How Ultra-Processed is Your Diet?

Every once in awhile, I’ll read a new nutrition study and think to myself, “ duh.” While this most recent study falls into that category, it serves as a great reminder that our nutritional choices do, in fact, become our biology. With increasingly evolving food technology, food choices and food categories have expanded, making it harder to make good choices. Not only do we have processed and unprocessed foods, but we now have the emergence of an entirely new category of “ultra-processed” foods.

While our personal philosophy at The Body Shop is one of moderation when it comes to diet (aka eating 80% “clean” and 20% flexible) --we do stand behind the idea that the category of ultra-processed foods should be avoided entirely from your diet.

A recent study out of JAMA (Journal of the American Medicine Association) confirms that a diet high in the consumption of ultra-processed food has an overall increased risk of mortality (death). Before we get into the study, let’s examine what ultra-processed foods are.

Definition of Ultra-processed Foods

The term of ultra-processed food was created by the Brazilian nutrition researcher Carlos Monteiro. It is a fairly new concept with no cut and dry definition, however, NOVA, a well-known food classification system, has included it while outlining food in 4 different categories:  

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods - think foods with only ONE ingredient and that come from the earth like beans, grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, meat, fish, eggs, milk

  2. Processed culinary ingredients - unprocessed foods become processed when we chop, heat and add things like spices, herbs, and cooking oils. The key term here is “culinary ingredients” which are normal household ingredients used to create create fresh meals.

  3. Processed foods (PFs) - When foods are manipulated to be packaged, stored and stay fresh longer, additional additives will be included.  These additives would be those not normally used during culinary processing in the home. Note, not all processed foods are terrible for you, think high quality breads, canned tuna, hummus.

  4. Ultra-processed foods and drinks (UPFDs) - This category of food typically go through multiple steps of processing and contain many ingredients that appear unfamilar in foods —chemicals that you might find in a school science class. Besides common household ingredients like salt, sugar and oils, they contain substances not used in our everyday kitchens like additives used to imitate the color, smell and taste of minimally processed foods (think of the difference between a real strawberry and strawberry flavored poptart). These Franken-foods include poor quality chocolates, packaged baked goods, most microwavable dinners, packaged soups, cereals and some sauces.

“Ultra-processed” seems like an appropriate term for this TV diner.

“Ultra-processed” seems like an appropriate term for this TV diner.

Unfortunately, dietary research indicates the ultra-processed foods makes up more than half of all calories in the US diet. This food category also contributes to nearly 90% of all added sugars. It’s safe to say that the majority of us are not making great choices.


This Jama study out of France was an observational study, which included individuals 45 years or older--- a total of 44,551 people were included, of which 73.1% were women.

Participants were studied for 2 years, while periodically completing 24-hour dietary records. The data that was collected included sociodemographics, lifestyle, physical activity level and anthropometrics (height, weight, body fat%).

At the conclusion of the study, ultra-processed foods accounted for a 14.4% of the total weight of the diet and about 29.1% of totally calorie intake. A total of 602 deaths (1.4%) occurred during follow-up. After adjustment for and taking into account other lifestyle factors, an increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods consumed was associated with a 14% higher risk of all-cause mortality.

This study serves as a reminder to re-evaluate your diet. How processed are you eating? Here are 5 things you should start doing immediately to clean-up your act if you feel like your choosing foods from the wrong category.

  1. Eliminate soft drinks and energy drinks

  2. Prepare more meals at home. This requires carving out more time for cooking, shopping and meal prep. Not always easy but worth your health.

  3. Find the best versions of the foods you enjoy. There is less processed versions of almost every food in the grocery store. This will require becoming somewhat of an ingredient detective and maybe spending a dollar or two extra. Trader Joe’s or healthy food sections of Shopright and Stop&Shop are a good place to start.

  4. Start reading ingredient lists on EVERYTHING that you buy at the grocery store, especially anything from that comes in a box, bag or can.

  5. Clean out your food pantry at home. Throw out/ donate the ultra-processed foods. You can tell the level of processing by reading ingredient lists.