The word is out–ultra-processed foods are leading to declining life expectancies in the US, poor gut health, more dementia, rising rates of diabetes, and many other health issues. We don’t have to take this lying down. Let’s start to get these foods out of our diets. Here’s how to do it.
First, let’s talk about what an ultra-processed food is and isn’t. It isn’t simply a “processed food” although a lot of times these terms are used interchangeably. People have been processing food for thousands of years. When food is dried, canned, milled, or fermented, it is being processed and that’s not a bad thing. Processing food has helped humans survive and thrive by making it last a bit longer and stabilizing our food supply.
On the other hand, ultra-processing food is a modern creation, that until very recently, we didn’t realize was doing as much harm as it is. Ultra-processing food started to really take off in the mid-1900s with the addition of all kinds of substances that were added to traditionally processed food to make it last longer—perhaps years longer. As more thickeners, stabilizers, and emulsifiers were discovered, they were added to myriad foods to the point that now ultra-processed foods make up nearly 60% of the standard American diet for adults and as much as 70% of our kids’ diets.
The problem is that there was very little testing involved in approving the substances that go into ultra-processed foods, since most of them aren’t digested by our bodies. It was long thought that the additives were something our bodies couldn’t use and they would just pass right through us, like the random facts we’d cram right before an exam, gone the next day. Only, it turns out that our guts aren’t empty tubes, they are lush gardens, and the substances that we don’t digest—fake sugars, emulsifying agents, and thickeners—the bacteria that make up our microbiome do digest. And what we feed our microbiome matters a lot. Our ultra-processed diets have been fertilizing the microbial weeds instead of the flowers, leading to increased rates of obesity, diabetes, and maybe even some cancers.
So, what’s a good gut gardener to do? Most importantly, don’t panic. Nothing has been done that can’t be undone. You can make choices today that can radically benefit your health. Cut out the ultra-processed stuff, replace it with whole foods that you enjoy, and within a day or two you will start to see big changes happening in your bowels, your blood sugar, and quite possibly your mood. So, here’s how you do that.
In my book, Eat Everything, I list 25 additives to avoid, but for the sake of simplicity, a good rule of thumb is to look at the ingredient lists on the foods you are buying. If an ingredient is listed that you can’t picture in nature, put the package back on the shelf. It’s important to recognize that ultra-processed foods aren’t just the chips and candy bars that we might be avoiding when trying to eat healthy. We are getting tripped up because many of the so-called healthy foods that are promoted as being good for us, are just as ultra-processed as the chips, maybe even more so.
When you go shopping, ignore the front of packages that have words on them like “natural” or “organic” or even “handmade” and start becoming an ingredient list reader. Instead of ultra-processed, too sweet yogurt with 10 ingredients, opt for yogurt made with just milk and bacterial cultures. Top it with some fresh fruit. Instead of a shelf-stable salad dressing made to last for years with all manner of gums and additives, mix up some oil and vinegar or lemon juice and dress your salad with that. This week, maybe don’t buy the supermarket bread that may say “whole grain” or “whole wheat” on the front of the package, but the back of the package reveals a whole bunch of ingredients that you can’t picture in your mind’s eye as growing anywhere but on a laboratory bench. Instead, look in the freezer section for bread with minimal ingredients, preserved by freezing, not additives. By making a change or two every time you go to the grocery store, within a few weeks, you will start to walk back the ultra-processed takeover of your kitchen.
Lastly, ignore the voices that are telling you that you can’t do this—that we all just have to accept that our food supply is a mess and we will have to struggle with diet-related diseases as a consequence. When we first can recognize an ultra-processed food (read those labels!) and then instead choose a whole food or less processed alternative, we are taking back control over our bodies. Food should be a source of joy, not discomfort. Replace those ultra-processed products with things that you enjoy just as much or even more. You absolutely can make positive changes to get this stuff out of your diet. It starts with just one bite.