Ultra-Processed Foods Linked to Increased Health Risks

Ultra-Processed Foods and Health Hazards

You’ve probably heard that foods like sugary drinks, instant noodles, and packaged snacks aren’t good for us.

A recent study confirmed this, showing that “ultra-processed foods are linked to many health problems.”

This study, published in the BMJ, reviewed many existing studies on ultra-processed foods and health.

It was an umbrella review, meaning it summarized results from multiple meta-analyses, which are studies that combine findings from individual research.

This gives us a clear picture of how ultra-processed foods are connected to various health issues.

Key findings

The main outcome of this study is that increased UPF consumption is linked to a high risk of various health issues. Here is a brief explanation of its highlights for you.

Strongest evidence:

The most convincing evidence (graded as ‘ high quality‘ by researchers) linked high UPF intake to a greater risk of:

  • Cardiovascular disease-related mortality (death from heart disease)
  • Common mental disorders (depression, anxiety)
  • Type 2 diabetes (a chronic blood sugar condition)

Suggestive evidence:

There were other findings considered ‘suggestive’ or ‘weak’ due to limitations in some studies, and they point towards potential risks associated with UPFs, including:

  • All-cause mortality (death from any cause)
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Poor sleep
  • Wheezing (a respiratory symptom)

While we need more research to develop concrete evidence for some aspects, still the trend regarding UPFs is not good.

People must limit eating these items to promote better health and prevent chronic diseases.


What are ultra-processed foods (UPFs)?

This study describes UPFs as food items that are modified in industries from their natural or whole sources.

This process of modification requires a few steps, such as adding a ton of items like salt, sugar, fats, starches, and many other preservatives to these foods [ref].

These ingredients are found in many natural sources, but their original form is altered before they are used.

For example, high-fructose corn syrup, an ordinary sweetener in UPFs, is created from corn starch but has a chemical formation that is different from that of natural sugars found in fruits.

UPFs normally have artificial extra flavors, colors, and many surface active agents to make them taste even better than the original and last even longer.

Furthermore, these add-ons can play a big role in many health issues. The methods that are used in making UPFs can also cause changes in the food’s nutritional value.

For example, refining grains can remove fiber and many essential vitamins and minerals [ref].

In addition, nutrients can be destroyed by high heat and create many harmful compounds.

Examples of UPFs include:

  • Soft drinks
  • Packaged snacks (chips, cookies)
  • Instant noodles
  • Sugary breakfast cereals
  • Processed meats (hot dogs, sausages)
  • Many frozen meals

Not all processed foods are ultra-processed foods, and things like canned vegetables or frozen fruits can still be healthy, especially when eaten as part of a balanced diet.


Understanding the link between UPFs and health

The exact way by which UPFs might harm our health is still being studied. However, there are a few factors that might be behind this link:

  • Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are usually high in calories, which can make you eat too many calories and gain weight easily [ref].
  • Processing can remove essential nutrients from whole foods, which leaves UPFs low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
  • Many UPFs are loaded with added sugars and unhealthy fats, which can cause inflammation and chronic diseases.
  • Some studies suggest artificial ingredients like preservatives and flavorings may have negative health effects [ref].

Following a balanced diet:

To keep yourself healthy, you must stick to a healthy diet.

  • Fruits and vegetables have a lot of antioxidants that help protect cells from damage, while whole grains offer a slow release of energy, keeping you feeling fuller for longer.
  • Fiber also promotes gut health and digestion and helps with regulating blood sugar levels.
  • Go for fish, beans, poultry, or lean cuts of meat.
  • Replace processed beverages with water and healthier alternatives like fruits and nuts.
  • Be aware of added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium content in packaged foods.

By choosing healthy items and making a change in your diet, you can lower the intake of UPFs and potentially lower the risk of developing various health problems.


The bottom line

Occasionally, eating ultra-processed food is fine, but this study is especially for the people who eat them more frequently.

By eating more unprocessed food, we provide our body with vital nutrients, which can be very important in keeping our bodies healthy.

So, why not use this possibility to try healthier and tastier foods? Even a few changes can be helpful in this regard.

If we start by adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to our daily meals and start eating less ultra-processed food, our bodies will value this healthy step.

What do you think?

Written by Dr. Ahmed

I am Dr. Ahmed (MBBS; FCPS Medicine), an Internist and a practicing physician. I am in the medical field for over fifteen years working in one of the busiest hospitals and writing medical posts for over 5 years.

I love my family, my profession, my blog, nature, hiking, and simple life. Read more about me, my family, and my qualifications

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