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  • Writer's pictureJackie

Ultra Processed Foods Under Deliver

Like me, you read plenty of articles about health, which means you have surely noticed the frequent use of the phrase “ultra processed food.” “Ultra” used before words like “conditioning shampoo” can mean something really great. In the case of food, not so much. What IS ultra processed food (UPF), and why should we make a concerted effort to step away from the crunch wrap and its brethren?

Well, according to experts, there are processed foods and then there are ultra processed foods. We used to lump them all together, but the latter has become a sub category over the last decade or so. By definition, the prefix “ultra” means something that is “beyond what is ordinary, proper, or moderate; excessively; extremely.” Technically, precut and packaged veggies are processed. So is high fiber cereal, a staple in my own breakfast rotation. Both of these items directly resemble their literal roots. Take a Skittle, however. Sadly to many, they do not grow on trees, and if you read the ingredients, most if not all do not sound like food at all. (In fact, even attempting to pronounce them can feel like a foreign language.) Ultra processed foods barely resemble foods that exist in nature. Skittles are ultra processed, as are many other candies and items such as packaged chips, crackers, breads, desserts, soft drinks, microwaveable meals, and the like, as well as most fast food.

As the sea of ultra processed foods deepens (has anyone checked out the cereal aisle lately?), it’s worth revisiting why we should resist their lure, at least, most of the time. As the American Heart Association notes, these foods can contain lots of refined carbs, saturated fats, and salt, as well as pack a punch calorically. UPFs make up more than half of the diet of US adults, and research shows a link between these foods and obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, and death from all causes. This is not to mention that UPFs can leave us feeling sluggish, dealing with stomach upset, deprived of basic nutrients, and craving even more of them!

Chances are, we’ll all eat ultra processed foods sometimes, and sometimes that’s just fine, of course. At other times, though, we’ll wish we’d saved them for another day. Remember, too, that many factors can increase the likelihood that we'll turn to them. A couple of weekends ago, for example,I was eating crunchy Cheetos (like a powdered-cheese eating machine!), and I found myself unable to pump the brakes on the hand-mouth cycle. Why is this happening, I asked myself. Well, one, sky high stress had sent me careening into comfort eating a couple of times already that week— a connection that’s been proven and remains maddening nonetheless. Two, I’d also slept well under seven hours for nights on end; sleep deprivation can drive appetite and less than nutritious choices. For our purposes here, it's crucial to note that snacks like Cheetos are deliberately designed to be over consumed. Manufacturers of ultra processed foods know that we crave salt, sugar, and fat, and that we’ll rarely pass up convenience and cheap prices. They’re concerned only with sales, not with our health.

So, for those of us who do prioritize health, we can do a few simple things in an attempt to bypass the ultra processed trap:

  • If at all possible, plan meals in advance, write an actual grocery list, and purchase whole foods or processed versions that come as close to whole foods as you can find.

  • Don’t keep lots of ultra processed foods in your home. If they’re not there, you can’t use them.

  • Indulge in your favorite UPFs but do so sparingly. There is nothing wrong with enjoying "ice cream night" or celebrating a birthday with cake. (In fact, labeling eating styles "right" or "wrong" can lead us to rebel because it makes the choice a moral one, rather than one that simply protects our health & quality of life.)

  • Remember that you’re more likely to grab UPFs when you’re tired, stressed, emotional, pressed for time, and/or short on funds.

  • Always keep some ingredients in the pantry for a last minute, fairly healthy meal, so that you don't feel cornered into eating a lousy one.

  • Try not to beat yourself up for eating “junk.” A little now & then is not a big deal, and berating ourselves can sometimes just drive us back into eating more.

It may feel overwhelming to take these steps, as if we’re waging a battle we didn’t want to be dragged into in the first place, but as long as the food industry keeps stocking the shelves with these UPFs, then we’re on our own to take charge of our choices. Know however that you’re not actually alone. While we may occasionally find each other in the chip aisle, lots & lots of folks are also crowding into the produce aisles. We just won't see such choices in TV commercials! Be well.


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