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Ultra-Processed Foods: Are They Harming Our Health?

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You’ve probably heard it countless times: “Eat less processed food.” But do you really understand what processed food means? And more importantly, what about minimally processed food or ultra-processed food? What impact do they have on our health?

What Are Processed and Ultra-Processed Foods?

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are whole foods that retain their natural vitamins and nutrients. These foods are in their purest form, with minimal alterations such as removal of inedible parts, drying, crushing, or pasteurization, to ensure their safety and freshness. Think of carrots, apples, raw chicken, melon, and unsalted nuts.

On the other hand, processed foods undergo changes that deviate from their natural state. They are essentially made by adding salt, oil, sugar, or other substances. Examples include canned fish or vegetables, fruits in syrup, and freshly baked breads. These foods typically have two or three ingredients.

Now, let’s talk about highly processed or ultra-processed foods. These foods often contain numerous added ingredients like sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives. They are primarily made from extracted substances such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. Ultra-processed foods may also contain additives like artificial colors, flavors, or stabilizers. Examples include frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.

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According to a study published in The BMJ, ultra-processed foods account for nearly 58% of the calories consumed in the US and contribute to almost 90% of our energy derived from added sugars.

How Do Processed Foods Affect Our Health?

A recent study published in the journal Cell Metabolism delved into the effects of an ultra-processed diet versus an unprocessed diet on calorie intake and weight gain. The study involved 20 healthy, overweight adults residing in a medical facility. Each participant experienced both an ultra-processed and an unprocessed diet for 14 days.

During each diet phase, three daily meals were provided, and participants were free to consume as much or as little as desired. Mealtime was allocated up to 60 minutes, with ultra-processed or unprocessed snacks available throughout the day. The meals were closely matched in terms of total calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, sugars, and sodium. The primary difference lied in the source of calories consumed: 83.5% came from ultra-processed foods during the ultra-processed diet phase, while 83.3% came from unprocessed foods during the unprocessed diet phase.

The researchers discovered that participants consumed approximately 500 more calories per day during the ultra-processed diet phase compared to the unprocessed diet phase. The ultra-processed diet showed an increased intake of carbohydrates and fats, but not protein. On average, participants gained two pounds during the ultra-processed diet phase and lost two pounds during the unprocessed diet phase. The authors concluded that limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods might be an effective strategy for preventing and treating obesity.

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It’s important to note that this study had limitations. With only 20 participants, it was a small study, and individual responses to the diets varied significantly. Eleven participants experienced extreme weight gain on the ultra-processed diet, with some gaining as much as 13 pounds in 14 days, while a few participants saw no weight gain at all. Additionally, the study did not include individuals with chronic diseases like heart disease or diabetes, so the generalizability of the results to a wider population is uncertain. Furthermore, the study was conducted in a clinical research setting, which may have influenced the participants’ eating behavior due to isolation and boredom.

Another study published in The BMJ analyzed dietary records of over 100,000 French adults over a span of five years. The findings revealed that individuals who consumed more ultra-processed foods had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and cerebrovascular disease. These results remained statistically significant even after considering the nutritional quality of the diet, including factors such as saturated fat, sodium, sugar, and dietary fiber. Although large observational studies cannot establish cause and effect, the research does suggest a potential association between ultra-processed diets and heart disease.

Learning to Identify Processed Foods

Whenever possible, it’s wise to avoid or limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods. To help you quickly distinguish between minimally processed, processed, and ultra-processed foods, consider the following examples:

  • Minimally processed: Carrots, apples, raw chicken, melon, unsalted nuts
  • Processed: Canned fish or vegetables, fruits in syrup, freshly baked breads
  • Ultra-processed: Frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, salty snacks
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For more insights on health, nutrition, and wellness, visit Ratingperson. Take charge of your well-being by making informed choices about the foods you consume. Remember, a healthier lifestyle starts with the right knowledge and conscious decision-making.

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