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Fast food such as hamburgers are among the ultra-processed foods that people are eating more often. Evrim Ertik/Getty Images
  • People in the United States are eating more ultra-processed foods, which is increasing the risk of health issues such as obesity and heart disease.
  • Experts say you can reduce your consumption of ultra-processed foods by cooking meals from scratch, reading ingredient labels, and stocking up on staple foods.
  • They add you can buy healthier foods within your budget by sticking to a prewritten shopping list, buying items in larger quantities, and saving leftovers to eat on another day.

Americans are eating more ultra-processed foods than before, and it’s affecting our health.

Researchers at the NYU School of Global Public Health analyzed dietary data from more than 40,000 adults who took part in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2001 through 2018.

Researchers reported that by the study’s end, ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53 percent of total calories at the beginning (2001-02) to 57 percent at the end (2017-18).

Here are some key findings of the study:

  • Consumption increased the most with ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals (e.g., frozen dinners).
  • Intake of some sugary foods and drinks declined.
  • Hispanic participants ate significantly less ultra-processed foods and more whole foods compared with non-Hispanic white and Black participants.
  • College graduates also ate significantly less ultra-processed foods.
  • Older adults (ages 60 and over) experienced the sharpest increase in consuming ultra-processed foods, yet had started the study as the group who ate the least amount of ultra-processed foods.
  • Whole foods consumption, such as dairy, meat, fruits, and vegetables, was down across groups.

Study authors also noted this data was collected during pre-pandemic times, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has likely led to an increase in eating less nutritious, shelf-stable foods.

“Unfortunately, we are aware that the intake of ultra-processed food is increasing,” said Signe Svanfeldt, who holds a master’s degree in food science and nutrition, and is the head of nutrition at Lifesum as well as health adviser to Gympass.

“Ultra-processed foods are often rich in saturated fats, sodium, and sugar, which all are things we should aim to eat lower amounts of to maintain a healthy diet and to decrease the risk of various diseases,” Svanfeldt told Healthline.

She added these foods also tend to be lower in nutrients and dietary fiber.

Ultra-processed foods as defined in the study include:

  • frozen pizza
  • soda
  • fast food
  • sweets
  • salty snacks
  • canned soup
  • most breakfast cereals

Previous findings by researchers at the NYU School of Global Public Health report that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with obesity and heart disease.

There’s also mounting evidence linking these foods to chronic diseases.

This trend led the study researchers to recommend policies to reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods, such as:

  • revised dietary guidelines
  • food marketing restrictions
  • package labeling changes
  • taxes on soda and other ultra-processed foods

Study authors also support programs and policies to increase the availability, accessibility, and affordability of whole foods, especially among disadvantaged populations.

Svanfeldt reminds us that not all processed foods are necessarily unhealthy.

“Frozen and canned foods can be great options packed with nutrients, like frozen vegetables or canned beans or lentils. Just make sure to check the nutritional information,” she said.

Svanfeldt shares these tips for reducing the amount of ultra-processed foods in our diet:

  • Cook your meals from scratch (e.g., make a slow cooker of chili instead of choosing canned or fast-food options).
  • Meal prep, especially if you don’t have time to cook new meals every day.
  • Read nutrition labels and choose foods with smaller amounts of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar.
  • Choose foods with more dietary fiber.
  • Choose water as a beverage before sodas.
  • Stock up on staple foods and nutritious ingredients at home, such as oats, quinoa, barley, whole grain pasta, brown rice, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, and crushed tomatoes.
  • Fill the freezer with nutrient- and fiber-rich vegetables, such as spinach, broccoli, green peas, and edamame.

If all this talk of whole foods is starting to sound too expensive, don’t worry.

There are many ways you can eat fewer processed meals while sticking to your budget.

Here are some of Svanfeldt’s budget-friendly tips for eating whole foods:

  • Choose vegetables and fruits that are in season. They tend to have lower prices.
  • Try frozen vegetables and fruits. They’re just as nutritious as fresh ones, and they’re often lower in price.
  • Buy the kinds of vegetables that can be stored for longer (to avoid unnecessary waste) and can be used for multiple things. These include kale, cabbage, carrots, and other root vegetables.
  • Cook large batches, then store some in the fridge or freezer for later meals.
  • Buy larger packages of food. They tend to be cheaper per amount.
  • Avoid going to the supermarket on an empty stomach.
  • Plan what meals you’re going to cook for the week. Write what you need on a shopping list, and stick to that list.
  • Avoid temptations in the grocery store.
  • Save your leftovers. No matter how small they are, they can be used for something.