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What are ultra processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods refer to a category of food products that are highly processed and typically contain a large number of ingredients. These foods are often formulated with additives, preservatives, flavourings, and other substances to enhance their taste, texture, and shelf life. Ultra-processed foods are typically low in nutritional value and high in unhealthy components like added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include pre-packaged snacks (such as chips, cookies, and candy), sugary cereals, soft drinks, fast food items, frozen meals, packaged desserts, and processed meats. These foods are often ready-to-eat or require minimal preparation, making them convenient but lacking in terms of nutritional quality.

Studies have indicated that consumption of ultra-processed foods is associated with negative health outcomes. They are linked to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. This is partly because these foods are typically energy-dense but nutrient-poor, leading to excessive calorie intake without providing the necessary nutrients for good health.

How can I avoid them?

Avoiding ultra-processed foods can be challenging in today's food environment, but here are some strategies to help you reduce your consumption of these products:

1. Cook and prepare meals at home: By preparing your own meals, you have control over the ingredients you use and can focus on whole, unprocessed foods. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and herbs and spices to flavour your dishes.

2. Read food labels: Take the time to read the labels of packaged foods carefully. Ultra-processed foods often have long ingredient lists with additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners. Look for foods with shorter ingredient lists and recognisable, whole-food ingredients.

3. Choose whole foods: Prioritise whole foods that are minimally processed. Opt for fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, and unprocessed meats or plant-based proteins. These foods are typically found in the produce section, meat counter, or bulk food aisles of the supermarket.

4. Shop the perimeter of the supermarket: The outer aisles of the supermarket usually contain fresh produce, meats, dairy products, and whole grains. Try to focus your shopping on these areas and minimize your time in the central aisles, which tend to house more processed foods.

5. Plan and prepare meals in advance: Planning your meals ahead of time can help you make healthier choices and avoid relying on convenience foods. Set aside time each week to plan your meals, create a shopping list, and prep ingredients in advance to make cooking easier and more convenient.

6. Pack your own snacks: Instead of relying on processed snacks, prepare your own snacks to take with you when you're on the go. Choose options like fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, cut-up vegetables with hummus, or homemade cereal bars.

7. Be mindful of beverages: Many beverages, such as fizzy drinks, fruit juices, energy drinks, and sweetened coffee or tea, are highly processed and contain added sugars. Opt for water, unsweetened herbal tea, or homemade fruit-infused water as your primary beverages.

Remember, it's not about completely eliminating all processed foods from your diet but rather reducing your reliance on ultra-processed options and focusing on whole, nutrient-dense foods as the foundation of your diet.

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