Should I be avoiding ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods go beyond “processed.” Processing food is, for example, taking corn off the cob and canning it. Ultra-processing corn might mean extracting parts of the natural ingredient to remake it in a different form. Ultra-processed foods might mean corn chips, or it might mean cornstarch contained in an entirely different food product altogether.

My context for answering your question is that most women at midlife find that it’s more difficult to maintain the weight they’d choose. There are a number of reasons for that, which I’ve addressed elsewhere, but the fact is that conscious eating is more important to us now than when we were younger. 

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. -Michael Pollan

Ultra processed foods are more likely to have added ingredients like sugar, salt, and fat. That often means that they’re higher in calories than we might suspect, too. In one small study, participants who ate an ultra-processed diet ingested about 500 more calories each day than their counterparts eating an unprocessed diet. Their diet was also higher in carbohydrates and fats, and lower in protein. A larger French study found that a diet including more ultra-processed foods led to higher risks for cardiovascular, coronary, and cerebrovascular disease.

All of that said, I’d say that limiting ultra-processed foods is likely more realistic for most people than avoiding them altogether. I favor Michael Pollan’s “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” summary. And note that when he says “food,” he means things our great-grandmothers would recognize, the fewer ingredients the better.