In the world of nutrition, the saying “you are what you eat” holds true. The foods we consume have a direct impact on our overall health and well-being. While we have long been told to eat a balanced diet, new scientific research reveals that it is not as simple as just counting calories and avoiding fat, salt, and sugar.
A complex interplay of factors, including our brain, hormones, genes, and even the microbiota in our guts, all play a role in regulating our weight and health. And it is not just specific ingredients like fat or sugar that are the problem, but rather the consumption of “ultra-processed” foods that are driving the obesity epidemic and increasing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and mental health issues.
Ultra-processed foods are ready-to-eat industrial formulations that contain multiple ingredients extracted from foods or synthesized in laboratories. They are designed to be highly profitable, hyper-palatable, and have a long shelf-life. These foods often contain additives like flavors, colors, sweeteners, and emulsifiers to create a desirable sensory experience. They are far removed from their original whole food ingredients.
Identifying ultra processed food is relatively straightforward – if it’s wrapped in plastic and contains ingredients not typically found in a standard home kitchen, it’s likely ultra processed. Unfortunately, these foods are everywhere, not just in the form of snacks and treats but also in ready-made meals, frozen foods, breakfast cereals, and even supermarket bread.
In the UK, up to 60% of the average diet is made up of ultra-processed foods. This trend is concerning, especially when considering the impact these foods have on our brains. Studies have shown that people who consume ultra-processed foods tend to overconsume calories because these foods can disrupt appetite regulation. Additionally, poor diet has been linked to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, with the gut microbiota playing a role in the gut-brain axis.
The pervasive presence of ultra-processed foods in our diets, particularly in the diets of children, raises significant concerns. The impact of these foods on the developing brains of children is cause for alarm. For example, xantham gum, a common additive found in a variety of processed foods, is made by feeding corn syrup to bacteria and is used as a lubricant in oil exploration. These types of additives, meant to extend shelf-life and reduce costs, are far from the wholesome ingredients found in home-cooked meals.
It is clear that the prevalence of ultra-processed foods in our diets is a major contributor to the current state of our health. Making informed choices about what we eat and opting for minimally processed, whole foods is crucial for our well-being. While it may require more time and effort to source and cook these foods, the long-term benefits for our health far outweigh the convenience of ultra-processed options.
– “Ultra Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food…And Why Can’t We Stop” by Dr. Chris Van Tulleken
– Nova classification of food processing
– First Steps Nutrition Trust in the UK.