Tips for Quick Meals, Avoiding Processed Foods

The evidence has been growing for years that diets heavy in red meat raises a person’s risk for colorectal cancers. More recent studies have linked a higher risk for cancer to overly processed meats and other foods which are heavy in added sugars and sodium nitrates, the chemical compound added to hot dogs, bacon and other cured meats to help preserve them.

A recent study made headlines by linking “ultra processed” foods with a higher risk of cancer. The food that researchers classified as ultra-processed included cakes, chicken nuggets, sweet pastries, biscuits, dairy desserts, ice cream and mass-produced bread.  A 10 percent increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in the diet was associated with an increased cancer risk of 10 percent or more.

“Further studies are needed to better understand the relative effect of the various dimensions of processing (nutritional composition, food additives, contact materials, and neoformed contaminants) in these associations,” the study’s authors concluded.

The American Heart Association (AHA) concedes that foods are processed – changed, prepared or packaged – in some way before they get to the consumer. “They fall somewhere on a spectrum from minimally processed (like salad mix, bagged dry beans, roasted nuts or frozen fruits and vegetables) to what some nutrition experts refer to as highly or ultra processed (like ready-to-eat meals and snack foods),” the AHA states.

If you’re eating too much processed foods, you’re likely getting too much sodium, added sugars and unhealthy fats, dietitians agree. But they’re hard to avoid. Highly processed foods contribute to almost 60 percent of calories and 90 percent of added sugars in the American diet, according to a 2016 research study.

An ideal way to diminish your exposure to processed foods is to purchase unpackaged or uncanned products that are as whole as possible, such as fruits, vegetables, poultry and fish. For example, slice up leftover grilled chicken for sandwiches, instead of always using packaged lunch meat.

Preparing quick meals at home to save time can help families avoid overly processed foods, especially fast-food and unhealthy takeout/delivery foods, says Cathy Clark-Reyes, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Baptist Health Primary Care.

“Cooking dinner can sometimes seem like the last thing you want to do,” says Ms. Clark-Reyes. “Cooking your own meals will save you money and let you control each ingredient you put into your body.”

Ms. Clark-Reyes offers the following tips for creating quick meals:

  • Try prepping meals during down-time and on weekends.
  • Start with the items that take the longest.
  • Then work on the items that are quick.
  • Pre-cut, pre-wash produce to help save time.
  • Use skinless and boneless protein items which cook faster.
  • Slice and cut food into thinner pieces and cover the food.

The American Heart Association and dietitians offer these tips for choosing healthier processed foods:

Stick to the perimeter. When shopping, try to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store or supermarket to find the freshest fruits, vegetables and other products. The most processed foods are kept mainly in the aisles.

Understand ingredients. Look for products where you can read, recognize and pronounce the ingredients.

The most natural sources. Look for the most natural sources of food – natural butter vs. spreads; vegetables vs. processed veggie chips; plain oatmeal vs. packaged flavored, and so on.

Read food labels. Choose products without a lot of sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats. Learn what to look for in the Nutrition Facts label, ingredients list and other package claims.

Look for the Heart-Check mark. The American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark will help you find packaged foods that can be part a healthy eating pattern. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification.

Make smart choices when eating out. Choose restaurants where food is cooked to order or there are designated healthier menu options.  Ask how food is prepared, which items are made to order in-house vs. prepackaged, and if you can make substitutions.

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