Fitness enthusiasts can often get caught up in the details of nutrition. Is kale better than spinach? (Not necessarily!) Should I eat salmon or halibut? (Why not both?) Are protein shakes a suitable dessert? (Up to you, dude!)
But when push comes to pepperoni, maybe the best advice the average person should follow is to simply eat food that’s actually food.
It sounds silly, but we’re serious. Here’s why: In a huge cross-sectional study of what Americans shovel into their gullets every day, researchers at the University of São Paulo and Tufts University found that more than half of the foods that Americans eat are “ultra-processed.”
The researchers define ultra-proccessed foods as those containing substances you wouldn’t ordinarily use while cooking—“flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives”—that either “imitate unprocessed or minimally processed foods” or “disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.” They’re packed with stuff designed to trick your senses into thinking that the gunk you’re about to eat actually tastes, smells, or looks like the real food you should be eating.
Now, to be clear: Anything that’s passed through human hands or a machine is minimally processed, at least to some degree, as far as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is concerned. “Processed” food can refer to baby carrots and a carton of egg whites, for example, since they’ve gone through at least a little handling between the farm and your table.
Ultra-processed foods, on the other hand, are literally sham food. And they make up a whopping 57.9% of the American diet. By comparison, minimally processed or unprocessed foods—like meat, most fruits and vegetables, eggs, pasta, and milk—make up only 29.6% of Americans’ daily food consumption. The rest of the average American diet consists of just plain "processed" foods (as opposed to ultra-processed or minimally processed ones) like cheese.
And that’s not even the worst of it. Far scarier is the data on added sugars.
The healthiest eaters in America typically restrict their sugars to the naturally occurring stuff in fruits and vegetables, which means they get about 7.5% of their total energy from added sugars. Not bad, right? But the unhealthiest eaters get a whopping 19.5% of their energy from added sugars—double the U.S. daily guidelines recommended amount of 10%.
What’s to blame for those huge quantities of sugar? Ultra-processed foods, of course, which contribute 89.7% of the added sugars in the American diet, according to the new study.
And while you probably already know this, excess refined sugars are really, really bad for you. “Foods higher in added sugars,” the authors write, “are often a source of empty calories with minimum essential nutrients or dietary fibre, which displace more nutrient-dense foods and lead, in turn, to simultaneously overfed and undernourished individuals.” The researchers also point to a significant body of research from some of the most prestigious health organizations in the world, which suggests that “a high intake of added sugars” increases the risk of gaining weight, obesity, type-2 diabetes, strokes, heart disease, cancer, and dental problems, just to name a few.
What to eat, then? Start with these guides, and as always, check out all our stories on what to eat to stay fit.