The Number One Way To Optimize Any Diet: Eliminate Ultraprocessed Food
Understanding ultraprocessed food at the micro-level to protect your health on any diet
So, nutrition is like, the most confusing aspect of health and fitness.
I’m sure many of you already know what I’m talking about. In one direction, people (including scientists) say veganism is healthy. In the complete polar opposite direction, people (also including scientists) are promoting the carnivore diet.
It’s wacky territory, and I tried many different diets before finding the ones that work best for me.
With that said, there is one thing I do no matter my diet: I avoid ultraprocessed food.
“If it didn’t wander the earth or grow in it, don’t eat it.”
For the purposes of this article, ultraprocessed food refers to foods with chemical dyes and additives, junk vegetable oils, and other ingredients added that far remove the food from its natural origins.
The reason I refer to these foods as ultraprocessed instead of processed is because technically processing just means steps have been taken to prepare a food rather than just eating it right away.
Steaks, for example, are “processed” when they are cut and packaged for a grocery store. It’s when you go the extra step and add chemicals and preservatives that you end up with the an ultraprocessed food.
My personal mantra is “if it didn’t wander the earth or grow in it, don’t eat it,” and when in doubt, this is a simple and effective way to avoid junk that you shouldn’t eat.
However, many foods these days are pre-packaged, and some of them are still good to eat, but you need a deeper understanding of ingredients in order to separate healthy from unhealthy.
Chemical additives line the ingredient lists of everything from chips to peanut butter, and without some education, it’s very difficult to learn how to navigate around them.
Thankfully, I spent a lot of time learning to identify the worst ingredients, and I’m here to share that knowledge with you.
In the rest of this article, I am going to show you the 3 major components of ultraprocessed food, and detail how you can avoid them.
There’s a joke in the health community that the real reason so many diets help people is not because they’ve discovered the holy grail of human nutrition, but because they simply make you cut out the junk.
The Big 3 Categories of Food Additives
The common denominator of all ultraprocessed foods is food additives. Of these, there are three major categories:
Artificial Additives, Preservatives & Dyes
Hydrogenated and Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils
Processed Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial Additives, Preservatives & Dyes
I like to start this list with Artificial Additives, Preservatives & Dyes because they are the easiest to understand as “unnatural” and most people already know they are not healthy.
Why do we add these to our food in the first place? There are a variety of reasons but it really comes down to 3 things: appearance, shelf-life, and flavor.
Materials such as anti-caking agents and preservatives are used to stabilize the food so that it will not go bad, and dyes are used to give bland-colored foods more vibrance.
What’s the big deal? Well, most of these ingredients do not appear in nature, and many of them have proven health consequences.
Many food dyes cause cancer in animals, and artificial preservatives such as nitrates and sulfates have been linked to conditions ranging from Altzheimer’s to neurological damage.
Thankfully, avoiding these type of additives is simple. The names for these ingredients are often highly scientific-sounding, and resemble lab chemical names more than food ingredients.
Here’s a short list of common harmful food additives:
Red 40, Yellow 4, & Yellow 5
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
If you see ingredient names that sound like this, the safe bet would be to avoid them.
Instead, your food should have ingredients that sound like the names of food.
The kind of ingredients on your food labels should look something like this:
Himalayan pink salt
All of these are real foods or extracts of real foods, not chemicals that are from an artificial origin. With that said, not all “normal” sounding ingredients are as such, and this brings us to the next section.
Hydrogenated & Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils found their way into our food supply with the advent of partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil in the mid 1800s. A huge industry at the time, for every 100 lbs of cotton fiber, 160 lbs of cottonseeds were created as well.
However, with only 5% of the seeds needed for planting, this left a huge waste supply.
To fix this problem, the inedible cottonseeds were made into oil for lighting stoves. Then the discovery of fossil fuels rendered cottonseed oil again useless.
Rather than cutting losses, the junk vegetable oil went through a process called partial hydrogenation to make cottonseed oil a lard, and it was sold as an alternative to animal fat and butter to be used as a food.
Here’s the problem: partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are a form of trans-fats, have been linked to a host of health problems such as cancers and cardiovascular disease.
Furthermore, PHVOs contribute to another big problem in the nutritional world: Omega fat ratios.
Omega fats are fatty acids that exist in tissues throughout our bodies. Generally speaking, we need a ratio of 2:1 to 1:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids in our body.
However, due to the massive presence of PHVOs in the food supply, many Americans have ratios closer to 20:1.
Ever wonder why fish oil has become so popular? Fish oil has high amounts of Omega-3 fats. The reason your doctor promotes a fish oil supplement is so that you can balance out this wacked-out ratio, but frankly, a better solution is to cut out all the junk Omega-6 sources from ultraprocessed foods.
As you can read in the study linked earlier, poor omega ratios are a risk factor for diabetes, chronic disease, and increased risk of obesity. It’s not a good thing.
