Here's another reason to avoid ultra-processed food - and what to eat instead

When it comes to tips for general healthy eating, most dietitians agree you should shop from the fresh produce aisles and avoid those foods with a list of ingredients you can barely pronounce. Makes sense, right?

Not only do simple foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins, nuts and legumes contain the best nutrients, they're also not loaded with sugar and sodium that can be unhealthy.

Now, a large study has found that ultra-processed foods carry another risk – they are linked to a host of cardiovascular diseases.

This large, observational study published in the BMJ showed that there is a correlation between the consumption of ultra-processed food and a higher risk of cardiovascular, coronary heart and cerebrovascular diseases.

The results still need to be confirmed in other populations and settings, but the study included about 105 159 participants.

The study mentions that the reasons for the link between heart disease and processed food boil down to processing factors that alter the final nutritional composition, additives, contact materials and neoformed contaminants (substances that end up in food after processing that could be harmful in the long run).

These foods do not only include the obvious culprits such as sweets, chips and fast food, but also breads, some canned sauces, frozen ready-made meals and processed meats.

What to eat, then?

Sticking to the “eat only fresh, unprocessed foods” rule is not so easy if you consider that a lot of the foods we buy from supermarkets are processed in some way or another. And as we live in a fast-paced world, and are often pressed for time, we regard ready-made meals a saviour, not a potential danger.

Our nutritionists at Nutritional Solutions suggest balance and smart shopping when it comes to choosing healthier options. Here are some nutritional tips to prepare heart-smart foods.

1. Avoid processed meat as far as possible 

For many cash-strapped households in South Africa, processed meats such as sausages and polony are budget-friendly staples. Unfortunately these products are heavily processed and contain large amounts of sodium that can harm the heart. Our dietitians suggest that one should experiment with other sources of protein such as canned tuna, canned sardines, or legumes and pulses like beans and lentils.

2. Choose your starches wisely

You don’t have to cut carbs completely, but choose products that undergo less processing. These include wholegrain breads, bread made from stone-flour, and steel-cut or rolled oats instead of refined cereals. Make a habit of flavouring plain oatmeal with honey and fresh fruits instead of choosing the highly-sweetened instant variety.

3. Avoid store-bought salad dressings and condiments

Store-bought salad dressings can easily transform an innocent salad from something healthy to a mess soaked in palm oil. Store-bought salad dressings can contain high amounts of sodium and sugar. Make your own salad dressing with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

4. Shop smart

Let’s be realistic – ready-made store-bought meals can be lifesavers, even though they are widely regarded as unhealthy. Nutritional Solutions hit the shelves to look at the healthiest options you can buy when you have no other choice. You just need to know how to read the labels.

5. Buy in bulk and prep your snacks

For many of us, snack-time is the downfall of many a healthy habit. Instead of hitting the vending machine for a packet of potato chips when the cravings hit, take some time to shop and prepack some healthy snack-options. Not only will this be better for your health, but also for the environment as you cut down on single-use plastic. Buy nuts in bulk and keep a handful in a reusable container. Keep fruits and nut butter at your desk, or fill a reusable container with plain yogurt and add some flavour with cut fruit, cinnamon and a drizzle of honey. 

Image credit: iStock

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