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Your Body vs. Ultra-Processed Foods: A Not-So-Sweet Relationship

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Top view of a myriad of unhealthy foods

With the new year upon us, it’s a great time to reflect on your goals and make meaningful steps toward achieving success in different aspects of your life. For most of us, diet and nutrition are high on the list; whether you want to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, or feel better overall, making healthy choices when it comes to food is an absolute must! 

One resolution that can make the greatest impact on your health and well-being is dropping ultra-processed food from your diet. 

Ultra-processed foods have been altered substantially from their original state by adding artificial ingredients or processing techniques. Pre-packaged snacks, sweet treats, and frozen meals are considered ultra-processed. These foods have become increasingly prevalent in our modern fast pass diets, accounting for nearly 70% of the calories consumed in the United States. 

While they may be convenient and tasty, there is tremendous evidence that they negatively impact your health. With the average person consuming too many processed foods in their daily diet, ultra-processed food is a killer.

Researchers have linked ultra-processed foods to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and even premature death due to their lack of essential nutrients and high fat/sugar content. (1-3)

Close up of an IV in a man's hand while he is laying in a hospital bed

A study in Brazil that concluded in 2019 found that a diet high in ultra-processed food may significantly increase the risk of premature death. The study, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, involved more than 53,000 adults in Brazil who were followed for an average of five years. (4)

The study found that those who consume the highest amount of ultra-processed foods had a 62% higher risk of premature death compared to those who consume the lowest amount. This increased risk was independent of other factors such as age, sex, education, income, and physical activity levels. (4)

What Exactly Are Ultra-Processed Foods? 

Woman picking up a slice of pizza during a meal that consist of: chicken wings, french fries, chicken tenders and garlic bread displayed in front of her

We’ve all heard that processed foods aren’t good for you. And for the most part, it’s true. But there is a major difference between processed foods and ultra-processed foods. Processed foods are foods that have been altered from their original state, think canned tuna.

Ultra-processed foods, also known as “supermarket science experiments,” have been manipulated in ways that remove pretty much any nutritional value and have added sugar, fats, and other unhealthy ingredients to make them taste better.

Ultra-processed foods are products made from refined or industrialized ingredients such as hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors and colors, preservatives, emulsifiers, thickeners, sweeteners, and other additives. Examples include chips, hot dogs, candy bars, sodas, frozen meals, and pizzas. These products are delicious and convenient, but they lack essential nutrients like fiber and vitamins that your body needs. 

Close up view of the opening of a bag of Pringles chip

The Dangers of Eating Ultra-Processed Foods 

Eating large amounts of ultra-processed foods can lead to serious health risks because these types of food contain fewer nutrients than their unprocessed counterparts and are loaded with unhealthy fats or added sugars, damaging your health over time. 

Ultra-processed foods often contain a lot of added sugars, which can lead to various health problems. A diet high in added sugar increases the risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. (1-3)

Man clutching his chest due to heart pain

High sugar consumption can also lead to fatty liver, a condition that impairs your liver’s ability to detox your body. (5)

These health problems can also result from ultra-processed foods that contain unhealthy fats, such as trans fats and saturated fats. (6)

In addition to added sugars and unhealthy fats, processed foods often contain a host of other artificial ingredients, such as preservatives, flavorings, and colorings. These additives can negatively impact your health, including increased cancer risk, disrupting your body’s hormone balance, and causing allergic reactions. (7-8)

Another issue with processed foods is that they often lack essential nutrients. Many processed foods are highly refined, meaning they have been stripped of their natural nutrients during processing. Your body cannot properly function if you don’t get the necessary vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.

When you rely heavily on processed foods, you don’t get a wide range of nutrients from different sources, which can lead to an imbalanced diet. This imbalance can also make meeting your daily recommended intake of certain nutrients more challenging.

In addition to the adverse effects on your health, processed foods are often less satisfying and less fulfilling than whole, unprocessed foods, leading to overeating and weight gain. We tend to feel less satisfied after eating processed foods and may be more likely to eat more of them and then snack and continue to overeat later. (9)

The Effects of Ultra-Processed Foods on Your Brain 

Ultra-processed foods filled with sugar, fat, and salt increase your risk for chronic physical diseases. But did you know these foods can also affect your brain? 

Studies have shown that regular consumption of ultra-processed food can increase depression and anxiety symptoms. (10) This is likely because processed foods often contain unhealthy ingredients like refined carbohydrates, trans fats, additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners. These ingredients can alter the way your brain functions by affecting levels of hormones like dopamine and serotonin—chemicals that play a role in mood regulation. 

