Nutrition experts rarely agree on much, but one thing they’ve seemed to hold steady on is the idea that the less processed a food is, the better it is for us. Whole foods—things found in their most natural state, like fish, chicken, fruits and veggies—maintain all their nutrients intact and don’t have added sugar, sodium, or additives for color or convenience. It’s the difference between a potato and a potato chip.
So it may not come as a total shock that recent research revealed that ultra-processed foods are a huge factor in weight gain. But processing can mean all kinds of things, from grinding grains to make flour to that infamous pink slime used in industrial meat products. So what the heck does ultra-processed mean?
According to one report, which ranked foods by how much processing they undergo, ultra-processed foods are made with ingredients you’d rarely see outside a manufacturing plant—things like stabilizers, emulsifiers, and anti-caking agents.
The bad news? More than half of the calories in the average American diet come from ultra-processed foods. And because these foods are usually formulated specifically to appeal to our taste buds, they’re easy to overeat. In fact, researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that people on a diet made up of ultra-processed foods consumed 508 more calories than people who only ate unprocessed ones, which led to a two-pound weight gain in a two-week span.
“It’s not that we can never consume ultra-processed foods,” says Mark Lawrence PhD, a professor of public health nutrition at Deakin University in Australia, who co-authored the editorial that accompanied the research papers. “But currently…there is not a healthy balance being achieved. There is a clear need to eat fewer ultra-processed foods and more minimally processed foods.”
Got that? You don’t even have to go full whole foods here. But while that may sound easy enough, some surprisingly common foods fall into the ultra-processed category.
Here are 7 foods to swap off of your grocery list if you want to see the scale spring back next time you hop on:
1. Packaged breads, buns, and tortillas
Many commercial brands include stuff like calcium propionate and sorbic acid to extend the shelf life. While these chemicals aren’t necessarily harmful, they aren’t necessary either. Can’t live without bread? Brierley Horton, MS, RD, says, “Look for bread with a short ingredient list, which signifies it’s less processed. Aim for one with a lot of fiber—3g or more per slice—since research supports eating more fiber can help with weight loss.”
2. Margarine and other spreads
Though margarine seems healthier since it’s often lower in calories and fat than butter, it’s a processed food and there’s nothing natural about it. These spreads often contain emulsifiers like soy lecithin for texture and mouthfeel, and potentially to substantiate a heart-healthy claim. But you’re better off eating smaller amounts of oil or butter.
3. Breakfast cereal
The nutrition label may look impressive with all those added vitamins and minerals, but those are fortified or added after the fact. If you’re not eating grains in their whole form, you won’t get all the potential benefits. Plus, most cereals have tons of added sugar.
4. Chicken nuggets and fish sticks
Mechanically separated poultry or fish are just as bad as hot dogs. The parts making up a nugget can come from any human-grade cut of meat, which means they’re likely higher in fat than a chicken breast you bread yourself. They also have a hefty dose of added sodium.
5. Pre-made burgers
Sorry, Paleo fiends, reconstituted meats are just a no. You can control the fat and sodium content so much better when you buy ground beef and make your own patties. And don’t be fooled by the health halo—veggie and soy burgers can fall into this category, too. Look for one that has vegetables, grains, or legumes first on its ingredients list, not soy protein isolate.
6. Instant soups
Sorry to burst your bubble, ramen lovers, but all kinds of chemicals go into those flavor packets. And it’s hard to have a good idea of what exactly you are eating when the real ingredients are disguised behind a blanket “natural flavors” designation. The research surrounding msg is controversial, but there is anecdotal evidence that some people are sensitive to it.
7. Flavored yogurt
Yogurt’s supposed to be so healthy, but what about those chocolate cake and key lime pie flavors? Realistically, if your yogurt tastes like a dessert, it is a dessert. Companies add tons of sugar—or artificial sweeteners—to achieve those flavors, as well as things like modified cornstarch as a thickener, which can cause GI issues in some people. A healthier way to go is to buy plain yogurt and add your own toppings: fresh fruit, granola, honey.
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