Lemonade, hot dogs, chips, and flavored yogurt. These summertime snacks may sound harmless, but a recent study by the National Institutes of Health shows diets containing ultra-processed foods like these may lead to a larger intake of calories and weight gain, even if the nutritional content of the foods consumed are similar to foods that are minimally processed.

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods and Why Are They Bad?

Ultra-processed foods are “factory made” and may include additives such as sugars (natural and sugar substitutes), stabilizers, preservatives, and other chemicals. These additives are used to help increase shelf life and convenience for consumers.

Ultra-processed foods may threaten a healthy lifestyle because they often provide little nutritional value and contain high levels of sodium and saturated fats. Have you ever said to yourself, “I just can’t stop eating these chips; they’re just so good!” That’s because these products are designed to stimulate the reward center of the brain, which may make eating these kinds of foods addictive.

Make Healthier Choices

I know what you’re thinking: shopping for minimally processed meals in a fast-food world may seem difficult and overwhelming at first, but there are small changes you can make that may have a big impact.

  • Shop the Perimeter of Your Grocery Store. Stay away from inner isles that house tempting processed foods. Instead, shop the perimeter of the store where fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, bread, dairy, and cheese are usually located.
  • Read Nutrition Labels. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, meaning the first five ingredients are most used in making the product. If listed ingredients sound as if they were taken from a chemistry book, the product is more than likely heavily processed.
  • Reach for Obvious Choices. Instead of quenching your thirst with sugary drinks like soda, lemonade, or fruit punch, hydrate with water or even try an infused water. Flavored yogurt is often a culprit for harboring hidden sugars. An easy swap is to replace this with plain Greek yogurt and fresh fruit.

Simple changes like these and greater nutrition awareness may help shrink the waist and promote a healthier lifestyle for all.

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Asha Hadley is a registered dietitian in Kelsey-Seybold’s Dietitian and Nutrition Services. She cares for her patients at The Woodlands Clinic. Her clinical interests include wellness, weight management, diabetes, and sports nutrition.