6 Simple Ways to Cut Processed Foods From Your Diet

We have been warned for a long time about the danger of overeating ultra-processed foods (UPFs).

From ready meals to processed meat and chips to cereal, bread, and flavored yogurt, ultra-processed foods packed with sugar, salt, and fat line our kitchen cupboards and grocery store shelves.

Now, experts have linked an increased risk of 32 health problems, including type 2 diabetes, cancer, and mental health disorders, to high consumption of UPFs. 

But experts say there are a few easy tricks to cut UPFs out of your diet.

Check out the labels

Reading the lengthy list of ingredients behind your favorite convenience foods and snacks is an excellent place to start when cutting back on UPFs.

One sign a food might be ultra-processed is it contains ingredients you wouldn’t find in your kitchen cabinet, like unrecognizable sweeteners, colorings, and preservatives.

Another hint is the amount of salt, sugar, and fat lurking inside each package, with UPFs commonly containing high amounts. 

Numerous processed foods will also contain lower levels of fiber, warns a dietitian based at Aston University in Birmingham, Dr. Duane Mellor.

Mellor adds that although additives can be an issue, this can vary, and individuals are better off looking at the nutritional information as a beginning point.

“Some argue that additives can be a problem; this may be the case for some like polysorbate 80, but not others such as lecithin — which in some cases can be useful in our diet,” said Mellor. “So, start with the nutrition information and then look for added fats, salt, and sugar before thinking about additives.”

However, it can be hard to find foods that don’t contain additives, so some experts advise choosing foods with the lowest amounts instead.

 

Author of Unprocess Your Life and a registered nutritionist, Rob Hobson, says, “This may be a sauce you can’t live without, or you may choose a plain quality crisp over a Pringle. Find the UPF with the most minor ingredients over the one with the most.”

Cook from scratch

Preparing your meals with the ingredients in your kitchen cabinet is one of the best ways to avoid food and additives loaded with sugar and salt.

If you prepare some UPF meals regularly, like making macaroni and cheese or instant noodles, try mixing up a version of your own.

“Start with a couple of recipes and try batch cooking them to keep some set aside for convenience and cost saving, as cooking from scratch can be more expensive in some cases,” said Hobson. “This might be a homemade pot noodle, fishcakes, chicken kiev, or curry instead of a ready-prepared version or takeaway.”

But experts say you don’t have to make everything from scratch.

“Some shop-bought products are much better than others,” said Hobson. “Take plant milk, for example — some are just the grain, legumes or nuts, water, and possibly a pinch of salt. In contrast, others contain additives like thickeners and stabilizers. You need to understand what to look out for on the label.”

Dr. Mellor stressed that using a stock cube or cooking sauce that might be processed shouldn’t be worried about if it means consuming more frozen or fresh vegetables in a home-cooked meal overall.

Eat healthy snacks

Eat can be easy and quick to reach for favorites like sugary cereal, a cookie, or a salty pack of chips when you feel the urge for a snack.

However, making simple changes could help you drastically reduce UPFs.

Hobson suggests replacing sugary drinks with herbal teas or infused water and choosing seeds, nuts, or veggie snacks over potato chips.

 

Professor Gunter Kuhnle, a nutrition and food scientist at Reading University, said, “Reducing the intake of soft drinks is probably the most sensible thing to do.”

Additionally, Mellor suggests cutting back on how much sweetened and sugary drinks you have. He added that water is best, while coffee or tea are acceptable alternatives.

Hobson suggests another way to eat a healthy snack between mealtimes is to make your snack bars at home using oats, fruit, and nuts.

Create your own takeaways

The next time you crave a burger and fries or pizza, try making it home. 

Preparing a home version of your favorite is a simple way to avoid additional fat, sugar, and salt, often jam-packed into pre-made food.

However, making your favorites at home can be time-consuming, so focus on meal prepping using shortcuts, like making large batches of a meal and freezing it so you have your own instant dinners.

“Cooking from scratch can help, but it can take a lot of time, so looking at quick healthy recipes like stir-fry with plenty of vegetables,” said Dr. Mellor. “Meal planning can be a great tool, as can bulk cooking to make and freeze your own healthier ready meals. 

“If you can get in the habit of bulk cooking, it can be helpful to think how switching flavors can move from a bolognese to a chili or curry by shaking up the herbs and spices,” Mellor added.

Cooking healthier ready meals doesn’t mean all convenience food, like canned or frozen, is off the menu.

Hobson says that many canned foods aren’t UPFs but just processed.

Canned veggies, pulses, and fish are all great for creating a healthy meal, as are frozen fruit and veggies.

“Frozen vegetables are also only classed as processed because they have been frozen but are perfectly healthy and a good way to help people on a tight food budget to eat more fruit and vegetables, which can be costly if you are always buying them from scratch,” said Hobson. “Same for tinned fruit, which can be used to make healthy puddings and smoothies.”

 

He added, “I think it’s important that you are able to eat the best way you can on the budget you can, as good health shouldn’t be reserved only for people who can afford it.”

Planning meals

Planning what you will eat and when means you are far less likely to grab fast food or snacks on the go.

Hobson suggests figuring out which meal or during which time of day you primarily tend to rely on UPFs.

“You could prepare lunch for work or create something using simple ingredients you bought in the supermarket, such as cooked chicken, canned pulses, and salad with olive oil and lemon juice,” said Hobson. “If dinner time is your weak spot, you could develop a repertoire of quick dinners or batch cooking one day to provide you with dinners for the week. It goes without saying that there is a degree of planning involved, and you need to be prepared and organized with your weekly food shop to make sure you have everything in stock.”

Choose whole grains

Supermarket staples like pre-packaged bread and breakfast cereals can be considered ultra-processed and mass-processed.

They often contain additional ingredients, including sweeteners, artificial flavors, and emulsifiers, instead of salt, yeast, flour, and water.

However, Hobson said that opting for sourdough or wholegrain bread over “mass-produced packed bread” is a good way of sticking with less processed baked goods.

Professor Kuhnle warns that only homemade loaves or from a bakery that doesn’t use high-speed mixing, flour improvers, or additives. But flour improvers do not need to be declared on the label; it is nearly impossible to ensure pre-packaged bread at the market doesn’t contain them.

Additionally, Hobson suggests switching out sugary breakfast cereals with homemade granola for the same reason.

Cereal is a substantial-good group and includes everything from brightly-colored, sugar-loaded options to basic oatmeal. 

Not surprisingly, sugary cereals aren’t good for you.

Even some options considered healthier are UPFs, like bran flakes, which are sweetened with additives that are not in nature.

Experts say sticking with wholegrain or homemade products is the best choice to cut down on ultra-processed foods.