In our fast-paced modern world, convenience often takes precedence over nutrition. Ultra-processed foods, known to be hyperpalatable, economic and ready-to-eat, are laden with additives and artificial ingredients. They have become dietary staples for many, but what are the real consequences of relying on these processed diets? This article will explore the problems and science behind these highly processed culinary creations and how they contribute to nutrient deficiencies and chronic health issues.
The Ultra-Processed Food Epidemic
Ultra-processed foods are products that typically contain a long list of additives, preservatives, and artificial ingredients. They’re often low in essential nutrients but high in refined sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium. These foods are convenient, widely available, and heavily marketed, making them a common choice for busy individuals. Unfortunately, the more ultra-processed foods we eat, the poorer the overall nutritional quality of our diet.
What is an ultra-processed food?
There is a new classification system called NOVA that was developed by an international panel of food scientists and researchers. Rather than separating foods into “whole” and “not whole” categories, there is a spectrum. As food becomes more processed and refined, it loses a little bit of its nutritional power and contains more additives, sugar and chemicals. Focusing on wholefoods and minimally processed foods is recommended, but it is unrealistic to expect that we can completely get rid of all processed foods. The key is to try to choose whole, unprocessed foods or minimally processed foods as often as you can. Read ingredient labels and choose foods that have as few ingredients as possible. If you can get to three ingredients or fewer, that’s going to be far less processed than ultra-processed foods that can have more than 10-20 ingredients. The NOVA system splits foods into the following categories:
- Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: Think vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, meats, seafood, herbs, spices, garlic, eggs and milk. Make these real, whole foods the basis of your diet.
- Processed foods: When ingredients such as oil, sugar or salt are added to foods and they are packaged, the result is minimally processed foods. Examples are olive oil, cheese, tofu, and canned tuna or beans. These foods have been altered, but not in a way that’s detrimental to health. They are convenient and help you build nutritious meals.
- Ultra-processed foods: These are industrial formulations of substances derived from foods with little or no whole food and often contain many added ingredients and are highly manipulated to make them palatable or even hyperpalatable. They have added colorings, flavorings, emulsifiers, thickeners, and other cosmetic additives and go through multiple processes (extrusion, molding, milling, etc.). Despite their low nutritional quality, it’s where almost 50% of our calories come from – and where we should cut back. Examples are soft drinks, chips, chocolate, crackers, margarine, candy, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, ready-made meals, frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, fries and more.
Nutrient Deficiency, Depression and Chronic Inflammation: A Silent Crisis
One of the major concerns with ultra-processed foods is their nutrient profile, or lack thereof. They tend to be lacking in essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that our bodies need for optimal function. In addition, these highly processed food ingredients are often extremely pro inflammatory, such as oxidized vegetable or seed oils found in margarines, cakes, cookies, and even some bread. Poor dietary quality is also known as a risk factor for mental disorders. Recent studies show that greater intake of ultra-processed food is associated with increased risk of depression and anxiety symptoms. Over time, regular consumption of these foods can lead to nutrient deficiencies and inflammation, which are significant factors in the development of many adverse mental health and chronic health issues.
Science Behind the Problem – a Revealing Insight
Malnutrition is a serious public health problem in the developing world and has received much attention from governments and health agencies. The developed world, on the other hand, has long considered itself immune to the problem of malnutrition due to food fortification programs and an overabundant food supply. In actual fact, Americans suffer from a wide range of nutrient deficiencies with significant health implications.
To understand the extent of this problem, we turn to NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey). The NHANES program has published surveys since the 1960s to assess health and nutrition of people based on personal diet reports and physical examinations. This ongoing study conducted by the CDC assesses the health and nutritional status of the U.S. population. Data from NHANES has consistently shown that diets high in ultra-processed foods are linked to:
- Inflammation and Chronic Diseases: NHANES findings suggest that diets rich in ultra-processed foods are associated with higher levels of inflammatory markers, which play a pivotal role in chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune conditions.
- Vitamin and Mineral Shortfalls: NHANES data reveals that individuals who rely heavily on processed diets often fall short of their daily requirements for crucial vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and folate, as well as the minerals iron, calcium, and magnesium.
- 95% of the U.S. population have inadequate vitamin D intake
- 61 % don’t get enough magnesium
- 32 % have an insufficient vitamin B6 intake
- 31% is at risk for at least one vitamin deficiency or anemia
- 4 % are not getting enough vitamin E.
- 3 % have inadequate intake of folate or iron
Dietary supplement non-users had the highest risk of any deficiency (40%), compared to users of full-spectrum multivitamin-multimineral supplements (14%) and other dietary supplement users (28%).
