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New research is constantly coming out of the food science industry, helping us understand how the foods we eat affect us. The more research we do, the more our knowledge of healthy eating changes, oftentimes even contradicting what we “knew” before. We “knew” fat was bad for us, and the market was flooded with low fat and no-fat food options. Except, they were loaded up with sugar to make them still taste good. Then we discovered some fats are not only healthy, but necessary for health brain and heart function, and instead we “knew” sugar was the real cause of all those heart and weight problems. So that no-fat trend shifted, and suddenly the latest craze was zero calorie, and zero sugar foods. And once again, we replaced that no-good sugar with zero-calorie sweeteners, like aspertame, only to later have conflicting research come out regarding a myriad of possible side-effects and health risks.

Whether fatty avocados, cholesterol-rich egg yolks, starchy potatoes, or sugary fruits; many foods that nutritionists once suggested we shun actually contain vital nutrients that contribute to a healthy diet in ways that might seem counter-intuitive. And the more we learn about them, the more we learn that very little is as straightforward as it seems. One’s metabolism, thyroid, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, genetics, all affect what foods an individual body needs to be healthy. And with so much conflicting information, it becomes harder and harder to figure out what healthy eating looks like.

With all the back and forth, it can be tempting to take the latest research with a grain of salt, but – just like any healthy diet – you probably don’t want to take it with too much salt. New research studies out of France and Spain illuminate in more detail our knowledge of the risks associated with ultra-processed foods. Aptly called “junk” food, is food which has been significantly processed from its original state through the addition of sugar, salt, fat, additives, preservatives, and/or artificial colors. Foods like these have very little nutritional value, but are very energy dense, meaning the two options when subsisting on ultra-processed foods are: 1) Eat an appropriate energy equivalency for your needs, and suffer a nutritional deficit; or 2) Eat enough for the nutrients you need, and have a high caloric excess. Neither option is good.

In addition to these base level issues with ultra-processed food, these studies now show that eating four servings of ultra-processed food (not to be confused with four meals) comes with a whopping 62% increase in early mortality rates, and every serving above four raises that by an additional 18%. Likewise, those who eat processed foods more frequently have a 12% increase in cardiovascular disease, 11% in cerebrovascular disease, and 13% in coronary heart disease.

Identifying ultra-processed foods is pretty easy – if you could potentially make it at home, it’s probably not ultra-processed. If it has more than five ingredients, or has had to go through a multitude of steps to get the ingredients to where they could be used, it probably is ultra processed. Avoiding ultra-processed foods on the other hand, isn’t always easy. Convenience is so often king is our perpetually hectic lives and cooking all your own meals isn’t an option for the vast majority of people. But the important thing to remember is that whether or not you actually did cook it, if it’s possible for you to make it in your own kitchen, you’re still on the right track! Don’t get distracted by buzzwords like “organic” or “all-natural”. Organic items can get processed just as much as non-organic items after all. Just focus on meals with fresh ingredients, and foods that were made by people, not machines. Restaurants that make their sauces in-house, or delis that carve their own meats daily are great options for minimally processed foods without the extra effort on your part. And when you’re cooking at home, a little extra time adding your own spices to that jar of plain tomato sauce is a big step above that only slightly faster pre-made jar of sauce.