10% increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked to a 2% increase in getting any cancer and a 6% increase in deaths from cancer.
Researchers from Imperial College of London's School of Public Health have recently conducted the most comprehensive study on the connections between ultra-processed foods and the risk of developing different types of cancer. The study utilized the UK Biobank data to assess 200,000 middle-aged adult participants over ten years. They looked at the risk of developing cancer overall and the specific risk of developing 34 types of cancer.
The study discovered that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was linked to a greater risk of developing cancer in general, and specifically breast and ovarian cancers. There was also an increased risk of dying from cancer, in particular breast and ovarian cancer.
Ultra-processed vs. Whole Foods
According to Harvard Medical School, natural or minimally processed foods are whole foods with the vitamins and minerals still intact, like; apples, carrots, raw unsalted nuts, melon, and raw chicken.
Ultra-processed foods have undergone significant processing and are not in their natural state. They contain ingredients that have been chemically formulated and are not found in a home kitchen. You can often tell because the ingredient list is exceptionally long with words you cannot pronounce.
Most processed foods contain added sugar, salt, hydrogenated fats, stabilizers, starches, artificial colors, and preservatives. These foods include soft drinks, frozen meals, cold cuts, hot dogs, fast food, packaged bread, cereals, snacks, and desserts.
Processed Food Addiction
It can be challenging for those wanting to avoid eating these ultra-processed foods. They are addictive and inexpensive, and we are bombarded with advertisements urging us to buy them. According to a study at the University of Michigan, 44% of adults aged 50-80 who participated in the study had at least one symptom of addiction to processed foods.
Reducing Processed Food Intake
Alex Caspero MA, RD, owner of Delish Knowledge, says, "When I counsel clients, I focus on the big picture, for example, what foods are you consuming most often? These findings don't mean that you can never enjoy ultra-processed foods, but rather, what does most of your diet look like? Eating too many ultra-processed foods crowds out other foods, especially foods associated with decreased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and unsaturated fatty acids."
She adds, "For those wanting to cut back, focus first on where most of your ultra-processed food calories come from. If it's from sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, try reducing your intake or switching to a non-caloric drink like sparkling water. Or, focusing on adding: if dinner is often a frozen pizza, can you add a frozen vegetable or salad? For some, focusing on addition and crowding out ultra-processed foods is a more acceptable option, especially where budget and food preferences are concerned."
A Health Coach's Tips For Eating Fewer Processed Foods
Karen Kelly, a health coach at Seasonal Cravings, has plenty of tips to help organize your kitchen. Buy plenty of fruits that can be grabbed and eaten immediately: apples, bananas, peaches, plums, grapes, and pears. Keep them at eye level on the counter. These are nutrient-dense and provide natural sugars to help satisfy your sweet tooth. If fresh fruit is too expensive, buy some frozen mixed berries and make a smoothie.
Keep vegetables washed and prepped in clear containers in the refrigerator. When you get home from the grocery store, wash and cut the celery, carrots, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and peppers, so they are ready to eat. If you are short on time, you can spend more to get pre-washed and cut celery and carrots.
Addicted to Soda?
If you like to drink soda, gradually reduce the number of sodas daily. Move to water or herbal tea when ready to ditch them altogether. If you want the fizziness of soda, try sparking water. A wide variety of flavors is available now, so there is something for everyone.
You can also make your own flavored water by adding sliced fruit or a splash of cranberry juice. I encourage my clients to buy an insulated tumbler with a stainless steel straw so they can drink water all day long.
Salt cravings can be challenging to manage, but there are ways to replace them with healthier options. Try making your popcorn with some butter and salt or cinnamon for a sweet treat. Whole-grain crackers with cheese can be a healthy choice; try to find a whole-grain cracker with few additives. Nuts like almonds, cashews, pistachios, and walnuts are a great snack option for that satisfying crunch and contain healthy fats and protein.
Alternatives to Packaged Cereal
Packaged cereal can be very convenient but contains many unnatural ingredients you may want to avoid. It takes more work, but you can easily make oatmeal in the microwave and add some fresh or frozen fruit and chopped nuts for a delicious, nutritious breakfast.
If you like to meal prep, make some overnight oats for the week. Mix rolled oats, milk, and your favorite toppings, such as fruit and nuts, in a jar or bowl and let it sit in the fridge overnight. In the morning, you'll have a delicious and nutritious breakfast ready to eat.
If you prefer a smoothie, mix it up by making smoothie bowls. Blend frozen fruit, yogurt, and milk or orange juice in a blender until smooth and thick. Pour into a bowl and add your favorite toppings.
Making Dinner Easier
We are all looking for easier ways to get dinner on the table, and it's challenging with hectic family and work schedules. Dedicate some time each week to prepare meal components in advance, so you can quickly reheat and eat during the week. Prepare simple dishes such as roasted vegetables, grilled chicken or fish, and cooked grains such as quinoa or brown rice.
Stir-fries are a quick and easy way to use leftover vegetables and proteins. Sauté them with oil, soy sauce, and other seasonings like garlic and ginger. Make a double batch, and you have dinner for two nights.
These alternatives taste great and are much healthier than frozen dinners since you can control the ingredients and avoid added preservatives and excess sodium in frozen entrees.
When you do buy packaged foods, read the labels carefully and avoid products that contain high levels of added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats. Look for products with fewer ingredients and try to choose those with recognizable, whole-food ingredients.
Meghan Punda, from Nourished + Well, says, "I recommend shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. This usually allows one to focus on the produce, dairy, and meat areas. This is where you want the majority of your food to come from. In addition, shopping at your local farmers' markets supports your efforts of eating a whole foods diet."
Remember, reducing processed foods doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing approach. Gradually changing your diet can help you transition to a healthier, whole-food-based diet. By incorporating these tips into your daily routine, you can gradually reduce your intake of processed foods and improve your overall health.