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Are All Ultra-Processed Foods Unhealthy?

Updated: May 15

What are Ultra-Processed Foods?

Ultra-processed foods

  1. have undergone extensive industrial processing, such as

    1. melting,

    2. extruding,

    3. shaping,

    4. adding flavorings, colors and other additives

    5. include man-made ingredients that don't occur naturally, such as artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, and preservatives

  2. include products like

    1. breads,

    2. cereals,

    3. snack chips,

    4. frozen meals,

    5. soft drinks

    6. candy

    7. foods marketed to children

    8. packaged foods that may be promoted as "healthy"

According to the NOVA food classification system, ‘ultra-processed foods’ are formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavours, colours, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, Ultra-processing degrades the internal structure or “food matrix,” the complex internal structure that not only holds the corn together, but influences the bio-availability of the nutrients, how our bodies use the food and whether we feel full after eating it.

Why you should limit your intake of ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed foods can have negative effects on your health in several ways

They are often high in calories, sugar, salt and fat, but low in fiber, protein and micronutrients.

This can lead to overeating, weight gain, obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer

They are often predigested, meaning that they have been broken down by heat or enzymes before you eat them.

This can affect how much you absorb and metabolize the nutrients in the food, as well as your appetite and hunger hormones.

They can alter your gut microbiome, the community of bacteria and other microbes that live in your digestive tract.

These microbes play a role in your immune system, metabolism and mood. Ultra-processed foods can reduce the diversity and quality of your gut microbiome, which can increase inflammation and disease risk.

What to Eat (Instead of Ultra-Processed Foods)

The best way to avoid ultra-processed foods is to eat more whole or minimally processed foods, such as

  • fruits

  • vegetables

  • eggs

  • fish

  • meat

  • dairy

These foods provide more fiber, protein and micronutrients than ultra-processed foods, and they can help you feel fuller and more satisfied.

Prepare Your Own Meals

  1. Control what goes into your food and avoid unnecessary additives

  2. Plan and prepare meals using fresh or frozen ingredients

  3. Use herbs, spices, vinegar, lemon juice and other natural flavorings to enhance the taste of your food

Investigate Foods Before Purchasing

  • Check ingredients and food nutrition labels

  • Choose foods that

    • have fewer ingredients

    • include less added sugar, salt and fat

    • are grown locally

    • are natural

    • are seasonal

    • require chewing

    • have texture, crunch

    • have vibrant colors

  • Compare different products to find the healthiest option

  • Do not trust the packaging or promotions about "healthy" foods

  • Make sure that sugar is not listed in the first 5 ingredients

Eating less ultra-processed foods can benefit your health in many ways;

  • lower your risk of chronic diseases

  • improve your gut health

  • recover from cravings

  • achieve long term recovery from food addiction

Support FAI by becoming a Member to download the original article and gain access to the research source material mentioned in this article, as well as access to the FAI research collection.

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