Junk food is killing us. Here’s how to fight back

Ultra-processed foods aren’t just killing us, they’re making us sicker, fatter, and unhappier.

A British Medical Journal The study looked at evidence from 2009 to 2023 and found that eating more ultra-processed foods – apparently junk food – led to a 50% increase in cardiovascular deaths and a 12% increase in type 2 diabetes The study also found an increase in anxiety diagnoses by 48% and mental health issues, including depression, by 53%. Less convincing but still very suggestive evidence associates it with a 21% higher all-cause mortality rate. There was a 41% greater chance of poor sleep, 40% greater risk of wheezing and, unsurprisingly, 55% greater risk of obesity.

But here’s the positive side. Studies like this one have shown that reducing the amount of ultra-processed foods you eat can have substantial health benefits, even within just two weeks. Making it a habit can result in huge long-term health benefits.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Looking at your lunch, you might think, “Is this ultra-processed?” If you eat a hamburger with fries and ketchup, the answer is yes. If it’s a tuna sandwich, it depends.

Ultra-processed foods commonly contain at least five ingredients or additives: emulsifiers, sweeteners, preservatives or artificial colors. These give foods shelf stability, make them attractive, easy to digest and tasty. If you’re unsure if your food is ultra-processed, read its ingredients. If you see a long list of chemicals or non-specific substances (e.g. natural flavors), it’s ultra-processed.

You might see soy lecithin, guar gum, aspartame, or stevia. Ingredients like high fructose corn syrup are a dead giveaway, as are most ingredients ending in -ose. Another giveaway are health promises promoted on packaging, such as “low sugar,” which is code for fake sugar. Foods labeled “nutritious” like cereals, cereals, salad dressings, and canned soups are often loaded with sugar, preservatives, and additives.

So if your tuna sandwich is made with whole-wheat bread, preservative-free canned tuna and minimal homemade condiments, it’s not ultra-processed. But if he uses white bread with preservatives and added sugar, canned tuna with additives, processed cheese, and store-bought mayonnaise high in artificial flavors and preservatives, your tuna sandwich is a killer food and ultra-transformed.

Why are ultra-processed foods so dangerous?

There is no single theory explaining why ultra-processed foods as a group are so dangerous. They are not immediately toxic, like arsenic. However, many reasons have been put forward. First, our bodies cannot fully process certain chemicals and they react in harmful ways, promoting chronic inflammation. Unlike acute inflammation, which occurs when, say, you sprain your ankle, chronic inflammation damages healthy cells, organs, and tissues. It produces internal scarring and damages the DNA of healthy cells.

Ultra-processed foods contain fewer nutrients. This replaces the healthier, nutrient- and fiber-rich foods you might be eating. Nutrient-rich foods contain beneficial bioactive compounds, such as polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables. Foods high in fiber promote healthy digestion and lower cholesterol levels. Ultra-processed foods also negatively impact your gut microbiome, the gut bacteria that promote digestion. When you can’t stop stuffing yourself with cookies, it’s your microbiome talking to you, via what’s called the gut-brain axis.

There are also harmful substances produced during the manufacturing process of ultra-processed foods. This includes acrylamide and advanced glycation end products, which are released from foods during cooking at high temperatures. Both are known carcinogens. There are also contaminants in packaging that can migrate into your food, such as phthalates, microplastics and bisphenols.

Ultra-processed foods are associated with poor health outcomes, but they are not always the cause. Studies linking eating habits to outcomes are scientifically thorny. There are many confusions. For example, it may be that low-income people are more likely to eat ultra-processed foods and face other stressors that lead to poor health outcomes.

The significant negative effects observed in the BMJ the study is probably a combination of all these factors. Given these findings, it’s time to rethink some of your food choices.

Here are some ideas. Replace your sugary or diet sodas and energy drinks with sparkling water or unsweetened tea. Look at labels and choose foods with fewer ingredients. Avoid foods with ingredients you cannot recognize. Truefood.tech is a free website that helps you select the least processed foods at the grocery store. If you’re looking for a diet, consider eating a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains.

Ultimately, it’s not about drastically changing the way you eat overnight, but rather about inspiring yourself to make healthier food choices that can become habits over time. This will help you feel better and hopefully live longer as you change your eating habits long term.

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