The more often you reach for highly-processed foods — like boxed mac and cheese, hot dogs, cereal and potato chips over whole foods like quinoa, eggs, berries and leafy greens — the greater the negative impact on your health.
Ultra-processed foods contain a lot of unhealthy saturated fat, sodium and added sugar and none of the vitamins, minerals and fiber found in whole foods. It’s not surprising that overindulging in ultra-processed foods leads to weight gain, but the number on the scale might inch up even if your calorie counts are low.
Here, a look at the health risks associated with consuming ultra-processed foods, why they’re not all created equal and how to strike a healthy balance:
WHY ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS ARE HARMFUL TO HEALTH
Recent research found when adults alternated between diets of ultra-processed foods and unprocessed, whole foods for two weeks, the junk food-like diet was associated with consuming more calories, eating faster and gaining up to 2 pounds. Following an unprocessed diet for two weeks, however, led to similar amounts of weight loss.
Eating ultra-processed foods may also negatively affect your appetite. In one paper, researchers discovered mice fed a daily diet that included artificial sweeteners showed changes in the brain pathways that regulated appetite, causing them to consume more calories and gain weight.
What’s more, a diet high in ultra-processed foods has been associated with an increased risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. New research published in The BMJ found people who regularly consumed ultra-processed foods had an 18% higher risk of dying during the study period. “Ultra-processed foods contain several additives [like high-fructose corn syrup, sulfites, monosodium glutamate, carrageenan and emulsifiers, including carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate-80] that can be associated with cardiovascular health issues,” explains Mathilde Touvier, PhD, head of the nutritional epidemiology research team at Université Paris 13.
BUT NOT ALL PROCESSED FOODS ARE CREATED EQUAL
What’s important to keep in mind is the degree of processing. For example, “salted-only red or white meats are considered processed foods whereas smoked or cured meats such as sausages and ham that have added nitrites are classified as ultra-processed foods,” notes Touvier.
Whole foods that go through minimal processing, such as frozen fruits and veggies, are able to preserve shelf life without a significant impact on the nutritional content. Moreover, in the case of fermented foods like fresh kefir, tempeh, sauerkraut and kimchi, processing is actually beneficial since the probiotics in these foods are associated with an improved immune system, reduced risk of cancer, lower cholesterol and better gut health.
HOW ULTRA-PROCESSED FOODS ARE DIGESTED
“The additives in ultra-processed foods can throw your body for a loop,” says Nancy Farrell Allen, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The digestion process may be the same but the rate may be different, she notes. “Whole foods have a higher fiber content while more processed foods are usually refined and have little to no fiber. If you primarily consume the latter, it’s more likely to negatively impact the digestion process by causing more bloating and less regular bowel movements.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Whenever possible opt for whole foods or minimally-processed ones, and skip the ultra-processed items. Not only do the nutrients in whole foods help nourish your body, guarding against disease, but they’re also generally more affordable — research from 2019 found eating ultra-processed foods costs 40% more.
“It does not take very long to [prepare] lean protein like fish and vegetables with a hint of olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme or spices and a serving of whole-grain pasta,” says Touvier. “You can also make an additional serving for lunch the next day rather than buying ready-made, ultra-processed meals that are often more expensive.”
Or try growing a garden and learning to cook to increase access to fresh foods and keep costs in check, suggests Farrell Allen. “Preparing our own food means we are more in control of the health outcomes,” she notes.