If we shouldn’t eat ultraprocessed foods, what should we eat instead?

By Katia Hetter, CNN

CNN  —  Many people love their ultraprocessed foods.

Sodas, chips, ice cream, lunch meat and other prepared foods are staples of the American diet. They are hard to avoid, too. More than 70 percent of the US food supply is made of ultraprocessed food.

But a diet heavy in ultraprocessed food isn’t good for us, science has shown. Eating ultraprocessed foods raises the risk of developing or dying from dozens of health conditions, according to a February review covering nearly 10 million people.

Science has also shown that when you eat Mediterranean meals, which focus on vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and fish, you can reduce the risk of some cancersdiabetesheart disease, high cholesterol and stroke. Adopting this approach to eating can also improve brain health, strengthen bones and ward off depression and dementia.

Hot dogs and cookies are delicious, though. So, what to do?

Spot the troublesome ingredients

Many ultraprocessed foods have very long lists of ingredients and include additives, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. If you can’t pronounce the names in your food’s ingredient list, that’s a warning sign.

The list may include preservatives designed to resist mold and bacteria; emulsifiers to keep incompatible ingredients from separating; artificial colorings and dyes; anti-foaming, bulking, bleaching, gelling and glazing agents; and added or altered sugar, salt and fats designed to make food more appealing. All are signs that the food is ultraprocessed.

Skip eating out when you can’t tell what ingredients are in your food, and note that many items on fast-food restaurant menus can be ultraprocessed (such as hot dogs, hamburgers, nuggets and fries).

Start with breakfast

Breakfast may be the easiest meal to change. Instead of sugar-fortified cereal or toaster waffles, have some warm and filling ancient grains such as quinoa, sorghum or wheat berries cooked with milk, honey, nuts and fruits. No time in the morning to prepare breakfast? Prep these overnight oats the night before. Or have a simple small bowl of plain Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and a sprinkle of sliced nuts to go.

How processed is your lunch?

Instead of a loaded deli sandwich or slices of pizza every day, try to bring your own plant-based lunch once or twice per week. I love adding roast chicken leftovers to this kale ricotta salad (sub in feta if you can’t find the ricotta). Or make this dish by registered dietitian Rahaf Al Bochi, founder of Olive Tree Nutrition. She created her Warm Farro Grain Salad With Pomegranate for CNN’s Eat, But Better newsletter.

Need more ideas? Check out CNN contributor Casey Barber’s ideas for school lunch. Try our interactive to help you buy the least ultraprocessed lunch you can.

Is it time for a snack?

Snacks can be tricky. The no-fly list of ultraprocessed food is loaded with store-bought chips, sugar-packed yogurts and candy-filled trail mix.

Instead, think about apples, oranges, bananas, carrot sticks, and other fruits and veggies.

Protein-packed nuts and seeds are filling while also providing a brain boost and heart-healthy fats.

If you want to get fancy, Al Bochi created this roasted almond snack for CNN that features the Mediterranean spice blend za’atar. Suzy Karadsheh’s avocado salsa dip is also amazing for movie nights, the big game and parties (whichever one you choose).

Dinner during the week

With dinner a rushed affair for many overscheduled families, it can be impossible to cook during the week. Try to avoid fast-food burgers and chicken nuggets when you can.

Instead, consider grilling chicken or cooking ground turkey on the weekend for easy-assemble Tuesday taco night. Karadsheh also has a Mediterranean twist on tuna salad that will convert even the most anti-tuna eaters (which once included me).

May I have dessert, please?

Baked goods and ice cream are fine for special occasions, but for an everyday dessert that’s not highly processed, Al Bochi’s recipe for Strawberry Ricotta Granola Parfaits is next level.

For something grown-up, try poaching pears with pomegranate juice or port and serve them over yogurt or bake pears and other fruits in parchment.

Does this still sound too hard?

Ultraprocessed foods are designed to be fun and taste good. Reducing your reliance on them can be hard. Try one suggestion at a time, for a week at a time.

Need more support on getting on track with a healthier diet? Sign up for our Eat, But Better: Mediterranean style newsletter, and we’ll help you figure it out.

CNN’s Sandee LaMotte and Madeline Holcombe contributed to this story.

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