Ultra-processed foods linked to disease
Today, the majority of Americans are consuming more and more ultra-processed foods. And, most of these energy-dense, nutrient-deficient products don’t even fit the definition of “food”.
Food is something that we consume that supplies an array of nutrients to grow, develop, and maintain the human body, and it is necessary!
For example, a fresh, whole apple contains macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytochemicals that build and support a healthy body (2).
Conversely, ultra-processed foods are made from parts of whole food, having many of the original nutrients removed (typically to make the product more shelf stable) and contain synthetic ingredients, like hydrogenated oils and artificial colors and flavors (3).
Research shows a higher risk for diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, cognitive decline, and obesity when we consume ultra-processed foods (1).
Ultra-processed food defined
So, what IS an ultra-processed food?
Energy-dense, nutrient-deficient foods with long ingredient lists like frozen meals, cold cuts, fast food, hot dogs, chips, bread, canned soup, chicken nuggets, cereal bars, breakfast cereal, and baked goods are examples of ultra-processed foods that raise our risk for chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (4) (5).
These processed foods are manufactured from substances extracted from whole foods or synthesized in a lab to be convenient, shelf-stable, highly palatable, often habit-forming, and profitable for the company selling them to the consumer (4).
Why do these foods lead to disease?
Highly processed foods contain more calories and additives like sugar, than their unprocessed counterparts, which leads to weight gain and unstable blood sugar control that lead to conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes over time (6).
Other FDA-approved food additives, like polysorbates and carboxymethylcellulose (emulsifiers), are associated with inflammation, dysbiosis (altered gut microbiota), and various types of cancer (6) (8) (9).
In addition to the excess calories and food additives, ultra-processed food lacks the nutrients that the body requires each day for proper growth, development, and maintenance which leads to nutrient deficiencies and disease over time (7). The human body requires dozens of essential nutrients from our food each day, these are referred to as “essential nutrients” because the body can not make them or can’t make them in sufficient amounts for proper body function. A few examples include amino acids like lysine, threonine, and tryptophan, fatty acids like linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids, fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K, water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C and the B complex, as well as minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
When we consume products like white bread, donuts, or bagels that are made from refined grains we are consuming a highly processed product that has had essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals removed, and, over time, that can lead to nutrient deficiencies and their associated diseases (10). For example, when refined grains are a staple food in the diet, essential nutrients like B vitamins can become deficient as the refining process removes the bran and germ of the whole grain which contain these essential nutrients, and diseases like dementia, depression, anemia, dermatitis, and nerve damage can develop (11) (12).
Reducing our risk for chronic disease
The average American is negatively impacting their healthspan as they increase their risk for chronic disease by consuming more than half of their calories from ultra-processed food today.
Many things can promote disease in the body, some of which we have little control over like toxic exhaust fumes during rush hour traffic. But, for most adults, the food we choose to consume each day is within our control.
Choosing to consume clean, whole foods each day is the first step to providing the body with the essential nutrients that it requires for proper growth, development, and maintenance for proper function and a reduced risk for chronic disease conditions.