If you are interested in supplementing to improve your nutrient status, please check out my supplement stores by going to my services page.
The Impacts on Health
Numerous scientific studies have highlighted the link between ultra-processed food consumption and adverse health outcomes. Here are some key findings:
Toxic seed oils: Soybean and corn oil, are often used in ultra-processed foods. These oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, which, when consumed in excess, can lead to chronic inflammation.
Added sugars: Excess sugars inthese foods contribute to insulin resistance, obesity, and other metabolic disorders.
Empty Calories: Ultra-processed foods often provide an abundance of calories but little nutrition. This can lead to overeating, weight gain, diabetes and obesity.
Nutrient Drain: These foods can deplete the body of vital nutrients because they lack the vitamins and minerals necessary for metabolic processes.
Inflammation: Many additives in ultra-processed foods have been associated with increased inflammation in the body, which is a common denominator in chronic diseases.
Gut Health: The low fiber content and high sugar content of these foods can negatively impact gut health, potentially leading to conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and even more severe gut disorders.
Metabolic Syndrome: Regular consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, which includes conditions like type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
The Lost Photons of Energy: The Subtle Emissions of Life
In the realm of holistic nutrition, it’s essential to consider the energetic aspects of food. Biofield physiology has demonstrated the existence of coherent, ultraweak photon emissions (UPE) from biological systems, and hold promise in understanding physiological processes. These minute bursts of light, have been detected from bacteria, fungi, germinating seeds, whole plants, animal tissue cultures and whole organisms, including human beings Evidence suggests that fluctuations in UPE correlate with cerebral blood flow, cerebral energy metabolism, and EEG activity, implying a physiological role for biophotons. Ultra-processed foods have undergone such extensive processing that they’ve lost much of their vital life force or “photons”, believed to be essential for providing our bodies with energy at a cellular level. Choosing whole, unprocessed foods can help restore this missing element to our diets.
A Holistic Approach to Health
As a holistic nutritionist and wellness coach, I understand the importance of a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet. I encourage my clients to reduce their reliance on ultra-processed foods as a critical step in helping them achieve their health goals. Here are some tips:
- Avoid ultra-processed foods.
- Read Labels: Be wary of deceptive food marketing and advertising on any packaged foods. Ultra-processed foods are often marketed as “healthy,” “natural” and “organic.” While these words may describe the original ingredients, they don’t refer to the process of how the food was made. Remember, an organic, plant based matgarine, is still an ultra-processed food!
- Whole Foods: Consume whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, high quality wild and/or pasture raised animal proteins, and whole grains.
- Nutrient Density: Be more mindful of the nutrients in your food choices and consume as many nutrient dense foods as possible; organ meats, eggs, and grass-fed beef are some of the most nutrient-dense foods available.
- Organic: Organically grown foods have higher levels of key nutrients and are another way to achieve a higher dietary micronutrient intake.
- Eat the rainbow: Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables creates a healthier and more diverse gut microbiome and provides a wider variety of micronutrients.
- Cooking Skills: Make time to cook at home using fresh ingredients, which allows for better control over food quality.
- Education: Consult with a nutritionist. I offer educational resources to empower my clients to make informed choices about their diet and lifestyle.
- Consider taking key supplements to address any nutrient deficiencies.
By addressing the issues surrounding ultra-processed foods and promoting a holistic approach to health, you’re taking significant steps toward helping prevent nutrient deficiencies and chronic health issues.
Why Still Use Supplements to Support Your Health
However, it can be challenging to avoid processed foods, and even with a wholefood nutrient dense diet we may not be absorbing all the nutrient from our food. It’s not just about what we eat, it’s also about what we digest, absorb, and assimilate. As we age, just as our sex hormones decline, so does the function of the intestinal tract. This is known as Gastropause, and usually happens during our 40’s but for some can start even earlier, in our 30’s. Also, as mentioned above, the NHANES studies demonstrated that the users of supplements had a lower risk of nutrient deficiencies. Other research studies have shown that supplements (aka nutraceuticals) may be used to improve health, delay the aging process, prevent chronic diseases, increase life expectancy, or support the structure or function of the body. In addition, my own experience with supplements has been very beneficial, and helped to improved my energy levels and cognition, and reduce inflammation and fatigue. For these reasons, after evaluating my clients’ specific needs, I usually recommend some key dietary supplements.
I only recommend high quality supplements form trusted sources that use therapeutic doses. You can check out my online supplement stores by clicking here to go to my services page.
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