Here’s the impact of choosing apple pie over apples too oftenJul 24, 2022
And these healthy eating swaps couldn’t be easier
Are pre-packaged processed foods really “that” bad for your health?
A recent article “Ultra-processed Foods, Weight Gain, and Co-morbidity Risk” provides an update on the available data regarding the associations of Ultra-processed food (UPF) consumption with food intake and possible underlying mechanisms relating this consumption to weight gain and co-morbidities.
If you want to reduce your risk of the chronic diseases (heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, etc.) that comes with eating processed foods, here’s what you need to know!
We all know the difference between apples and apple pie. Apples can be eaten off the tree with just a quick rinse, whereas apple pie involves peeling, chopping, adding a bunch of ingredients (including sugar), and then putting all of that applesauce-like filling into a pie crust before baking.
The more steps and ingredients that are involved in making any food—like the pie—the more “processed” it is and the farther away it is from its natural, unprocessed state.
Eating a lot of “ultra-processed” foods has well-established links to weight gain and related conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, some cancers, and all-cause mortality (death from any cause).
What is an “ultra-processed” food?
Foods can go through many levels of processing, often by adding many ingredients to it, so that the end product may not much resemble the original food at all. Think of the difference between an apple, applesauce, and an apple pie. These show you the changes made to a food as it goes through more and more processing.
According to the NOVA classification, there are four groups of food processing:
- Unprocessed or minimally processed - Fresh, dry, or frozen foods where inedible parts are removed and nothing is added, e.g. whole or sliced apple.
- Processed culinary ingredients - These are oils, fats, sugars, and salts that are derived from nature, but are processed, e.g., olive oil, butter, maple syrup, etc.
- Processed foods - Foods that are canned, pickled, smoked, cured, or fermented—often with the addition of oils, sugars, or salts, e.g., sauerkraut, cheese, wine, beer, etc.
- Ultra-processed foods - Foods that undergo many processes and modifications, e.g., packaged snacks, frozen meals, sugar-sweetened beverages, etc.
Historically, food processing became more common after World War II because it offered to reduce the amount of time needed to cook meals and also helped foods stay safe to eat for longer durations. Processing often reduced the amount of nutrients in foods and provided the opportunity to add nutrients in; either by adding back nutrients that were removed in the first place (enrichment), e.g., “enriched” white flour, or adding unrelated nutrients into foods (fortification), e.g., iodized salt.
Many processed foods, especially ultra-processed foods, tend to be higher in saturated fat, sugar, salt, and calories, while being lower in gut-friendly fibre. Ultra-processed foods are often designed to be very profitable, convenient, highly palatable, shelf-stable, and affordable. These foods also tend to be very well marketed and advertised. This is why these foods have become very popular in the “west” and are associated with the “western” or “Standard American” diets.
How much ultra-processed food do we eat? Recent studies show that they make up 45-48% of total energy/calorie intake in Canada, 50-57% in the UK, and 57-59% in the USA.] [How much ultra-processed foods we eat is even more [relevant/important] right now because nearly all studies that looked at what people ate when they stayed home to reduce the spread of COVID-19 found that there was a widespread increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods.
DID YOU KNOW? Trans fats—the notoriously dangerous fats when it comes to heart health—have been eliminated in ultra-processed foods in Canada and the USA. Trans fats are produced when a fat is not completely hydrogenated, so partially hydrogenated oils were banned in Canada on September 17, 2018, and in the USA, companies had until January 1, 2020 to eliminate them from foods.
Ultra-processed foods and obesity
Obesity is linked with several health and lifestyle factors, one of which is the consumption of ultra-processed foods.
On a country-level, there is a trend that countries with higher levels of ultra-processed food tend to have higher levels of people with obesity, although that’s not consistent everywhere. For example, some countries (e.g., the U.S., the UK, and Canada) have higher rates of ultra-processed food consumption than obesity, while other countries (e.g., Portugal, Italy, and Greece) have higher rates of obesity than ultra-processed food consumption.
When it comes to biomarkers of disease, several studies show that consumption of ultra-processed foods increases the rates of:
- weight gain/overweight (27-36% higher)
- waist circumference (33-39%)
- abdominal obesity (30-49% higher)
- obesity (51-79% higher)
- metabolic syndrome (79-81% higher)
- all-cause mortality (death by any cause) (49% higher).
