It is possible to build a healthy diet with ultra-processed foods, study finds

It still follows the recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).

Scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center led a study that demonstrates it is possible to build a healthy diet with 91 percent of the calories coming from ultra-processed foods (as classified using the NOVA scale) while still following the recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The study highlights the versatility of using DGA recommendations in constructing healthy menus.

“The study is a proof-of-concept that shows a more balanced view of healthy eating patterns, where using ultra-processed foods can be an option,” said ARS Research Nutritionist Julie Hess at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. “According to current dietary recommendations, the nutrient content of a food and its place in a food group is more important than the extent to which a food was processed.”

In the study, scientists used the NOVA scale to determine which foods to classify as ultra-processed. The NOVA scale first appeared in literature in 2009 and is the most commonly used scale in nutrition science to classify foods by degree of processing.

According to the NOVA scale, foods can be classified into four groups depending on their degree of processing: (1) Unprocessed or minimally processed foods; (2) Processed culinary ingredients; (3) Processed foods; and (4) Ultra-processed foods. The menu consisted of foods categorized as ultra-processed by at least two NOVA graders.

Some of the ultra-processed foods used in the menu included canned beans, instant oatmeal, ultra-filtered milk, whole wheat bread, and dried fruit.

This research shows that there is a role for a variety of foods when building a healthy diet and that more research is needed in this field, especially intervention studies.

Image credit- iStock

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