Furthermore, like cottonseed oil mentioned earlier, many of the vegetable oils added to food are not fit for human consumption. They are leftover junk from food production, repurposed into preservatives.
So, when it comes to avoiding PHVOs, what should we look for? As mentioned earlier, avoiding pre-packaged food entirely is always a great course of action, but in the absence of that, watch out for ingredients that are labeled “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated.”
Furthermore, avoid fried foods. The process of frying foods can create trans fats from many standard oils.
Lastly, it is good for the reasons mentioned earlier to avoid high Omega-6 content vegetable oils regardless of whether they are hydrogenated or not.
Some common high omega-6 oils used in packaged foods are:
Some great vegetable oils that are low in omega-6 fats are:
Olive oilAvocado oil
Palm oil is technically also low in omega-6 fats but the current agricultural processes for sourcing palm oil are extremely damaging to the environment, so I recommend avoiding that one as well.
Look, sugar is basically a drug. I know that sounds dramatic, and in one sense it is, but on the flip-side, studies have found that processed sugar activates the same receptors in the brain as opiates.
Processed sugar appears to be a major factor in chronic disease, most well known for it’s influence on diabetes and obesity, but also likely to affect the brain.
I don’t think I need to spend too much time convincing you on that one. People are generally well aware of the dangers of processed sugar, but it’s one thing to know something and it’s another to know something.
Personally, I think cutting processed sugar out of your diet is one of the best things you can do for your health.
Different forms of processed sugar are incredibly common, but here are some of the things to avoid.
1. Soda, soft drinks, fruit drinks, and all sugary drinks
Drinks are one of the biggest sources of sugar in the nutritional landscape, and they lack the fibers found in natural sugar sources which slow down the affect on your blood sugar.
If you do nothing else in this article, stop drinking sugary drinks. It can be tough at first, but once you’ve spent a month or two without them, you will likely find sugary drinks to be too much to handle, even if you have a craving.
I pretty much only drink water when it comes to cold drinks, and outside of that I do unsweetened coffee or tea.
I haven’t had a soda in literal years, and even when I break my dietary standards by eating sugary foods, I never drink sugary drinks. It’s not even a discipline thing, it’s just that sugary drinks are so sweet that they don’t even taste good anymore, and I feel so poorly after consuming them that I legitimately don’t like them.
2. Food bars, including so-called “health” bars.
It’s easy enough for me to say stop eating candy bars, but I don’t eat protein bars or health bars either. Much of the time these bars are just candy bars with added whey protein, but even when they do use natural ingredients, they usually still have high sugar content.
Right now my only exception to this rule is Quest bars, which are sweetened with stevia. Even then, I only eat quest bars if I have a major craving. I personally feel that stevia and other sweeteners, while not harmful directly, cause me to crave more sweet things. I’d rather just not risk it.
3. All boxed or packaged food
Between sugar, vegetable oils, and food additives, your best bet for optimizing your diet is to avoid pre-packaged foods entirely and stick with things you could grow in a garden or find wandering the earth.
I cook most of my food, for example. Not because I like cooking (though I do) but because the foods that are not processed with all these harmful ingredients usually need to be refrigerated and cooked.
With that said, it’s good to get in a simple habit of checking the ingredient lists on your food and avoiding anything with either sugar or artificial sweeteners, which brings me to my final point.
4. Artificial Sweeteners
But Keenan? What about diet soda? What about artificial sweeteners?
Well, here’s the scoop and I’m gonna give it to ya.
Artificial sweeteners are not healthy, and may be worse than sugar in many cases.
Sure, there are exceptions, but many artificial sweeteners affect insulin sensitivity enough to be damaging, and some such as aspartame have been linked to neurological damage in animal studies.
However, even without these effects, I think artificial sweeteners are just not worth it. In my experience they just make me crave sweet things, and I’d rather just cut it all out.
Putting things all together, ultraprocessed foods are foods that contain many forms of additives that are unfit for human consumption.
Despite strong evidence, these foods are incredibly commonplace.
Regardless of your diet, one of the best things you can do is elminate these ultraprocessed foods by learning to identify them and avoid them.
The most basic way to do this is to stick with all natural foods in their most un-modified states. I like to use the phrase: if it didn’t grow in the earth or walk on it, don’t eat it.
Basically, most of your food should be from the butcher or from the produce section.
Going beyond that, the 3 big bad ingredients to avoid are
Artificial Additives, Preservatives, and Dyes
Hydrogenated & Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils
These materials are in our food to keep it shelf stable, but many of them are carcinogenic, inflammatory, and bad for your health.
When reading ingredient lists, avoid things that sound more like lab chemicals than food, stay away from high sugar content foods, and avoid the words “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated.”
Nutrition can be complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all diet. However, if there is one thing all healthy eating has in common, it’s cutting out ultraprocessed foods.
As always, thank you for reading and good luck on your personal health and fitness journey.