You’ve probably heard that whole foods are better for you than processed foods.
Processed foods, made in a factory, are easy to grab while you are on-the-go and often very tasty. They’re also hard to avoid if you live a busy life. Most foods that come in a bag or a box are processed. Not all processed foods are bad. Processing of certain foods has helped prevent some illnesses and adding Vitamin E or Vitamin C, for example, appears to promote health.
But processed foods often have high levels of added sugar, fat, and/or salt, and lack vitamins, fiber, and protein that promote good health. They may contain food additives and preservatives that give the product a longer shelf life but may have unhealthy effects.
It’s no wonder more and more research shows that some processed foods are bad for your health and your heart. That is especially true for highly, or “ultra-processed,” foods like packaged snacks, fast foods, frozen dinners, and soda.
In a new study based on 105,159 French people published in the British Medical Journal, people who ate a high amount of these ultra-processed foods were more likely to develop heart disease. At the start of the study, the researchers asked the individuals to write down what they ate over a 24-hour period and then asked them to do this again a number of times over the next 5 years or so.
The result: a 10% increase in ultra-processed foods in a person’s diet was linked to significantly higher rates of heart disease. People who ate unprocessed or less processed foods had a much lower risk for heart problems.
A 2019 study of almost 20,000 people in the same journal found that ultra-processed foods were linked to higher rates of death from any cause, including heart disease. Eating more than 4 servings a day of these foods was associated with a
62 % greater chance of an early death.
In other previous studies, ultra-processed foods were associated with high blood pressure and high cholesterol—two other major heart disease risk factors. If you want to break away from these foods and help your heart, take these steps.
1. Learn the difference between processed and unprocessed foods.
In general, they fall into these categories:
Fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, eggs, meats, poultry, fish, seafood, and whole grains.
Minimally processed foods
Pre-washed salad and vegetable mixes, canned beans, frozen fruit, frozen fish and meat, some whole grain breads, and milk.
Cheese, cured meats, canned and bottled fruit, most breads, beer, and wine.
Ice cream, processed meats like sausage and hamburger, breakfast cereal, cookies, fried foods, doughnuts, pre-prepared pies and cakes, margarine, ready-to-eat and frozen meals, instant soups, mayonnaise, snack foods, pizza, sodas, and distilled beverages like whiskey, gin, and rum.
2. Shop mostly in the grocery store’s outer edges.
The produce department, dairy, and the fish and meat counters are usually along the walls and on the outer aisles of the store. Processed foods are usually towards the middle of the store. That includes the aisles near the cash registers and the frozen food sections.
3. Check the ingredients on the label.
A long ingredient list with hard-to-pronounce names is a red flag that can warn you about heavy processing. These include food substances that are rarely used in a home kitchen like high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. You might also see additives that are designed to make a food more appealing, such as colors, flavors, and sweeteners.
Making the switch from processed to mostly unprocessed foods and drinks can take some time and effort. And it might mean more time in the kitchen. But it’s worth it to ensure a healthier heart and a healthier you!