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The American Heart Association (AHA) estimates that 50 percent of calories consumed by the average American come from ultra-processed foods. And it’s become fairly common knowledge that ultra-processed foods are not good for us.
With new research into processed foods and health risks, we’re starting to understand just how detrimental they can be, particularly in increasing the chance of heart attack and stroke. In fact, recent studies show a link as high as 62 percent between consumption of ultra-processed foods and increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
Today’s ultra-processed foods are made not so much from food as from ingredients extracted from food, like fat, sugar, and starch. Also, they often contain additives such as artificial flavors, colors, and emulsifiers.
Take, for example, nacho tortilla chips. The recipe starts with corn but includes only a small portion of the seed grain itself. The chips are fried in oil, also processed. Some brands are seasoned with cheese product (not real cheese), and plenty of salt, of course. Additional ingredients read like a shopping list for a chemical laboratory: maltodextrin, MSG, protein concentrate, colorings, and several others that are difficult to spell and pronounce.
Nearly all “convenience foods” fall into the ultra-processed category: salty snacks, soft drinks, boxed baked goods, deli meats, sausages, chicken nuggets, frozen pizza, and instant soup, as well as shelf-stable and frozen TV dinners. So do most condiments: ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, buffalo sauce, and ranch dressing.
And processed foods can certainly contribute to weight gain. With its blend of salt, carbohydrates, and chemicals, the average ultra-processed food item delivers plenty of “empty” calories and comes up short on fiber, vitamins and minerals. There’s also evidence that processed foods may spur us to consume more, since they’re engineered to tempt us with taste and texture and are often missing ingredients like protein and fiber which keep us fuller longer.
The Perils of Sodium
Almost all processed foods are high in sodium, primarily from salt (sodium chloride).
The average person likes salt. And it’s an inexpensive way to improve a food’s flavor. But Americans consume far more salt every day than the body requires—an average 3,400 milligrams versus a recommended daily limit of 2,300 mg. A movement is underway to reduce that recommendation to 1,500 mg/day, a move that’s being contested by the food industry.
A high-sodium diet increases your risk of high blood pressure, making the heart work harder to circulate blood. It’s a precursor to heart attack and stroke and can weaken the heart muscle over time.
There’s an excess of salt in certain products like supermarket bacon, which contains not just salt but sodium phosphate, sodium ascorbate, and sodium nitrite. Deli meats have similar ingredients. Consumption of processed meats is not only bad for heart health, it also raises the risk of developing colon cancer.
Dining out can be problematic, too. One reason that restaurant food “tastes better” than homemade is salt—professional chefs tend to use more. You may get as much as 3,500 mg from a single restaurant meal, far more than you need for an entire day.
Bottom line: if processed foods or restaurant meals make up a large portion of your diet, you will have a challenge controlling sodium.
The Trouble with Trans Fat
Fats are broadly categorized as saturated or unsaturated.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, and include fat from meat, butter, and cheese. They can elevate bad cholesterol (LDL) levels and lower good cholesterol (HDL) levels, and tend to be less healthy than unsaturated fats.
Liquid at room temperature, unsaturated fats are typically considered heart heathy and help maintain good cholesterol levels. But not all unsaturated fats are created equal: certain blended vegetable and seed oils are, themselves, highly processed. And processing can change the molecular structure, creating one of the least healthy fats we know—trans fat.
Over a century ago, scientists treated vegetable oil with hydrogen to create margarine, an unsaturated fat that’s solid at room temperature. It was a food-engineering marvel—a healthier alternative to butter, with no animal fat.
That all changed in the 1990s when we discovered that trans fat is even worse for humans than saturated fat. Although it is technically an unsaturated fat, trans fat raises LDL and lowers HDL. That increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as type 2 diabetes, which is also a cardiovascular risk.
Since then, although many trans-fatty foods have been reformulated, trans fats can still be found in some. Keep an eye on labels: the words “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients, as in partially hydrogenated soy oil, indicates trans fat. It may also lurk in foods claiming to be “trans-fat free.” If the product contains less than half a gram, manufacturers are permitted to round it down to zero. So some trans fat may still be present, even if advertising says otherwise.
Hazards of High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) itself is also an ultra-processed food and a notorious nutritional villain. Like salt, it is often a prime ingredient in the most highly processed food products. It’s everywhere, in almost every food product that comes in a box or bag.
HFCS begins as cornstarch, treated with acids and enzymes to convert it to sugar. What we eat and drink is processed in the stomach, intestines, and liver, where starches and other sugars are converted to glucose—fuel that the cells need for many functions.
While too much of any sugar is generally considered poor for your health, processed sugars are considered particularly dangerous because the liver handles fructose differently. It can convert it directly to fat. This puts a strain on the liver. And too much fat in the system can contribute to high cholesterol and coronary artery disease. Consumption of simple sugars can also raise blood triglyceride levels (fat circulating in your blood), which also increases the risk for heart disease.
