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The Impact on Our Health from Ultra-Processed Foods (UPF)

21 June 2021

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I had the opportunity to watch the programme ‘What are we feeding our kids’ with Dr Chris van Tulleken, aired on the BBC this past May. I was already aware of many of its findings. However, there were some new findings that were both shocking and disturbing. I felt the need to write this blog to highlight the areas of concerns around eating ultra-processed foods and why we need to be more cognisant of their far-reaching consequences, both on our weight and fundamentally on our health.

Although this was aimed primarily at children’s health, it became very clear that eating ultra-processed foods affects an adult’s brain function and bodily systems just as detrimentally as it affects a child’s brain. It’s important to define what ultra-processed foods are. When in clinic I am always highlighting to my patients how important it is to eat real, whole foods. If you can’t grow it or hunt it, it’s to some degree processed. To what extent depends on how many ingredients have been used, how many are unpronounceable and alien to us and how far they are from the original base food item. Items such as soft drinks, packaged snacks, cookies and biscuits, sweets, ready meals, instant noodles, jarred sauces. These items are always on our shelves, often long life and easily accessible cost-wise to the masses.  A good example is to look at a yogurt (same brand).

Full fat Strawberry yogurt contains:  Yogurt (Milk), Strawberry (8%), Sugar, Stabiliser (Pectin), Concentrated Lemon Juice, Black Carrot Juice Concentrate, Natural Flavouring, Milk Minerals, Cultures (Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, Streptococcus Thermophilus, Lactococcus Lactis, Bifidobacterium Lactis (Bifidus ActiRegularis®))

0% Strawberry Yogurt contains: Fat Free Yogurt (Milk), Strawberry (12%), Oligofructose (Fibre), Modified Maize Starch, Flavourings, Black Carrot Concentrate, Acidity Regulators (Sodium Citrate, Lactic Acid), Stabilisers (Pectin, Carrageenan), Sweeteners (Acesulfame K, Sucralose), Vitamin D, Cultures (Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, Streptococcus Thermophilus, Lactococcus Lactis, Bifidobacterium Lactis (Bifidus ActiRegularis®))

So here you can see that when an item is more processed, in this case the fat has been removed, the manufacturer has to add a whole other layer of thickeners and stabilisers to make the yogurt achieve a ‘mouth feel’ that is creamy and thick.

One of the many issues with this is that our guts and microbiome haven’t evolved for 1000s of years and this food item that seems perfectly innocent in concept, has been processed and modified with additions that will negatively impact our gut health. Gut health and microbiome status are linked to mood stability, energy production, nutrient status, bone formation, brain health, weight management, basically every system in our body. So if we continue to eat foods that disrupt this balance, unfortunately we are destined to pay a heavy price. Increase risk in cardiovascular disease, Obesity and Type II diabetes, Fatty liver disease and Mental health dysregulation, to name but a few.

Camila Corvalan, assistant professor, University of Chile , reports that “Evidence suggests that people consuming high amounts of Ultra Processed Foods (UPF) can have up to a 50% higher risk of developing obesity compared to those consuming less UPF. ”

The fact that these foods are also marketed as highly accessible, easy to access, ‘on the go’ options also impact our health because in reality, what is good for our health is to not be ‘on the go’ but instead to be in a state of ‘rest and digest’. When we eat food, we need to chew our food properly, so that the signals that tell us we have eaten and are full have space and time to switch on to avoid overeating. To be encouraged to eat a breakfast item out of a tube or pot plays havoc on our digestion, energy levels and nutrient absorption. These foods are heavily processed and often high in sugar. They impact our blood sugar levels and therefore force the body to produce more insulin, which over time, may lead to insulin resistance.  What time we gain from ‘eating on the go’, we lose later on in the day with energy slumps, fatigue and cravings.

The programme aired identified that the reward centre of our brain actually becomes addicted to these types foods because of the salt, sugar, and fat content as well as the mouth feel that create new stimulate reward signals that develop ‘addictive’ neuron pathways. This leads to overeating as well as cravings for these food items. Pretty scary. The good news is that if you don’t use it, you lose it, meaning if you wean yourself off these ultra-processed foods, then overtime you can break the addiction. If you redirect your eating habits to be healthier and eat foods in their more natural, whole form, the neurons you initially developed can be pruned back, shoring up your healthier choices.  Other ways you can support yourself to make healthier choices and steer clear of ultra-processed foods:

  • Buy most of your foods from the isles situated on the outer perimeters of the supermarket
  • Try buying your food items based around meal recipes and avoid pre-cooked ready meals, jars of sauces, heavily processed condiments
  • Ask yourself, did my parents eat this type of food, or my grandparents?
  • Can this food item be grown or hunted?
  • Can you pronounce all the ingredient items listed on the back of the package?
  • Is the ingredients ‘sugar’ listed in the first 3 items in the ingredients list?
  • Does this item seem too good to be true in what it promises to give me?

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