Danger in disguise: How Ultra Processed Food is harming your health

We all love the convenience of frozen meals and instant snacks, but a recent study reveals they might be hurting our minds and bodies more than we realise. 

Updated - April 27, 2024 12:43 pm IST

Published - April 27, 2024 12:30 pm IST

Eating more ultra-processed foods raised the chances of health problems in 32 out of 45 studies.

Eating more ultra-processed foods raised the chances of health problems in 32 out of 45 studies. | Photo Credit: Freepik

Alarming new study links ‘Ultra-Processed Foods’ to a multitude of health concerns

A recent study has revealed a concerning link between ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and a wide range of health problems. This study, considered the world’s largest review, suggests that consuming UPFs can link to a staggering 32 harmful health effects including increased risk of developing serious conditions like heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and even mental health issues. This comes at a time when global consumption of UPFs, including convenient options like cereals, protein bars, sugary drinks, and fast food, is on the rise.

What are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Unlike minimally processed foods like canned vegetables or frozen fruits, UPFs undergo multiple industrial processes and are loaded with additives. These foods are factory-made products loaded with added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial ingredients.

  • Unprocessed or minimally processed: Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and raw nuts retain their natural vitamins and nutrients. Processes like freezing or pasteurisation ensure safety without significant alteration.
  • Processed: These foods undergo some processing but generally contain two or three added ingredients, such as salt, oil, or sugar. Examples include canned fish or freshly baked bread.
  • Ultra-Processed (UPF): These are the foods linked to the concerning health risks. They are heavily processed, often containing a long list of ingredients like added sugars, unhealthy fats, artificial colours, and preservatives. Think frozen meals, sugary drinks, packaged snacks, and many fast-food items.

What are the UPFs we often consume but don’t realise

  • Breakfast: Sugary cereals, instant oatmeal packets, breakfast pastries, pre-made breakfast sandwiches.
  • Snacks: Potato chips, cookies, candy bars, packaged snack cakes, energy bars (some varieties), instant noodles, these are typically loaded with refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and sodium. They often contain artificial additives to enhance flavour and prolong shelf life.
  • Beverages: Sugary sodas, carbonated drinks, artificially flavoured juices, fruit-flavoured yoghurt (with added sugars)
  • Lunch/Dinner: Frozen meals, hot dogs, sausages, chicken nuggets, instant ramen, instant mashed potatoes, pre-made pasta dishes.
  • Condiments: Creamy salad dressings, ketchup, mayonnaise, commercially prepared marinades.
  • Desserts: Ice cream, commercially baked cakes and pies, processed puddings, sugary yoghurt parfaits.

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The dark side of convenience

The study has unveiled the concerning impact of UPFs on both our physical and mental well-being. These convenient, often shelf-stable items come at a significant cost, potentially increasing the risk of a variety of health problems.

Physical health risks

  • Heart trouble: The study found a “convincing” link between high UPF intake and a 50% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. This translates to a significantly higher chance of heart attacks and strokes, conditions that can severely impact quality of life.
  • Metabolic mayhem: The research suggests a 12% greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes for those who consume more UPFs. These foods are often loaded with sugars and unhealthy fats, which can disrupt blood sugar regulation and lead to this chronic condition.
  • Obesity: Highly processed foods are often calorie-dense and nutrient-poor, leading to overconsumption and weight gain. Studies indicate a 40% to 66% increased risk of obesity with frequent consumption of ultra-processed food
  • Overall mortality: The study also yielded “highly suggestive” evidence that a diet high in UPFs may increase the risk of death from any cause by 21%. This highlights the potential for a broader negative impact on overall health.

Mental health concerns

  • Anxiety and depression: The research revealed a worrying link between UPFs and mental well-being. A “convincing” 48% to 53% increased risk of anxiety and common mental disorders was associated with high UPF intake. This suggests a potential role of UPFs in contributing to feelings of anxiety and depression.
  • Sleep issues: “Highly suggestive” evidence indicates a 40% increased risk of sleep problems for those consuming more UPFs. This disruption in sleep patterns can further impact mental health and overall well-being.

By making informed choices and opting for fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, we can take a significant step towards safeguarding both our physical and mental health.

What do experts say?

Dr Sangeetha, a registered dietitian with over 12 years of experience in the food and fitness industry, sheds light on the implications of this research and offers practical advice for navigating a healthier dietary path.

On the addictive nature of UPFs

“The artificial flavours and taste enhancers in UPFs can be very addictive. People often underestimate how much they’re consuming, thinking ‘just one or two servings’ won’t hurt. But psychologically, it’s hard to stop, leading to a minimum of five servings a day. This not only increases calorie intake but also creates a feeling of constant hunger due to the lack of satiety from UPFs.”

Less fibre means weak gut health

“Since UPFs often lack fibre, essential for gut bacteria, processing further depletes it. Unlike whole fruits, where even unsweetened juice loses some fibre content, UPFs have virtually no fibre to feed your gut bacteria, ultimately impacting gut health.”

The “pleasure trap” of UPFs

“Certain additives in UPFs can activate the dopamine system in the brain, mimicking pleasurable sensations. Sugary foods create a dopamine spike, leading to a ‘pleasure trap’ that keeps us craving more. This, combined with the lack of fibre in UPFs, contributes to overeating and obesity.”

Dr Sangeetha’s practical tips for a healthier diet

“While avoiding all processed foods might seem unrealistic, there are solutions. Cook more meals at home with healthy ingredients, even for dishes like pasta. Opt for healthier options when buying packaged foods. By making informed choices, we can significantly reduce our UPF intake and improve our overall health.”

So, next time you reach for that convenient frozen meal or sugary snack, remember the hidden costs to your health, and opt for whole, unprocessed alternatives to nourish your body and mind.

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