More than HALF of the calories in the American diet come from ultra-processed foods (1). While health experts continue to squabble over which dietary approach is best — keto, Mediterranean, vegan, paleo, Atkins, detox diets, low-fat diets, or whatever the latest craze is — the consumption of ultra-processed foods has largely been cast aside.
Ultra-processed foods are cheaper and more convenient but they are not without risk to our health. These foods have been linked to increased risk of all-cause mortality, obesity, chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, type two diabetes, hypertension, and dyslipidemia (abnormal levels of fat in the blood) (2, 3).
Foods most associated with adverse effects are potato chips, sugar-sweetened beverages (ex: sweetened tea, soda), sweets and desserts, refined grains, and processed meats. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables were associated with lower weight gain or weight loss (2).
Unfortunately due to the way our food system has been set up, avoiding ultra-processed foods can be more expensive in the short term at about $1.50 more per person per day (5, 6). Compared to the estimated daily cost of diabetes medication, $15, that’s a bargain (7)!
Aside from the economic cost, preparing meals takes more time and can be a difficult transition to someone eating mostly ultra-processed foods (5).
To see health benefits, full avoidance of ultra-processed foods is not necessary (8). Any area of your diet where you can avoid ultra-processed foods will give you a positive benefit. Beginning with something that you can sustain long term both mentally and economically is the best approach.
Low cost time saving ideas:
- replace sugar-sweetened beverages with water
- replace chips with ready to eat, easy to transport fruits like bananas, apples, and oranges
- replace breakfast cereal with eggs, boiling large quantities of eggs at once can save time and create an easy to transport food
- Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study
- Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Among Participants of the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort
- Ultra-Processed Food Consumption Is Associated with Abdominal Obesity: A Prospective Cohort Study in Older Adults
- Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Outcomes: A Narrative Review
- Eating healthy: Prohibitively expensive or surprisingly cheap?
- Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis
- U.S. insulin costs per patient nearly doubled from 2012 to 2016: study
- Association Between Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Mortality Among Middle-aged Adults in France