Older woman sitting on the couch massaging her forehead from a headache

It’s not just mental health issues that are affected by ultra-processed foods – studies have also linked them to cognitive decline. (11) A recent study found that people who ate more processed food had lower scores on memory tests than those who ate less processed food. So, if you want to keep your mind sharp into old age, lay off the potato chips! 

Studies have also suggested that eating ultra-processed foods may change behavior over time as these types of food tend to be higher in calories than unprocessed alternatives. This means they could potentially cause overeating due to their palatability, which means they taste delicious! Eating too much can result in weight gain over time (no surprises there), but it has been linked to decreased motivation and increased impulsivity as well—not exactly ideal traits when it comes to making healthy life choices. (12)

How To Avoid Eating Ultra-Processed Foods 

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to reduce your intake of ultra-processed foods without completely depriving yourself of indulgences every once in a while! 

For starters, try swapping out some processed convenience items for healthier alternatives like fresh fruits and vegetables or whole grains that provide more nutritional benefits with fewer harmful effects on your body.

Close up of woman's hand picking up a strawberry from a plate of blueberries and strawberries

Additionally, try cooking from scratch more often rather than relying on pre-made meals or takeout, which can be loaded with sodium, sugar, or unhealthy fats. Also, look for labels indicating a product’s processing level. If there are more than a handful of ingredients and there are words you cannot pronounce, it’s best to avoid them.

Last but not least, don’t be afraid to experiment with different recipes; it’s a great way to be creative in the kitchen and still eat healthily!  

Which Processed Foods Are OK to Eat?

Some processed foods can be a healthy and convenient part of a balanced diet. Here are a few examples of processed foods that are generally considered healthier options:

1. Whole grain breads and cereals: These products are made with whole grains, which are a good source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Look for bread and cereals made with whole grains as the first ingredient.

Whole grain breads spread out on a surface

2. Frozen vegetables: Frozen vegetables are a convenient and nutritious option that can be added to a number of dishes. They are often just as nutrient-dense as fresh vegetables and can be a good choice if the veggies are unavailable or out of season.

Frozen carrots and peas in a container with frozen broccoli surrounding it

3. Canned legumes: Legumes, such as lentils, pinto beans, and chickpeas, are a healthy source of protein, fiber, and nutrients. Canned legumes are convenient for salads, soups, and other dishes. Just be sure to rinse them well before using them to reduce the sodium content.

Close up shot of an opened can of pinto beans

4. Low-sodium soups: Soups can be a convenient and satisfying meal option, but many store-bought soups are high in sodium. Look for low-sodium options or make your own soup at home using fresh or frozen vegetables and a low-sodium broth.

Healthy vegetable soup displayed on a table

5. Unsweetened nut butters: Nut butters, such as almond butter and peanut butter, can be a good source of healthy fats and protein. Just be sure to choose unsweetened varieties and limit your portion size, as they can be high in calories.

Nut butter in a mason jar with nuts surrounding it

6. Dried fruits: Dried fruit can be a convenient and nutritious snack option. Just be sure to choose unsweetened varieties or minimally sweetened and watch your portion size, as dried fruit can be high in calories and sugar.

Variety of dried fruits in a wooden bowl

7. Low-fat dairy products: Dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, can be a good source of protein, calcium, and other nutrients. Choose low-fat or nonfat options to reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet.

Yogurt with a strawberry in a glass container with oatmeal and strawberries laid next to it

It’s important to remember that even healthy processed foods should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Be sure to include whole, unprocessed foods, such as grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins daily.

Rejuvenate Your Body with Probiotics

If you’ve been overindulging in ultra-processed foods and are feeling sluggish and bloated as a result, feel good knowing that your body is well-equipped to eliminate toxins and recover.

That said, you can enhance your body’s natural rejuvenation ability by adding a Stonehenge Health® Dynamic Biotics probiotics to your daily routine.

Your detoxification system depends on a healthy gut. Toxins, such as chemicals in ultra-processed foods, are eliminated from your body by your intestinal cells’ detoxification and excretion system.

Good gut health starts with a healthy microbiome. Probiotics replenish your gut microbiome with helpful bacteria and keep it balanced. Probiotics also help move waste through your body. They are a very important part of cleaning your colon and detoxifying. (13)

Stonehenge Health® Dynamic Biotics promotes optimal digestion and balance of your gut microbiome for better overall health and gastrointestinal comfort.

