Opinion | Readers share tips to avoid ultra-processed food

Opinion | Readers share tips to avoid ultra-processed food

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In response to my column this week on the health consequences of consuming ultra-processed food, many readers shared their own advice on how to avoid these ubiquitous substances. Here are some that I think would be helpful to others.

“As a culture, we have gotten away from the home-cooked meal,” wrote Ruth from D.C. “It sure takes more time than getting fast food, but home cooking has a lot of advantages, including that you can choose fresh produce and other healthy ingredients.”

“What saves me time is a meal-prep kit,” said Delana from Virginia. “I’ve used HelloFresh and Home Chef, but there are a lot of others on the market.” I’m a proponent of these kits. I like the convenience they offer in that they send all the ingredients you need to make a meal. Most are whole, unprocessed foods. You have control and know exactly what you are putting in your dishes.

Sujata from New York thought of herself as having a healthy diet. “I’m a vegetarian,” she told me. “I try to not eat fatty foods. I don’t drink. I’ve never smoked.” But because of her work, which involves odd hours and travel, she was buying frozen meals and snacking on packaged products. So, like for most Americans, a majority of her daily calories came from ultra-processed food.

“I didn’t make dramatic changes — I couldn’t,” she said. Instead, she started with small swaps. In place of frozen meals laden with preservatives, she chose prepared meals with as few added chemicals as possible. In place of fruit bars, she selected dried fruit. In place of pretzels, she opted for almonds and pistachios.

This is good advice. Small changes add up. The key is to be conscious of each choice and make ultra-processed food the exception rather than the rule.

Recently, I was running late at the airport. I had a cross-country flight and knew I needed food, but I didn’t have time to get anything other than a prepackaged sandwich with white bread and deli meat. It was stale and didn’t taste particularly good. Plus, I knew this was exactly the kind of ultra-processed food I was trying to avoid.

I’ve also been in many situations where my kids became hungry and cranky, so I gave them whatever I had on hand — often crackers, popcorn or some other less-than-ideal snack.

“With kids, it helps to plan ahead,” Emilie from Maryland advised. She always has healthy snacks in her car for exactly this reason. I am giving this a try and keeping nuts and dried fruit in the glove compartment. And I’m now shopping the day before trips to make sure I have meals and snacks that are healthier, tastier and cheaper than what I’d find at airports and train stations.

Beware that organic food and meat substitutes could be ultra-processed

“I’m glad that you warned about how cereals and bars can be labeled ‘healthy’ when they aren’t,” wrote Sheryl from New York. “I have another warning: Something could be ‘organic’ and still be ultra-processed.”

“You should let your readers know about meat substitutes,” said Angela from Washington. “I’m a dietitian, and I can tell you that a lot of people think veggie patties, vegan hot dogs, meatless nuggets and things like that are good for them, but they have a lot of additives.”

Sheryl and Angela make good points. Products that start with organic ingredients can go through a lot of processing. Also, many plant-based meat substitutes are ultra-processed products that contain large amounts of sugar, salt and additives.

Look closely at ingredients, even for foods you believe are healthy. Choose products with a simple ingredient list. When in doubt, look for whole foods. As Angela advised, “Lentils, chickpeas, beans, seeds and nuts — these are great for vegans and vegetarians.”

Put ultra-processed food consumption into context

By the same token, just because ultra-processed food is associated with negative health outcomes doesn’t mean that one can achieve a healthy diet simply by eschewing these substances. For instance, I wouldn’t advise someone to eat only red meat and potatoes, even though these aren’t processed foods. And someone who eats no ultra-processed food but is a heavy smoker isn’t doing their body justice, either.

This is a point that Sandy from Virginia made: “I don’t teach my kids that they can never have pizza, chips and soda. In my experience, this can backfire and then they crave it more. But we try to follow a Mediterranean diet and limit junk food to special occasions.”

Well said. As I wrote before, we should consider when and how we eat in addition to what we eat. And keep in mind that healthy eating is but one component of a healthy lifestyle, which also includes regular physical activity, preventive screenings and emotional well-being.

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