Step away from the chips, cold cuts, and frozen pizza. They may provide on-the-fly meals, but these fast forms of sustenance come with a hidden cost: They tend to be “ultra-processed foods," which are terrible for our bodies. And according to a recent study published in BMJ Open, we’re eating way too much of this junk food. In fact, more than half of Americans’ calories come from ultra-processed foods, the Mayo Clinic reports.

You may know that processed foods contain added sugar, salt, fat, oils, and other ingredients. Ultra-processed foods also contain components that you would typically never add during food prep—colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers, etc.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include sodas, packaged snacks and baked goods, candy and desserts, instant noodles and soups, and frozen meat products like chicken and fish nuggets. They’re tasty—but they also account for 90 percent of all the added sugars Americans eat. (Sugar is linked to a host of health problems, including obesity, elevated blood pressure, tooth decay, diabetes, and a risk of death from heart disease.)

In the new study, researchers from the University of São Paulo and Tufts University examined data from the 2009–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for more than 9000 people and found that a staggering 57.9 percent of their caloric intake came from ultra-processed foods. In contrast, minimally processed or unprocessed foods (meat, plants, eggs, pasta, etc.) accounted for 29.6 percent. Meanwhile, processed foods like canned soups or cheeses made up 9.4 percent of respondents’ caloric intake.

“Decreasing the consumption of ultra-processed foods may be an effective way of reducing the excessive added sugar intake in the U.S.,” said lead researcher Euridice Martinez Steele. By simply eliminating sodas and flavored fruit juices, pre-packaged foods, and pre-made meals from our diets, we can easily improve our health, she says. 

In other words, stop relying on your office vending machine, and pack yourself a real lunch.

Banner image courtesy of iStock

[h/t Mayo Clinic]