Dynamic Biotics is an efficient way to keep your digestive system running at optimal levels. The probiotics help keep your entire body’s cells fully charged with the nutrients and energy they need so you can live life to the fullest.

1. Martínez Steele, Eurídice, Larissa Galastri Baraldi, Maria Laura da Costa Louzada, Jean-Claude Moubarac, Dariush Mozaffarian, and Carlos Augusto Monteiro. 2016. “Ultra-Processed Foods And Added Sugars In The US Diet: Evidence From A Nationally Representative Cross-Sectional Study”. BMJ Open 6 (3): e009892. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2015-009892. |
2. Poti JM, Braga B, Qin B. Ultra-processed Food Intake and Obesity: What Really Matters for Health-Processing or Nutrient Content? Curr Obes Rep. 2017 Dec;6(4):420-431. doi: 10.1007/s13679-017-0285-4. PMID: 29071481; PMCID: PMC5787353. |
3. Rico-Campà, Anaïs, Miguel A Martínez-González, Ismael Alvarez-Alvarez, Raquel de Deus Mendonça, Carmen de la Fuente-Arrillaga, Clara Gómez-Donoso, and Maira Bes-Rastrollo. 2019. “Association Between Consumption Of Ultra-Processed Foods And All Cause Mortality: SUN Prospective Cohort Study”. BMJ, l1949. doi:10.1136/bmj.l1949.
4. Nilson, Eduardo A.F., Gerson Ferrari, Maria Laura C. Louzada, Renata B. Levy, Carlos A. Monteiro, and Leandro F.M. Rezende. 2023. “Premature Deaths Attributable To The Consumption Of Ultraprocessed Foods In Brazil”. American Journal Of Preventive Medicine 64 (1): 129-136. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2022.08.013.
5. Sugar-Sweetened Beverage, Diet Soda, and Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease Over 6 Years: The Framingham Heart Study – PubMed |
6. Bendsen NT, Chabanova E, Thomsen HS, Larsen TM, Newman JW, Stender S, Dyerberg J, Haugaard SB, Astrup A. Effect of trans fatty acid intake on abdominal and liver fat deposition and blood lipids: a randomized trial in overweight postmenopausal women. Nutr Diabetes. 2011 Jan 31;1(1):e4. doi: 10.1038/nutd.2010.4. PMID: 23154296; PMCID: PMC3302130. |
7. Wang, Lu, Mengxi Du, Kai Wang, Neha Khandpur, Sinara Laurini Rossato, Jean-Philippe Drouin-Chartier, Euridice Martínez Steele, Edward Giovannucci, Mingyang Song, and Fang Fang Zhang. 2022. “Association Of Ultra-Processed Food Consumption With Colorectal Cancer Risk Among Men And Women: Results From Three Prospective US Cohort Studies”. BMJ, e068921. doi:10.1136/bmj-2021-068921.
8. Kong W, Xie Y, Zhong J, Cao C. Ultra-processed foods and allergic symptoms among children and adults in the United States: A population-based analysis of NHANES 2005-2006. Front Public Health. 2022 Nov 3;10:1038141. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2022.1038141. PMID: 36407984; PMCID: PMC9670314. |
9. 2022. Cell.Com. |
10. Coletro HN, Mendonça RD, Meireles AL, Machado-Coelho GLL, Menezes MC. Ultra-processed and fresh food consumption and symptoms of anxiety and depression during the COVID – 19 pandemic: COVID Inconfidentes. Clin Nutr ESPEN. 2022 Feb;47:206-214. doi: 10.1016/j.clnesp.2021.12.013. Epub 2021 Dec 20. PMID: 35063203; PMCID: PMC8710821. |
11. Gomes Gonçalves, Natalia, Naomi Vidal Ferreira, Neha Khandpur, Euridice Martinez Steele, Renata Bertazzi Levy, Paulo Andrade Lotufo, and Isabela M. Bensenor et al. 2022. “Association Between Consumption Of Ultraprocessed Foods And Cognitive Decline”. JAMA Neurology. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.4397. |
12. Hanssen R, Thanarajah SE, Tittgemeyer M, Brüning JC. Obesity – A Matter of Motivation? Exp Clin Endocrinol Diabetes. 2022 May;130(5):290-295. doi: 10.1055/a-1749-4852. Epub 2022 Feb 18. PMID: 35181879; PMCID: PMC9286865. |

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