Ultra-Processed Food & Your Health

In May 2019, a small randomized controlled study by the US National Institutes of Health just showed that people eating a diet of ultra-processed food consumed more calories and gained more weight than those on a minimally-processed diet, despite meals being matched.

In the study, 20 inpatient adults underwent two diet phases. In the first phase of 2 weeks, 10 participants received ultra-processed foods and 10 participants received unprocessed diet. After 2 weeks, their diets were switched to the alternate diet. 3 meals were given a day, and meals were matched as closely as possible for calories, sugar, fat, fibre and macronutrients. The participants were also provided with snacks outside of their meals. They were told to eat as much or as little as they wanted. What they found was that the people on ultra-processed food ate about 500 more calories a day, as compared to people on unprocessed diets.

Also Read: Is More Rice Really Better?

On the topic of rice, another important thing to mention is the concept of Glycemic Index (GI). GI is a number assigned to carbohydrates in foods according to how they affect your blood sugar levels.

Industrialized Food System

There are benefits of ultra-processed foods: they are inexpensive, have a long shelf-life, are relatively safe from the microbiological perspective, provide important nutrients, and are highly convenient. You often just need to put a dish in the microwave and your meal will be ready in a few short minutes.

But if you look closely, you might notice that the rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol occurred in parallel with an increasingly industrialized food system. A large part of this system has dedicated considerable resources to making cheap, readily available ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods have become more common worldwide, and now make up a significant portion of the majority of calories consumed in both developed and lesser developed countries. This, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, has led to a variety of poor health outcomes.

Also Read: How Many Calories are there in CNY Snacks 


The NOVA Food Classification System

So what is ultra-processed food? There is a classification called The NOVA food classification system which categorizes food into 4 categories:

  1. Unprocessed and minimally processed foods,
  2. Processed culinary ingredients,
  3. Processed foods and
  4. Ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods include foods such as soft drinks, packaged snacks, reconstituted meat, and pre-prepared frozen meals. Ultra-processed foods also include ingredients like sweeteners, colours, preservatives and food-derived substances like casein, lactose and gluten.


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What Ultra-Processed Food Can Do To YOU.

Ultra-processed foods may facilitate overeating and the development of obesity because they are typically high in calories, salt, sugar, and fat. Even in this study, the conductors of the study found that the ultra-processed meals differed substantially from unprocessed meals in the proportion of added to total sugar, insoluble to total fibre, saturated to total fat, and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.

Ultra-processed foods have been suggested to be specially created to have supernormal appetitive properties (make you hungry) that may result in pathological eating behaviour and overeating.

Furthermore, ultra-processed foods have been theorized to disrupt the normal pathways your gut communicates with your brain. This may “confuse” your brain, and even if you are full, the gut is unable to tell the brain to stop eating. This is independent of how the food tastes or how many calories it contains.

2 weeks after this article was published, 2 more articles were published linking ultra-processed foods with heart attacks, strokes and early death. Last year, a study linked ultra-processed foods with cancer.


So what does this mean for us?

If you want to curb your insatiable appetite, live longer and minimize your risk of cancers, heart attacks and strokes, please do cut down your consumption of ultra-processed foods.

Our bodies were evolved to consume unprocessed foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds, nuts and unprocessed meats. We were not designed to eat foods processed in a laboratory that can last 5 years sitting on a shelf. While I am still guilty of getting a burger and fries from a fast-food joint, or of going to a convenience store to get a microwavable meal, I try my best to limit myself to such foods to at most once or twice a month. We can opt for better options and dine at places where food is cooked with fresh ingredients. Even better still, dine with friends and family at home!

Home-cooked meals (heating up frozen foods like pizza or instant pasta is not counted) provide an ideal setting to have real food and real company.

Home-cooked food is usually more moderated in the addition of ultra-processed foods, fats, sugar and salt. Snack on a carrot stick or a baked vegetable chip instead of a pack of fried potato chips.

Opt for the healthier food option today!

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