When comparing products, look at the new Added Sugars section of the food label. This will help you distinguish between carbs that are naturally in foods (like fruits) versus carbs that were added. Also look at the ingredients list for natural sources of sugar like honey, maple syrup, dates, organic cane sugar, and coconut sugar. Avoid corn syrup, HFCS, artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose, saccharin), and sugar alcohols (erythritol, sorbitol, mannitol).
Too much processed food could increase risk of cardiovascular disease and take years off your life. More from Registered Dietitian Ellie Kelsey. https://bit.ly/3p9Yxqr via @MedStarWHC
Some Tips for Healthy Eating and Living
The evidence is compelling: too much processed food can be very bad for you. It may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and even take years off your life.
Make a commitment to limit processed foods—an essential step toward a healthier, longer life. Here are some helpful tips and recipes:
- Lifestyle check: Consider processed foods and restaurant dining as occasional treats, rather than staples of your regular diet.
- Read labels: Look for total sugars, added sugars, corn syrup, fats, and red flags like “hydrogenated.” This is good practice for all foods, including those with a healthy reputation, like yogurt or granola. As a snack, low-fat Greek yogurt is great—high in protein and low in fat. But some flavored yogurts are loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners. Some granolas have way too much sugar as well. Fortunately, new labeling standards make it easy to compare.
- Watch serving size: Labels still fall short of properly communicating serving size. Sometimes the indicated “serving” is an unrealistically small portion, much less than we’d actually eat. Take this into consideration.
- Substitute: Start small, with achievable goals. For a snack, grab some fruit or veggies instead of crackers or chips. Do the same with meals—eat one healthy meal this week, instead of something processed. Next week, make it two meals. Keep that up, and soon you’ll be consuming fewer processed foods.
- Plan: Make a grocery list and stick to it. Try to shop the perimeter of the grocery store—the outer aisles are generally where the healthier foods are stocked. Plot out your meals and snacks ahead of time. If you like carrot sticks, for example, have them easily at hand to avoid grabbing a less healthy option.
- Be aware of false advertising: The claim “all natural” is not regulated by any government agency and typically doesn’t mean that much of the ingredients are natural at all. The statement “lower in sodium” can also be misleading. It doesn’t necessarily mean the item is a low-sodium product, just that it’s lower in sodium than the original.
- Practice balanced healthy eating: I often recommend the Mediterranean diet, a common-sense approach emphasizing wholesome foods—fish, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, oils, and nuts. It delivers the well-balanced nutrients we need and is low in saturated fat and processed foods.
- Seek the affordable: Farmers’ markets are a great place to find affordable, fresh foods, even for those on assistance. In D.C., many farmers’ markets will offer extra benefits for SNAP participants, such as 50% off produce or a $10 voucher at the market when used for healthy foods, helping your allocation go further.
- Get moving: Activity can help burn the calories you consume—and exercise is great for the heart. The AHA recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise, each week. Consult your doctor before starting any exercise program.
- Know your numbers: Schedule yearly (or more often, if needed) physicals and lab tests with a primary care physician and possibly a cardiologist, regardless of how healthy you think your diet is. It is important to know your lipid panel (HDL, LDL, VLDL, triglyceride levels, and total cholesterol levels), weight, blood pressure, waist circumference, hemoglobin A1C, fasting blood glucose, and other tests as recommended by your doctor. Knowing your risk and following up with your physician is one of the best ways to prevent and treat heart disease.
- Give it time: It can take time to cut down on processed foods. Be patient with yourself!
- Do your own cooking: When you make your own meals, you have the control to limit unhealthy ingredients.
Here are some recipes for healthy snacks:
2 ripe bananas
2 cups dried rolled oats
Dash of cinnamon
⅓ cup of blueberries, or ¼ cup dark chocolate chips (cacao nibs work nicely!)
Optional: ¼ cup unsweetened unsalted nut butter
Mash the bananas with a fork until smooth. Blend with remaining ingredients. Roll mixture into balls about 1.5 inches in diameter, and place on cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 10–15 minutes or until the bottoms are golden brown (may take longer depending on oven).
Healthy Sugar-Free Ice Cream
1 cup frozen berries or any fruit (for bananas, use 2 frozen bananas)
¼–½ cup skim milk or non-dairy milk such as almond milk
Optional: 1 tablespoon unsweetened unsalted nut butter; 2 tablespoons unsweetened cacao nibs or coconut flakes
Place frozen fruit in blender. Beginning with ¼ cup of milk, blend until smooth, adding milk as needed. If adding nut butter, do so before blending. For other optional ingredients, mix in after blending.