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What’s Your Number?

When you go to the store, what percentage of the food you buy is ultra-processed?


Would it shock you if we told you this number is over 60% for the average American household?


Are you at least a little shocked by this?

After all, it is no secret these foods (much of which is called "junk food") are higher in sugar, sodium and other additives that contribute to weight gain, hypertension, colorectal cancer and other types of cancer, as well as all kinds of other illnesses and disease.


The reality is these processed foods are just so darn convenient!  They are “ready-to-eat” or “ready-to-heat” and don’t require a lot of thought or effort.

I will admit, my cart used to be over 60%.  I used to dread grocery shopping…especially when our kids were small!  My goal was to get what we needed and get out of there as fast as possible!  (Of course, I also had to be prepared for the potential meltdown if I didn't let our kids get their favorite treat!)  I obviously was not taking time to look at ingredient labels and I found myself buying the same products over and over again because it was just part of my routine.  This kept me in processed food paradise, especially because our kids expected we would always have certain crackers, chips, lunchables, cookies and other treats on hand.  These became their “staples”...and their comfort zone.

Looking back, it makes me cringe.


How do you know?

You can think of ultra-processed foods as foods that come from a factory.  Some of the ingredients may be REAL food, but those ingredients are then processed to add sugar, salt, thickeners, emulsifiers, preservatives and other additives.



This is what allows these foods to be shelf-stable, super-convenient (available everywhere), and have just the right flavor and texture to keep people buying more.

With ultra-processed foods, typically something "bad" has been added (something that can adversely affect your health over time) or something "good" has been taken away (something that promotes good health).

Twinkies, Cheetos, Pop-Tarts...these are obvious examples, right?

These foods have clearly been highly processed in a factory and beneficial nutrients are basically non-existent. However, there are other highly processed foods that may not be so obvious (including certain cereals, yogurts, deli meats, soups, pasta sauces, salad dressings, frozen meals, flavored nuts and more).

Another way to identify ultra-processed foods is to look at the ingredient label.  Are there ingredients you would never use in your kitchen?  You know, things like carrageenan, sodium benzoate, maltodextrin, and polysorbate 60, just to name a few.  While they are in plentiful supply in the food manufacturing facilities, probably none of us keep them in our kitchens.  That is a good indicator it is an ultra-processed food.


Are they really that bad?

Yes!  There are many studies now that provide convincing evidence that these foods adversely affect our health.  If you remember our coaching tip, "What happens when you cut out processed foods," we summarized a recent study where they took 20 people and secluded them for 28 days.  Each person ate an unprocessed diet for 2 weeks and an ultra-processed diet for 2 weeks.  When they ate the ultra-processed diet, they ended up eating 500 more calories per day and gained about 2 pounds on average.  And this was just 2 weeks!  If ultra-processed foods are a predominant part of your diet, this can significantly affect your health (reducing the years in your life and the life in your years).


Why not just avoid all processed foods?

Not all processing is bad.  And not all processing contributes to health problems.

Take an apple for example.  When the apple is picked from the tree, it is unprocessed.  When it is cut and cooked to make applesauce, does that processing make it unhealthy?  While it may not be quite as healthy as that freshly picked apple, it is still a good choice, assuming it hasn't been loaded up with sugars, artificial colors or other not-so-healthy additives.  Where it goes beyond the "good for you" threshold is when the apples are transformed with a long list of other ingredients (many of which none of us would keep in our kitchens) to make a frozen apple pie or one of those hand-held apple fruit pies.


Some examples of processing that can actually be beneficial include:


  • Freezing (when processed as soon as it is harvested, frozen produce tends to retain its vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients - as well as its flavor).
  • Canning (canning can also be a good way to preserve nutrients and flavor, but you have to be aware of other ingredients that may be added during the canning process).
  • Fermentation (a lot of fermented foods like yogurt, tempeh, kimchi and sauerkraut are good for you, especially for your gut microbiome).
  • Pasteurization (helps kill potentially harmful bacteria and viruses in foods like juice, dairy products, kombucha and others).


So what is your number?

Try to slow down and pay attention the next time you are at the store…you might be surprised!  If your number is higher than you expected, what can you do to lower this % and make REAL food the major part of your diet?



With a little planning and by keeping it simple, REAL food can be just as convenient as processed food!

Plus, let's face it, REAL food tastes better and helps us achieve our best health and vitality (and live our best lives!).

You and your family are worth it!

How low can you go?


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2 Responses to What’s Your Number?

  1. A new book out today outlines the damage of UPFs not only to our own health but also to the environment, to society by widening the gap between rich and poor, and to culture and food diversity around the world: Ultra-processed People by Dr Chris van Tulleken. His simple rule of thumb: ‘if it’s wrapped in plastic and has at least one ingredient that you wouldn’t find in your kitchen, it’s UPF.’

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