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How do I cut back on UPFs?

Part 3 of our blog series on ultraprocessed foods.

By now it should be no secret that ultraprocessed foods (UPFs) are not the healthiest option for your diet. But knowing about the potential risks associated with these products isn’t enough – you need to know how to cut back and make healthier choices. In this third part of our series on understanding ultraprocessed foods, we’ll take a closer look at how you can limit your consumption and find more nutritious options instead.  

Recognizing UPFs is the first step to avoiding them. Start reading the labels on the foods you buy. The nutrition information may make the food seem healthy enough, but if the ingredients list is much longer than it seems it should be, then you probably have a UPF on your hands. If you don’t recognize the words in the ingredients list, put it back. The ingredients should be obvious and recognizable, you shouldn’t have to look them up on google. And, while you’re at the grocery store, it helps to stick to the aisles on the outer rim of the store and avoid the center. This is generally where the produce and fresh foods sections are located and it may help you to avoid those tempting pre-packaged cookies, unless those pesky girl scouts are out front. Just try not to make eye contact with them. 

The next step is to start adding fresh, whole foods to your meals. Have a banana with your breakfast, or a salad with your lunch. For dinner, make sure your plate is at least half fresh vegetables. Taking away things makes changing your diet feel like a punishment, so adding whole foods instead of restricting foods can really help you on your way to a healthier lifestyle.  

Now you’ll want to start swapping. Choose whole grain pastas and breads over white, try drinking sparkling water instead of sugary soda, maybe popcorn instead of chips. You can also make your own versions of normally ultraprocessed foods, like granola bars and salad dressing. You can also try making dinners from scratch instead of opting for a ready-made freezer meal. “I can’t make every meal from scratch! I don’t have that kind time!” you might say, but taking an hour or two on the weekend to prepare the week’s meals and then freezing them can make a world of difference. This way you don’t end up opting for something quick and easy or ordering take out, because you already have a quick and easy meal ready to be popped into the oven. There are hundreds of recipes online that can help you create your own version of anything from veggie burgers to butternut squash ravioli (both of which freeze beautifully). Keep in mind that not everything has to be homemade, but homemade foods give you control over the ingredients, and you don’t have to dedicate yourself to having from-scratch meals every night. 

Changing your eating habits may sound exhausting, and, quite frankly, it can be. The key is to start small. Don’t go for a complete overhaul right off the bat. Not only will this become overwhelming, but it doesn’t lend itself to long term changes. By familiarizing yourself with UPFs and getting creative with whole, unprocessed ingredients, you can properly nourish your body and mind without stressing over what you should or should not eat. When in doubt, read labels, start cooking more meals at home, and choose whole foods over UPFs. Your body will thank you! 

Sources: 

Drayer, L. (2019, January 8). ‘detox’ from overly processed foods: Why and how to Cut Back. CNN. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/27/health/processed-food-eat-less-drayer/index.html  

Croker, D. H. (2022, March 24). What is ultra-processed food and should we be worried about it? WCRF International. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from https://www.wcrf.org/what-is-ultra-processed-food-and-should-we-be-worried-about-it/  

 Erin McGreal RN, BSN

Upper Echelon Medical in Fullerton, Orange County, East LA, and Inland Empire, California, provides comprehensive primary care services to patients of all ages living and working in the local community.
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