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How Ultra-Processed Foods Affect Your Health

ESTIMATED READING TIME 6 MINUTES

ultra processed foods and how they affect your health

Ultra-processed foods and your health.

You may have heard of the term ultra-processed foods bandied about in the media, and you might be wondering exactly what they are.

Read on to find out what exactly is meant by ultra-processed foods and how they affect your health.  

What are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Simply put, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are foods you wouldn’t be able to make at home. They contain substances extracted from food, along with flavourings, colourings and other chemicals to prolong shelf life and improve texture.

The term was first used about ten years ago to distinguish between different types of processed foods.

This led to the development of the commonly used NOVA food classification system. This has four categories:

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed foods. These are uncooked or cooked, frozen or dried whole foods. Included in this group are fruit, vegetables, nuts seeds, and legumes, along with fresh meat and fish.
  • Processed culinary ingredients. These include oil and butter, usually used to prepare unprocessed foods for eating.
  • Processed foods according to this classification are simply foods which have been altered during preparation. They’ve undergone some minimal processing to lengthen their lifespan. They include canned and fermented foods like tinned tomatoes and cheeses, along with freshly made bread, nut butter, preprepared fruit and vegetables, and natural yoghurt. They’re generally deserving of a part in a balanced diet.
  • Ultra-processed foods contain little to no whole food, are usually high in sugar and salt, altered fats and protein isolates, and have had their fibre removed. In short, they’re distinctly lacking in the essential nutrients found in whole foods.

 

UPFs are designed to keep you coming back for more. This means they’re usually cheap, convenient and fast to prepare. Their high sugar and salt content means they’re addictive and often highly palatable, and they are typically aggressively marketed. You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking they usually haven’t been designed with health in mind.

The most commonly eaten UPFs in the UK are industrially-produced bread, ready meals, breakfast cereals and reconstituted meat products like sausages. But packaged snack foods, sweetened soft drinks, some beefburgers, chicken nuggets, instant soups, doughnuts, and vegan meat substitutes all come under the heading of UPFs. 

Some foods can be categorised as ultra-processed or processed, depending on how they’re produced. Freshly baked bread has been processed, but only by having its ingredients combined and then baked in the oven. Factory-produced bread contains emulsifiers, colourings and so on, earning it the label of ultra-processed.

Frighteningly, according to the latest data available, 56% of calories consumed by people living in the UK come from UPFs – and this number has likely increased.

Although not everyone agrees completely with the NOVA classification, what is clear is UPFs are bad news for your health. They’re derived from food, but their ingredients have been so significantly altered from their original state they no longer behave like the foods the body has evolved to utilise over thousands of years.

How UPFs Affect Your Health

Ultra-processed-foods-cereal

Not surprisingly, because UPFs are usually high in sugar and calorie-rich, they’re linked with obesity. But they also lead to increased inflammation in the body, in turn contributing to chronic disease. Because they’ve been stripped of their natural fibre, they don’t support a healthy microbiome, known to significantly control unwanted inflammation and support whole-body health.

Consumption of ultra-processed foods has been linked with increased risk of cardiovascular disease 1, many types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, IBS, dementia and cognitive decline. In one study, men who ate the most UPFs had a 30% higher chance of developing colorectal cancer 2.

Consumption of UPFs is linked with poor mental health, too. A recent study found the more UPFs people consumed, the more often they felt depressed and anxious 3.

How to Recognise and Avoid UPFs

UPFs usually have a long list of unfamiliar-sounding ingredients. The fewer ingredients the better – good advice is to choose foods with less than five ingredients. Ignore claims like ‘natural’ or ‘made with whole grains’. Usually, they’re trying to convince you to buy a product rather than reflecting what’s actually inside the wrapper.

Personal Support with Healthy Food Choices

It’s often hard to navigate the maze of dietary advice, and with a busy lifestyle it can be even harder to put good intentions into practice. This is where we come in. We’ll provide you with realistic, achievable strategies to improve your diet and optimise your health.

Although food is your body’s fuel, lifestyle has a huge impact on your health, too. Stress levels, sleep and movement are all important, and we can help you to integrate these healthy habits, to fit in with your lifestyle and commitments.

Take the first step towards a healthier New Year by contacting us today.

References

Did you know you can request a FREE 15 minute Discovery Call

Do you need personalised natural support to improve your diet and overall health? Then book a free 15-minute discovery call to see if Functional Medicine is for you.

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