5 easy tips to eat less ultra-processed foods

Make healthier eating work for you with these five easy tips to eat less ultra-processed foods.

Woman looking at the nutrition facts of a box of oats at the grocery store
Woman buying oats

Eating more wholesome foods and less ultra-processed ones can improve your wellbeing, digestion, and prevent chronic disease. Make healthier eating work for you with these five easy tips to eat less ultra-processed foods.

What is ultra-processed food?

Many of the foods you eat may be considered to be processed, but it's the level of processing that impacts your health. Processed foods simply means it's different from its natural form. This includes cooking, freezing canning, or drying (1). 

Not every processed food is unhealthy. Frozen veggies for example are natural and good for us, but ultra-processed food, such as frozen microwavable meals, can be less beneficial for our health when we eat them often. 

An ultra-processed food typically has five or more ingredients while being stripped of nutrients. It often contains high levels of sugar, salt, fat, and artificial ingredients like additives, flavorings, bulking agents, and humectants which prevent drying (2). Some examples of ultra-processed foods include chips, soda, sweetened breakfast cereals, sausage or hotdogs, and frozen meals (3). 

Benefit of eating less processed foods

Swapping ultra-processed foods for less processed, healthy foods can help our health in many ways including fending off chronic disease. Ultra-processed foods have been shown to cause more heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes (4). It can also keep our body structure strong including muscles, bones, skin, teeth, and eyes. Eating more whole foods enhances immunity and helps fend off illness. It also improves digestive wellbeing which can mean better nutrient absorption (5). 

Limiting the amount of ultra-processed foods you have can also help you live more sustainably and benefit the environment. Ultra-processed foods use a large amount of water, energy, and land to produce (6). Processed meat such as bacon or ham contains chemicals that are tough on the environment and our health. These processed meats have also been linked to colon cancer (7). 

5 easy tips to eat less ultra-processed foods

If you want to keep the convenience of processed foods while helping your health, try out one (or all!) of these easy tips to help you eat less ultra-processed foods.

Add fresh fruits and veggies

Adding fresh fruits or veggies to your meals, can enhance the nutrient value and keep you energized and full for longer than ultra-processed foods. 

For breakfast, try topping oatmeal with chopped apples or bananas or blend berries in a smoothie. Include vegetables, like spinach, tomatoes, bell peppers, or mushrooms in your morning omelet or scrambled eggs. 

Lunch and dinner can be served with a side salad or fresh piece of fruit. If you’re having a sandwich or wrap, add some green leafy vegetables like arugula, or sliced cucumber. For dinner, chop onions, tomatoes, or mushrooms into pasta or rice. Or serve up some roasted vegetables with your main. 

If fresh produce isn't always convenient, consider using frozen fruits and vegetables. They are often just as nutritious.

Get back to basics when eating out 

Cooking at home versus getting ultra-processed take out food leads to a healthier diet whether or not weight loss is your goal (8). But that doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself if you wanna enjoy a meal out! Start by looking for restaurants that offer a variety of nutritious choices, such as those with salads, grilled options, and vegetable-based dishes. 

Go for basic dishes that are grilled, baked, or steamed rather than fried. This reduces the overall fat content of your meal. Look for a balance of lean protein, whole grains, and vegetables. For example, grilled chicken with brown rice and asparagus. Ask for sauces and dressings on the side, since they often tend to be ultra-processed. This way you can control the amount you use. Better yet, choose lighter options or vinaigrettes made with olive oil.

Read food labels

Next time you’re at the store, play detective with the food labels. This will help you identify which foods are ultra-processed. Be cautious of healthwashing terms like "low-fat," "low-sugar," or "reduced-calorie." Oftentimes these foods have other unhealthy properties such as hidden sugars, artificial additives, and preservatives. 

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The first few ingredients make up the majority of the product. Ultra-processed foods often contain ingredients that are difficult to pronounce such as: potassium sorbate, aspartame, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and colors such as Red 40. 

If you’re comparing two products and are not sure which is healthier, try out this barcode scanner

Make your own meals 

Fast food and takeout meals are often high in processed ingredients. Save them for occasional outings and focus on preparing meals at home. Cooking your meals from scratch gives you more control over the ingredients. Use fresh vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and natural seasonings in your recipes.

Check out some healthy and delicious recipes and consider meal prepping if you’re short on time during the week. 

Try simple swaps 

If you’re in the habit of eating ultra-processed foods, you can start eating better by swapping them for similar foods.

  • Choose whole grains: Opt for whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, oats, and whole wheat over refined grains such as white bread, white rice, or white flour tortillas. Whole grains contain more fiber and nutrients.
  • Limit sugary drinks: Sugary drinks like sodas and fruit juices can contribute to a high intake of processed sugars. Choose water, herbal teas, or infused water instead.
  • Be mindful of sauces and condiments: Many condiments and sauces are high in added sugars, salt, and preservatives. Consider making your own or choosing options with simpler ingredient lists like oil and vinegar.
  • Grab a natural snack: Instead of reaching for chips or cookies, choose snacks like fresh fruit, yogurt, nuts, or cut-up vegetables.

Less processed as part of a balanced lifestyle

Remember, the goal is not necessarily to eliminate all processed foods but to make more conscious choices and prioritize whole, nutrient-dense options. Gradual changes in your eating habits are often more sustainable than drastic ones. To get recipes and meal plans that focus on less processed foods and can be tailored to your preferences, try out Lifesum!

8 references (hide)

All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice. If you have or think you are at risk of developing an eating disorder, do not use the Lifesum app and seek immediate medical help.