Ultra-processed foods

What Are Ultra-Processed Foods, and Why Are They Bad for Our Health?

What we eat has a significant impact on our health. But to make good nutritional choices, it is imperative to understand the difference between unprocessed, processed, and ultra-processed foods. 

Although numerous studies have proven the connection between ultra-processed foods and various health consequences, almost 60 percent of the calories adults in America consume are from ultra-processed foods. Life is busy! Convenience foods are more manageable when you’re on the go. And who doesn’t love an occasional bowl of ice cream? 

Read on to understand the difference between unprocessed, processed, and ultra-processed foods and how they impact your health.


What Are Ultra-Processed Foods? 

Processing is anything that changes food from its natural state. Ultra-processed foods have undergone multiple modifications, such as extrusion, molding, or milling. 


They also:

  • Contain many added, non-beneficial ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, artificial colors, preservatives, and stabilizers.
  • They are made mainly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, sugars, and hydrogenated fats.
  • They are usually lower in nutrients and fiber and higher in sugar, fat, and salt than minimally processed or processed foods. 
  • Sometimes include more than 20 ingredients.
  • They don’t have as many beneficial nutrients and other naturally-occurring benefits.


Examples of ultra-processed foods include hot dogs, soda, salty snacks, and packaged cakes and cookies. 


What Are Processed Foods? 

Processed foods are those that are different from their natural state.


They usually have two or three ingredients and: 

  • It may include added salt, fat, or sugar
  • Are healthier than ultra-processed foods
  • Are packaged


Examples of processed foods include cheese, extra virgin olive oil, canned fish, or tofu. 


What Are Unprocessed Foods? 

Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are in their natural (or very close to natural) state with intact vitamins and nutrients.


They also: 

  • They are sometimes minimally altered by removing inedible parts.
  • They may be crushed, dried, or any process that makes them safe to drink or eat, such as pasteurization.


Examples include raw, unsalted nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, and raw chicken.


Why Are Ultra-Processed Foods Bad for Our Health?

Unfortunately, although ultra-processed foods have fewer health benefits than unprocessed or processed foods, they make up over half the calories in the average American’s daily diet. Here are some adverse health effects of consuming too many ultra-processed foods.


Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease 

A recent study found that each daily serving of ultra-processed food was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), a 9% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease, a 5% increase in overall CVD, and a 9% increased risk in CVD mortality. Consuming too many simple sugars from ultra-processed foods may also raise blood triglyceride levels, increasing your risk for heart disease. Here are some incredible foods and drinks for a healthy heart.


Unwanted Weight Gain

Because they include more fat, sugar, and salt and are low in fiber, ultra-processed foods often contribute to weight gain and make you hungrier. In a National Institute of Health study, researchers gave 20 participants three meals daily and three snacks. Ten ate primarily ultra-processed foods, and ten ate minimally processed foods. Those who ate ultra-processed foods had lower appetite-suppressing hormone pancreatic peptide levels. Follow these tips to lower your sodium intake.


Gastrointestinal Issues 

Ultra-processed foods have additives that make them easier to chew and swallow. This causes people to eat more quickly, which can lead to gastritis, a gastrointestinal disorder. Gastritis can cause inflammation that erodes your stomach lining, which may result in ulcers.

Emulsifiers found in ultra-processed foods cause mild gut inflammation and promote the growth of harmful bacteria that can digest the mucus lining in your gut or grow closer to your intestinal tissues. Conversely, fiber in plant-based foods like whole grains, fruits, nuts, and seeds helps feed the good bacteria in your gut. Look at this article to discover great sources of fiber for your digestive health.


Imbalances in the Brain

In a 2022 study of over 10,000 adults, researchers found that the more ultra-processed foods the participants consumed, the more likely they were to report mild depression or anxiety. They aren’t sure why this is the case, although other studies have shown the beneficial effect of nutrient-dense diets on depression. Fibers more prevalent in unprocessed foods help produce short-chain fatty acids that play a role in brain function when broken down in the digestive system.


Increased Risk of Cancer 

A United Kingdom-based study tracked the health of 197,000 participants over ten years whose diets included anywhere from 9.1% to 41.4% of ultra-processed foods. The study found that every 10 percent increase in ultra-processed foods resulted in a 2% increase in overall cancer risk, a 19% increase in ovarian cancer, and a 6% increased risk of dying from any type of cancer. 


Type 2 Diabetes

Increasing your consumption of ultra-processed food by only 10% is linked to a 15% higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes. If you or anyone in your family has diabetes, here’s a list of foods to avoid.


Key Takeaways

Reducing the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet is easy. Aim for 80% of your diet from unprocessed foods. Instead of grabbing a bag of chips, try a handful of raw nuts or an apple. It’s essential to seek guidance from a doctor to determine the best diet for your individual needs and body. Then, it won’t be so bad when you want to indulge in an occasional bowl of ice cream! 

For more information on healthy life choices, please check out the Healthy Lifestyles section of our blog. Here’s to living healthy, well, and happy!

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