What makes ultra-processed foods so bad for your health?

Answer: They are calorie-rich, nutrient-poor and hard to stop eating

FOOD SHOPPING has become a dangerous pursuit. Nutritional horrors lurk on every shelf. Ready-meals are packed with salt and preservatives, breakfast cereals are sweeter than chocolate bars, and processed meats are packed with nitrite-preservatives, which can form harmful compounds when cooked. A new term is catching on to describe these nutritional bad guys: ultra-processed foods (UPFs). In his new book, “Ultra-Processed People”, Chris van Tulleken, a doctor and television presenter, argues that UPFs dominate the food supply in rich countries, and are also creeping into diets in low- and middle-income countries. As they proliferate, so do concerns about their effects on human health. Just how bad are UPFs, and what do they do to us?

The concept of UPFs was devised by Carlos Monteiro, a Brazilian scientist, in 2009. His team of nutritionists observed that although people in Brazil were buying less sugar and oil, rates of obesity and type-2 diabetes were rising. Despite the reduction on buying, they were eating more sugar, fats and additives in packaged snacks and pre-made meals. In response, Mr Monteiro proposed a food classification system to take into account the degree of processing involved in the food supply.

Processing can make healthy foods unhealthy: fruit, for instance, goes from healthy to unhealthy as it is desiccated, squeezed or sweetened. Monteiro’s system, called Nova, puts foods into four “buckets”: unprocessed and minimally processed foods; processed culinary ingredients; processed foods; and ultra-processed foods. This allows more graded distinction between different degrees of processing. Thus staples such as rice, oil or flour, which all require minimal processing for consumption, do not belong in the same category as a Twinkie.

UPFs often go through many sophisticated industrial processes. That does not make them all unhealthy by default—a soya-based meat substitute can be part of a balanced meal—but the frequent consumption of UPFs causes a constellation of issues. Most contain a blend of artificial ingredients, plenty of salt and sugar, and few nutrients. Arguably, some UPFs are more akin to industrial products than food.

By dialing up their flavors and palatability, UPFs are engineered to be easier to eat in large amounts than whole foods (try leaving crisps at the bottom of the packet). The extent of the problem was revealed in 2019 by researchers at the National Institutes of Health in America who sequestered volunteers and offered two groups as much food as they wanted. Over a fortnight those on an ultra-processed diet ate some 500 more calories each day, roughly equivalent to a McDonald’s Big Mac, leading them to gain weight; those on the unprocessed diet ate less and slimmed down.

Eating UPFs has also been linked to poor health more broadly. Another study in 2019 found an association between intake of UPFs and overall risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, which affect the brain, causing strokes. Another recent study showed, expectantly, that eating fewer UPFs was linked with lower risk of a number of cancers. A UPF-heavy diet also seems to affect the gut microbiome, the trillions of intestinal bacteria that contribute to health in a range of ways. These sorts of association studies cannot prove causality. Randomized-controlled trials would be ideal, but more ambitious tests may not be ethically possible given the suspected deleterious effect of these kinds of diets. That said, there is plenty of evidence linking many ingredients in UPFs, such as sugar, salt, refined carbohydrates and saturated fats, to negative health outcomes.

Yet UPFs are cheap, tasty and abundant, and for those on a tight budget or on specific diets, such as vegan, there are often few available alternatives. It is possible to eat well by selecting the right UPFs, such as whole-grain cereals, which are often fortified. Government scientists at the American government’s Agricultural Research Service showed it was possible to build a healthy diet with 91% of calories from selected UPFs. But Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, criticized the study, saying the researchers had a conflict of interest through their links to the food industry. Better stay vigilant in those treacherous supermarket aisles.

To get you started, below are a few foods to avoid:

White Bread

White bread is considered to be unhealthy because of its primary ingredient refined wheat. When consumed in large quantities, White bread can be harmful to the body. Refined wheat is low in various vitamins and Fiber [1] which cause rapid increases in blood sugar when consumed in large quantities. The buildup of blood sugar can lead to diabetes and other diseases/complications. If you react negatively to gluten and carbs, white bread will be quite damaging to your system. Reduce your intake of white bread or take healthy alternatives like wheat bread or brown bread.

