The Harmful Truth About Ultra-Processed Foods
Would you like to radically cut your risk of disease? How about vastly improving the nutritional composition of your diet, including a significant reduction in your sugar and salt intake? Do you want a simple, yet very effective way to better manage your waistline? The research is clear. Avoid or greatly limit your intake of highly processed or ultra-processed foods.
What Qualifies As An Ultra-Processed Food?
According to NOVA, a system that classifies food based on the degree it’s been processed, “ultra-processed foods” typically contain little, if any, intact food (food that’s present in its whole or natural state). Instead, these products are made up of a multitude of more processed, food ingredients, including generally high levels of sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats, along with various food additives. They’re designed to be convenient, highly palatable, inexpensive, and have a long shelf-life. They often have sophisticated and attractive packaging and are aggressively marketed to children and teens. They’re also described by many researchers as “obesogenic”, which means they promote over-consumption.
Examples of ultra-processed foods include: carbonated drinks or soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks, salty snacks like pretzels and potato chips, ice cream, candy, cookies, cakes, pastries, sugary breakfast cereals, white bread, pastries, granola bars, instant soups and noodles, ready-to-eat/heat foods like pizza, fish or chicken nuggets, as well as processed meats, like sausages, burgers, and hot dogs.
How Much Are We Eating?
Over the last 70 years, the consumption of ultra-processed foods has more than doubled in many parts of the world. They now dominate the food supply in many high-income countries, with the United States and Canada leading the way. Middle-income countries are increasingly consuming these products as well.
Which age group consumes the most? One of the most striking and alarming findings of a recent report commissioned by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and prepared by Dr. Jean-Claude Moubarac from the University of Montreal, was the very high consumption of ultra-processed foods by older children (age 9 to 13) and adolescents (age 14 to 18). The report stated that for many, almost 60% of their calories were coming from ultra-processed foods, with those in the highest consumption categories, also consuming very few freshly prepared dishes and meals, and almost no vegetables or legumes. We now have a generation of kids, literally growing up on a diet heavily skewed with unhealthy, nutrient-poor foods.
Your Health Takes A Beating
Ultra-processed foods are bad for you and your family. These foods significantly increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. They lead to spikes in blood sugar, high blood pressure, unhealthy blood cholesterol levels, and chronic inflammation throughout the body. They’re harmful to gut health, including the health of your microbiome. The more you eat, the greater your chance of becoming overweight or obese.
A Devastating Impact on Diet Quality
Researchers call diets centered around ultra-processed foods as “grossly nutritionally inferior” as compared to diets based on unprocessed or minimally processed foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals. The more you eat, the worse your diet.
When you replace healthier, less processed foods in your diet with ultra-processed foods, this is what happens:
- Your intake of protein, fibre, vitamins A, C, D, E, and B vitamins, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, and valuable plant compounds, all decrease significantly
- Your intake of calories, carbohydrates, added sugar, sodium, and saturated fats, all increase significantly
In addition to their poor nutrient density, ultra-processed foods are also less satiating. They don’t fill you up and satisfy hunger the same way that whole, more natural foods do.
Sugar & Salt Overload
Ultra-processed foods are loaded with sugar and salt, containing double to triple the amounts found in less processed foods. It’s simply impossible to keep your intake of sugar and salt within recommended levels, if you eat a lot of these foods.
Excess sugar in your diet significantly increases your risk of many diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and liver disease.
A high intake of sodium greatly increases your risk of high blood pressure, which leads to heart attacks, heart failure, strokes, and kidney disease. In addition, the optimal way to achieve a healthy blood pressure is to both lower your sodium intake, while increasing your potassium intake – the exact opposite of what happens when you consume high quantities of ultra-processed foods. A high potassium diet signals your body to reduce the amount of sodium your body holds on to.
Reducing Your Consumption
There are many factors that influence the intake of ultra-processed foods. Without question, the advertising and marketing of these foods has an extremely powerful influence, especially on our youth. Government regulations that limit this advertising is our best bet here. For adults, lack of time and not knowing how to prepare or cook foods from scratch also plays a significant role. It’s critical that we get the whole family back in the kitchen and that everyone learns to cook. Small changes also make a difference – instead of reaching for a granola bar for your morning or afternoon snack, enjoy a small handful of nuts with a piece of fresh fruit. Finally, it’s important to recognize that not all ultra-processed foods are equally bad. Sugary soft drinks, for example, have no redeeming value. In contrast, a super, high-fibre cereal, although still considered ultra-processed, can definitely fit into a healthy eating plan.
Ultra-processed foods are extremely harmful to health. They cause disease and increase waistlines. They’re nutritionally barren and loaded with sugar and salt. Eating more whole, natural foods that have been minimally processed, including more home-cooked meals, should be a top priority for all.
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The charts shown above all come from the following report commissioned by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada: Moubarac, JC. “Ultra-processed foods in Canada: consumption, impact on diet quality and policy implications.” Montréal: TRANSNUT, University of Montreal; December 2017. (Read the full report here)
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