It’s no surprise that when it comes to nutrition, homemade food tends to be healthier than the packaged stuff you can grab on the run. The longer a food product’s shelf life, the higher levels of sodium, sugar, and saturated fat it’s likely to have, raising risks for health problems like obesity and heart disease.
What you might not have known is that these snacky shortcuts could also be cancer-causing. A new study has linked consumption of ultra-processed foods like instant noodles, frozen meals, packaged cookies, and soft drinks to an increased risk for cancer, especially breast cancer.
To add to the problem, past studies have found that the average American diet draws nearly 60% of its calories from these kinds of foods, calling for a nationwide overhaul in our approach to eating.
Where to start?
“You can’t necessarily pin it down into one nutrient to sustain good health and avoid cancer and heart disease,” says Dr. Pablo Monsivais, an epidemiologist and professor at Washington State University’s Floyd College of Medicine. “That’s part of the problem—people talk about superfoods, but it’s more about the overall balance of a good diet and a variety of nutrients.”
To combat health issues, he recommends following a diet similar to the research-based DASH diet, which balances fresh produce, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products with lean protein and nuts, seeds, and beans.
Preparedness is also key, though registered dietician and representative for the California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Melissa Halas-Liang, says setting aside time to food prep can seem intimidating to those of us with busy schedules.
“It’s like every good habit, just like you plan to get to work on time. It just takes practice,” she explains, and suggests starting with simple changes that can have a long-term impact. “If you focus on counting grams of fiber for a few days, you’re going to be choosing foods higher in important nutrients, like veggies and whole grains. Every time you choose excess processed foods, you’re replacing something healthy. Instead, make your calories count by choosing healthy foods you enjoy, and that also work toward fighting diseases like cancer.”
A busy mom herself, her go-to’s for snacking on the run include easy-to-peel Golden Nugget mandarins, string cheese, Kind bars, and pre-portioned frozen smoothies, made at home with fresh fruit and yogurt.
More and more whole food brands are popping up on grocery shelves as well, offering healthy alternatives so you don’t have to sacrifice your sweet and salty fix—and convenience.
Some of our favorites include crunchy roasted chickpeas from The Good Bean; One Degree Organics granola, made with sprouted oats and yummy additions like cinnamon flax; Lärabar’s Organic with Superfoods bars in yummy combos like Coconut Kale Cacao and Turmeric Ginger Beet; and squeeze packs of nut butter to accompany sliced fruits and veggies, like Justin’s Classic Almond Butter.