This means that people who consume more ultra-processed foods have higher risks for all of these conditions than people who eat less of it. While this doesn’t mean that obesity and disease rates are caused solely by intake of ultra-processed foods, diet is one factor that seems to matter quite a bit when it comes to health.
How ultra-processed foods can affect weight and disease risk
Ultra-processed foods have several short-term effects on the body that, when consumed frequently, may lead to longer-term health effects. These short term effects include the fact that they:
- Tend to not be too filling (“low satiety”) because they are low in fibre, have softer textures, and impact hunger-related hormones—all of which can lead to eating more than necessary in order to feel full.
- Are “hyperpalatable” because they’re higher in sugar, salt, and fat, and this can result in a preference for ultra-processed foods over less-processed foods that tend to be more filling and nutritious, but not as palatable..
- Increase blood sugar levels (“highly glycemic”) because of their higher levels of sugar and lower levels of fibre.
- Contribute to a gut microbiota that tends to be inflammatory (because ultra-processed foods tend to have less fibre and more fat) and this inflammation can increase the risk for heart disease and other conditions.
- May contain endocrine-disrupting compounds in their packaging that promote inflammation, oxidation, insulin resistance, and increased weight, all of which can increase risk for heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
- Contain different levels of nutrients than minimally-processed foods (often lower levels of essential nutrients and higher calories), so this can contribute to weight gain and chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
How to reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods
As you can see, it’s best to minimize your intake of ultra-processed foods and maximize the amount of unprocessed or minimally-processed foods you consume. There are lots of things you can do to reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods. You can try:
- Reducing the amount of sugar in your beverages by diluting them with plain water or replacing them with water or herbal tea. If you missed the Healthy Beverages recipes, you can download them here!
- Swapping some ultra-processed foods for more nutritious options, e.g., a baked potato instead of fries, whole grain pasta or bread instead of white, or a sliced avocado instead of pre-packaged guacamole.
- Enjoying some less-processed snacks when you’re hungry, e.g., fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, or boiled eggs.
- Planning out your meals and shopping lists in advance so you’re not left hungry, hangry and ready to grab just anything because it’s quick and easy. If you’re not already a subscriber to my weekly newsletter, CLICK HERE to sign up and get healthy, delicious recipes every week!
- Choosing to purchase and keep less ultra-processed food at home so you have fewer to choose from when you’re hungry.
- When considering pre-packaged foods, check the Nutrition Facts labels and opt for those that are lower in salt, sugar, and saturated fat, and are higher in fibre.
We know that chronic diseases have many contributory factors, including genetics, levels of physical activity, other diseases/mobility issues, medications, mental health, socio-economic status, difficulty accessing fresh foods, lifestyle choices, etc. And that also includes consumption of ultra-processed foods, which is something we can easily change.
In conclusion, while more research is needed, it is clear that recommendations to limit or restrict UPF (ultra-processed food) consumption would likely be beneficial. And swapping out processed foods for healthier alternatives does not need to be difficult. As an example, try this recipe for Cranberry Apple Oat Crisp!
RECIPE ~ Healthy Cranberry Apple Oat Crisp
- ⅓ cup coconut oil
- 3 apples (large, cored and chopped)
- 2 cups frozen cranberries
- ½ cup maple syrup
- ¾ cup all purpose gluten-free flour (divided)
- 1 ½ cups oats
- ¼ cup coconut sugar
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- Preheat the oven to 350F (175C). Use a bit of coconut oil to grease the baking oil.
- Add the apples, cranberries, maple syrup and ⅓ cup of the flour to the baking dish. Gently toss until combined well.
- In a bowl, stir together the remaining flour, oats, cinnamon and coconut sugar. Add the remaining coconut oil and use your hands to combine until the mixture is crumbly.
- Sprinkle the oat mixture evenly over the fruits and press gently. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until golden brown and the fruits have softened. Let cool and enjoy!
Crimarco, A., Landry, M. J., & Gardner, C. D. (2021). Ultra-processed Foods, Weight Gain, and Co-morbidity Risk. Current obesity reports, 1–13. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-021-00460-y
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