Processed foods, calories and nutrients: Americans’ alarming diet

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If you’re like the average American, more than half of your diet is filled with processed foods. Many of these foods are full of added sugar and fat and contribute to overweight and obesity. This matters for cancer prevention, because obesity is linked to higher risk, and a healthy diet links to lower risk for many common cancers, as well as other chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

A study published recently reports alarming results on how much of the super processed foods Americans are eating, and how that affects nutrition, calories and the overall healthfulness of our nation’s diet.

The researchers established three categories for describing various levels of food processing: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods (like vegetables, beans, milk, pasta), other foods (cheese, pickled foods, nut butters for example), and ultra-processed foods (like soft drinks, cookies, salty snacks, french fries). Then, using diet data from over 9,000 participants in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), they compared the diets high in ultra-processed foods to diets with more unprocessed and minimally processed foods. They looked at calories, nutrients and overall diet quality at different levels of processed food consumption.

The study found that on average:

  • more than one-half of calories came from ultra-processed foods
  • less than one-third of calories were from unprocessed or minimally processed foods
  • about 12 percent of calories came from the other foods category.

The more ultra-processed foods Americans ate, the less protein, fiber, vitamins A, C, D and E, potassium and calcium they got. And they had more added sugars, saturated fat and overall carbohydrates in their diets.

Conversely, those with higher amounts of unprocessed/minimally processed foods and fewer ultra-processed foods had overall higher diet quality, with more nutrients like fiber, potassium and vitamin C, and less added sugars and saturated fat.

This study makes it clear that these ultra-processed foods, even with some nutrient fortification, cannot deliver the many healthful components of minimally processed foods. And they add a load of extra calories with little to no nutrient value. The occasional fries, chips and candy can fit into a healthy diet, but if they become staples, your health will suffer and you’ll be at higher risk for weight gain and other chronic diseases.

Take steps toward a healthier diet by following AICR’s New American Plate model.

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    Author: Alice RD

    Alice G. Bender, MS, RDN, is the Head of Nutrition Programs at AICR. She helps put the science of cancer prevention by providing tips and tools to choose nutritious and delicious foods. Alice has guided thousands of individuals to healthier lives through diet changes and choices.

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