It’s time to face the music: A large—and growing—number of people regularly eat foods that are bad for their health. If you often consume foods fresh off the factory production line, there’s a good chance you’re one of them.
According to research published in BMJ Open, approximately 60 percent of the average American’s calories come from ‘ultra-processed food’ that contains added sugars, salts, fats, oils, and other substances. To put that in perspective, the USDA recommends that we consume around five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
We asked registered dietitians to tell us which foods and ingredients they’ve permanently crossed off their grocery lists in order to get some clearer direction about how to clean up our own diets.
We’re talking about those popular hydrogenated oils and partially hydrogenated oils. “Trans fats are made through a process called hydrogenation, in which hydrogen molecules are pumped into vegetable oil to turn it into a solid,” says Jim White, R.D., A.C.S.M. Health Fitness Specialist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Cringe.
According to the FDA, trans fats have been found to increase LDL (“low-density lipoprotein” a.k.a. bad) cholesterol, which is linked to heart disease—which is why the FDA is in the process of banning trans fats in foods.
Until the ban become effective in 2018, companies can still use trans fats in foods. .. Plus, packaged foods that contain less than half a gram of the stuff can claim to have none, warns says Robin Foroutan M.S., R.D.N., H.H.C., an integrative medicine nutritionist.
Mono sodium glutamate (MSG)
“MSG is a chemical flavor enhancer, but it’s also an excitotoxin, meaning it overstimulates certain cells in the brain,” says Foroutan.
The ingredient, which is most commonly added to foods like Chinese takeout, has been shown to mess with our ability to feel full, affect our hormones, and potentially contribute to weight gain, says White.
Some people are extra sensitive to MSG and may experience symptoms like headaches, facial pressure, numbness, tingling, weakness, drowsiness, nausea, and difficulty breathing, warns Foroutan. She recommends avoiding this chemical and looking out for its undercover names, which include yeast extract, autolyzed yeast extract, or autolyzed vegetable extract.
With more and more people jumping on the sugar-free bandwagon, what could be more perfect than alternatives that are just as sweet and calorie-free? Don’t get lost in your daydreaming just yet.
“These ingredients are chemicals that are made in a lab, not whole foods,” says Kath Younger, R.D. “Instead, I look for products that use honey, maple syrup, or dates to provide sweetness—or better yet, products that aren’t sweetened at all.” Younger strives to maintain a diet free of ingredients or substances that aren’t natural or in their natural form.
Artificial sweeteners appear on your food labels under an abundance of names, such as saccharin, aspartame, or sucralose, explains Younger.
As enchanting as the neon hues of sour gummy worms are, they might not belong in your belly. “Food dyes are likely not helping to promote health,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N. “There are natural food dye alternatives like turmeric, beet or pomegranate juice, spinach powder, matcha, saffron, paprika and more.”
According to the FDA, some food colorings, like Yellow No. 5, may cause allergic reactions in some people. Yellow No. 5 is also currently undergoing testing amidst claims that it’s linked to hyperactivity in children.
BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole)
Ever wonder why some bread lasts so long on the shelf? It may be due to a preservative called BHA.
“BHA is mainly used to prevent oils in foods from oxidizing and becoming rancid,” says White. “Oxidation affects the flavor, color, and odor of foods, reduces some nutrients, and causes the production of free radicals [compounds harmful to our cells].” Vitamin A also prevents this oxidation, but the food industry generally prefers BHA because it remains stable at higher temperatures.
According to the FDA, while BHA shows no evidence of being harmful to public health as it is currently used, more research is required to investigate ‘uncertainties’ about the substance.
Foods High In Sugar
Containing 10 teaspoons of sugar on average, soda is a one-way ticket to spiked insulin levels, and a later crash, says White. And that’s just one example of the many sugar-laden foods people eat regularly these days.
Many dietitians recommend avoiding excess sugar and ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, which is linked to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. The main problem with high-fructose corn syrup? The way it’s processed allows for it to go directly into your liver, spiking fat production, White explains.
In addition to affecting your insulin levels and weight, sugar can also lead to plaque buildup on your teeth, contributing to gum disease and cavities, says White.
While some sodium is necessary in our diets, many people over indulge, says Angel Planells, M.S., R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The American Heart Association recommends about 1500 milligrams of sodium daily, but Planells says most Americans consume more than twice that.
In moderation, sodium helps our bodies maintain fluid balances, send nerve impulses, and contract our muscles, according to The Mayo Clinic. Too much sodium, however, increases the pressure in our blood vessels, eventually overstretching and injuring blood vessel walls while forcing our heart to work extra hard to pump blood, explains Planells.
“Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, consuming less sodium over time will help protect you as you age, and help reduce your risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, osteoporosis, weight gain and more,” says Planells.