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The Bad and the Ugly about Ultra-processed Foods


If you eat ultra-processed food (UPF), here’s another excellent reason to give it up. Although my expertise is in the why and how of eating, it’s important to understand how harmful UPFs are for you—especially in a way that might surprise you.

According to “It’s Not Just Salt, Sugar Fat: Study Finds Ultra-Processed Foods Drive Weight Gain” (NPR, “The Salt, 5/16/19, accessed 5/17/19) UPFs can cause weight gain, exactly what most of you are fighting against. “Ultra-processed foods include more than just the obvious suspects, like chips, candy, packaged desserts, and ready-to-eat meals. The category also includes foods that some consumers might find surprising, including Honey Nut Cheerios and other breakfast cereals, packaged white bread, jarred sauces, yogurt with added fruit, and frozen sausages and other reconstituted meat products. Popkin says ultra-processed foods usually contain a long list of ingredients, many of them made in labs. So, for example, instead of seeing ‘apples’ listed on a food label, you might get additives that re-create the scent of that fruit.”

In a randomized, controlled trial, National Institutes of Health researchers were able “to show that eating a diet made up of ultra-processed foods actually drives people to overeat and gain weight compared with a diet made up of whole or minimally processed foods. Study participants on the ultra-processed diet ate an average of 508 calories more per day and ended up gaining an average of 2 pounds over a two-week period. People on the unprocessed diet, meanwhile, ended up losing about 2 pounds on average over a two-week period.”

UPFs are “designed to be convenient and low cost and require little preparation.” There’s nothing wrong with any of those attributes, but there are health trade-offs in choosing them, including decreased levels of appetite-suppressing hormones in the gut, just what you don’t need if you’re trying to eat according to appetite because your desire for food will increase. Another problem is that UPFs incline to being low in fiber, which helps keep food moving in your digestive system. Moreover, in this study, people eating UPFs ate much faster than their non-UPF counterparts, perhaps “because the ultra-processed foods tended to be softer and easier to chew,” giving their appetite signals little chance to alert their brains that they were full and can stop eating.

Why do you eat UPFs? What would it take for you to decrease or eliminate them from your diet? What are the benefits of avoiding them? What could you replace them with? These questions are worth pondering in your quest for good health.



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