How to reduce ultra-processed foods in your diet

By Kenda Hettinger, a Recent ASU Nutrition Student

I grew up on microwave lasagna meals and Velveeta shells and cheese. I am not the only one, this is normal for many people. Ultra-processed foods have become dominant in our food system (1). It happens because we keep ourselves so busy. In a lot of homes, both parents work and multiple kids are in after school extracurricular activities. This leaves us scrambling to create easy and fast meals. Processed and fast food become the go-to.


What is processed food?


Not all processed foods are bad, and it is important to differentiate between processed foods and ultra-processed foods.


  • Processed food is one that has been altered from its original state. For example, a peeled and steamed carrot is processed.


  • Ultra-processed foods are manufactured using several ingredients and a series of processes. Examples are soft drinks, potato chips, pre-prepared frozen meals, refined pasta.

When food becomes an ultra-processed food it depletes the food of essential nutrients. These foods are also often calorie-dense and higher in saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. Multiple studies have linked ultra-processed foods to obesity, heart disease, diabetes mellitus, and overall increased rates of death (2,3,4).


How to reduce your consumption.


  1. Make time to plan out your meals. Being prepared makes all the difference, especially when you are first starting to cut out highly processed foods.
  2. Take time on a non-busy day to prep for the rest of the week. This doesn’t have to mean prepping entire meals. A lot of times I just take time to wash and rinse vegetables and fruits.
  3. Start switching your white pasta and bread to whole grain pasta and bread. If you have a family sensitive to texture, start slow. I started mixing white and whole wheat pasta, steadily increasing the amount of whole wheat until I was cooking only whole wheat pasta.
  4. If you are going out to eat, take time beforehand to look up the restaurant’s menu online. Knowing what you are going to order ahead of time gives you an upper hand.
  5. Read all labels. Avoid pre-packaged items that contain ingredients that are not whole foods such as but not limited to; high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, aspartame, and sodium nitrate.

Check out the Fill Your Plate Blog for articles about healthy eating. Ever wonder what produce is in season? Check out the Arizona Produce in Season section.



  1. Monteiro, C., Moubarac, J., Cannon, G., Ng, S., & Popkin, B. (2013). Ultra‐processed products are becoming dominant in the global food system. Obesity Reviews, 14(S2), 21-28.


  1. Schnabel, L., Kesse-Guyot, E., Allès, B., Touvier, M., Srour, B., Hercberg, S., . . . Julia, C. (2019). Association Between Ultraprocessed Food Consumption and Risk of Mortality Among Middle-aged Adults in France. JAMA Internal Medicine, 179(4), 490-498.


  1. Srour, B., Fezeu, L., Kesse-Guyot, E., Allès, B., Méjean, C., Andrianasolo, R., . . . Touvier, M. (2019). Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: Prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé). BMJ, 365, L1451.


  1. Micha, R., Wallace, S., & Mozaffarian, D. (2010). Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Circulation, 121(21), 2271-2283.
  2. Photo by Rustic Vegan on Unsplash
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