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Experts say it’s difficult to avoid processed foods, but reducing your consumption of them can help make you healthier. Getty Images
  • Researchers say an increase in consumption of processed foods is partly responsible for the obesity epidemic in the United States.
  • Experts say it can be difficult for consumers, especially working parents, to avoid processed foods because of their convenience and affordability.
  • Experts urge consumers to buy minimally processed foods and to cook at home more.

A rise in obesity rates in the United States is being linked to an increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

A recent review of food trends in the United States found that consumers are increasingly choosing foods that are cheaper and convenient but are also highly processed.

“The traditional approach to nutrition has failed us. We have focused on various components of food like fat and calories, but yet the obesity epidemic continues. We need a more holistic view to diet and nutrition that includes how our food is processed and how that has changed,” said Leigh Frame, PhD, MHS, co-author of the research and executive director of the Office of Integrative Medicine and Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“We need to shift the conversation from a ‘merely calories in versus calories out’ discussion to one that includes issues of hunger, fullness (satiation and satiety), and other components of metabolism, including the gut microbiome,” Frame told Healthline. “Consumers and their healthcare providers need detailed recommendations to improve diet quality and overall nutrition.”

More than a third of adults in the United States are considered to have obesity. Around 71 percent of adults are listed as having overweight or obesity.

Lauri Wright, PhD, an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at the University of North Florida, says many Americans don’t place enough value on eating healthy foods.

“Based on the latest Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System results, more than 75 percent of Americans don’t meet the recommended intake of fruits and vegetables. I would say overall that Americans don’t assign the value to eating healthfully,” Wright told Healthline.

It can be difficult to avoid convenient, affordable, processed foods.

“There are so many factors that get in the way of healthy eating. Time is definitely one of those barriers. Working parents shuttling kids from school to evening activities make it harder to find the time to prepare healthy meals,” Wright said.

“Another barrier to healthy eating is cost and availability. People that are food insecure don’t always have enough funds to purchase the healthier foods, and they may live in a food desert, an area where there is limited access to grocery stores and markets,” she added.

Wright says all foods are processed to a certain extent.

The International Food Information Council Foundation considers a processed food to be anything that’s been deliberately changed from a raw agricultural product before being available for consumers to eat.

This includes anything from lunch meats to prewashed salads.

“Almost all foods are processed. It is really a continuum from minimally processed to ultra-processed,” Wright said.

“For health, you want to minimize your intake of ultra-processed foods. Minimally processed food can still be healthy and make it easier with busy lifestyles. Good choices would be bagged salads, roasted nuts, canned tuna and salmon, canned vegetables, frozen fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Foods most often associated with weight gain include sugar-sweetened beverages, potato chips, sweets, desserts, refined grains, processed meats, and red meats.

Experts say these foods, as well as other ultra-processed options, don’t provide much nutritional benefit.

“The problem with highly processed foods is that they don’t have much fiber, they have a lot of fat, they have a lot of sugar, and they have a lot of salt,” Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior dietician at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center, told Healthline.

“They are a dense source of calories without much else. They hang around in our intestinal system, because they don’t have the fiber to help move them along, and they just don’t provide much in the way of nutritious benefits,” she said.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Ohio, says ultra-processed foods can also make it difficult for consumers to control their portions.

“Recent studies have shown that ultra-processed foods can alter the ability to stop eating, making it hard to control portions,” she told Healthline. “Americans need to focus more on getting more bang for their nutritional buck. Every calorie must count. Ultra-processed foods provide empty calories that provide no nourishment, satiety, or health benefit.

“We do have evidence that a low fiber, high sugar and refined carb diet can negatively alter microbiome. Ultra-processed foods are the pinnacle of such a pattern. We have more choice in the grocery store, more 24-hour food options, and more fast-food eateries than ever.

“All of this has made us sicker and fatter. It’s time to actually force the industry to change, and that means less frequent visits to fast eateries and a return to the kitchen,” Kirkpatrick added.

Experts say that although many convenience foods available are highly processed, minimally processed foods don’t necessarily equate to more work.

“Convenience can be healthy, switching out minimally processed foods rather than ultra-processed foods. Eating out less and making healthier choices when you do,” Wright said.

“For example, a grilled chicken sandwich, fruit cup, and water or low fat milk instead of a burger, fries, and soda. Finally, making more foods at home,” she added. “This requires advance planning, some batch cooking, and taking advantage of convenience methods, such as using an Instapot or slow cooker.”