Sugary Drinks

As the name implies, drinks with high sugar content are harmful to the body when consumed. Sugary drinks (liquid calories) can trick the brain because they are not recognized as food therefore it becomes a quick way for you to amass calories. Excessive sugar intake has been linked to fatty liver disease, which is a result of insulin resistance caused by high sugar levels. Some other diseases that have been linked to sugar intake include heart disease and type 2 diabetes which are all harmful to the body. High sugar levels in the body can also lead to obesity and weight gain which are all reasons why you should avoid it at all costs.

Various Junk Foods

Gluten free and low-carb junk foods are harmful to your health when consumed excessively. Many individuals switch to gluten free food in a bid to avoid the “negative effects” of gluten. Processed gluten free foods contain refined grain (corn starch and tapioca starch) and high sugar levels which cause sharp increases in sugar levels. Low-carb junk foods are highly processed and less healthy than natural low-carb alternatives. Where possible, ensure that you avoid all junk foods and stick to eating natural foods only. Salads and other natural alternatives are healthier than junk food and should be incorporated into one’s meals where possible.

Agave Nectar & Candy Bars

Agave nectar is a commonly used sweetener that is sold and marketed as a “healthy” alternative to sugar. In truth, agave nectar has higher fructose content than sugar and other sweeteners. If you wish to replace sugar, agave nectar is not the the healthy way to go and it would be best if you found a healthier alternative to this sweetener, or better yet, avoid all sweeteners as much as possible.

There are few foods that are as unhealthy as candy bars. Regular consumption of candy bars could cause cavities in the teeth as well as cause you to eat more since the body metabolizes them quickly. They contain processed fats, refined wheat flour, and high levels of sugar. This deadly combination makes these candy bars quite unhealthy and harmful to the body. Replacing candy with healthy fruits such as apples and carrots are a great way to prevent the negative effects of candy bars.

Low Fat Yogurt

Yogurts are naturally healthy foods and doctors/nutritionists encourage individuals to incorporate it into their diet. There are different types of yoghut and one of these is the low-fat variety. Unlike other yogurts this type is not only low in fat, but has a high sugar content. The high sugar levels are used to compensate for the flavor caused by the fat. The pasteurization process which is used to create low-fat yogurt kills most of the probiotic bacteria present which makes them less healthy than their cousins. If yogurt is your thing, out for healthier alternatives to low-fat yogurt or cut them out of your diet completely.

Fast Foods

Fast food has gained popularity by being cheap, and as the name says, fast. What they gain in speed and cost, they lacks in nutrients and minerals. Food that is produced from fast food kitchens are optimized for quantity over quality as they aim to serve more people in order to make more money. Examples of fast food include fries, burgers, and other oily foods which are harmful to the body. Fast food has been linked to obesity, and continuous consumption of these foods will leave your body with fewer nutrients than the body needs.

Processed Cheese

Cheese is a byproduct of milk and is healthy when consumed in controlled portions. Processed cheese, on the other hand, differs from natural cheese as they are made from ingredients that are created to look, feel, and taste like the real thing. Processed foods are harmful to the body as they contain various synthetic compounds and ingredients that will cause different adverse effects to the body. They contain emulsifiers and flavor boosters which can build up in the body and are harmful when accumulated in large quantities. Always eat the natural alternative and avoid synthetic foods where possible.

Processed Foods

Processed foods are dangerous to one’s health because they are packed with salt and sugar. The best way to start eating healthier and lose weight is by cutting processed foods from the diet. This is becoming harder to do as there are many more processed foods being produced today and it is more difficult to access their natural and healthier alternatives. Processed meat, for example, has been linked to heart disease, colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Processed foods generally contain high volumes of salt and sugar which are damaging to the body when accumulated over time. Continuous consumption of these processed foods will diminish your health and weaken your immune system.

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