What are the Risks of Eating ‘Ultra-processed’ Foods?

It should come as no surprise that many processed foods are considerably worse for your health than natural, raw, whole foods. But did you know that many ultra-processed foods can lead you to eat more food than you would eat with an unprocessed diet?  

First of all, what are “ultra-processed” foods? These foods have been highly processed with added ingredients such as higher amounts of white sugar, salt, fat, or artificial colors or preservatives. These ingredients are typically added to make a food last longer, reduce the overall cost, and to give you a sensory taste overload to get you hooked and thus, have a need to keep eating them for their satisfying taste. So, while it may be more convenient to reach for a bag of potato chips instead of preparing a snack made from unprocessed or minimally processed foods (such as fruit or unsalted nuts), you might be compromising your health in the process.  

A new study has indicated that ‘ultra-processed’ foods may make you more likely to overeat. To measure this, researchers divided participants of the study into two groups, providing half of them ultra-processed food (such as bagels with cream cheese and bacon) and the other half with unprocessed food (such as oatmeal with fresh fruits, nuts, and tea). These diets were equal in terms of total calories, macronutrients, and sugars. After a few weeks, the diets were switched. Participants were permitted to eat as much or as little as they wanted. The researchers found that the participants ate more calories when they ate the ultra-processed foods and subsequently gained more weight.  

The reason for this result was not immediately clear, but researchers determined that appetite-suppressing hormones were decreased on the ultra-processed diet. In addition, hunger hormones tend to increase when participants consumed processed foods. Another potential explanation is the caloric density of ultra-processed foods. Foods that have been heavily processed might be physically smaller and contain significantly less fiber than natural foods but can contain many more calories in addition to high amounts of sugar, sodium, and fat. What a horrible combination! 

Food processing typically occurs in three distinct stages. The first, primary processing, refers to the harvesting of grain, shelling of nuts, or picking of fruits and vegetables – a step which minimally changes the inherent nutrients of the food. The second stage, which consists of baking, freezing, or canning, is intended to make foods stay fresh longer but may often deteriorate the nutrient content of the food. The third, final, and most dangerous level of processing is where flavor injections, fats, chemical preservatives, and sugars are added to the food. Yuck! 

While processed and ultra-processed foods can be more convenient and quicker than natural foods, you might be sacrificing your health for this convenience. What are you waiting for? Swap your potato chips for some DIY pita chips, substitute a sweetened breakfast cereal for rolled oat oatmeal, or simply ditch the flavored candy bar for some indulgent squares of healthy dark chocolate. Make the swap to a whole-food, natural, plant-based diet today so you can achieve your optimal health and wellness.  

Resources 

  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/ultra-processed-foods-appear-to-cause-overeating-and-weight-gain 
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/youll-eat-more-if-your-diet-consists-of-processed-foods