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What is ultra processed food? And the best swaps you can make for a healthier diet | Balance

In recent years, there has been increasing concern about the impact of ultra-processed foods on our health.

As more studies reveal the potential dangers associated with these foods, it's essential to understand what ultra-processed foods are, why they can be harmful, and how we can make healthier choices.

Ultra processed food examples

In this article, we will explore the world of ultra-processed foods, discuss their potential health risks, and provide practical tips on reducing their intake.

Additionally, we will share some delicious breakfast recipes and snack ideas to help you make healthier choices.

What is Ultra-Processed Food?

Ultra-processed foods are industrially manufactured products that undergo extensive processing, often containing numerous additives and artificial ingredients.

These foods typically have five or more ingredients, and may include preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners, artificial colors and flavors, and other substances not commonly used in home cooking.

The main goal of ultra-processing is to create convenient, long-lasting, and palatable products that are heavily marketed and readily available to consumers.

The concept of ultra-processed foods was first introduced by Brazilian nutrition researcher Carlos A. Monteiro in 2009 and further developed through the NOVA food classification system. According to NOVA, ultra-processed foods fall into the fourth and most processed category of the classification system.

Which Foods are Ultra-Processed?

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Ice cream

  • Ham and sausages

  • Crisps (potato chips)

  • Mass-produced bread

  • Breakfast cereals

  • Biscuits (cookies)

  • Carbonated drinks (sodas)

  • Fruit-flavored yogurts

  • Instant soups

  • Alcoholic drinks like whisky, gin, and rum

  • Pre-packaged and microwave-ready meals

  • Snack foods like candy bars, pastries, and cakes

  • Plant-based meat and cheese substitutes

It's important to note that not all processed foods are ultra-processed.

Some foods undergo minimal processing to ensure safety, preservation, or palatability but still retain their nutritional value. Examples include canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads, and plain yogurt.

Health Issues Associated with Ultra-Processed Foods

Several studies have linked the consumption of ultra-processed foods to a range of health issues, including:

Obesity and Weight Gain

Research has shown that individuals who consume higher amounts of ultra-processed foods are more likely to gain weight and develop obesity.

This is partly due to the high levels of added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium present in many ultra-processed products, which can increase calorie intake and promote overeating.

Cardiovascular Diseases

Increased consumption of ultra-processed foods has been associated with a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke.

This may be due to the high content of unhealthy fats, added sugars, and sodium found in these foods, which can contribute to high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and inflammation.


Some studies have suggested that consuming higher amounts of ultra-processed foods may be linked to an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer, such as breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer.

While the exact mechanisms are still unclear, it's believed that the additives and artificial ingredients used in ultra-processed foods may play a role in promoting cancer development.


Diets high in ultra-processed foods have also been linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The high levels of added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium found in these foods can contribute to insulin resistance, inflammation, and impaired glucose metabolism, which are key factors in the development of diabetes.

Gut Health

Emerging research suggests that diets high in ultra-processed foods may negatively impact gut health by altering the composition of the gut microbiota, leading to an imbalance between beneficial and harmful bacteria. This imbalance can contribute to inflammation, weakened immune function, and increased susceptibility to various health issues.

Examples of nutritious whole foods and ultra processed foods

How to Reduce Ultra-Processed Food in Your Diet

While it may be challenging to completely eliminate ultra-processed foods from your diet, there are several strategies you can adopt to reduce your intake and make healthier choices:

1. Cook More at Home

Preparing meals at home allows you to have better control over the ingredients used and the level of processing involved. By cooking from scratch, you can avoid additives and artificial ingredients commonly found in ultra-processed foods.

2. Choose Minimally Processed Foods

When shopping for groceries, opt for minimally processed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and plain dairy products. These foods are more nutrient-dense and less likely to contain additives and artificial ingredients.

3. Read Food Labels

Make a habit of reading food labels to identify ultra-processed products. Look for products with a short ingredient list, and avoid those with unfamiliar or artificial ingredients.

4. Practice Portion Control

If you do choose to include ultra-processed foods in your diet, be mindful of portion sizes and avoid overeating. This can help to limit the overall impact of these foods on your health.

5. Make Healthier Swaps

When possible, substitute ultra-processed foods with healthier alternatives. For example, choose whole-grain bread over mass-produced white bread, or make your own flavored yogurt by adding fresh fruit to plain yogurt.

6. Reduce the amount of these foods but don't cut them out entirely if it causes more harm than good

If you find that you are experiencing cravings or urges for these foods that are difficult to manage, continuing to restrict yourself from these foods can lead to overeating and even binge eating (as well as other disordered eating / health outcomes).

Aim to include these foods in controlled portions and focus on the enjoyment and experience of these foods while having them to develop a healthier relationship with these foods and self.

Nutritious Breakfast Recipes

Start your day off right with these delicious and nutritious breakfast recipes that are high in protein and roughly contain between 400 to 600 kcal. Each recipe uses metric measurements for easy preparation.

Protein-Packed Overnight Oats

  • 60g rolled oats

  • 240ml milk of choice

  • 80g Greek yogurt

  • 15g chia seeds

  • 15g honey

  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

  • 60g mixed berries

Combine all ingredients in a jar or container, mix well, and refrigerate overnight. Enjoy cold or warmed up in the morning.

Spinach and Feta Egg Muffins

  • 6 large eggs

  • 100g crumbled feta cheese

  • 100g chopped spinach

  • 60g diced red bell pepper

  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, feta cheese, spinach, and bell pepper. Season with salt and pepper.

Divide the mixture evenly among 6 greased muffin cups.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until set and golden brown.

Healthy Snack Ideas

Swap out ultra-processed snack options for these healthier alternatives:

  • Fresh fruit with a dollop of Greek yogurt

  • Raw vegetables with hummus or guacamole

  • A handful of nuts or seeds

  • Whole grain crackers with cheese or natural nut butter

  • Rice cakes topped with avocado and tomato slices

In Conclusion

By understanding the potential health risks associated with ultra-processed foods and making healthier choices, you can improve your overall diet and well-being.

Incorporate these tips, recipes, and snack ideas into your daily routine to enjoy a more balanced and nutritious lifestyle.

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