Unpacking Ultra-Processed Foods

Mar 12, 2024

What are Ultra-Processed Foods?

With today's fast-paced culture, we often turn to convenient, shelf-stable food options that seem like a lifesaver. Unfortunately, many of these options are ultra-processed foods that are often loaded with unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium.
They typically contain a long list of additives, many of which are unrecognizable. Unfortunately they also often lack essential nutrients, vitamins, and fiber that our bodies crave from whole foods. While ultra-processed foods can be tempting for their convenience, understanding their potential health implications can help you make informed choices about what to eat.

Not All Packaged Foods are Ultra-Processed

It's important to note that not every packaged food falls under the ultra-processed umbrella. Foods like canned vegetables or frozen fruit are packaged foods that typically don't contain preservatives and still provide us with our doses of vitamins and fiber.
Packaged foods can contain recognizable whole food ingredients like vegetables, fruits, or whole grains. These may have undergone some processing like freezing, canning, or drying, but retain most of their inherent nutrients.
When buying packaged foods, look for simple ingredient lists with recognizable whole foods and minimal added sugars, sodium, and artificial ingredients.
The key is to become a label-reading detective! The Trash Panda app can help you decipher these ingredient lists!

How Ultra-Processed Foods Affect Mental Health

Nutrient Deficiencies. Ultra-processed foods are often low in essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which play a role in brain function and neurotransmitter production. There is evidence showing a strong correlation between eating ultra-processed foods and increased risk of cognitive disease. Deficiencies in these nutrients have been linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety.
Chronic Diseases. When regularly consuming ultra-processed foods, the risk for chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer increase by about 50%. There is also at least a 48% increase in mental disorders as well such as high anxiety. Ultimately, evidence shows that the diets that were heavily focused on ultra processed foods, "were associated with a 21% greater risk of death from any cause, a 40% to 66% higher risk of heart disease-related death, obesity, type 2 diabetes and sleep problems, and a 22% increased risk of depression".
Inflammation. Studies suggest that ultra-processed foods can contribute to chronic inflammation in the body. This inflammation may also affect the brain and nervous system, potentially impacting mood and cognitive function.
Gut Microbiome. There's growing evidence that the gut microbiome plays a role in mental health. Ultra-processed foods may negatively impact the gut microbiome by reducing the diversity of healthy gut bacteria. Much of the research has focused on how poor gut health might affect the brain. This could potentially contribute to mood disorders.

How To Avoid Ultra Processed Foods

Become a Label-Reading Master: Look for short ingredient lists with recognizable whole foods like vegetables, fruits, or whole grains. Watch out for red flags like added sugars, excessive sodium, and unrecognizable additives. Trash Panda can help you understand these confusing lists!
Don't Fear Frozen. Frozen fruits and vegetables are flash-frozen at their peak ripeness, locking in nutrients. They're a healthy and convenient way to add variety to your diet.
Plan Your Meals. Spontaneous trips to the grocery store often lead to grabbing convenient, processed options. Plan your meals for the week and make a list to ensure you have healthy whole foods on hand. Use the Trash Panda App to help make your grocery lists with whole foods!
Start Small. Don't overwhelm yourself with a complete overhaul. Begin by making small changes, like swapping out sugary drinks for water or adding a side of vegetables to your meals.

The Bottom Line

While ultra-processed foods may seem like a convenient solution, remember, you have the power to choose what goes on your plate. By making small, sustainable changes and focusing on whole foods, you can build a diet that nourishes your body and supports your overall well-being.
Bonus Tip: Feeling overwhelmed by the grocery store? Download the Trash Panda app! It can be your secret weapon for deciphering food labels, finding healthy recipes, and building grocery lists packed with whole foods.
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