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In the News: Ultra-Processed Foods and Health

There’s been a lot of news over the past week about the damaging effects of ultra processed foods. The catalyst for this news was a research article published in BMJ about ultra processed foods and the risk of disease. The umbrella review of 45 meta-analyses found associations between exposure to ultra-processed foods and 32 health parameters, including mortality, cancer, and mental, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic ill health (1).

This sounds scary, right? So let’s dive deep into what this actually means, and what you can take away from it to better your intake, and consequently, your health.

What is Ultra-Processed Food?

First, let’s define what ultra-processed foods are. The umbrella review defines ultra-processed foods as such – “…not merely modified foods… (but) formulations of often chemically manipulated ingredients such as modified starchews, sugars, oils, fats, and protein isolates, with little if any whole food added, made palatable and attractive by using combinations of flavors, colors, emulsifiers, thickeners, and other additives.” (1). This narrows our typical definition to the most processed food items, as opposed to anything that comes in a package. Think of packaged food that has a long list of ingredients and additives, none of which are easily pronounceable.

These foods have typically been processed in such a way that degrades the natural food matrix, causing loss of nutrients, alterations to the digestibility, and nutrient bioavailability (1). In layman’s terms, these foods are energy dense, lack nutrients, and often make you feel poor when you eat them consistently.

The umbrella review points to several health parameters surrounding high intake of these foods, including but not limited to higher instances of type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Research into Action

So what can we do with this information? Cut out all ultra-processed foods forever? While that may be ideal or even easy for some individuals, calling a food taboo and trying to eliminate it entirely from your diet may result in a higher instance of cravings. In fact, a study on undergraduate students found that chocolate deprivation led to a distinct increase in the intake of chocolate, as well as a hyper-fixation on the food itself (2). So completely removing these foods may not be the solution.

But should we eat them all-day, every-day? Also no! The answer to this complicated question is balance and moderation. The umbrella review found that high intake of ultra-processed foods had the strongest correlation with adverse health outcomes. If we are focusing on a balanced intake that consists of mostly whole foods, we are far less likely to experience these types of outcomes when having these more processed items only occasionally.

In the same breath, it is also important to recognize that for some people, these ready-made or convenient foods are often the only option. When we label these foods as “bad” we often fall into guilt or shame when we end up eating them. Instead of considering it a failing on your part for having these foods, do your best to include swap-outs or additions with whole or minimally processed foods as often as you can. This could be as simple as adding a side salad to a pre-made meal, snacking on some fruits or vegetables in between meals, or opting for a ‘plain’ version of something and then flavoring it yourself.

Wrapping Up

Ultimately, research consistently shows us that high intakes of ultra-processed foods will impact our health and wellness. On the flip side, research also consistently shows us that a balanced, whole-food focus has a protective effect on our health. Maybe most importantly, we know from anecdotal evidence, that eating a balanced diet feels good.

If you have more questions about current research in diet and nutrition, or are looking for more personalized recommendations to better your health, talk to one of our nutrition experts today!

References

1. Monteiro C A, Martínez-Steele E, Cannon G. Reasons to avoid ultra-processed foods BMJ 2024; 384 :q439 doi:10.1136/bmj.q439  (x)
2. Polivy, J., Coleman, J. and Herman, C.P. (2005), The effect of deprivation on food cravings and eating behavior in restrained and unrestrained eaters. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 38: 301-309. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.20195  (x)

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