Ready to heat and eat meals, pre-packaged snacks, sugary drinks, sweets and processed meats. These may be the survival tactics of a working parent needing to squeeze a meal in between work and sports practice.
But a recent article in JAMA Internal Medicine details how the quick and delicious foods we love to eat may be killing us. The article talks about ultra-processed foods – such as snacks, desserts, fast food and premade foods we buy to heat up at home. The study found an increase in early death by 14%, with each 10% increase in the amount of ultra-processed food in our diet. For example, if you increase ultra-processed food by 30% you would increase risk of early death by 42%! This is very scary considering more than 60% of the American diet is made up of these foods. The reason? The characteristics of these foods lead to an increase in weight, cancer and cardiovascular diseasesI believe all know, in our hearts, these types of foods aren't good for us, but we keep on eating them. Why? First, they taste good, as they are generally loaded with fat and sugar. Secondly, they are easy and quick.
We all lead busy lives, and cooking a healthy meal may be the last thing we think we have time for. I have four kids and a full time job. My kids have sports and other activities that make evenings at my house crazy!!
I believe there are ways to work around the time constraints and find ways to work healthier meals into our lives. Batch cooking is the way I am able to have a meal on the table in just a few minutes without calling for takeout. I chose Sunday as my cooking day.
If you are new to batch cooking, start small please. Pick one meal you want to precook or prepare for. The easiest way to start is to cook a soup. Vegan soups stay fresh longer because they have no dairy and no meats, but a chili or any of your favorite soup recipes will work. A family favorite is this soup recipe.
Make time to prepare your soup when you aren't rushed. Once cool put in refrigerator in a sealed container, or portion individually to take to work for lunch during the week.
You can also batch prepare your breakfasts. My husband and I have a vegetable and fruit smoothie daily for our breakfast. We prepare the bags, which contain strawberries, blackberries, spinach and broccoli, for the week on Sundays, and are ready to blend up our smoothies easily while getting the kids ready for school. While the kids eat, we blend our smoothie bags with almond milk and plant-based yogurt.
Another way to beat the time crunch and eat less ultra-processed food is to plan your meals for the week before you go shopping. It sounds simple but many do not do it. If you are prepared and have all needed ingredients, you are less likely to make spur of the moment purchases at the store or opt for takeout.
Start by making a list of the meals your family likes and are fairly simple to make. This will differ for every family, for example, we have taco Wednesdays. My children eat turkey tacos, and my husband and I have no-fat refried bean tacos, with a healthy dollop of hot sauce. We never tire of this meal, and it's much healthier than getting tacos at the local fast food restaurant.
If you buy lunch out every day, start small and aim to take your lunch two days a week. You will be saving money and calories, and I bet you will feel better after your homemade soup rather than a fat-laden takeout meal.
You can also pre-chop vegetables for a meal and precook your meat ahead of time.
In general home cooked meals, whether meat-based or plant-based, will be lower in fat and calories than those purchased outside the home.
I often tell my patients when discussing diet changes, start small please. Let's work together to make on small change at a time and build on your success. Don't try to change your world overnight. Aim to start taking your lunch to work more and ordering takeout less! Try to cook half your dinners at home instead of eating out or getting takeout.
Good luck in your adventure to become healthier and eat less ultra-processed foods.
By Victoria Othersen, DO
Franciscan Physician Network Beech Grove Family Medicine