We get it: After a long day, it’s really tempting to just pop a frozen meal into the microwave for dinner and be done with it. But in this case, going for convenience (and fewer dishes) may seriously raise your risk of heart disease.
Highly processed foods (sometimes called “ultra-processed”) include things like ready-to-eat or frozen meals (yes, even ones that claim to be healthy in other ways), sugary cereals, soda, dehydrated vegetable soups, and packaged snacks and baked goods. These foods often contain a ton of added sugar, salt, or fat and not a lot of the good stuff, like vitamins and fiber.
Eating these ultra-processed foods was linked with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and death in two large studies recently published in the journal BMJ. The solution? Pretty simple, though perhaps harder to implement: Eat more fresh and whole foods.
One of the studies found that eating more than four servings of ultra-processed foods per day was associated with a 62% greater risk of death compared with consuming two or fewer servings a day. Each additional serving raised the risk by 18%, the study authors reported.
The second study found that even a 10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed food in a person’s diet significantly raised rates of cardiovascular diseases about 12%. Researchers say these links are so alarming that we need more policies worldwide that help people eat more healthfully.
Smart Swaps: Healthy Alternatives to Processed Foods
In the United States, these ultra-processed foods may account for up to 60% of calories, 90% of added sugars, and 70% of the sodium in an average person’s diet, according to the American Heart Association (AHA)—yikes. Life gets busy, so it’s no wonder people turn to the ease of ready-to-eat foods when it comes to their meals and snacking needs. But for the sake of your heart health, fresh and whole foods are the better choice when stocking your kitchen.
Don’t know where to start? Here are some healthy alternatives to some common processed foods.
Instead of: Microwaved popcorn
Try: Buy the kernels and pop them on the stovetop or with an airpopper (and go easy on the salt and butter), says the AHA.
Instead of: Packaged potato chips
Try: Raw veggies, like carrot sticks or celery dipped in hummus, or homemade salty veggie chips. You can find recipes online for everything from kale chips to sweet potato chips. And they’re super easy to make.
Instead of: Frozen, ready-to-eat meals like microwave dinners and frozen pizzas
Try: A meal-delivery service, like HelloFresh or Blue Apron, is a great option for busy folks who don’t have tons of time to spend planning meals and shopping for ingredients. These services typically have plenty of options for 30-minute meals to choose from, and they’ll send the ingredients and easy-to-follow recipe right to your door. Another solution? Join the meal-prep revolution. Spend an hour or two on Sundays cooking large portions of healthy foods that you can combine quickly in storage containers to heat up at a moment’s notice throughout the week for lunch and dinner. Try something easy to start, like grilled chicken and veggies.
Instead of: Sugary cereals and other packaged breakfast options
Try: Overnight oats, Greek yogurt with berries and a drizzle of honey, or scrambled eggs sautéed with veggies and a dash of hot sauce. Try this heart-healthy recipe for overnight, no-cook banana oatmeal from the AHA. In a rush? Grab a yogurt, banana, and some almonds to go! If you just can’t kick the cereal habit, look for plain cereals rather than options with a ton of added sugar, and add fresh berries for sweetness instead, says the AHA.
Instead of: Packaged sweet treats
Try: A few squares of dark chocolate may satisfy when you need a quick fix. But for something more special, it’s healthiest to make it yourself. That way you can control the ingredients that go in to your favorite desserts and minimize unhealthy sweeteners. The AHA has tons of recipes for heart-healthy desserts, including blackberry cobbler and avocado-dark chocolate glazed donuts. Yes! Donuts!