5 surprisingly 'ultra-processed' foods blocking your weight-loss goals
Between the never-ending array of diets, calorie-counters and conveniently confusing nutrition labels, weight loss can feel about as complicated as it can get. But a new study has boiled things down to a simple command: "Stop eating ultra-processed foods."
Published in BMJ Open, the study found that ultra-processed foods – think frozen pizza and soda – make up 58 percent of all the calories Americans consume in a typical day. Plus, those "foods," if you can even call them that, are responsible for 90 percent of Americans' added sugar intake.
[See: The 38 Easiest Diets to Follow: in Pictures.]
"We are not just talking about a small amount of processing here," explains Florida-based registered dietitian Jaime Mass. These foods have been so processed – refined, bleached, combined with lab-spun additives and then refined again – that their chemical makeup doesn't even resemble the whole foods they supposedly mimic. "Their ingredient list resembles the back of a shampoo bottle more than it does actual food," says nutritionist Rania Batayneh, who holds a master's degree in public health and authored "The One One One Diet."
Previous research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 3 out of 4 people in the U.S. are eating too much added sugar, with high-fructose corn syrup and other refined sweeteners counting for more than 10 percent of their daily calorie intake. Excess calories aside, added sugar contributes to the onset of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. "These foods are high in things such as added sugars, unhealthy fats and excess salt that we want to limit because of their correlations with chronic disease, and low in real nutrients that fuel our bodies," Batayneh says.
[See: Best Diets for Diabetes.]
Unfortunately, and maybe this is to food manufacturers' credit, ultra-processed foods aren't always obvious. Here are five deceptively ultra-processed foods that stand between most dieters and their healthy goals, as well as healthier alternatives.
1. Breakfast Cereals and Bars
Even with the "whole grain" stamps on them, it's pretty obvious that marshmallow-laden cereals aren't healthy. But even many "healthy" cereals and cereal bars are ultra-processed, full of added sugars and contain very few natural ingredients. "They look so wholesome with images of fruit on the package, but when you look at the fine print, you'll find that those 'blueberries' are actually 'blueberry bits' made from sugar, corn cereal, food starch, partially hydrogenated oils and artificial colors," Batayneh says. Plus, these cereals' ill effects on your blood-sugar levels are worsened when you eat them first thing in the morning after a full night of fasting – setting you up for a day of blood sugar highs and lows.
Less processed, still easy: Serve up steel-cut oats in place of your typical morning cereal. Look for instant varieties, or make a big batch in the slow cooker that you can eat all week. Mix in milk, nuts and seeds for some protein and healthy fat to help keep your blood sugar levels steady, she says.
2. Flavored Yogurts
While some companies use artificial colors to make their yogurt look fruitier than it actually is, the vast majority of flavored yogurts contain 25 grams or more of carbohydrates and 15 to 20 grams of sugar, Mass says. That's more sugar than you'll find 10 slices of white, refined bread! Meanwhile, flavored yogurts are often low in protein, so they don't offer much in the way of balancing out all that sugar and helping you feel full.
Less processed, still easy: Luckily, even brands that make unhealthy flavored yogurts typically have healthier varieties, she says. Look for a plain yogurt, preferably one that's Greek to get more protein while avoiding any harmful processing, added sugars or fillers. Fold any fruit, nuts or spices like cinnamon right into it for an extra dose of healthy flavor.
[See: 5 Unintended Consequences of Eating Too Much Protein.]
3. Reduced-Fat Anything
When you take the fat out of foods like cookies, salad dressings, yogurt and ice cream, you zap a lot of the flavor along with that silky mouth-feel that makes them so satisfying. The solution: Manufacturers add extra sugar, chemicals, fillers and additives to make them palatable, Batayneh says. And, apart from their intrinsically harmful effects on your health, sugars and unpronounceable additives do nothing to promote satiety and reduce cravings, unlike fat.
Less processed, still easy: If you want to treat yourself to some ice cream, cookies or chips every now and then, go ahead and stick with the full-fat variety, she says. Meanwhile, even whole milk may be the healthier option. Research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care shows that people who consume more dairy fat have a lower risk of abdominal obesity, a marker of overall health, compared to those who cut down on dairy fat.
4. Baked Goods
Whether you find them in your grocery store or your favorite coffee shop's counter, pre-made baked goods are a huge no-no. Even those blueberry muffins (they have to be healthy, right?) usually pack more calories than two candy bars, more carbs than five slices of bread and the amount of sugar found in four glazed doughnuts, Mass says. We don't know about you, but if we are going to splurge, it's going to be with a doughnut, not a muffin!
Less processed, still easy: Try making your own muffins, Mass says. You can whip up a big batch of batter (it can take 10 minutes or less), freeze it in tins and then pop it in the oven whenever you've got a hankering. Plus, in the taste department, warm, homemade muffins always trump processed ones.
You know soda is no good, but from a sugar standpoint, juice and soda "are one in the same," Mass says. Many varieties are highly processed, boasting food dyes, preservatives, heavy syrups and sugars. Meanwhile, even "100 percent juice" drinks are so full of sugar that if you hold their nutrition labels next to those of sugary sodas, you'd have a hard time telling them apart, she says. "Most preventive medical doctors and registered dietitians will indulge in a sweet treat every now and then. However, I have never talked to one who drinks juices because they are truly that bad," she says.
Less processed, still easy: Eat the whole fruit! Eating an apple, rather than a glass of its juice, will score you tons of heart-healthy, filling fiber while cutting down on the amount of sugar you're consuming, she says. Plus, while a whole orange actually contains about half the calories as a glass of OJ, the calories it does have will go to better use. The brain releases a stronger surge of satiety signals after consuming whole foods than it does after drinking liquids, even if their calories are the same, Batayneh says.
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