More Than Half of the Standard American Diet Can Be Purchased at Your Local 7-Eleven

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A new study finds ultra-processed foods account for more than half the daily calories consumed by many Americans. REUTERS/Jim Young

The occasional Ding Dong or Cuppa Noodles probably won’t kill you if you balance it out with things that are good like fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. But a new study published March 9 in BMJ finds too many Americans are relying on these foods of convenience as a primary source of sustenance.

According to the study, these so-called “ultra-processed” foods make up more than half of the calories consumed in the typical American diet. Ultra-processed foods include items such as candy, salty snacks, packaged sweets and baked goods like cakes and cookies, chicken and fish nuggets and instant noodle soups. It’s the foods that seem to withstand time and remain edible in very unnatural way. They’re filled with emulsifiers, additives, chemicals and preservatives, as well as high levels of sugar, salt and fat.

For the study, researchers analyzed 2009 to 2010 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, produced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report accounted for the eating habits of more than 9,000 adults in the U.S. On average, people in the study consumed 2,070 calories daily.

The researchers found a startling 58 percent of calories came from ultra-processed foods, and unprocessed foods made up just 30 percent of dietary intake. Processed foods, including deli meat, cheeses and canned vegetables made up nearly 10 percent of daily calories. Foods classified as “processed culinary ingredients”—such as table sugar, plant oils and animal fats—accounted for 3 percent of dietary calories.

In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released new dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years. They recommended Americans limit calories from sugar to no more than 10 percent of daily food intake. It was the first time the committee that draws up the guidelines set a quantifiable limit on sugar intake.

It’s impossible to avoid consuming copious amounts of sugar if one does most of their grocery shopping at a gas station, since added sugar accounts for one of every five calories in these types of packaged foods. In the study, the ultra-processed foods appeared to be the primary source of refined sugar. The only people who are able to avoid exceeding recommended daily sugar intake were those who consumed less than 20 percent of their daily calories through ultra-processed food. The researchers suggest that an effective way to limit sugar consumption is simply by cutting down on these empty calories.

It probably comes of little surprise that these items don’t bring anything to table in terms of nutritional value. But even worse, eating ultra-processed foods is associated with a number of chronic health conditions including diabetes, obesity, heart attack, stroke and cancer.